Whale hunting with harpoons is an ancient tradition that the indigenous Chukchi people of frozen northeast Russia have carried on to this day, but global warming is forcing changes to their precarious way of life.
Until the early years of this century, hunters went out all summer because they could store their whale and walrus meat in a communal cooler in the natural permafrost and in pits on the beach. “In the 2000s, all the coolers started melting and collapsing,” said 51-year-old Roman Kayom, who manages the hunting teams that feed the community of around 220 people in the village of Enurmino, north of the Arctic Circle.
(Open https://reut.rs/3LnsGPs to see a set of whale hunter photos) Villagers now use freezers that can’t hold so many.
“Now the hunting season is shorter than before. Hunters used to spend more time at sea than modern hunters. Most animals are now caught in the fall,” he said. Under indigenous subsistence whaling quotas, set by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and shared among hunting communities in the Chukotka region, Kayom said locals can catch up to eight whales a year, qu ‘they spread over four months.
They set out to sea in groups of small boats, five men per ship, and set off in pursuit of gray whales to be harpooned and brought back to shore. It’s a perilous endeavor as the creatures can reach a weight of 27 tons and are capable of launching a boat through the air “like a feather”, Kayom said.
“The hunters are scared of the sea but they go anyway. You can still see – their legs and hands are shaking. They try not to show it but you can still see,” he said. Ideally, crews aim to spot a whale close to shore and finish it off quickly, but that’s not always possible.
“There are spear throws when the hunter hits the whale in the right place and it seems to be immobilized, turns into a kind of log,” Kayom said. At other times, “the whale will go all the way. It always goes north, straight out to sea… dragging us down there, into the depths. And then you have to drag it ashore for a long time. “
Roman Ankaroltyn, 21, first went out on a boat when he was around 12. Last year he completed his first season as a harpooner, with seven hunts. The main emotion he feels is “the thrill”.
“These are our traditions. We are an indigenous people, we cannot live without animal meat,” he said. Once the whales are brought ashore, all local residents and village guests are free to help themselves to the skin and meat they need. The skin can be eaten raw for its taste and nutritional value, while the meat can be boiled or smoked and served as cutlets or dumplings.
Kayom acknowledged the cruelty of the hunt. “But, as they say, if you don’t hunt, you stay hungry, your family will go hungry,” he said. “The local Chukchi population cannot live without meat, without fat, so you have to choose. Either you will be cruel to the beast, or merciful, but hungry. That’s how it is.”
(Writing by Mark Trevelyan; editing by Philippa Fletcher)
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