Climate Changes Lives of Whalers in Alaska Traditionally, the Yupik people have survived on St. Lawrence Island by hunting whales and walrus in the surrounding ice sheets. Later freezes and earlier thaws are changing the island's landscape and the community's livelihood and culture.

Climate Changes Lives of Whalers in Alaska

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Our series Climate Connections with National Geographic today takes us to a remote treeless island in the Bering Sea.

(Soundbite of rolling waves)

BLOCK: St. Lawrence Island, or in the Siberian Yu'pik Sivuqaq. The Yu'pik came from Siberia and settled on the island more than 2,000 years ago.

Mr. LEONARD APANGALOOK (Yu'pik): We're only 38 miles from Siberia, almost 200 miles from the mainland of Alaska. Fortunately, we ended up in the U.S. side of the international dateline. And we're thankful for that, of course.

BLOCK: I meet 68-year-old Leonard Apangalook in his house in the village of Gambell.

Cooling on the kitchen counter are 10 glass jars filled with salmon he caught, preserved and stored for the winter. Outside the houses, strips of walrus and seal meat hang on meat racks to dry.

Gambell is one of just two towns on St. Lawrence Island, each about 700 people. The villagers first got electricity and telephone service in the 1970s. Some homes still have no running water.

Mr. APANGALOOK: I was born in a little cubicle of a house in a room with two seal oil lamps and a tiny little window in one wall. And we use seal oil lamps to light inside the house and heat up the home. My mother sewed boots and hats and parkas for us. We were a very strong subsistence community. That's how I remembered to be when I was a very young boy. But times have changed now.

BLOCK: The people of St. Lawrence are still subsistence hunters. They hunt walrus, seals and bowhead whales. They're given an annual quota for the whale catch.

The whale hunters sail out in wood-framed boats covered in walrus skin. When a whale is caught, the atmosphere in the village becomes electric with excitement. The school empties, everyone gathers at the beach to help with butchering. The whale meat and blubber - or mungtuk - are divided among the villagers and frozen for food in the winter months.

During hunting season, Leonard Apangalook and the other men of the village will walk down to the beach several times a day to check on the weather and the ice to make sure it's safe to go out.

Mr. APANGALOOK: I spend so much time at the beach or make trips to the beach in a day that my wife would ask me - when I come back that if the beach is still there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Leonard Apangalook pulls out a neat stack of bound volumes edged in gold. The meticulous daily weather journals he has kept for 20 years.

Mr. APANGALOOK: First day of sailing, no whale sighted, no walrus on ice. Temperature minus 14 Celsius.

BLOCK: Leonard Apangalook will tell you what everyone here knows that ice is coming later in the year and retreating earlier. The ice is thinner - flimsy he calls it - which makes it more dangerous for hunting. He says it's been eight years since they have seen polar pack ice blowing in from the north, ice that builds up over many years.

Studying ice is second nature to the people of St. Lawrence Island. There are 99 Yu'pik words for different kinds of ice. In a dictionary that Christopher Koonooka helped put together.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER KOONOOKA (Translator; Author, "Ungipaghaghlanga: Let Me Tell A Story"): (Speaking in foreign language).

BLOCK: Wavy ice, shore fast ice, small cakes of ice, thin ice, overlapped like shingles.

Mr. APANGALOOK: (Speaking in foreign language).

(Soundbite of rolling wave)

BLOCK: All along the beach here are massive whalebones left behind after the butchering is done.

Mr. BRANSON TUNGIYAN (General Manager, Gambell): We call that Bering Sea out there our garden, because it provides us with sustenance. And we've been that kind of people ever since time immemorial. We grew up eating what we harvest from the sea.

BLOCK: Branson Tungiyan is the general manager for the village of Gambell.

Mr. TUNGIYAN: The weather has been crazy these last 10 years that we're seeing unexpected warming in the middle of wintertime, cooler temperatures in the springtime where it should be warm. The ice is getting thinner. Now we're seeing it come in - what they call ice - late December, January and, one time, February. So we believe what the scientists are saying that the ice is melting.

BLOCK: You said something - just now you said - what they call ice.


BLOCK: That's not the ice that you would consider real ice.


(Soundbite of rolling wave)

Mr. PERRY PUNGOWHI (Whaling Crew Captain): (Speaking in foreign language).

BLOCK: In the village of Savoonga, 40 miles away, Perry Pungowhi and his crew haul in their fishing nets. He holds that part of that day's catch - a gleaming silver fish called a Dolly Varden.

Mr. PUNGOWHI: Dolly Varden not Parton.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PUNGOWHI: If they were Dolly Partons I'd be fishing all the time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Perry Pungowhi is captain of a whaling crew. He's also an ivory carver -selling carvings to the few visitors who might pass through. His wife, Adeline, is a teacher's aide with Head Start. Last year she says the ice didn't come until December.

Ms. ADELINE PUNGOWHI (Teacher's Aide, Head Start): That was so surprising. Usually, when I was growing up, we would start getting snow in August - end of August, September, and we know it's time to go back to school. And now, it's just different. We won't get snow until December nowadays.

BLOCK: Subsistence hunters, like Perry Pungowhi, rely on ice. It brings in walrus and seals.

Mr. PUNGOWHI: It's like a big conveyor belt.

BLOCK: And less ice means more dangerous seas.

Mr. PUNGOWHI: The ice is like our shelter from the swells. When there are swells in the water, the ice will easily calm the swells down and that's our protection.

BLOCK: Are you having to go further out to find walrus now?

Mr. PUNGOWHI: Yeah. It's not uncommon to go out 40, 50 miles for walrus now.

BLOCK: This spring, Perry Pungowhi and his crew caught three bowhead whales. That's pretty much unheard of. One boat taking in three whales in a month. And in the village of Gambell this spring, another surprise, crews caught three whales in one day.

So, climate change has, by no means, meant the end of whaling. But it does mean the whaling season is shorter. The weather change is fast. It's unpredictable and extreme. One whaler tells me we have to zip out and zip right back. Bad storms come in quickly without warning.

Mr. JOHN APANGALOOK (Whaler): Here's the first grave here.

BLOCK: John Apangalook has brought us to a cemetery on top of Sivuqaq Mountain that overlooks the village of Gambell.

Fog settles in around the weather-beaten plywood coffins. The coffins are exposed above ground, wedged in between gray boulders.

Mr. APANGALOOK: And here's a - he was good whale hunter, walrus hunter.

BLOCK: Some old coffins have caved in on themselves. Many have rocks on top to weight down the lid. Some are white, freshly painted, like the one for Leonard Ray Nowpakahok. The cross on his coffin says: Young man, buckshot, bowhead whale rider. He was 11 years old when he died in 2005. It was a whaling accident. The boy was out with his uncle and four others in a walrus-skin boat. They were towing in a 40-ton bowhead when the winds shifted. A storm came up fast.

Mr. APANGALOOK: And as they were coming home, they were having tough time, you know, the swells were pretty big and they couldn't take it anymore, and the boat capsized.

BLOCK: The crew radioed for help, but the seas were too rough. Four of the crew drowned - including the mayor of Gambell, his 11-year-old daughter, Yolanda, and Leonard, his 11-year-old nephew.

The stories behind the graves here tell of the many destructive forces tearing at this community. Not far from Leonard's casket I find a new coffin, covered with bright plastic flowers. Friends have left mementos - a penny, some pebbles, a necklace - on the cross that bears this name.

Mr. APANGALOOK: This girl was Destiny Lynn Tutaam Angi. She was born 1990, August 9. She died June 2, 2007 in the morning. I was working at the store and she committed suicide. She hung herself. I think she was drinking and I heard people crying when I went outside. And there she was hanging on the meat rack near her uncle's house.

BLOCK: She didn't make it to 17?

Mr. APANGALOOK: No. No. She was only 16 years old. Every year or less than a year we lose teenagers due to suicide.

BLOCK: The youth suicide rate on this island is said to be the highest in Alaska. And Alaska's rate is three times higher than the national average. Drugs, alcoholism, violence - these are immediate and constant crises.

Mr. MERLE APASSINGOK (Whaler): I think we're on the verge of great success or great failure.

BLOCK: I talked with Merle Apassingok near the beach in Gambell next to his whaling boat.

Mr. APASSINGOK: We're literally in between two lifestyles and then we're in between two continents, in between two languages. We're literally the island in between.

BLOCK: Merle Apassingok looks around and sees a generation of young people who can't speak Yu'pik, whose taste for chicken nuggets and pizza has replaced the taste for native foods. They have satellite TV and high-speed Internet access and pretty much all their town has to offer for entertainment are nightly bingo games. But Merle Appasingok keeps coming back to this: a timeless connection between his people and the sea.

Mr. APASSINGOK: That space between the whale and me is a time-honored space. I don't know if anyone whaler can express accurately what goes on in my mind. But for me, it's very, very deep because - and we dream about these whales. When you dream about something like that, there's a very deep connection. I dream about whales when they are here on ground.

BLOCK: What do you mean?

Mr. APASSINGOK: I dreamt them swimming and they'll go under the ground. Then they'll come up again. They'll surface again here on land. Very, very powerful.

BLOCK: Yeah. What do you think that means?

Mr. APASSINGOK: I think that connection, that deep connection with the animal. You know, it's not just nutrition, it's not just ceremonial, it's not just religious. That's how, you know, God made us. God created us. God picked us -handpicked us for this region, this spot right here.

BLOCK: This spot. Surrounded by the sea is changing in ways large and small. Remember Leonard Apangalook, the man who's kept those daily handwritten weather logs for 20 years? Well, he's put down his pen. This summer, he got a computer.

Mr. APANGALOOK: We're more and more melting into the new lifestyle. And I think one day, we probably won't hunt anymore. My father who has sufficed or (unintelligible) one time that one day we're going to stand on the beach and see the whales go by and say we used to hunt these animals at one time. That's inevitable and will be the situation hence. But it's - we're not just not quite ready for that yet.

BLOCK: Do you think that's coming?

Mr. APANGALOOK: Eventually. I'm sure.

(Soundbite of rolling wave)

BLOCK: Our stories from Alaska were produced by Art Silverman. You can see photos from our trip to St. Lawrence Island and hear our earlier reports on climate change in Alaska at

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