Whaling in the Arctic
During the 1830s, American whalers entered the North Pacific in pursuit of humpback, sperm and bowhead whales. They sailed back to New England with holds full of whale and walrus oil, baleen, walrus ivory and Eskimo trade goods. By 1848, whale stocks were diminishing and whalers moved north into the Arctic Ocean in search of new whaling grounds. The valuable bowhead was still abundant here, though navigation was hazardous. Arctic ice crushed 34 ships in 1871 alone. Even the steel-plated steam whalers from San Francisco that took over Arctic whaling after 1880 were not invulnerable. The Pacific Steam Whaling Company established shore whaling stations along the Arctic coast, which gave whalers access to the breeding grounds of the bowhead; but by 1897, whales were hard to find. Whale oil had already been replaced by kerosene in the nation’s lamps, and the market for baleen had also declined. The last steam whaler left the Arctic in 1914.
The small beluga whale is widely distributed along the coast and was often caught in shallow water. The Koniag of Kodiak Island and the Chugach of Prince William Sound hunted whales all year round, in two-man kayaks. Small species were usually harpooned, while humpbacks were lanced. The slate lance heads were smeared with aconite, a poison made from the monkshood plant. After a few days, the whale would die and drift ashore. The Inupiat of northwest Alaska and the neighboring Siberian Yupik of St. Lawrence Island still depend upon the annual spring migration of bowhead whales from the Bering Sea into the Canadian Arctic. Each fall the whales return. Bowhead whales reach a maximum length of 60 feet, and weigh about a ton per foot. They do not have teeth, but fringed plates of baleen, with which they filter plankton from the water. They are still hunted in large umiaks, open boats covered with walrus or bearded-seal hide.