Families and community members on St. Lawrence Island will be eating bowhead whale this week after a local hunter caught Gambell’s second whale of the season Monday night.
Chris Apassingok, a 16-year-old who would normally be spending his days in high school, was the “striker,” or hunter credited with catching the 57-foot-long female bowhead whale for the community of Gambell. Apassingok introduces himself by his Yupik name before recounting his successful hunt:
“My Yupik name is Agragiiq. The girls on top of the beach saw a whale, and they thought it was two of them, it was this bowhead whale,” Apassingok said. “(We) went out and chased it for maybe an hour and a half; the other boats could have gotten it, but they never got close enough to strike. It came up right in front of us, and I struck it.”
Apassingok’s mother expressed joy for her son, who, she said, was born to be a hunter.
“My name is Susan Aakapak (which means ‘big sister’ in our language) Apassingok,” she said. “My son has been hunting since he was in diapers and drinking from the bottle, he’s been whaling. His life has been nothing but hunting.”
The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commissioner for Gambell, and uncle to Chris the striker, is Edmond Apassingok. He says the approximately 200-year-old whale was caught about two miles away from the village, but further out there is significant open water around the island.
“In the past, we have pulled our boats on the ice and went through open water where there are whales, but now, we can’t do either. It’s either too thin or too thick to go through or on it. It’s changed,” stated Edmond. “The winds move the ice more quickly, and it melts just as fast as soon as the wind picks up to 20 or 30 miles an hour.”
Edmond Apassingok believes ice conditions like these have made hunting for whale more challenging over the past five years or so.
According to the International Whaling Commission regulations, whalers in Gambell have six attempts or strikes for whales left in their catch limit, but Edmond Apassingok noted this whaling season is going by quickly, and the bowheads are already starting to migrate.
Karen Trop also contributed to this story.