When the captain brought the journalist along on the whale hunt, the elders predicted trouble. The elders were right. The whale tried to kill them all.


When the captain brought the journalist along on the whale hunt, the elders predicted trouble. The elders were right. The whale tried to kill them all.

Far from home in the Bering Strait, beneath looming mid-August skies the color of gun smoke, Eskimo hunting boats circle a wounded gray whale.

The whale is bleeding and furious; he is 45 feet long and weighs 55,000 pounds. Rather than dive for cover, he turns to fight.

Nineteenth-century commercial whalers called gray whales "devil fish" for their fierce attacks on schooners. And this whale is about to serve notice: The hunt is over. This is a battle now.

He is nearly twice as long as the first boat he charges. Three lookouts in the small fishing boat's stern, including an eleven-year-old boy, shout in warning. One man reaches for a rifle. But there is no time. The whale explodes from the water, 27 and a half tons of rage, and rams the boat.


The impact rocks the boat like a bathtub toy. Onboard it is bedlam. The head of a harpoon flies loose and a hunter falls on it, peeling his shin to the bone on its barb. Inside the cabin the boat's pilot caroms off a wall, falls into the inboard engine well, and cracks his head on the running motor. Another hunter leaps up to kill the power.

The boat lies dead in the water. Yakov Sivsiv, eleven, lies curled on its deck, bawling. Sivsiv reeled into a ladder when the whale hit, then screamed when one of his uncles, cut down by the collision, crashed across his knees. "My legs!" the boy cries.

His voice drowns in the tumult of men scrambling for weapons, shouting wildly and pointing out to sea with dread in their eyes.

Buried in the fat of the vengeful whale are two harpoon heads, each tied by a 35-foot length of rope to a pair of fluorescent orange buoys. The buoys are supposed to slow down the whale, and allow the hunters to track him, even underwater. Right now the buoys are clearly visible about 50 yards out completing a slow, ominous, 180-degree turn.

The Devil Fish is coming about to wreak hell.

Mikhail Zelensky, captain of the hunters, chambers a round in his Kalishnikov assault rifle.


The council of elders warned him this would happen. Last night they admonished Zelensky not to allow an outsider to observe the hunt, predicting it would bring bad luck. Then Zelensky's hunters grew fearful. They said they didn't want to go if the American were along.

Tough, Zelensky said. He reminded them of his journey in February, when he traveled from their village in Siberia to Barrow, Alaska. There he met with their Eskimo brethren on the other side of a border drawn and guarded by governments that rarely seem to care about the harshness of life in the Arctic. Zelensky delivered grave news: The gray whales his people must eat to live are contaminated. Some are so putrefied with chemicals that sled dogs won't eat their meat. The Alaskans, who also hunt whales, promised to push for answers from the International Whaling Commission. Charged with protecting the health of the world's whales, the IWC dictates from the softened luxury of its annual conventions in Monte Carlo, Sydney and London how many whales Eskimos may kill for subsistence. The Alaskans gave Zelensky new weapons to bring back, along with a piece of advice: Let the outside world know how life is for you and why you hunt the whales. So Zelensky extended an invitation to a journalist: When the summer comes and we hunt again, cross the waters and join us. Now, with his boat battered by the enraged gray and a child of his village wailing at his feet, he wonders whether the elders might have been right.

Zelensky is in 25 feet of boat, sighting down his barrel at 45 feet of incoming whale.

Pop! Pop!

Zelensky's first two shots kick up spurts of water. He keeps firing, leading the buoys with his aim.

Pop! Pop!

A monstrous shadow rises from the milky green depths. Barnacles, sea lice and scars from past combat with killer whales glow white against gray skin.

Pop! Pop!

The whale cuts the surface like a torpedo. He is now within thirty feet.

Pop! Pop! Pop!

Three bullets slam into the whale's head and neck, erupting blood. He dives, then surfaces beneath the boat, his back and tail jacking the rear of the craft into the air. Bodies, backpacks and weapons tumble the length of the deck, ricocheting off bulwarks and railings. After a terrible moment, gravity makes a correction, and the boat slams down with a spine-crunching splash.

Soaring on adrenaline, Zelensky snaps a fresh clip into his Kalishnikov and bellows at the men in the cabin to get the damned motor going. Directly behind the boat this time, the buoys are again coming around. Finally, the men in the cabin yank the slumped-over pilot clear of the engine. One of them punches the throttle.

The trawler makes a slow getaway. Designed to drag fishing nets, the powerful but ponderous craft's primary purpose in whale hunting is to haul dead whales back to shore. This seems a bit ironic -- not to mention presumptuous -- given that the injured whale is now chasing it. And gaining.

"More! More!" Zelensky yells. The driver redlines the engine. The fishing boat lunges forward. The whale falls back but keeps coming.

Zelensky barks orders into a CB radio, calling in a diversion, which arrives within seconds. Two tiny one-man boats zigzag in front of the whale. It works. The whale breaks off his pursuit of the larger boat to charge one of the mosquitoes. Then he hesitates, changes direction, and goes after the other. Engines whining, the mosquitoes zip off to either side and out of range.

Winded, the whale rests on the surface, exhaling in labored bursts through his dual blowholes. He can't see the two skiffs creeping up behind him. In a scene repeated thousands of times over thousands of years in these icy waters, the hunters standing in their bows raise harpoons and prepare to strike.

At daybreak, hours before they would join the whale in a fight to the death, the hunters were beckoned from their beds by the ghostly light of a cold dawn in Lavrentiya, a village of 1,700 on the coast of Chukotka, the former Soviet Union's most brutal and far-flung frontier.

Garbed in a bizarre amalgam of reindeer and seal skin hunting suits, military surplus camouflage, and Nike windbreakers over counterfeit Calvin Klein sweatshirts, the two dozen hunters gathered in Lavrentiya's central square beneath a crumbling bust of Lenin.

Under communism, the people of Chukotka were centralized and subsidized, forced to work on state-run fox farms and reeducated to live on what they were provided instead of what they provided themselves. When the Soviet Union collapsed, they were suddenly cut off from the supply lines, 10,000 people, casualties of the Cold War, abandoned in one of the least merciful environments on Earth.

A peninsula of arctic badlands at the extreme northeastern tip of Siberia, Chukotka reaches toward the east like a dying man's hand. Off its coast, the Arctic and Pacific oceans collide, spinning storms that rip through the land. Frostbite amputees are so common in Chukotka that the region's new millionaire governor, Roman Abramovich, personally paid to fly more than 200 of them by helicopter and 747 to Khabarovsk, the closest major city, to be fitted with prosthetic hands and feet. Considered a savior by his constituents, Abramovich also funded emergency shipments of flour and heating oil that arrived by tanker this summer in even the most remote villages on Chukotka's coast. Heir to the largest oil fortune in Russia, Abramovich has assigned himself the protector of a destitute nether region.

Here it is possible in the winter to slowly starve to death while watching Dukes of Hazzard reruns dubbed in Russian and broadcast from Moscow, 3,700 miles away. Vodka is cheaper and more available than canned food, and Eskimo children missing arms use bleached whalebones as ramps for their Hot Wheels cars. Substandard Soviet construction typified by tarpaper and tin shacks offers scant protection from the winter gales that shriek up the steep cliffs and over the frozen tundra, whipping snow into cyclones that peel paint from buildings and flash-freeze exposed skin in five seconds or less. The last three winters in Chukotka have been freakishly cold, frequently shoving the wind-chill factor to triple digits below zero. Hundreds have perished. The prevailing sense among the people now is that if they can just hold on through one more winter, Abramovich will somehow make everything better. But their young governor's millions can't buy off the cycling of the seasons.

Winter is coming.

After the Soviet Union fell, the hunters of Chukotka didn't pick up their harpoons again under the banner of ceremony and preserving their traditional culture. They resumed hunting gray whales simply to survive in a land where for the past 5,000 years the most cherished cultural tradition has been outliving the winter.

Recognizing their peril, the International Whaling Commission licenses the Eskimos of Chukotka to kill 135 grays per year out of a population of roughly 26,000.

"Without whale hunting, famine is a real possibility in a place such as this," says Vladimir Etylin, chairman of the Association of Traditional Marine Mammal Hunters of Chukotka.

The coastal dwellers of Chukotka eat all they can hunt or gather -- berries, salmon, seals, mushrooms, walrus, ducks, puffin eggs -- but the mainstays of their diet, and therefore the pillars of their slender existence, are gray whale meat and blubber. Which is why the rising specter of chemical contamination in gray whales has them so frightened.

The fear took root in the summer of 1998, when the first rash of contaminated leviathans the people came to call "stinky whales" hit villages up and down the coast of Chukotka. One in ten whales slain that year came with a nasty surprise. When hunters brought them to shore, villagers would surround the bodies of the giants as usual, eager for their shares. The whales appeared normal. But when they were gutted, a burning chemical stench roiled from their innards, and the crowds recoiled. The meat, fat and organs of the stinky whales were so badly tainted people left them to rot, their precious sustenance wasted.

The phenomenon reoccurred in 1999, and again in 2000. "Especially last year was bad, even more smelly whales, and everybody is growing more concerned, because nobody knows what this smell of medicine is all about," says Mikhail Zelensky, mayor of Lavrentiya and founder of the Naukan Production Cooperative, a veteran organization of whale hunters. "Scientists have been explaining to us it is some kind of pollutant in the ocean, but no one knows if there is a human health concern, because no one knows what is the exact chemical composition."

The apparent chemical contamination of the grays occurred at the same time that the whales washed ashore, dead, in unprecedented numbers along their migration route. Researchers continue to document a significant decline in the birth rate of this recently endangered species.

This summer, while the hunters of Chukotka were taking on gray whales in the Bering Strait, the International Whaling Commission was holding its annual convention in London.

The issue of gray whale contamination was not exactly a hot agenda item. In fact, it was given passing mention only once in five days of general sessions. For the second year in a row, IWC commissioners expressed concern, suggested there should be more study of the matter, and then let it drop.

According to a report of the IWC's scientific subcommittee meeting on gray whales -- which was closed to the public, including the media -- one of the Russian Federation's delegates led his fellow commissioners to believe there is no cause for alarm because the whales that reek of medicine have simply disappeared.

"No stinky whales have been encountered this year," he is recorded as stating.

But the hunters of Chukotka know that's not true. Stinky whales have been encountered this year, by the dozens. They just haven't been killed.

"Some whales, you can smell the toxins on their breath," says Igor Macotrik, a hunting captain from the village of Novoe Chaplino. "We have learned to let those whales go."

What's more, the only researcher on the ground in Chukotka says he knows what's making the stinky whales stink. "It's phenol," says veterinarian Gennady Zelensky, head of the Chukotka Science Support Group and the son of Lavrentiya whaling captain Mikhail Zelensky.

Phenol, also known as carbolic acid, is a highly toxic industrial solvent that smells distinctly like disinfectant. It is used and dumped in vast quantities throughout Siberia by oil refineries and diamond mines, in natural gas exploration and extraction, and a host of other heavy industries that operate in the former Soviet Union's far eastern hinterlands with little oversight and nowhere to safely dispose of toxic industrial waste.

Last summer, Zelensky participated in a study of phenol contamination in the salmon, sturgeon and whitefish of the great Amur River in eastern Siberia. For several years, the fishermen who ply the Amur have complained that their catches are dwindling and that many of the fish in their nets disgorge a chemical smell when cut open. Every fall, when the brown water of the Amur begins to freeze, an eye-watering medicinal reek sets in along with the ice. The fishermen describe the smell as like the inside of a drugstore or health clinic.

Tests showed the fish of the Amur are heavily contaminated with phenol. That was no surprise, as the Amur is loaded with phenol, same as most of the major rivers that flow through the Russian Far East.

Zelensky says in August he tested for phenol in the blubber and livers of five freshly killed gray whales in Chukotka. Though none of them were stinky whales, all five tested positive for the solvent.

If Zelensky is right, sniffing the whale's breath could be providing a false sense of security.

"My methods are preliminary only," says Zelensky. "Nothing is for sure until the samples are tested in American laboratory."

But that requires the samples to make it out of Chukotka. And thus far, Russian officials don't seem to share Zelensky's enthusiasm for scientific inquiry.

For their part, the Eskimos of Alaska kept their promise from last winter to help their Siberian brothers. Enriched by the millions they charge oil companies to drill on their land, the American Inuit have long sought to protect the integrity of the whales they eat. They keep one of the world's leading experts on marine mammal contamination, Dr. Todd O'Hara, in their employ. In August, he was scheduled to arrive in Chukotka to pick up samples from the sixteen whales taken by Zelensky's science group and bring them back to the U.S. for testing in a National Marine Fisheries Service lab.

But at the last minute, the Russian Border Service ordered O'Hara's Coast Guard ship, the Polar Sea, to steer clear of Russian Federation waters. O'Hara's boat was forced to return to the United States without the tainted whale samples.

"It was unfortunate, because I was going to bring back all the samples Gennady had collected," says O'Hara. "Now we're having to go through the murky bureaucratic channels over there, and we won't be able to get all the import permits in place until probably November. It's holding us up."

It is impossible to say with certainty whether turning back the Polar Sea was part of a sinister policy to avert the world's eyes from the role Russian industries play in ocean pollution.

The whale had been speared, had twice attacked Zelensky's boat and was lying amidst the waves, gathering strength, with two harpoon boats sneaking up behind him. At a signal, the pilots of the two boats gunned their engines, and the whale was hit in drive-by harpoonings from both sides at once. He convulsed the water around him into a bloody froth, but did not dive. Dragging eight buoys, he was pinned near the surface.

In addition to their traditional harpoons, Chukotka whale hunters carry shotguns, Kalishnikov and SKS assault rifles, and explosive-tipped lances called "darting guns." Of all these weapons, only darting guns are capable of satisfying the International Whaling Commission's guidelines for "humane killing," defined as dispatching a whale "without pain, stress or distress perceptible to the animal," and in five seconds or less. Darting guns -- when they function and are wielded correctly -- fire an explosive into the bowels of a whale, often killing it a mere four seconds later when the fuse burns down on the black powder charge.

"The high-speed detonation that follows creates tremendous pressure and a shock wave inside the whale's body, and this gives a very devastating, special effect on the nerve tissues in vital organs. It also creates bleeding in the brain," says Dr. Egil Oen, a Norwegian veterinarian widely regarded as the world's foremost expert on whaling weapons.

Like harpoons, darting guns are hand-thrown. Mikhail Zelensky's gunner hurled the lance from a distance of ten feet, aiming for a point above the whale's flipper, where the explosive would do the most damage. He missed. The lance pierced the whale's barnacle-encrusted hide about midway between flipper and tail. The propellant fired with the sound of an M-80 going off in a chunk of lard. Seconds later, the black powder bomb exploded inside the whale. He shuddered and began twisting in the water, obviously experiencing a great deal of "pain, stress and distress."

The hunters were forced to shoot the whale to death. It was not clean and quick. For nearly an hour, with Big Diomede Island bearing witness on the horizon, the sea air crackled with gunfire as the hunters circled the whale, perforating him with more than 200 rifle bullets. Zelensky radioed the same message twice to Lavrentiya. "We are still shooting."

Seventy-five minutes after it was first harpooned, the whale finally stopped moving, ceased breathing and started to sink. Hunters rushed to grab the ropes tied to the orange buoys before the floats went under. There was no triumph on their faces, only grim relief.

There is a mob on the beach, armed with butcher knives. Belching black smoke, a tractor sluggishly hauls the dead whale in from the shallows by a metal cable looped around its tail. A few village elders perform a traditional dance of celebration. An old Eskimo woman burns herbs and an alder branch as another carries out a ritualistic cleansing of the whale's head, washing away the spirits of the sea as well as the blood still oozing from scores of bullet wounds. Wielding a huge curved blade, one of the hunters disembowels the whale. The steaming innards spill out on the stones. Then the hunter backs away, and it's on. The mob descends upon the whale, blades flashing.

Children stand on the edge of the throng holding plastic buckets their parents hastily fill with steaks and strips of fat. It's a free-for-all. The blades saw and slice. The kids haul away the whale in pieces, then come running back for more. The air is sharpened by the scents of sweat and slaughter.

Researcher Gennady Zelensky braces against the whale's ribs at the fore of the crush, frantically trying to collect and bag scientific samples. "You have to watch your fingers," he cries to an observer while looking up, grinning, and absolutely not watching his fingers. "Ow!" Zelensky yells, jerking a hand clear. A woman just nicked three of his knuckles. The woman is going after the whale's liver. But so is Zelensky. His research protocol requires he take pieces of the whale's liver, heart and kidney as well as muscle tissue and blubber from five different places. He stands his ground, deploying his elbows like a basketball player protecting a rebound.

In two hours, the whale's carcass will be skeletonized, as if consumed by piranhas.

"I try to explain to them, I am helping to make sure their food is safe, but still, no way," Zelensky says later. "When it is time to cut the whale, I am just another guy in there with a knife."

The Chukotka Science Support Group sampling is the first phase of a study of contaminants in the Eastern North Pacific Stock of gray whales. The study was funded by the National Marine Fisheries Service to investigate the causes and potential human health effects of stinky whales.

Considering the current state of environmental regulation in the former Soviet Union -- and especially in Russia's Far East -- tracking down the source of any dangerous contaminant in gray whales that feed off the bottom in coastal waters could be like tracking down the source of coins in a wishing well.

"The situation is quite severe," says Dr. Vladimir Orlov, the Russian Federation's Minister of Natural Resources. "This is the region [Siberia and the Far East] where our industrial development is the heaviest. Sixty-nine percent of Russian oil exploration is being conducted in this region, along with 78 percent of natural gas exploration, and 90 percent of our natural gas extraction efforts. There is also heavy mining, timber and other chemical waste producing activities. Unfortunately, there are no special sites for hazardous chemical storage in this region that are well-equipped. The very few that are being used may not be assessed as satisfactory."

The seeds for environmental catastrophe have been planted between the cracks of a failed system.

"You look at the level of chemicals in most of our rivers in Siberia, and it can seem there are more toxins in the rivers than water," says Mikhail Krykhitin of the Amur Inland Basin Laboratory, an affiliate of the Russian Federation's Pacific Fishery and Oceanography Institute. "Most of the rivers [in the Russian Far East] that we are testing now carry so much phenol they cannot naturally rid themselves of the toxin, so it is just building up and up."

Krykhitin and a group of scientists from the Siberian Fish Research and Development Institute recently tested for industrial waste contamination in fish from four rivers in eastern Siberia. They found that the levels of phenol in the fish ranged between sixteen and seventy times the maximum allowable level set by the Russian Federation's Department of Public Health.

None of those rivers empties directly into the Bering Strait, where the gray whales hunted by the natives of Chukotka come to feed every summer, though one, the Amur, flows into the Tatar Strait. "Hundreds of rivers flow through the Chukotka peninsula that have never been tested," says Yuri Shiokov, director of Siberia-ISAR (Institute for Social Action and Renewal), the Far East branch of the leading environmental organization in the former Soviet Union. "There are many rivers we know are badly contaminated that empty into the seas on the north coast of Siberia, where the currents hug the coast and funnel directly into the Bering Strait. And we are sure there is massive dumping off of boats, directly into the oceans, including the Bering Sea. We have photographs, but nothing is done. When a nation's economy is in so much trouble as in Russia, the environment is no priority at all compared to industry. This is simple to understand, but we must not accept it.

"It appears many of the final observations of environmental tragedies in Siberia regions will be recorded in the 'living laboratory' of its people and its ecosystems," continues Shiokov. "They are being used as the unfortunate subjects in uncontrolled experiments."

In all animals, phenol and other forms of industrial toxic waste routinely dumped in the rivers and seas of Siberia -- including PCBs, long ago banned in this country -- act as endocrine disrupters, meaning they unleash chaos in hormone systems, greatly decreasing rates of reproduction.

In 1997, researchers counted 1,431 gray whale calves in the birthing grounds of the Eastern North Pacific Stock of gray whales. Last year they counted only 279. This year, according to the most recent numbers, presented to the IWC in July, the final count is expected to be about 250 -- meaning the gray whale birth rate has evidently plummeted 83 percent in five years.

The human birth rate in Chukotka has entered a parallel free fall, down more than 60 percent in the last decade. During the same period, birth defects increased by half, according to Dr. Lubov Otrokova, the only Eskimo surgeon in the Russian Federation. In 1997, Dr. Otrokova began documenting cancer cases in Chukotka. She has found that the rate of stomach cancer among villagers in the region has more than tripled in the last 20 years -- the last time anyone checked. "In Chukotka cancer is typically not diagnosed until the late stages, when it is too late," she says. "Among the native people of such an isolated region, you can look at these warning signs and see that clearly, something bad is happening to these people that wasn't a problem for them 50 or 100 years ago. Sadly, no one is studying the causes."

There has been only one extensive scientific study on the effects of phenol contamination in humans. It showed that in extremely high levels, phenol produces fatal toxic shock, and that prolonged exposure to small doses results in liver and kidney damage, skin lesions, chronic fatigue, birth defects and cancer.

The study was conducted on Jewish prisoners by SS doctors at Auschwitz.

The Eskimos say it's bad luck to whistle in a boat when you're caught in a storm, but the spirits might spare you if you sing the right song.

Entering hour four of a three-hour trip home, whale hunter Ivan Tanko is hoping the spirits are into punk rock because they hated Kenny Rogers. Three renditions of "The Gambler" only made the wicked weather worse.

Jacques Cousteau once said the seas off Chukotka are the deadliest in the world.

This afternoon, nearly two hours after Tanko and a passenger departed from Lorino southbound for Tanko's home village of Yanrakynnot, the clouds above darkened and boiled as if conjured by an evil sorcerer. Mild chop transmogrified into seesawing seven-foot swells. The look on Tanko's face announced, "We're in a world of hurt."

Three and a half nerve-grinding hours later, Tanko and his passenger began to sing, teaching each other songs in their native tongues. Tanko speaks about as much English as his passenger does Chukchi, but after a few passes he was able to sound out the opening lines of Iggy Pop's "Search and Destroy":

I'm a street walkin' cheetah with a heart full of napalm!

Tanko stands in the back of the boat, flashing teeth capped in silver, knuckles white on the outboard's throttle, long, wild gray hair streaming in the gale, eyes hyperalert. Some of the waves he ascends head-on, others he rides sideways. If he takes one the wrong way, the craft will capsize. Tanko's not wearing a life jacket. He needs to move freely, and the water's so cold there's little point. Another torturous hour passes. Night falls. In the darkness, the waves are nearly invisible, rising over the boat like vampire cloaks. Tanko navigates by the foam of their whitecaps. He is singing in his own language now a tune later translated loosely as the "We're about to die song." And then, a magnificent vision presents itself: the twinkling lights of Yanrakynnot.

One week every August, nomadic reindeer herders come into Yanrakynnot, and one day during that week, the villagers join them at the burial grounds outside town. There they repair the rock mounds of the newly dead as well as the long gone and tell stories as a reindeer is slaughtered, bread is broken, and vodka flows as freely as tears.

The ground is permafrost, so no one buried here is six feet under. The shallow graves are covered with mounds of granite rocks speckled with black and green lichen and marked with wood posts, ribbons, reindeer antlers, and carved whale and walrus bones. Names, dates and epitaphs are etched into metal plates or polished stones. Many of the mounds are not graves at all but memorials to those lost at sea.

Remembrance day this August was the day after Tanko made it through a storm in Mechigmen Bay. He invited his passenger to the feast where he pointed out the memorials for dozens who weren't so lucky. All around the rugged hilltop, villagers from Yanrakynnot sat in circles with reindeer herders around boards laden with heaps of reindeer meat, bread, hot sauce, piles of salt, pots of steaming tea, and bottles of vodka. Others stood arm in arm over the graves of loved ones, sprinkling candy across the rocks and toasting the dead with capfuls of vodka tossed into the cold breeze. One man with few teeth and thick glasses knelt alone by the tomb of his brother, repeatedly crossing his arms over his chest, as if to comfort himself, and then thrusting them skyward. Two small children listened to their parents tell them stories of grandparents the little boy and girl never knew. Your mother's mother loved beadwork and cloudberry tea, they hear. Your father's father had the keenest eyes in the village and played the drum while his wife danced. They all died in an October storm, returning from a visit with relatives up north, rushing to get home before the winter shore ice came.

Hearing all the stories, it seemed that no one remembered on the hilltop outside Yanrakynnot died peacefully of natural causes. They plunged through holes in the ice. They fell off cliffs while gathering puffin eggs. They were torn apart by bears. They froze to death in blizzards. They vanished by the boatloads in Mechigmen Bay.

Sitting cross-legged by one mound, Leonard Kutylin, 52, told the story of watching the five men whose pictures flutter in the wind beside him die when a gray whale turned the tables. It happened two summers ago. The six hunters left Yanrakynnot in two classic, wide-bottomed, wood-plank whaleboats. They harpooned a ferocious gray in the rough waters of the Senyavin Strait and the whale destroyed them. First it flipped over the harpooners' boat, tossing the three men on it overboard, then whipped around and rammed the empty craft, breaking it into two pieces. The three men in the second whaleboat were desperately trying to fish their friends out of the water when the whale struck from behind, taking out their motor and ripping a hole in their boat's bottom. Powerless, they sank. Kutylin was the only man in the water wearing a traditional hunting suit made of a watertight, insular layer of seal skin blanketed beneath pants and a parka made of furry reindeer hide. He clung to wreckage, and watched helplessly while his friends succumbed to the cold and slipped beneath the waves, one by one. Hours later, a search party miraculously found Kutylin, still holding on, blue-lipped and near death. The whale won that day, and Kutylin hasn't been hunting since.

Kutylin finished his story as he scraped the last bits of reindeer meat off a leg bone with his knife. It is bad form in Chukotka to leave meat on a bone. Animals eaten there are eaten totally. Amidst the burial grounds, a huge metal pot hung by its handle from a tripod erected over a roaring fire. Inside the pot reindeer fat and flesh, boiled off the bone, bobbed in a thick yellowish stew. The reindeer's heart, liver, kidneys and intestines baked in coals. The eyeballs, tongue and lips were broiled on hot rocks. One of the herders scraped the felt off its antlers and held it over the blaze to cook the hair into a crispy finger food. The reindeer's penis was speared on a stick and roasted. Like the whale in Lavrentiya, the reindeer was stripped to its skeleton by nightfall.

The abundance of the feast was deceptive. Last winter, the reindeer herders lost 2,000 of their 3,000 reindeer to cold and wolves. The 400 villagers of Yanrakynnot were in even more desperate straits. At a bare minimum, they need to kill four whales a summer to make it through the next winter. Five whales require less strict rationing. Six and they're well off. By mid-August, with less than two months of hunting to go, Yanrakynnot had no whales. The loss of five hunters two summers ago from such a small population -- six, counting Kutylin -- is taking a heavy toll, though the villagers believe the dearth of whales is also because of supernatural forces working against them. Over the winter, one of their whaling captains converted to Christianity. This spring he denounced the village's rock-sculpture shrine to gray whales as pagan and destroyed it. The villagers say they are cursed as a result.

"The whales are angry," said Natasha Ashkamakin, fifty, who has lived in Yanrakynnot all her life.

Facing a crisis, the village's elders in August dispatched emissaries to Lorino, Lavrentiya and Novoe Chaplino to request those villages release a few hunters each to harvest whales for the imperiled village.

Two hunters from Novoe Chaplino -- Igor Macotrik and Maxim Agnagisyak -- arrived in Yanrakynnot through the same storm that besieged Tanko. The next night, they warmed their bones in the village's wood-heated sauna. These men said the storm's seven-foot waves and the shrieking wind of the gale were bad omens. They suggested that the villagers from Yanrakynnot should rebuild the whaling shrine and make offerings of vodka to the sea. They also agreed to return the following week with more men and boats to help.

"We are always ready to help the people in another village who are in trouble," said Agnagisyak. "And this village is in trouble. They have no whales. So we will come back and we will try to hunt quickly. If we are lucky, we will be able to harvest enough whales for them to last the winter."

And if they are not lucky?

Agnagisyak pointed, silently, toward the burial mounds in the hills outside.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by David Holthouse

  • Dying Breeds

    Siberian Eskimos on the edge of the Earth and the brink of starvation saved their lives and their culture by reviving the lost tradition of whale hunting. Now they worry the gray whales are poisoned.
    • Apr 5, 2001
  • More »

Latest in Feature

Most Popular Stories

Facebook Activity

All contents ©2014 Kansas City Pitch LLC
All rights reserved. No part of this service may be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of Kansas City Pitch LLC,
except that an individual may download and/or forward articles via email to a reasonable number of recipients for personal, non-commercial purposes.

All contents © 2012 SouthComm, Inc. 210 12th Ave S. Ste. 100, Nashville, TN 37203. (615) 244-7989.
All rights reserved. No part of this service may be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of SouthComm, Inc.
except that an individual may download and/or forward articles via email to a reasonable number of recipients for personal, non-commercial purposes.
Website powered by Foundation