From the Barrow shore, the ice appears to stretch forever. With feet planted in soft, squelching Arctic mud, you strain to make sense of the jumbled ridges and crags of ice which serrate the white terrain.
At some indeterminably distant point, a band of dark cloud hovers, apparently held between twin fingers of ice and sky.
The cloud marks the end of the shorebound ice, the beginnings of water – the lead which bowhead whales are following as they make their annual northwards trek from the cold waters of the Bering Sea between Siberia and Alaska to the even colder Beaufort Sea.
Strung out along the edge of the lead, waiting for the whales as they have done virtually every spring for 1,000 years, are Native Inupiat hunters for whom whales mark the centrepiece of the nutritional and cultural worlds.
When the whaling captain deems the time is right, his crew will slip their sealskin boat into the water and sidle up to the whale, ignored by their prey which perceives the boat as just another wild creature sharing its ocean.
If the crew’s skill and fortune hold out, the prize will be killed with an explosive charge, snared with harpoons and wrested back to the ice, to lose its skin, blubber and meat to the appetites of the Barrow Inupiat community.
The Alaskan Eskimo hunt is one of five permitted by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which is holding its annual meeting in Anchorage on the other side of Alaska under rules governing “aboriginal” or “subsistence” hunting.
The right is handed out to groups which, in the IWC’s view, have a nutritional and cultural need for whalemeat, and where the whale population appears sufficiently robust.
Quotas are awarded for periods of five years. Maintaining the Alaskan bowhead quota is a political imperative for the US, which is why it volunteered to host this year’s meeting and hold it as close to the Inupiat communities as possible.
“It’s the way of life for the Native Eskimos,” says US whaling commissioner Bill Hogarth.
“They use [the whales] for everything, for their whole livelihood, and they share the meat between the villages. We feel it’s extremely important for them, and so long as it meets its scientific criteria, this quota should be granted.”
That is not to say that everyone is happy with the US policy of supporting subsistence hunting as it currently exists, but blocking and condemning all other whaling.
“The US is an anti-whaling whaling nation – it hunts whales and is against whaling elsewhere,” fumes Rune Frovik from the High North Alliance, which campaigns for the rights of whalers and sealers in northern latitudes.
“This is at the outset an irreconcilable and contradictive policy, and has made the US worthy of accusations of double standards and hypocrisy.”
Similar sentiments exist in the Japanese camp, which has constantly asked that four of its coastal communities, with whaling traditions dating back hundreds if not thousands of years, also be granted quotas.
Killing me softly
Opponents argue that the Japanese coastal communities are basically modern towns. Some are involved in Japan’s current scientific whaling programme, where they hunt using modern boats and modern harpoons.
But Greenland’s indigenous hunters, unlike the Inupiat, also use modern boats and modern harpoons. They also sell some of the meat.
On the economic front, Barrow, for all its traditional lifestyle, has a per-capita income higher than the Alaskan average.
The whalemeat is not sold, but trinkets and artwork made from bone and baleen are. At the shop inside the Anchorage hotel which hosts the IWC meeting, you can pick up a statue carved from Alaskan whalebone costing $12,000 (