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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 5 of 9

Like harpoons, darting guns are hand-thrown. Mikhail Zelensky's hunting team left Lavrentiya with three such guns, each decorated with a sticker of a smiling cartoon whale and the words "Watch responsibly -- when you see a spout, look out!" One gun was lost overboard when the whale rammed Zelensky's boat. Another was a dud. It stuck in the whale, but the propellant never triggered. The hunters later said the powder must have been wet. The final gun went off inside the whale but didn't kill him. The gunner hurled the lance from a distance of 10 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."

Out of darting guns, 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 endlessly circled the whale, perforating him with more than 200 rifle bullets. Zelensky radioed the same message twice to Lavrentiya. "We are still shooting."

In May 1999, when the Makah tribe in Washington state resumed ceremonial hunting of gray whales in Neah Bay for the first time in 70 years, it took them only two harpoon strikes and four rifle shots to kill their whale. Elapsed time from the initial harpoon hit to the whale's death was eight minutes. But the Makah had a .577-caliber rifle, the Dirty Harry of big game guns, capable of blowing a hole clean through a gray whale's skull. The whalers of Chukotka make do with military carbines. This means that unless the darting guns do the trick, which only happens in about half the hunts, gray whales killed by the hunters of Chukotka suffer a variation on death of a thousand cuts.

"The bullets hit the whale in the head, along the spine, in the fat protecting the heart, but they do not penetrate. They deflect off the skull or just stick in the blubber, only creating a small wound," says Oen. "This is why light rifles are banned for hunting minke whales in Norway. And minke whales are smaller than gray whales."

But Chukotka isn't Norway or Washington. It's the former Soviet Union, and people there aren't allowed to have heavy rifles, because heavy rifles are sniper rifles. So the Naukan Production Cooperative hunters just kept firing and firing, and the whale kept thrashing and bleeding. He died hard. 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.

It took the hunters a full hour to heave- ho the whale to the surface, inch by inch. One of the men then carved a cylinder of blubber out of one of the whale's flippers and chopped it up. The men dipped the fresh whale fat in salt and chewed it as they braided the buoy ropes with dozens of additional lines, fashioning a towing system with multiple backups. They worked carefully, checking every knot. In September, a team of hunters from Novoe Chaplino lost the body of a gray whale they had just killed when their towing lines unraveled en route to shore.

Once Zelensky was satisfied the whale was secured, he radioed Lavrentiya. "Tell everyone: We have the whale, and we're coming in."

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. The cable snaps. Someone runs to get a thicker cable. The mob rustles with impatience. Word spread through Lavrentiya two hours ago that the hunters had killed a whale, and the villagers quickly congregated on the waterfront. "Spirit in the Sky" blasts from a portable radio tuned to a station out of Nome, Alaska.

Goin' on up to the spirit in the sky. That's where I want to go when I die.

The new cable arrives, and the whale is dragged onto the pebbled shore. 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 onto 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. In Lorino, hunters butcher whales in a cordoned-off area and dole out equal portions. But in Lavrentiya, as in most villages in Chukotka, once the whale's on the beach 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.

About The Author

David Holthouse


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