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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.

Wednesday, Oct 17 2001

Page 2 of 9

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. Out in the water, 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, cueing the sweet song of the motor's roar.

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 red-lines 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. The pilots of two tiny one-man boats the hunters call "mosquitoes" bravely zigzag their paddleboat-size crafts 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 sweat shirts, the two dozen hunters gathered in Lavrentiya's central square beneath a crumbling bust of Lenin.

The obsolete icon is a malignant memento. Under communism, the people of Chukotka were centralized and subsidized, forced to work on state-run fox farms and re-educated to live on what they were provided instead of what they provided themselves. When the Soviet Union collapsed, they were suddenly cut off 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 West like a dying man's hand. Point blank off its coast, the Arctic and Pacific oceans collide, spinning storms that rip through the land like shrapnel. Frostbite amputees are now so common in Chukotka that the region's new millionaire governor, Roman Abramovich, personally paid earlier this month to fly more than 200 of them by helicopter and 747 to a hospital in 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.

Chukotka is a place where 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. It is a place where vodka is cheaper and more available than canned food, and where Eskimo children missing arms use bleached whalebones as ramps for their Hot Wheels cars. It is where substandard Soviet construction typified by tar paper and tin shacks offers scant protection from the winter gales that shriek up the steep cliffs and over the frozen tundra, whipping the snow into cyclones that peel the 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.

Crunching gravel underfoot, the whalers of Lavrentiya march a quarter-mile through desolate streets before reaching the shoreline. There they smoke cigarettes and load rifles before setting out in their ragged armada to find and slay a gray whale. Big game doesn't come any bigger or smarter, and sportsmen of the Hemingway persuasion would no doubt pay a lot for the thrill of shooting one from a small boat in the Bering Strait. But the thrill isn't for sale, and the hunters of Chukotka don't kill whales for sport, just as, after the Soviet Union fell, they 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.

"Whale hunting for us is not about keeping alive some romantic ideas of the past. It is about keeping our people alive in the present," says Vladimir Etylin, chairman of the Association of Traditional Marine Mammal Hunters of Chukotka. "Without whale hunting, famine is a real possibility in a place such as this."

About The Author

David Holthouse


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