Barrow lands its first whales of the season
A few weeks into the fall whaling season on the North Slope, Barrow crews are working around the clock to bring in bowheads for the community.
The first whale of the season for any whaling community went to the Ipalook Crew out of Nuiqsut.
For Barrow, first-time whaling captain Michael Donovan and his Quuniq Crew landed the first bowhead last week, followed in short order by successful hunts for the Panigeo, Amikkak, Anagi, Kaleak, and Aalak Crews.
"It's an experience I cannot put into words," Donovan said. "I've been part of many whaling crews growing up. I've been responsible for taking other crews' equipment out and catching whales for them. But, this is my first time as a registered whaling captain to catch the whale under my own flag. It's been a pretty special week for me."
At 32, he's the youngest registered captain on the water working with an equally young crew.
"I couldn't have asked for a better group of guys," he said.
In the days since they landed the bowhead, they've spent hours butchering it and packaging it to be distributed around the region. As a new captain, he's giving it all away to others in Barrow along with families across the Slope and Northwest Arctic.
"It's kind of like any animal you catch, it's Inupiaq tradition to give away your first animal that you catch," he explained. "So, for me with my first whaling crew, I had to distribute it to all registered Barrow whalers."
As of early this week, his crew was putting together a special box headed for Anaktuvuk Pass, which lost a beloved elder recently.
"It's been an emotional roller coaster," Donovan said.
He also experienced a loss close to home. He was good friends with fellow whaler Billy Jens Leavitt, who died last week after being shot.
"You know, I whaled for them for quite a few years. I harpooned his last spring whale. When he and his dad, Oliver, were down in Anchorage last year, they gave us the OK to take their gear out. I took their gear out with the rest of their crew and we caught them their fall whale. The last two whales that Oliver Leavitt caught, I was part of the crew," he said. "This week, I lost one of my best friends and I caught my first whale and there's been a lot of highs and a lot of lows."
One of the things he's grateful for is that Leavitt got to see Barrow get its first bowhead this season.
"He was a big part of me pulling this whale in. He was out there. He was here at my house when we were serving, the night it happened," he said. "I spent lots of time growing up with them. Something he's always reassured us was, 'If something ever happens to me, keep on whaling.' It never really meant something to me while he was still with us but now [it does], more than ever that he's gone. I think we're doing what he wants. That's one thing he really lived for was spring and fall whaling. It's been an emotional week but with him telling me that, I know we're doing the right thing."
The meat and maktak from all of the whales landed this season will go to feed the communities across the region as well as provide for the Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts. It's something Donovan is grateful to be a part of.
"I encourage all the young whalers to keep on whaling," he said. "It's something that we've been a part of for thousands and thousands of years. We fight to keep this tradition alive."