Floating Coast

Editor’s note: This is one of a series of columns exploring bowhead whales and the bowhead whale exhibit now on display at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

New Bedford and other deep-water Atlantic and Pacific ports began to erode Nantucket Island’s 130-year dominance of Yankee whaling by 1840. Those mainland ports then dominated the last 60 years of commercial whaling in the Arctic. Traces of Nantucket’s imprint nevertheless outlived that eclipse:

• “Nantucket sleigh ride” always denoted the high-speed thrills and dangers of being towed in an open whaleboat by a harpoon-wounded whale;

• Prominent corporate American surnames survive from Nantucket whalers’ heydays, such as Folger, Macy and Starbuck;

• The 1861 cartoon in Vanity Fair magazine of whales celebrating their deliverance from Yankee whalers’ depredations depicts Nantucket whalers’ earlier targets, toothed sperm whales of the central Pacific, not baleen-bearing bowhead whales of Beringia.

Yankee whaling originated as a hybrid endeavor combining Indigenous Wampanoag subsistence hunters with English colonists’ strivings for Nantucket’s commercial growth. Today’s compelling story is of bowhead populations rebounding to the advantage of Indigenous subsistence whalers’ communities in Beringia.

Groups of scientists, historians, environmentalists and modern subsistence whalers have applauded the rebound of bowhead whales’ Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort stock since 1977. Systems analysts — specifically ecosystems analysts — have recently begun treating humans as participants in regional ecosystem functions, and are heirs to farsighted authors like Rachel Carson (“Silent Spring”) and Barry Lopez (“Arctic Dreams”).

One currently practicing heir of Carson and Lopez focuses on lessons from Beringia and its rebounding stock of bowhead whales. Bathsheba Demuth’s (2019) “Floating Coast: Environmental History of the Bering Strait” and her illustrated 2020 presentation “Do Whales Judge Us?,” available on YouTube, exemplify a breadth of interdisciplinary fluency that few scholars achieve in a whole career.

Her interdisciplinary fluency allows Demuth to analyze pre-historic traditional cultures alongside competitive exploration and exploitation practices of commerce. Through these transitions, her approach tracks balance sheets in commercial economies, in whales’ and humans’ demographics, and in ecological energetic units, such as calories and nutritional qualities of harvested foods.

Emerging from Demuth’s approach are comparative accounts of adaptation. Hunted populations of whales reacted with various evasive behaviors. Commercial whalers introduced technological enhancements: explosive projectiles, steam-powered whaleships, and springtime shore-based whale hunts to get the jump on whaleships still heading north from ice-free ports. Arctic subsistence hunters adapted by hunting alternative prey species, such as walrus, or substituting alternative rewards, such as trade in fox furs, or adapting lifestyles to relying on reindeer husbandry.

Demuth traces success and failure on the Siberian side of Beringia, from before the Bolshevik Revolution, through the Soviet era, and into the post-Soviet experiences of Yupik and Chukchi communities. Indigenous Beringians tend to regard time’s passage as cyclic, whereas Marxist and capitalist forms of exploitation treat time as linear. For their common good, these two views are still learning to collaborate in adaptive management of our planet’s finite resources. Prof. Demuth from Brown University offers a 4-session short course for UAF’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) members starting Sept. 14.

Dave Norton is a retired UAF research faculty member, Instructor for UAF’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and Member of Friends of the University of Alaska Museum of the North.