It is a wondrous thing to watch a large group of people working with a common purpose. I assume there is some kind of hierarchy in the division of labor here. To my untrained eye it is not evident. Eunice tells me she will probably work 14 hours today on multiple whales. I must look shocked because she also tells me this is easier than the butchering during the spring— then the work is done without the aid of heavy machinery out on the ice.
If she can find no one to watch her granddaughter, Eunice will do this work with a little girl on her back in the same way her ancestors did.
Crews are formed on either side of the whale. Vertical cuts are made at intervals of roughly 12- 16 inches from mouth to tail. Hooks are attached to the top of each section. With a soft ripping sound, each piece is sliced and pulled away until it reaches the ground. This is the hypodermis of the whale— the blubber. It is very thick, especially on Bowheads. Blubber is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. It also contains PCBs— carcinogens that can damage human nervous, immune, and reproductive systems. Although the exact cause of this toxicity is not known, over the course of their lives whales consume large amounts of industrial pollutants.
The sections of blubber are removed to the periphery and arranged in orderly groups. They are dragged over the steel decking quickly. They are heavy. Blubber can comprise up to 50% of a Bowhead’s weight. In a little under two hours, half the animal disappears before my eyes.
It is time to butcher the whale. A man walks on top of the Bowhead to its highest point and makes a deep incision near the blowhole. Moving backwards, he extends his cut towards the tail. He works carefully and calmly. I am standing behind two scientists and use their perspective to frame this shot.
There is a commotion. Truck horns. The children slide down the whale as if it were a playground. The scientists are making their final observations and putting equipment away. The hunters have returned.
Family photographs with the whale. Multiple generations of people sharing stories. Something that sounds a lot like the Inupiat version of “Hip Hip Hooray.” Generators and lights are set up. It is getting darker.