More than twice the size of the largest great white sharks, they grow to be 50 feet long and can weigh 80,000 pounds. Highly intelligent and communicative, gray whales are typically docile toward humans, if not playfully curious. Mother grays have been known to usher their calves into contact with visitors to Mexican whale sanctuaries, as if in petting zoos.
There's no reason to fear a gray whale -- unless you're trying to kill it. Then the rules change. Unlike other cetaceans preyed upon by man, gray whales fight back.
"They are very aggressive, very smart, and very dangerous. They know when they're being hunted," says Mikhail Zelensky, a subsistence whaler from the isolated Siberian province of Chukotka.
Tales abound in Yankee whaling lore of gray whales attacking 80-foot schooners, using their huge beaks as battering rams to stave in the sides of the wooden ships.
Imagine hunting such beasts from boats made of walrus skin and driftwood in the Bering Sea, 10 miles from shore.
"I have seen [gray whales] chase many boats," says Zelensky. "They come up behind and try to crush them, or they dive beneath the surface and then come up beneath, to throw the boat and the men into the air."
In Chukotka, whaling is a matter of survival as well as ceremony. Thousands would go hungry in the forgotten region were it not for whale flesh.
And the clear and present physical danger of hunting gray whales is not the only threat to this people's precarious existence.
The hunters of Chukotka have uncovered a more insidious one.
Beginning three years ago, they say, about one in 10 of the gray whales they killed and towed to shore released an overpowering chemical stench once it was cut open. The whales were so fouled by an unknown contaminant even hungry sled dogs refused the reeking meat.
The appearance of these "stinky whales," as the hunters call the laced leviathans, coincides with a sudden decline in the gray whale's overall population.
Although scientists have been intensely monitoring the mysterious die-off, the discovery of apparently contaminated gray whales has gone unpublished. For the people who depend on gray whales for food, however, the implications are all too clear.
"If the whales live, we live," says Vladimir Etylin, director of the newly formed Association of Traditional Marine Mammal Hunters of Chukotka. "If they die, we die with them."
The end of the Earth has a name: Chukotka.
A gnarled protrusion connecting the northeastern frontier of Siberia with the turbulent confluence of the Pacific and Arctic oceans, 80 miles from Alaska, the Chukotka Peninsula is so remote it does not appear on many maps of the world. The land and its people exist between the edges of charted perception, in the most extreme of environments.
There are two seasons on the Siberian promontory: the longest, coldest, cruelest winter endured by any native people on the planet, and the other four months of the year.
Early spring may be a time of renewal for most of the Northern Hemisphere, but it's dying time in Chukotka. Winter cyclones still prowl the tundra, the wind-chill factor still hits 100 below, and doctors still travel from village to village, amputating frostbitten fingers and toes.
Though not the coldest or darkest period of winter in Chukotka, the crossover weeks from March to April are among the most harrowing for the Yupik Eskimo and Chukchi tribes who populate the peninsula. Their winter stores of heating oil and food are nearly exhausted. Famine is their shadow beneath the ashen Arctic sun. They have only to ready their weapons and wait for the whales to return.
Every summer, more than 20,000 Eastern Pacific gray whales pass Chukotka to and from their feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas. The grays gorge on bottom-dwelling crustaceans, then depart for the lagoons of Mexico's Baja Peninsula in the fall, when the northern seas begin to freeze.
For most of their 12,000-mile migration up and down the Pacific Coast, gray whales are a tourist attraction, protected by international law.
Once they reach Chukotka, they're food.
The native hunters of Chukotka, like their ancestors from time immemorial, slay gray whales from small boats in merciless waters. During the May-to-September hunting season, they kill scores of the majestic marine mammals, whose fat and flesh they consume through the winter.
This cycle of survival has persisted for at least 5,000 years, with one brief but brutal interruption: the rise and fall of the Soviet Empire.
Viewed from the sea, the coast of Chukotka appears as a series of half-moon bays divided by high cliffs shaped like horns. In the distant past, each of these bays was home to an individual native settlement. The cliffs demarcated hunting territory, and the people who lived between them practiced a timeless form of communism, born of necessity, not politics.
It took a while for the Soviet overlords to look into the farthest reaches of their new dominion. They developed no serious interest in Chukotka until shortly after the end of World War II, when the early fronts in the Cold War were being established. The masterminds of Moscow decided it would be unwise to leave these bronze-skinned people unattended so close to the United States. The order came: Pack up and come with us.
The natives were forced to abandon their small coastal villages, where they lived in sod and skin huts, and relocate to consolidated settlements inland, where they were crammed into concrete-block apartment towers. Instead of hunting and gathering, they toiled on state-sponsored farms, raising and skinning fur foxes. It was ghastly, humiliating labor. In a gross perversion of their traditional culture, the Eskimos were made to feed the foxes the meat of gray whales slaughtered by a Soviet factory whaling ship.