Jan 25 2008, 10:45am

Harpooning a whale is a sacrilege perhaps only eclipsed by stabbing a pregnant panda with an elephant tusk dagger while wearing a gorilla fur coat. Before you call Greenpeace let us point out that this whale was not caught commercially. It was hunted by Jonathan Harris and the Inupiat Eskimos he stayed with in Barrow, Alaska. He took over 3,000 photographs during his 9-day journey, beginning with the taxi ride to the airport and ending with the butchering of a 38-foot Bowhead whale on the frozen Arctic Ocean. We asked Jonathan to tell us a bit more about the hunt...

Standing by the Umiaq, watching for whales.

Vice: How do you catch a whale?
Jonathan Harris: This is how it works. The Barrow community can kill 22 whales a year.  The whaling crews get on snow machines and travel about five miles out onto the frozen Arctic Ocean. They set up camp at the edge of the ice right where it turns into open water. That water is called the "lead" and it opens up each spring when the ocean begins to thaw. 

There were two tents; one heated with a propane stove, one frigid. We sat and watched the lead for four days, waiting for whales to swim by. We saw hundreds of whales, but most were too far away. Finally a whale surfaced for air close enough to camp for us to attack. We jumped into a motorless whaling boat (an umiaq) that was resting on the water's edge, propped up on an ice block, its bow tilted towards the water with harpoon at the ready. 

When a whale attack happens, the harpooner leaps into the umiaq and lifts the harpoon.  The rest of the crew, all wearing white for camouflage, push it into the water. The boat glides noiselessly towards the breathing whale. The harpoon rarely kills the whale. For that they use a turn-of-the-century metal whaling gun, which shoots an 8-inch dart filled with explosive black gunpowder. They can't use this gun until after a whale has been harpooned. That's the law. Tradition precedes efficiency. 

This is a whaling harpoon with an explosive dart that detonates on impact.

The moment the harpoon strikes, the whale freaks out, goes under and starts to swim away. But attached to the harpoon is a long rope affixed to a large orange buoy, which belies the whale's location, even as it flees. At this point, the crew board a motorboat and pursue the bobbing buoy until the whale resurfaces for air (usually about an hour later). When this finally happens they fire the whaling gun and kill the whale. As it starts to lose buoyancy, they wrap a strap around its tail and tow it back to camp. 

Hauling up a 38-foot Bowhead whale.

The whale (weighing about 40 tons) is now vertical in the water, held up by its tail. The crew then radios for help and members of other whaling crews show up on snow machines to help with the haul and the harvest.

Then commences the most amazing game of tug-of-war you've ever seen: man vs. sea.  It typically takes about 75 people around an hour to haul up the whale. Once the whale is on the ice, the butchering process begins. They only use traditional blades, ropes and hooks. About four hours later, all that's left of the 38-foot whale is a jawbone. It's one of the most incredible things I've ever seen.

They use every last bit of it?
They have learned to make the most of what they have up there. Their culture probably wouldn't exist if it weren't for whaling. They told me that whale meat provides all sorts of vitamins you don't get from other meat. You couldn't, for example, subsist on steak. The Inupiat diet consists almost fully of whale, caribou, seal, and Eider ducks -- the things they can hunt. Vegetables can't be grown, as there's snow on the ground 11 months a year.  Even the houses in Barrow are these ramshackle structures made of old shipping containers, pieces of plywood, and whatever other scraps they can get their hands on.  So there is a sense of necessary resourcefulness to life there.

It takes 75 people to haul up a 40-ton whale.

What would a complete ban on whaling do to the Inupiat way of life?
Aboriginal whaling as practiced by the Inupiats is absolutely integral to their culture and their sense of identity. As I said, if it weren't for whaling, their ancestors probably would not have been able to survive in the Arctic, and their whole culture might not exist. So whaling is a huge part of their sense of self. And the relationship they have with the whales is very spiritual. They actually don't call it "killing a whale." They talk about "the gift of the whale." There is a lot of prayer (they're oddly Christian) before and during the hunt, and also the moment before the butchering begins. They believe that whalers must respect the process of whaling and must respect the whales. If they don't, the whales will stop "giving themselves" to the community. It's an unspoken pact between whales and men.

First blood.

Muktuk (blubber) lined up for community distribution.

Only the jawbone remains.

What was the most difficult part of the trip?
The cold. Taking pictures every five minutes in -22 degree weather for four straight days on the ice was really tough. My hands were constantly burning.

What was the best part of the trip?
Driving a snow machine across the crazy moonscape of the frozen Arctic Ocean.

* See more of Jonathan's photos at


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