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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 3 of 9

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 10 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 plants, 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.

"But here is the interesting thing," says Gennady Zelensky. "The Amur stinky fish had the same odor as the smelly whales."

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.

"One of our goals is to access and take samples from these bad-smelling whales, because we believe they probably represent the worst contamination in the population, and so will give us the best, most clear results," says Zelensky. But until mid-September, when the first stinky whale of this year was killed by hunters from the village of Lorino, researchers weren't able to meet that goal, because the hunters of Chukotka have developed a crude but effective test of their own.

"Before you strike with the harpoon, you wait close until it breathes, then you smell the mist. If it is clean, you strike," says Maxin Agnagisyak, a harpooner from Novoe Chaplino. But if the mist has the telltale taint of bad medicine, the hunters back off.

This summer, whale hunters from four different villages in Chukotka all estimated that between one in 10 and one in 15 of the gray whales they come across carries the stink.

They believe that their smell test is protecting their people from ingesting contaminants. But if Zelensky is right, and the stinky whales represent only the most extreme levels of contamination, sniffing the whales' breath could be providing a false sense of security.

About The Author

David Holthouse


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