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Marc Di Duca

Harpooning whales just like they did thousands of years ago

By Viktoria Sokolova
03 April 2017

Remarkable pictures from Moscow photographer Viktoria Sokolova as Chukotka hunters go for the kill.

The International Whaling Commission has allowed the Eskimos here to catch 720 grey and 30 bowhead whales between 2013-2018. Picture: Victoria Sokolova

The traditions and methods of whale hunting have hardly changed in 2,000 years. 

In Russia, such hunting is allowed only in Chukotka, solely to indigenous people and by quota.

The International Whaling Commission has allowed the Eskimos here to catch 720 grey and 30 bowhead whales between 2013-2018. Elsewhere in the world, for example, in Norway, whales are caught in industrial volumes from large fishing vessels. 

I am given a life jacket by one of the hunters. 

'Whale hunting is dangerous', he states the obvious, 'but you must understand that we do not take any responsibility for your life.'

Harpooning whales just like they did thousands of years ago
Whale hunting in Inahpak (a place where the whales live in Eskimo language). Picture: Viktoria Sokolova 


To pull the boats on the water, the Eskimos use whale jaws. 

Our small fleet has four boats, with four to six people in each of them. I'm sharing a boat with three experienced hunters and two very young boys, who are taught hunting from early childhood.

The boats spread around the bay. As soon as someone notices a whale, the chase begins. 

The locals hunt in much the same way as their ancestors: in tiny boats that can easily capsize if hit by a mid-size whale's tail. 

The only tilt to modernity is that the boats are powered by motors instead of oars. 

The harpoons have the same structure as that of thousands of years ago; no better weapon was invented since then.

Harpooning whales just like they did thousands of years ago


Harpooning whales just like they did thousands of years ago


Harpooning whales just like they did thousands of years ago
The locals hunt in much the same way as their ancestors: in tiny boats that can easily capsize if hit by a mid-size whale's tail. Pictures: Victoria Sokolova


A cry from one of the boats signals the start of the hunt. We all rush towards one spot and wait for the whale to re-resurface.  

A moment later it appears beside with another whale. 

The team must choose which to hunt. The decision is made within seconds, and boats move towards the area where the chosen whale was seen for the last time.

The hunters try to predict where the whale may appear next time and then get as close as possible to hit the spine. 

The first harpoon into the whale's body has a rope with an attached buoy, helping the hunters to trace each movement of the giant mammal. 

Harpooning whales just like they did thousands of years ago
The only tilt to modernity is that the boats are powered by motors instead of oars. Picture: Victoria Sokolova


One of the hunters in my boat is nicknamed Old Man; he is really drunk and as the boat moves, he struggles to keep the balance and only by chance avoids falling into icy cold water. 

Suddenly the whale surfaces near us and rises high enough above the water. 

The Old Man's eyes at once become crystal clear and focused.

He grabs a harpoon and makes an exact and powerful throw directly into the animal's spine.

Harpooning whales just like they did thousands of years ago


Harpooning whales just like they did thousands of years ago


Harpooning whales just like they did thousands of years ago
I'm sharing a boat with three experienced hunters and two very young boys, who are taught hunting from early childhood. Pictures: Victoria Sokolova


It was as if all his ancestors had simultaneously powered his hand. Other hunters follow and very soon the whale is hit with ten more harpoons. 

With each throw it becomes weaker, through in the middle of the hunt it is still incredibly strong. We follow the animal, boats swaying and jumping in the waves. 

It's hard to hold on, but it's even harder to care about safety and to stop taking pictures as whe whale should re-appear any second.

Suddenly our boat drops sharply to one side, hit by the whale's tail. We just about manage to keep the balance. 

The whale is up, beating in its death throes; the bay is raging. Moments later the giant animal rolls over, just like a dead aquarium fish.

Harpooning whales just like they did thousands of years ago


Harpooning whales just like they did thousands of years ago


Harpooning whales just like they did thousands of years ago

Harpooning whales just like they did thousands of years ago
Anyone from the village can come to get as much meat as they need at no cost. Pictures: Victoria Sokolova


The hunters sail towards the whale to secure it so it can be moved to the shore.

Before they start pulling it, the men cut a piece of meat which is shared among everyone in the boats.

They eat it with bread and sweet black tea. 

As we slowly move back, they drop little pieces of meat and bread into the sea to thank it for a successful hunt. 

A big truck is waiting for us on the shore. 

Harpooning whales just like they did thousands of years ago


Harpooning whales just like they did thousands of years ago


Harpooning whales just like they did thousands of years ago


Harpooning whales just like they did thousands of years ago
The whole area is like a giant whale graveyard, covered with dozens of skeletons. Pictures: Victoria Sokolova


The whale is wrapped in copper cables across the length of the carcass.

In a few turns of a cable the whale is rolled ashore and chopped up. The meat is taken to the village; the rest of the body is left to be eaten by sea gulls. 

The whole area is like a giant whale graveyard, covered with dozens of skeletons. 

Anyone from the village can come to get as much meat as they need at no cost.

Elsewhere in Russia the sale of whale meat is prohibited. 

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