The recent spotting of the rare right whale in Uganik Bay, the return of a familiar orca pod and the recent release of the Alaska-filmed, feel-good whale movie “Big Miracle” all point to whales receiving wide attention this winter. It’s clear that whales are on our minds, and their conservation receives wide support.
However, the desire to conserve whales is a relatively recent development. For centuries, humans did not view whales as creatures worthy of conservation.
Rather, whales were floating oil reserves, and the products that came from whales were essential to daily life.
Rendered whale blubber and spermaceti from the head of the sperm whale illuminated American and European cities. Whale oil lubricated the gears of the Industrial Revolution (and later, our forays into space, where sperm whale oil continues to be used as a lubricant). Whale oil was used in soap, in cosmetics and cleaners.
Ambergris, another sperm whale product, was essential in perfume. Whale meat was turned into fertilizer. Baleen was used where we employ plastic today, not only in outmoded products like corsets, but also in umbrellas and other goods that required a durable and flexible material.
Consider the wide array of goods made from petroleum, and there is a good likelihood that if a similar product was around in the 1800s, whale oil was used instead of petroleum in its manufacture.
The waters around Kodiak were central to this whale oil boom. In 1835, Yankee whalers from Nantucket “discovered” the Kodiak Grounds, also known as the Northwest Coast Right Whaling Grounds. The Kodiak Grounds encompassed more or less the Gulf of Alaska, including the waters that fall north and west of Vancouver Island.
Soon after the discovery, hundreds of Nantucket and New Bedford whaling vessels crowded the waters around Kodiak, inaugurating what historians now call the Golden Age of Whaling. During the height of whaling on the Kodiak Grounds, our waters provided 60 percent of the whale oil that was pumped to East coast ports, making the towns of Nantucket and New Bedford some of the wealthiest in the United States.
But these Yankee whalers were newcomers in the waters around Kodiak. The Alutiiq whaling tradition was thousands of years old by the time Americans prowled our waters. Alutiiq whale hunting methods were dangerous, secretive and efficient. Rituals surrounded each aspect of the hunt, from preparation to processing.
Whaling was a hereditary occupation that involved such secretive rituals that even apprentices were not allowed to participate fully.
Within caves, whalers kept totemic objects and talismans that helped to insure the success of a hunt. In these caves, whalers sequestered the bodies of recently dead, usually prominent community members, to render the fat from their corpses. Sometimes the bodies were turned into mummies. In fact, a whaler reportedly told Alexander Baranov that he would try to steal Baranov’s corpse once the Russian leader died.
Alutiiq whalers went out in single-hatch kayaks and targeted smaller humpback and fin whales. Slate whaling lances were smeared with monkshood, a local flower that contains the poison aconite, and human fat. The fat acted as a bonding agent. The whaler aimed at the fins or tail, and once he lodged the lance in the whale, it took several days for the poison to paralyze the targeted region. Around three days later, the whale died and washed ashore.
In order to ensure the hunter could claim his whale, he drew a line with human fat across the mouth of the bay in which the whale swam, creating a spiritual border through which the whale could not pass. He also marked his slate spears with identifying marks. During the Russian period, slate lances were sometimes marked with Cyrillic initials, and they sometimes contained symbols as well as initials. Examples of such lances are on exhibit at the Baranov Museum.
Alutiiq whaling methods were so effective that the Russian American Company dispatched Alutiiq whalers throughout the region to teach other Native groups. Rewards were offered to whalers who successfully apprenticed others.
In the early 1830s, Russians hired an American whaler to try to modernize the whale hunt, only to find that the traditional methods were more effective. Although Alutiiq whaling persisted into the early 20th century, many of the sacred rituals were no longer practiced after the 1838 smallpox epidemic ravaged the archipelago.
Today, whales do not provide light, fuel and food as they did in the past. But whales are natural assets that attract tourists, scientists and their dollars. Now, we look forward to the return of familiar whale pods and relish the sight of dorsal fins, breaching humpbacks and spouts seen from Fort Abercrombie.
Whaling is no longer practiced around Kodiak, but whales are still an important local resource.
Anjuli Grantham is curator of collections at Kodiak’s Baranov Museum. Read Part 2 of her account of Kodiak whaling history in Friday’s Daily Mirror.
The Baranov Museum hosts the exhibit “Whaling the Kodiak Grounds” beginning Friday. Admission is free Friday and Saturday and $5 after that. Winter hours are 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. For more information, call the museum at 486-5920.