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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 7 of 9

"It appears many of the final observations of environmental tragedies in Siberia regions will be recorded in the "living laboratory' of its people and its ecosystems," continues Shiokov. "They are being used as the unfortunate subjects in uncontrolled experiments."

In all animals, phenol and other forms of industrial toxic waste routinely dumped in the rivers and seas of Siberia -- including PCBs, long ago banned in this country -- act as endocrine disrupters, meaning they unleash chaos in hormone systems, greatly decreasing rates of reproduction.

Marine scientists have several years of data showing that the calf count for gray whales is down sharply. Absent research it is impossible to identify a single contaminant or the links between a variety of factors -- including a decrease in food supply -- that might have caused the drop-off. But the numbers are not ambiguous.

In 1997, researchers counted 1,431 gray whale calves in the birthing grounds of the Eastern North Pacific Stock of gray whales. Last year they counted only 279. This year, according to the most recent numbers, presented to the IWC in July, the final count is expected to be about 250 -- meaning the gray whale birth rate has evidently plummeted 83 percent in five years.

The human birth rate in Chukotka has entered a parallel free fall, down more than 60 percent in the last decade. During the same period, birth defects increased by half, according to Dr. Lubov Otrokova, the only Eskimo surgeon in the Russian Federation. In 1997, Dr. Otrokova began documenting cancer cases in Chukotka. She has found that the rate of stomach cancer among villagers in the region has more than tripled in the last 20 years -- the last time anyone checked. "In Chukotka cancer is typically not diagnosed until the late stages, when it is too late," she says. "Among the native people of such an isolated region, you can look at these warning signs and see that clearly, something bad is happening to these people that wasn't a problem for them 50 or 100 years ago. Sadly, no one is studying the causes."

There has been only one extensive scientific study on the effects of phenol contamination in humans. It showed that in extremely high levels, phenol produces fatal toxic shock, and that prolonged exposure to small doses results in liver and kidney damage, skin lesions, chronic fatigue, birth defects, and cancer.

The study was conducted on Jewish prisoners by SS doctors at Auschwitz.

The Eskimos say it's bad luck to whistle in a boat when you're caught in a storm, but the spirits might spare you if you sing the right song.

Entering hour four of this tempest, whale hunter Ivan Tanko's hoping the spirits are into punk rock, because they hated Kenny Rogers. Three back-to-back renditions of "The Gambler" only made the wicked weather worse.

Tanko's trying to make it home, where tomorrow the villagers will hold a ceremony to mourn the dead. Now he's afraid they'll be mourning him.

Jacques Cousteau once said the seas off Chukotka are the deadliest in the world, and indeed boating along the peninsula's coast is like playing hopscotch in a minefield. This is especially true in the Mechigmen Bay, the greatest and therefore most treacherous expanse of open water the Eskimos of Chukotka regularly brave. In favorable conditions, the crossing takes about three hours in an aluminum skiff powered by a 45-horsepower motor, the region's standard transport. God help you if a storm hits out in the thick of the Mechigmen Bay. There's nowhere to run, and halfway across is the point of no return, past which there's no logic in turning around.

This afternoon, nearly two hours after Tanko and a passenger departed from Lorino southbound for Tanko's home village of Yanrakynnot, the clouds above darkened and boiled as if conjured by an evil sorcerer. Mild chop transmogrified into seesawing 7-foot swells. The look on Tanko's face announced, "We're in a world of hurt."

Three and a half nerve-grinding hours later, Tanko and his passenger began to sing, teaching each other songs in their native tongues. Tanko speaks about as much English as his passenger does Chukchi, but after a few passes he was able to sound out the opening lines of Iggy Pop's "Search and Destroy":

I'm a street walkin' cheetah with a heart full of napalm!

Tanko stands in the back of the boat, flashing teeth capped in silver, knuckles white on the outboard's throttle, long, wild gray hair streaming in the gale, eyes hyperalert. Some of the waves he ascends head-on, others he rides sideways. If he takes one the wrong way, the craft will capsize. Tanko's not wearing a life jacket. He needs to move freely, and the water's so cold there's little point. Another torturous hour passes. Night falls. In the darkness, the waves are nearly invisible, rising over the boat like vampire cloaks. Tanko navigates by the foam of their whitecaps. He is singing in his own language now a tune later translated loosely as the "We're about to die song." And then, a magnificent vision presents itself: the twinkling lights of Yanrakynnot.

According to the oral history of Chukotka, Yanrakynnot [Yan-rah-kay-knot] was founded a long time ago when half of a clan of nomadic reindeer herders who lived in the interior of the peninsula decided to move to the coast, settle in one place, and live as sea hunters instead. Though the clan divided, the stories say, every summer the nomads would bring their herd to the coast, make a camp outside the village, and gather with their kin in Yanrakynnot to trade reindeer meat for whale fat, have a feast, and tell stories of the dead.

Today there is still a place on a hillock overlooking a valley about two miles inland of Yanrakynnot, past the weathered, shuttered remains of a Soviet-era fox farm, where the people of the reindeer and the people of the whale share a burial grounds. It is situated just out of sight of the ocean, where the tundra rolls into forever. It is exposed, and windy, and severely beautiful. The ground is permafrost, so no one buried here is six feet under. The shallow graves are covered with mounds of granite rocks speckled with black and green lichen and marked with wood posts, ribbons, reindeer antlers, and carved whale and walrus bones. Names, dates, and epitaphs are etched into metal plates or polished stones. Many of the mounds are not graves at all but memorials to those lost at sea.

About The Author

David Holthouse


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