Scientists in Utqiagvik help whale hunters get safely across sea ice | Polarjournal
On this photo from April 2023, Roberta Tuurraq Glenn-Borade and three trail inspectors are seen on the sea ice near Utqiagvik. Photo: Alaska Arctic Observatory and Knowledge Hub
On this photo from April 2023, Roberta Tuurraq Glenn-Borade and three local trail inspectors are seen on the sea ice near Utqiagvik. Photo: Alaska Arctic Observatory and Knowledge Hub

Every spring, scientists in Arctic Alaska map safe routes across the ice so local hunters can uphold a thousand-year-old tradition. “There are more friendly feelings towards scientists these days,” Utqiagvik native tells Polar Journal.

Everywhere in the Earth’s northern hemisphere, spring is on its way. This new season is especially noticeable in the Arctic where the rapid natural changes brings with it a number of cultural traditions.

In Utqiagvik in Arctic Alaska, for instance, spring means it is time for the traditional hunt of bowhead whales. This is a tradition that is as old as the Iñupiat culture itself, and consequently a tradition that brings the small Arctic town of 5000 people together in a unique way.

“It is a really exciting and energizing time. It is probably my favorite time of the year in Utqiagvik,” Roberta Tuurraq Glenn-Borade, Utqiagvik native, and Community Liaison at the Alaska Arctic Observatory and Knowledge Hub told Polar Journal.

“The sun is coming back. It is nice and bright outside. Everyone is really happy and in a good mood because we know that we are soon going to have fresh whale. Everyone is working together, because we really believe as Iñupiaq people that if there is conflict or strife you won’t have a successful whaling season,” she said.

“So everyone is really happy and nice to each other, just getting along, and out on the ice,” she said.

Once you get across the sea ice and reach the open sea, whales are not a rare sight. This photo is from April 2023. Photo: Alaska Arctic Observatory and Knowledge Hub
Once you get across the sea ice and reach the open sea, whales are not a rare sight, as this photo is from April 2023 shows. Photo: Alaska Arctic Observatory and Knowledge Hub

Breaking trail

However, as the saying goes, there is no gain without pain. Before the exuberance of the whale hunt, local hunters have gone through months of hard work. From January until March, they have been hard at work creating so-called ‘whaling trails’.

Whaling trails are a necessary part of the spring whale hunt as kilometers of sea ice lie between the town of Utqiagvik and the open ocean where the bowhead whales roam.

“Every spring, whaling crews go out on the sea ice and break trail. To get to the open water, they break across tall ridges, rough ridges, and rough sea ice,” Roberta Tuurraq Glenn-Borade said.

Mapping for 15 years

Without these trails there would be no spring whaling in Utqiagvik but breaking the trails can be a perilous job. The unpredictable sea ice conditions and sudden changes to weather and sea currents have been known to lead to accidents involving both loss of equipment and, in the more distant past, loss of human lives.

Because of this danger, since 2007, the community has collaborated with scientists to create thorough maps of the whaling trails. Back then a scientist named Matt Druckenmiller came to Utqiagvik, and made the mapping of sea ice the goal of a graduate project. Once there, he met a local elder named Warren Matumeak who liked his idea.

“He got lucky and made some really good friends, and they liked him. They heard him out and gave him a chance. Luckily they did, because now we have been creating these maps for 15 years,” Roberta Tuurraq Glenn-Borade said.

At that time, Roberta was just a young girl growing up in Utqiagvik, but now she has gotten a job at the Alaska Arctic Observatory and Knowledge Hub, working directly with the mapping of the whaling trails that is helping her community. She still remembers the time before the trails were being mapped.   “There was just less communication about where the trails are, and what the conditions of them were. And I would say that in recent years, it has become even more important to understand the sea ice conditions because they are becoming so unpredictable,” she said.

This map shows the 2023 trails across the sea ice near Utqiagvik. Every year since 2007, similar maps have been created. Photo: Alaska Arctic Observatory and Knowledge Hub
This map shows the 2023 trails across the sea ice near Utqiagvik. Every year since 2007, similar maps have been created. Photo: Alaska Arctic Observatory and Knowledge Hub

Strife with scientists

This collaboration between the local community and scientists from distant places was not a given. Back in the 1970s, relations between these two groups were far from amigable.

“There used to be a lot of strife about whales. They tried to put a ban on whaling because the scientists who were counting the bowhead whales didn’t know that whales swim underneath the sea ice,” Roberta Tuurraq Glenn-Borade said.

This, according to Roberta Tuurraq Glenn-Borade, led to an undercounting of the whales and, in turn, lower quotas.

“Iñupiaq people knew that sometimes the bowhead whales swim under the sea ice, so our community challenged the quotas, and they ended up being right,” she said.

“We always say that Iñupiaq people were the first true scientists in the region. Because we have always had deep knowledge of what the animals, the sea ice, and the landscape are doing throughout the year.”

In Utqiagvik, there is both a spring and a fall whaling season. This bowhead whale was caught in the fall season where unpredictable sea ice was not an issue. The photo is from September 2023. Photo: Alaska Arctic Observatory and Knowledge Hub
In Utqiagvik, there is both a spring and a fall whaling season. This bowhead whale was caught in the fall season where unpredictable sea ice is not an issue. The photo is from September 2023. Photo: Alaska Arctic Observatory and Knowledge Hub

Still going strong

After the old strife about whaling quotas, the job of counting whales was given to local Utqiagvik scientists. It was only after scientists like Matt Druckenmiller who acknowledged the importance of local knowledge started to arrive that trust began to be rebuilt.

“Today there are a lot more friendly feelings towards scientists and researchers that come into town. Now at the local government, we take care of a lot of the scientific work in-house, and that leads to good relationships,” Roberta Tuurraq Glenn-Borade, who has a foot in both camps, said.

This April when the whaling season starts, the rekindled relationship will, once again lead to thorough maps of Utqiagvik’s whaling trails. Maps that will help the age-old whaling tradition stay alive. Because, in spite of urbanization, modernisation, and climate change, the tradition is still thriving.

“The tradition has evolved and changed because of technology but it is still going very strong. We are a strong whaling community and we are very proud of our whaling culture,” Roberta Tuurraq Glenn-Borade said.

All whaling trail maps going back to 2007 can be found here.

Ole Ellekrog, Polar Journal

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