This spring, the North Slope Borough conducted a census — not of people, but of the Western Arctic bowhead whale population. They do the count with their own eyes out on the sea ice off Utqiaġvik, where surveyors have to remain on high alert for polar bears and shifts in weather and current that might break up the ice under their feet.
It’s one of the best ways scientists have to get a whale count that helps forms the basis of Alaska Native hunters’ subsistence quota.
Craig George stands high up on a mound of sea ice overlooking the Chukchi Sea, his back to a moonscape of white and blue shards of ice. He’s scanning the horizon with a pair of binoculars and using a small wooden podium to write down weather conditions and whale sightings.
So far this shift, he’s seen exactly zero whales.
“Pretty quiet guys, I’m surprised,” George said to the other two men standing next to him at the perch.
“Seeing some seals,” Darren Kayotuk said.
“Yeah let’s start counting seals,” George joked dryly.
George is a wildlife biologist with the North Slope Borough, and the census coordinator. He’s been participating in the census a long time — the first one he helped with was all the way back in 1980.
The census started back in the 1970s, when the international commission that regulates whaling was concerned that there weren’t enough whales to support a traditional subsistence hunt.
In those early days, there were a lot of things scientists didn’t know about how the whales behaved. That made it hard for them to get an accurate count.
For example, says George, they didn’t know that whales could swim under heavy ice cover and would also travel far offshore where they couldn’t be seen.
“That was a real eye-opener,” George said, “realizing that there’s times when we only see a small fraction of the whales.”
Scientists learned about that and other whale behaviors from Iñupiaq whalers. And they documented it by putting hydrophones down in the water — which meant they could show that whales were going by, even when they couldn’t see them.
They still use those techniques today. As George stands looking out at whale-free water, Kate Stafford, an oceanographer at the University of Washington, clamors down to the edge of the ice and drops a microphone below the surface. Sure enough, she can hear bowheads off in the distance.
In addition to whale behavior, there was a whole other set of lessons the census takers needed to learn — namely, how to stay safe on the ice. And that, George says, is almost impossible to figure out anywhere but out on it.
“There’s not like a formal Iñupiaq classroom, you sit down, ‘Today we’re going to discuss the principles of sea ice and sea ice safety,’” he said. “That doesn’t happen. It’s like, ‘Malik,’ you know? ‘You follow.’”
Over the decades, George has spent many, many hours out on the ice learning from whaling captains about how the ice forms, how it moves, how to recognize when it’s safe, and when it’s about to get dangerous.
“You don’t learn anything unless something goes wrong,” he said. “I mean, that’s not entirely true, but that’s where you really learn.”
He’s seen plenty of things go wrong. The most memorable, he says, was back in 1985, when a heavy piece of ice floating out on the ocean hit the shore-fast ice a considerable distance from where they were camped.
“The force transmitted through the ice, and then suddenly this big pan we were on — I don’t know, quarter-mile wide — it started breaking up,” George remembered. “And it shattered, broke down the middle. … It kept breaking up more and more, and then it started folding and water was rushing up between the pieces.”
Scary as that sounds, they did make it to safety.
George refers to this event pretty nonchalantly — he says it was a good learning experience.
It also helps that they stay in regular communication with the whalers who are out on the ice doing their spring hunt.
“If we see something happening, we get on the radio, on the whalers’ channel … or they call us,” George said. “We become part of the community on the ice when we’re out here.”
If things get dicey, the group pulls back. That, along with weather and ice conditions that sometimes get in the way of seeing whales, means that some census years they don’t get a good estimate out on the ice.
“One out of 3 of these counts actually works,” George said.
But the estimate plays a critical role in northern Alaska communities’ continued ability to whale.
Subsistence hunters have a quota, and even though they only harvest an average of 40 whales out of a population that was estimated at around 17,000 the last time they did the count, the quota is dependent on a good population estimate every decade.
There are other ways to do that count, like aerial surveys. One is actually being done independently by the federal government this summer. It was planned as sort of insurance — in case the ice-based census didn’t yield a good count. But the ice-based method is more precise, so they’d like to have both.
Plus, despite the fact that being out here requires some vigilance, it’s also really beautiful.
And for George, it’s the best part of the job. He loves watching bowhead whales.
“They’re just so graceful and beautiful. Every time I see a whale I get excited,” he said. “I’ve seen thousands and thousands,” he goes on, “it’s always like seeing a bowhead for the first time.”
The ice is changing as temperatures warm in Utqiaġvik, and George says he doesn’t know exactly what the census will look like in the years ahead. They may shift to using more aerial techniques as the ice gets less stable, or maybe they’ll figure out how to do a count using satellite images.
But for now at least, the census remains part of the “community on the ice.”