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Thar She Blows!
Whaling in Alaska and the Yukon

by Murray Lundberg

    To today's people, the history of whale-hunting has largely been relegated to "barbarisms of the past." Whaling, however, has a long, significant and colourful history in the North, and should not be so casually dismissed.

    Of the 77 varieties of whales in the world, the most important from both subsistence and commercial perspectives have generally been the 11 types of baleen whales; in the western Arctic, the bowhead, and to a lesser degree the beluga, have been the primary focus of attention, due to several factors. Baleen whales are generally larger and slower than toothed whales, making them easier prey for traditional hunters, while the increasingly-complex demands of 18th and 19th Century European and American society placed a high value on both the oil and baleen obtained from the whales.

    The Eskimos of the Bering Sea are known to have hunted the arviq (bowhead) for at least the past 2,500 years. Whale hunters went to sea in fragile walrus-hide umiaks or the smaller kayaks, with only toggle-head harpoons and seal-bladder floats as tools. The float served to both slow and tire the whale after it had been harpooned, and to mark the kill; a wounded whale could sometimes run for days, and it was a true test of endurance for the umiak crew to keep up. If the hunt was successful, these brave men achieved enormous stature in their communities.

    The first half of the the 19th Century was the "Golden Age of Whaling," with about 740 Atlantic whaling ships operating from East Coast American ports alone. During this period, the sperm whale was the most sought-after, because of the quantity of oil it contained, and because it floated when killed, whereas most species sink to the bottom. The first whalers had entered the Pacific Ocean in 1788 in their quest for new fields, but not until trans-continental railways allowed quicker access to the large markets of Europe and the eastern U.S. did whaling expand into the Northwest coast.

    With the arrival of Russians in Alaska, in pursuit of the then-abundant sea otters and fur seals, many Eskimos were forced into market hunting, often in conditions that they knew were too dangerous. In 1800, 64 men in 2-man baidarkas were lost in one storm while whale-hunting for the Russians.

    In 1848, the first American whaleship, the barque Superior, entered the Bering Sea, and they were astounded at the huge population of bowhead and other whales. A maritime "gold rush" ensued; the following year, 154 ships joined the chase, and in 1850, 200 ships took 1,719 whales (another 348 were killed but not recovered). The year 1852 was the peak season, with 2,682 bowheads killed. Catches after that were extremely erratic, with none caught in 1855 or 1856; never again did the catch reach 600 animals in a season.

    In one of the more bizarre events in Alaska's whaling history, a Confederate Navy raider, the Shenandoah, extended the Civil War to the Arctic for seven days (from June 22-28, 1865) when she captured 24 American whaleships (all of whom were registered in New England states), burning 20 of them, and taking the crews prisoner and sending them to San Francisco.

    While whaling could be extremely profitable, it was also very dangerous; in September 1871, 32 of the 41 ships whaling in the Bering Sea were trapped by early ice, forcing 1,200 people, including some women and children, to flee in small boats across up to 60 miles of ice-choked seas to reach safety. All but one of the ships, the Minerva, were crushed by the ice and lost the following spring. Salvage crews were, however, able to save 1,300 barrels of oil and $10,000 worth of baleen from the wrecks; the local Eskimos salvaged a great deal of material from the wrecks, but some of them died after drinking from bottles they found in the ships' medicine chests. Five years later, another twelve whaleships were lost near Point Barrow; this time, 50 men died trying to escape.

    The efficiency of commercial whaling increased dramatically in 1880 with the arrival of the Mary and Helen, the first whaler equipped with both sails and a steam engine to operate off the Alaskan coast. Not being reliant on the vagaries of the wind, this type of ship could follow the whales closer, and stay on the hunting grounds longer.

    Venturing east of Point Barrow was considered to be particularly hazardous, as the short ice-free season would force the ship to winter over in the ice. By 1888, however, whale populations had dropped to the point where new hunting grounds were needed. That summer, the Pacific Steam Whaling Company (PSWC) sent the first whalers into Canadian waters. They returned the following summer to report that bowhead whales were "thick as bees" near what would soon become the primary whaling base of the Beaufort Sea, Herschel Island.

    In 1890, the PSWC sent the Grampus and the 90-foot Mary D.Hume to Herschel Island; two years later, the Mary D.Hume docked at San Francisco with a cargo of whale oil and baleen valued at $400,000; it remains the most valuable U.S. whaling cargo ever.

    The socio/economic structure aboard the "average" whaleship was a study in contrasts, and resulted in frequent serious conflicts. Many of the seamen were recruited from among the waterfront drifters in ports around the Pacific (including many from Hawaii), and the violent lifestyle that many of them were used to continued to some degree on board. The officers, though, were often well-educated and cultured; despite the brutal weather conditions, many of the captains brought along their wives, and sometimes their children, on these multi-year voyages. In some instances they were able to develop a rather close approximation of life at home, with amateur variety shows and theatre productions, and well-equipped games rooms and lounges, either on board the ships, or on shore.

    Soon after the turn of the century, the signs became clear that the boom years of whaling were gone forever. By 1907, the price of baleen had dropped from a high of $7 per pound, to 50 cents; two years later, the market had virtually disappeared as spring steel and other metals replaced baleen. At the same time, improved petroleum distillation techniques were rapidly lowering demand for whale oil. Some recovery in the market for whale products was regained by using various parts of the whale for dog food, and grinding up the rest for fertilizer.

    Although the Bering and Beaufort Seas had been two of the prime whaling grounds in the world, virtually all of the handful of remaining whalemen gave up in 1912 due to the dwindling market and increasing costs of doing business in the Arctic. Operating costs, however, were much lower in Southeast Alaska, and dozens of whaling stations operated there well into the 1930s.

    Greatly improved equipment in the 1920s and 1930s, including the use of huge factory ships which could process the whales at sea, increased the slaughter to such a degree that world-wide attention began to focus on the possibility of hunting several species of whales to extinction. In 1937, the first International Whaling Agreement was signed by several nations, including the United States. Although Alaskan Eskimos are allowed by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to kill 50 bowhead whales each year, there is presently a great deal of controversy surrounding a Canadian decision to allow traditional hunting by their Inuit peoples; Canada resigned from the IWC in 1982, and thus does not have international approval for the two whales killed last year.

    Along the West Coast of British Columbia and Alaska, whale sightings, particularly of gray whales and orcas, are now a common occurrence, and dozens of companies offer close-up encounters. Over twenty years ago, famous West Coast Native artist Roy Vickers told this writer that you don't really know a whale until you have had your face right in the warm, salty breath-spray of a surfacing whale. As man becomes more and more a friend of whales instead of a mortal enemy, I continue to hold on to the hope that I may one day really know a whale.

Further Reading:
  • The Whalers' Heritage Project
  • Antonson, Joan M. and William S.Hanable, Alaska's Heritage, Unit 4 - Human History: 1867 to Present (Anchorage, AK: The Alaska Historical Commission, 1985).
  • Bockstoce, John R., Whales, Ice, and Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic (Seattle, WA: University of Washington, revised edition, 1995).
  • Coates, Ken S. and William R.Morrison, Land of the Midnight Sun: A History of the Yukon (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1988).
  • Matthiessen, Peter, Wildlife in America (Harisonburg, VA: R.R.Donnelly & Sons, revised edition, 1987).
  • Metayer, Maurice, editor/translator, I, Nuligak (New York, NY: Peter Martin Associates, 1966).
  • Zimmerly, David W., Qajaq: Kayaks of Siberia and Alaska (Juneau, AK: Division of State Museums, 1986).

©2001-2018 by Murray Lundberg: Use for other than research purposes must be approved by the author.