Just before the International Whaling Commission met in Monaco of October 1997, I traveled to the whaling villages of the Russian far east, with a 3-person professional filming team working for Parador Productions out of Salt Lake City, Utah, a Fox/Skye Television contractor. My goal was to secretly photo-document a gray whale and walrus hunt, and gather evidence related to commercial whaling by the Russian government (conducted under the guise of ‘aboriginal whaling), and to bring back footage of the amount of effort and suffering required to kill large marine mammals. The material was to be used, among other purposes, by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to combat efforts by the Makah Tribe of Western Washington to begin a renewed hunt for Pacific Gray whales.
The investigation had two major goals; to gather evidence that the Russian government continues to use their awarded aboriginal quota to support a glowingly controversial commercial fox farming operation, hereby using the native Chukchi Eskimos as pawns in the international pro-whaling arena. Additionally, we would obtain the first broadcast quality footage of whale and walrus hunting, along with disclosing to the world the effort required to kill these large, intelligent marine mammals. What I ultimately experienced and returned to the United States with has left me with even more resolve to fight the brutal, undeniably horrific resurgence of commercial whaling via the ‘aboriginal’ loopholes created through the IWC.
In Arctic Russia, Siberian Blue Fox are raised, fed gray whale and walrus meat allocated to Russia’s natives under international ‘aboriginal subsistence quotas’, and killed only to be shipped back east to Moscow for sale and profit for the communal Russian government’s ‘Collective’ operation The government retained the larger share of profit and allowed Chukchi Natives the remnant meat from the whales, providing them limited amounts of ammunition and some provisions to permit them to continue hunting whales and keep the regional fox and reindeer farms operating.
Departing Seattle on the 8th of September, I spent 4 days in Nome, Alaska waiting for the weather to allow for a difficult charter flight across the Bering Strait. While in Nome, I visited a number of restaurants and casually asked about the availability of ‘whale meat’ to purchase. Suprisingly, In one Japanese restaurant called Milano’s, the chef came out to tell me that he would try to bring m some Bowhead whale meat if I could wait a few days. Since we didn’t have the time to wait, I documented the offer and we departed for Providenya, Russia. Along the way, we were joined by an interesting woman called ‘Dazé’ -- a US citizen who had settled in the Russian and married a prominent local, whom I suspected was very well ‘connected’ with unofficial forces in Providenya whom I thought could be of help at a later time. I took advantage of the opportunity to befriend her.
"I hope you guys are not with Greenpeace or something like that, because the Russians would make sure you don’t have a ‘pleasant’ experience," Dazé said to me. "Besides, I’ve had two newspapers call me and ask me about you." Although concerned about her last comment, I assured her otherwise and started considering that we would face problems in Providenya. "I don’t want to talk anymore about this, but as far as you plans are concerned, I hope you’ve got all the right permits -- you may find yourselves in a brick room for the rest of your ‘tour,'" she added.
My team intended to enter Russia across the Bering Strait under the guise of filming an independent documentary about the remote people of the Chuckchi Peninsula. To limit suspicion, the production company used a mediating agent in Anchorage, Alaska to make all arrangements in Russia. The problems started almost immediately; apparently, our travel agent in Anchorage unknowingly contacted a government guide from Providenya’s Anthropological Museum -- although he was unaware of our true objective, he was given direction by the Russian government to strictly prohibit any documentation of a gray whale hunt.
When we landed in Providenya, things were uncertain. Apparently our agent had neglected to inform Russian customs that we were bringing professional filming equipment, and we apparently did not have the correct permits. Our government guide, Vladimir Bytchcov, immediately grew unsettled at this critical lack of information. He delivered our passports to the local military police officer and we departed, completely unknowing of what we would come next. We were taken to a small flat in Providenya were we would remain for a day, awaiting a decision from the officials. At that time, Vladimir gave us the basic schedule -- museum tour, slide show, visit to Chukchi village, hot springs and bird sanctuary. We were facing the proverbial tourist itinerary. We quickly "restructured" his agenda.
"This trip is to do a documentary on the Chuckchi people -- we need to see their village, interview them, see how they live and hunt," we countered. Bytchkov, clearly unsettled, responded: "We will see..." Knowing about the fox farms in a nearby village called Novoye Chaplino a few miles north of Providenya, I asked Bytchkov to try to arrange a visit, also informing him that our big goal was to get to Lorino (the village Sea Shepherd visited in 1981 and the current known center of commercial whaling/fox farming.)
"We can go to New Chaplino," he said, somewhat concerned, "But you will find little of interest there, the fox farms are all empty."
We left for New Chaplino the next morning, traveling by military truck -- the only way Vladimir said we would be able to travel in Chukotka at this time of year. After a grueling 2 hours across the tundra, we arrived at a small, soot covered, dilapidated village of approximately 200 people of mixed Russian and Chukchi ancestry. The stench of petroleum, animal oil and smoke was already sickening; at the edge of town, large platforms of raised grey cages stood out against the tundra, each containing movements barely discernible. "Those are the fox farms," I whispered to the crew, and Vladimir informed us that he was unaware that the fox were still alive, but he had now learned that they were all scheduled for slaughter in early October, since keeping them alive was growingly expensive. He suggested that we meet the town’s vice mayor prior to any photography.
After the perfunctory meeting with the vice mayor, and the requisite bribe of Malboro cigarettes, we were tentatively given permission to film the town. I immediately left the crew and headed in the direction of the fox farm, on the way to which I found the fox food preparation area and slaughter yard, along with a still-smoking ‘soup’ caldron made of reeking petroleum oil barrels. Bones were scattered around the caldron. The smell was absolutely assaulting. Whale vertebra, walrus ribs, fox skulls and walrus jaws surrounded the steaming caldron. I opened the lid and saw an oily black soup of flesh and gristle, most unidentifiable, but much of it clearly textured, pitted walrus flesh.
Repulsed, I moved away and started toward the fox pens. Behind me, the film crew was meeting with a local resident who sold them a fox pelt and showed them the fox skinning operation. I waited for their arrival under the first pen, where the sounds of screaming and fighting fox rained down on me like a piercing air-raid battery.
I counted about 800 cages, each containing a single, pacing and evidently insane fox in a 3-foot by 2-foot wire enclosure. The smell of feces and decay steamed up from the refuse under the cage, and I climbed the ladder, slipping on gore and slime as I approached the pens for a better look at the animals. The crew had climbed another cage but our guide was getting agitated and telling us we need to come down and leave. A screaming Russian woman started toward us, shouting in rage and waving her hands. "We must go," said Vladimir, "she says you will contaminate the fox with disease."
Sure, I thought. First we were told that there were no longer fox in New Chaplino, now they seem to be concerned for the welfare of fox that they planned on slaughtering in 2 weeks anyway.
With adequate footage, I headed to the beach where I found the remains of 3 gray whales and dozens of walrus, each appearing to be more that 1 year old. Bytchkov grew unsettled and curious, so we left New Chaplino, after which he asked us for more information about our objectives.
"You know the Russian government is concerned about groups attacking us on the issue of whaling, and I hope you are not with these groups, but I am concerned about what you are doing," he asked. "There is also a person from our Russian Green Party here asking to meet with you if you are with an environmentalist group to do an interview. Will you see him?"
An obviously ruse, I explained again that we were only doing a documentary, so we needed to see all facets of the Chuckchi native’s livelihood. With that I asked again about going to Lorino. He responded that it would only be possible by sea and then if the weather complied. WE later learned that an anonymous phone call from an environmental group in London, UK, had informed the local government that our group was planning to document the Russian whale hunt.
The next day, Vladimir surprisingly informed us that we would be traveling to a place called Hunting Base, where we would meet with Chuckchi Eskimos who would take us as far as we could go toward Jandraginot, a small Chuckchi village where walrus hunting was occurring. After a 3 hour ride across the tundra, we pulled up to a small bay that was covered in skeletal remains and bundles of flesh, meat and bloody remains. Walrus meat was the most abundant, slabs of which were covered in canvas and some laying exposed, clearly awaiting transfer to nearby New Chaplino. Near a pile of seal carcasses, a newly butchered gray whale skeleton lay intact, slime-coated and gore-covered, its yellow bones suggesting it had been killed less than 3 weeks earlier.
"This whale was attacked by orcas," explained Vladimir quickly, "The Eskimos waited for it to die than they brought it to shore and butchered it."
"Where is the meat?" I asked.
"It has been taken to the local villages for the people," he responded. New Chaplino was the only village nearby, and I thought about the caldron filled with the walrus and ‘other’ unidentifiable type of flesh. Vladimir was clearly anxious about how we received his answer, which came only an hour after he had stated that the people of New Chaplino and lower Chuckchi were not actively killing gray whales, since they were not in possession of a legal ‘quota’ from the IWC.
The arrival of 2 aluminum boats containing our native guides led by Chuckchi Eskimo Ivan Tanke, signaled our departure. After packing our equipment, we headed out into the narrows northward.
The seas were high, with 2 meter swells and the sky was overcast. In the desolate bay leading to the Bering Sea, we encountered dozens of southward moving gray whales. Literally encircling us at all times, the whales were diligently headed away from Chukotka, beginning their 6,000 mile long migration back to the warm breeding grounds of Baja, Mexico. Clearing into the sea basin, we met another, larger boat containing 4 Chuckchi hunters. Our guides halted and exchanged greetings.
"This is a whaling boat," informed Vladimir. The craft was about six meters in length and contained 2 wells penetrating the hull underneath for 2 separate 55 HP Evinrude motors. I noticed the 2 hunters in the bow each had semi-automatic rifles propped against the bow, one appeared to be an older Chinese made SKS rifle, which fires a NATO 7.62 (.303) caliber bullet, but the second rifle was a very new, graphite stocked semi-automatic, stainless steel barreled rifle with a 10-shot magazine. "These hunters are not after whale, however, they are hunting walrus. While I had no concrete reason not to believe Vladimir, it was coincidental that the hunters where so close to the area the grays were traveling, and so far away from the outside of Ostrov Arakamofosn Island, where the walrus rookery is situated and where the hunters from Jandraginot routinely went to kill walrus.
HOT SPRINGS AND WHALEBONE ALLEY
The weather changed dramatically and our guides refused to continue. We turned into a small hunting camp on the east side of the bay. My crew and I set up tents in the stark wind, but the Eskimos clustered into the small, wooden cabin. The weather became dramatically worse and we spent three nights in our tents, the last day of which a devastating sleet storm set in keeping the Eskimos and my crew literally contained in the cabin.
Utterly frustrated, I donned my cold weather gear and informed the others that I was going to head along the coast and try to find something to photograph. The Eskimos were concerned but I assured them I had a GPS system with me and would take the proper precautions. The offered me a shotgun because of the frequent presence of brown bears near the hunting camp area. I took it, but informed them I had my preferred deterrent – oleo resin pepper spray which I routinely used in prior bear encounters.
Traveling along the coast 7 km from camp, I came across a headless walrus carcass, clearly killed for the sake of its ivory. Headhunting apparently occurred here as well, as was confirmed by Vladimir when we talked about the issue later on. Although Vladimir states the Chukchi people did not participate in such wasteful activities, he was convinced it was the ‘white’ Russian inhabitants who were responsible. I also came across a memorial marker made of an unturned steel harpoon from the industrial whaling days, placed over a number of gray and Bowhead whale jawbones. At that point, the weather grew to storm proportions and I was crawled into a small crevasse in the shoreline to remain huddled in until the storm waned.
Upon return to camp 4 few hours later, I saw that the storm had blown my tent and its content completely away. The group managed to capture most of my gear, but some of my equipment, including a new Cascade Designs sleeping bag, was blown across the waves and into the Bering Sea. Fortunately an insulated survival suit remained as a less effective alternative.
The storm waned sufficiently for us to explore an archeological site related to whaling the next day. Bone and carcasses littered the area, and the Chukchi guide Ivan found another walrus intact except for its ivory and head. When the weather cleared, we made the crossing to Jandraginot, encountering over 25 Minke whales and 3 orca along the way.
Jandraginot, a town of approximately 400, primarily Chuckchi natives, was dramatically archaic. While their fox farms were abandoned, the horrific legacy of whaling and all its sordid carnage was shockingly evident on the eastern shoreline.
I stood on a bluff overlooking the dilapidated fox farm pens across the bay from an industrial wasteland of rusted oil barrels interspersed with a whale graveyard. Moving across the spit to the field of white, skeletal death, I stopped counting at 120 Gray whales. The Gray whale bodies were poignantly augmented by 3 Bowhead whale skulls. These bones appeared to be anywhere from 3 to more years old, but the presence of dried, recently decayed flesh and gore on some of the carcasses was somewhat puzzling.
"The fox here were killed last year," said Vladimir later, although the butchering shack was still rank with the smell of boiled meat and oil. I entered one building and immediately recoiled because of the stench. Across in the darkness, I could make out the profile of another caldron, opened and still containing a steaming brew of meat and fat, I was incapable of determining the species of content, as I was quickly overcome with the fetid reek assailing my senses. Stepping across skulls, spines and sundry animal parts that littered the grounds, literally everywhere I walked, I returned to the more convertible salt air of the shoreline. Tomorrow, we would go walrus hunting, an unanticipated surprise organized by an increasingly suspicious Vladimir.
THE WALRUS HUNT
At noon, we were headed far out along the outer coast and toward the known walrus rookery on the exposed Bering Sea. The weather improved to allow our two boats, a 6-meter wooden craft and another, slightly smaller aluminum skiff. Each boat contained 3 hunters, along with 2 of our crew. Our hunters where equipped with SKS 7.62mm semi-automatic rifles and one old Kalaznikov (AK-47) semi-automatic assault rifle, along with a number of harpoons. Silently I hoped that we would not encounter any walrus.
My hopes went unanswered when a pod of three walrus surfaced before us, the shouting started and both boats were turned and spurred into pursuit. Then I learned the disturbing methodology of the hunt.
The hunters opened fire on the walrus casually; the goal was to hit any of the animals so many times in the mid section and lower back until it was injured and required additional time at the surface to breathe. When it was slowed sufficiently to allow a close approach, it was hit with 3 or 4 harpoons with attached plastic floats, which would keep them locatable and somewhat hindered from diving too deeply. After the animal was sufficiently tethered, it would surface and be slow enough for the hunters to start a volley of ‘head shots’ to bring the animal unconscious or dead. If it was unconscious, it would sink and drown, held recoverable by the floats attached by the harpoon heads.
It was the sheer, absolute brutality and most inhumane length of suffering for the walrus that I dreaded most. Still I had to maintain my cover. My only choice was to focus on my photography and try to deny the reality of the animals’ suffering. This was one of the most difficult decisions that I have ever made.
From the first definite rifle hit, our boat separated from the other boat when another pod of walrus were sighted. Our hunter, a 59-year old Chukchi native called ‘Leonit,' was clearly not as good of a shot as he should have been. After an hour and half, involving about 15 repeated hits, the animals separated, with two disappearing, and a single, exhausted target became evident. Since walrus naturally sink when they die, I was convinced that the other two animals, who surely also suffered many hits from the rifle fire, could possibly also have been killed in the process. The prey of our boat finally slowed down enough for the hunters to use the harpoons.
As our boat approached to add a harpoon to the walrus, the animal turned and made eye contact with me. I was deeply impacted by what I saw. In the last second of approach, the male walrus turned and desperately charged our boat, diving only in the last second when the harpoon impacted heavily on its neck.
Blood saturated the area as the walrus rose, only to be hit in the snout by a shattering bullet, it dove again, coming up again 5 minutes after, gurgling blood from its nostrils with each labored breath. Its eye was wide with panic and indescribable pain: I hid in my shame, cloaking myself psychologically by retreating into the ‘photo-documentation’ mode. Half an hour and 5 horrific head-shots later, the walrus sank. Our hunters where joined by the second successful boat to retrieve this walrus.
Pulling up on the harpoon ropes, a surfacing river of blood signaled the walrus’ return to the surface. I leaned over the starboard side, to get a close photo of the gruesome wounds to its head. Just under the surface, the walrus opened its eye. Half out of the boat, I was utterly unnerved, locking my gaze with the dying animal’s bloodied eye only 1 meter away.
Suddenly, the air around my head exploded, and droplets of thick liquid spewed across my face and mouth. One of the hunters had discharged a bullet into the walrus’ ear to dispatch the animal. I was completely lost in the reality of death, and slumped back into the boat, utterly pissed off.
After the hunters attached both animals to the side of our boats, well over 1200 lbs. each and 4 meters long, they were taken back to the beach for butchering. The waves ran red with blood as the animals were hacked open, the hunters cutting out the heart and some choice organs for this evening’s dinner. Before we left for the village, Vladimir informed us that..., "They will leave the animals here for further butchering tomorrow."
Disturbingly, we never saw the animals brought back to Jandraginot; even more notable because after that day, the autumn storms arrived and we were left windbound for 6 days, incapable from further coastal travel northward to Lorino. It became clear that we were not going to go to Lorino with Vladimir, who told us that travel was only possible by boat, and at this point no travel is possible, either north to Lorino or back south to Providenya.
I asked Vladimir where the walrus carcasses went. He responded by saying, "They have been dealt with."
WHALING FROM THE NATIVE PERSPECTIVE
Vladimir agreed to interpreting an interview with Leonit, the hunter from my boat. During the course of the discussion, we had the following important points confirmed by the hunters;
- It takes about 25-40 bullets, 4 harpoons and 2 hours from the first hit to kill a walrus;
- It takes about 500-800 bullets (45-minutes), 8 harpoons, and 4 to five hours from first hit to kill a whale;
- the animals do suffer visibly during killing;
- some animals are frequently lost and sink to the bottom; they are often not reported;
- Hunters from the region land about 100 gray whales a year, while shooting at over 200 whales;
- Gray whale and walrus meat is used to feed foxes, the remaining meat is given to the villages;
- The fox are owned by the government-run "Collective Farms," which received the profit, but does supply the natives with minimal, barely adequate goods and bullets for hunting more whales in return;
- The Russian Government is increasingly concerned about the controversy of using whale meat for fox, and there is a movement among the regional Eskimos to close all the fox farms;
- The Chuckchi people feel the fox farms, and the government-run Collective Farm industry, have stolen their heritage and the true culture of subsistence living;
Vladimir was clearly displeased about reporting this information, but since we videotaped both Leonit’s response and the translation, Vladimir knew he had to translate accurately. Since it was growing increasingly unlikely that we would get to Lorino, and on a gray whale hunt, my concern was that we might not be capable of getting this controversial videotape out of Russia. When the weather becoming somewhat less dangerous, we pushed Vladimir to ask the Chukchi guides to return us to Providenya.
So on the morning of September 25th, after a growingly hostile night in Jandraginot (a brick was thrown through the window at our cameraman) we departed.
The return trip to a bay outside of New Chaplino was completed in high seas conditions, the correspondent and sound man were huddled in survival suits, the cameraman and I silently meditating about what we would each do first when the boat eventually capsized. After years at sea, I have never felt as uncertain about the conditions as that dark day, crossing a westward blowing sea broadside with 2 meter swells. Somehow we arrived in the dark and faced a difficult landing in high surf. A 2-hour truck ride later, we arrived in Providenya. His 2-week obligation to us completed, Vladimir left our company, being successful in his efforts to keep us away from Lorino.
We faced a dilemma. I needed to return to the US to prepare for the October meeting of the IWC in Monaco, and our options for filming a whale hunt seemed slim, particularly since Vladimir assured us that the hunting season was completed. On a gamble, we contacted sources who provided with the name of another individual who might help us. Evidently, we hit the right person.
"Lorino natives have killed 50 whales, they have received an additional allocation of 20 animals, 19 of which they may still hunt." We were informed. "Weather permitting, I may be able to get a tundra track vehicle (similar to a turrentless tank) and possibly get you to Lorino," we were told. Our new contact informed us that the local government had to be avoided for obvious reasons, and he recommended sending only 2 people. ‘Alternatively, Sireniki, which is closer and south of Providenya, still has one whale left out of a quota of 4. I can get you there easier, and they will not be as politically concerned as Lorino, since they are not known for whaling."
Either way, each option would require a commitment of at least 8 additional days, baring weather complications. I decided to leave Providenya alone, using the opportunity to take along 20 Beta video tapes containing the most sensitive footage, since Vladimir might not be aware of my departing Russia separately from the others. On a whim, I contacted Dazé and asked whether she had any suggestions about how to get through Russian customs "discretely."
"Wait there, my husband and I will take you to the airport," she responded.
I left the crew and they felt somewhat relieved, not having to worry about the prospect of personally having to smuggle our current footage across the Russian border. I wished them luck and tried to determine what chances I had getting 20 videotapes through customs, contained only in a backpack.
Dazé had contacted the necessary personal to open the border for me, since I was the only one flying in or out of Providenya that afternoon. I was the only passenger leaving the country; our chartered pilot was given permission to land at the same time Dazé unexpectedly ushered my into a small room to ‘meet’ the border guards. Not knowing what she had in mind, I shared tea and distributed a few packs of Marlboros to the guards; it seemed to be a good strategy, and Dazé called me to see the customs officer almost immediately afterwards.
The Russian customs official started questioning where my crew was; I responding something about a ‘disagreement’ and he pointed at my backpack, gesturing for me to open it. I moved slowly, only to watch a border guard approach the customs officer, whisper something to him and then walk toward my pack.
He picked it up and gestured for me to follow, leading me past customs and directly to the Visa check point. While I remained to finish processing the exit Visa, the border guard carried my pack to the waiting charter. "Dasvidanya," he nodded. "Spasiba," I responded. In a few minutes, I was airborne, heading back across the Bering Strait. My pilot remained silent throughout the trip.
In the Russian villages of Uelen, Inchoun, Seriniki, New Chaplino, Lorina, Numligran and Enmelen, gray whales continue to die each year. In the past three years, Chukotka has received a sum total of 140 gray whales per year, but my conversations with natives in the region, and my personal observations of killing technique, suggest that the true death rate for grays is almost twice this high. Since the Yupik and Chuckchi native I lived with themselves testify to the unpalatable nature of gray whale meat (apparently it’s an effective laxative), it is clear that the gray whale hunt is primarily a resource for the fox farm in Lorino and the few other remaining operations. Last year, the Russian government asked for an increased quota for subsistence hunters outside of Chukotka; they were refused by the IWC, mainly on the bases of Russia’s history of ‘manipulating’ the IWC’s aboriginal subsistence loopholes.
My film crew continued down to Seriniki, where the remnant Russian KGB and military police detained them and questioned them about the whereabouts of their film footage. They were unaware that I had left the country, and they meticulously examined all of the crews’ equipment and footage. After a few more days, they were permitted to continue to Seriniki, where they met with the director of the regional fur farm. At that point, our new contact informed the crew that it would be unlikely for them to be able to reach Lorino, due to the weather and other limitations. Besides, he had a client group who he needed to prepare for in the latter part of October.
The crew left a digital video camera with the contact, and instructed him to use the camera when he did get to Lorino. This strategy worked well since the contact was well known in the region and drew less suspicion. The crew returned to Providenya under heavy scrutiny from the regional military and officials. At the end of October, they returned to Nome, Alaska without further incident. In early November, our contact returned the digital camera via Moscow, complete with some utterly stunning, horrific footage of Gray whales being killed that autumn. Our material was circulated widely by Fox/Skye Television, and received international exposure through APTV and CNN broadcasts.
Despite our efforts, during the IWC meeting in Monaco, the United States government successfully obtained the permission to kill four Gray whales destined for the Chukchi Eskimo villages by offering the Russian natives five of Alaska’s Eskimo Bowhead whale quota instead. Since the IWC designates whale quotas on the basis of ‘stocks,’ even the international condemnation of this travesty of procedure could not stop the US from obtaining a quota for the Makah Indian tribe of western Washington.
With five larger Bowhead whales now being available to be hunted again by Russia’s Chuckchi Eskimo’s, it is likely that there will be many more ‘unrecorded’ Bowhead kills in the region. Not surprisingly, our contact guide informed us later by telephone that the ‘clients’ he had lead through the regions of Lorino and Seriniki after my crew left him were Japanese business speculators who were in the process of exploring ‘economic development’ opportunities in the remote region, where whale hunting, fox farming and reindeer herding are the only viable activities. Suspicions are being raised that even orca whales are being targeted for potential capture in this region, primarily for the growing aquarium industry in Japan and the middle east. Perhaps this is part of the reason that the Japanese ‘economic development’ mission is being conducted in the Chukotsky region.
The re-emergence of Bowhead whale hunting in the Chukotsky region, along with the possible renewed slaughter of Gray whales along the Pacific Northwest, marks an era of new marine mammal exploitation in the north Pacific Rim region. the historical aboriginal Gray and Bowhead hunts in these regions have now met a new era in which political bartering and industrial interests have become prominent new elements. Whatever the implications of these events, they certainly will mean even more death, pursuit and injury to whale species in the North Pacific.