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Survival 

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
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Page 4 of 9

"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. With this in mind, 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 the samples from 16 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 merely a display of feathers by the Russian Border Service, or part of a more sinister policy to avert the world's eyes from the role Russian industries play in ocean pollution. Chukotka's border guards are still led by cronies of the region's ex-governor, Alexsandr Nazarov, who barricaded doors to the west with red tape as a matter of routine. But the Border Service's blockade, combined with the Russian government's downplaying of the contamination at the IWC conference in London, seems to mean the villagers of Chukotka are on their own.

For now, the samples that may contain all the answers are sitting in a freezer in Zelensky's Lavrentiya office.

"If there are toxins in the whales, then there are toxins in us," says Igor Macotrik. "We have many people in our villages getting sick with cancer, and we don't know why. We have whales that smell like toxins, and we don't know why. But when people are hungry, they know why, and they will eat the whales. We are afraid of the toxins, yes, but there is no choice. We must eat whales. You see, it is a kind of trap."


After five hours of unsuccessful hunting, the whalers of Lavrentiya were enjoying a breakfast of fermented seal and walrus meat, gray whale blubber, salmon eggs on bread, and hot tea. They sat amidst the ruins of Nunyamo, an ancient island village atop high cliffs whose residents were forced to relocate by the Soviet government in the 1950s. As they ate, the hunters scanned the sea through binoculars, searching for whale signs.

Gray whales feed by diving to the ocean's bottom, repeatedly sucking up mouthfuls of mud, pushing the mud through their baleen to filter out krill, plankton, and mollusks, and then spitting out the residue. Between dives, they rest at the surface for several minutes of deep breathing, exhaling in noisy spouts that rise more than 10 feet in the air and can be heard half a mile away. Though gray whales typically travel in small pods, they congregate in packs of up to 50 when they feed. Hunters find these packs by the glistening arcs of diving whales, the floating plumes of mud whales stir up from the bottom, and the spouts they launch from the surface.

A third round of tea was about to be poured when the hunters spotted a huge pod of feeding whales: dozens of spouts, rising as if they were geysers, less than a mile away. Like a squadron of scrambled fighter pilots, the hunters hustled into their coats and packs, then ran and slid down a treacherous, timeworn path from the top of the cliff to their boats in the cove below. There they hastily cast off ropes, jerked engines to life by their starter cords, and moved out.

Half an hour later, the whale had been speared, had twice attacked Mikhail 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.

Zelensky radioed news of the hunt back to a base camp operator in Lavrentiya: "It is a very aggressive whale. It came after our boat, but all is well. Four harpoon strikes have been made. We are readying the darting guns."

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. In other words, the makers and minders of international whaling policy want a clean, quick kill. 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. "If the whale is hit in the right part of the body, it will lose consciousness and die very fast. If not, it will have at least suffered a killing wound."

About The Author

David Holthouse

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