The Atlantic

The Native Alaskan Hunters Teaching Scientists About Whales

Utqiaġvik, Alaska, is one of the only places where whale anatomists can get specimens for research.
Source: Gregory Bull / AP

On the northernmost tip of America’s northernmost state is the city of Utqiaġvik, Alaska. Hans Thewissen, a Dutch-born whale scientist who lives in Ohio, has been making the journey up here for more than a decade—at first once a year, now multiple times a year, always to coincide with local whale hunts. Utqiaġvik is one of the only places in America where one can legally procure a piece of fresh whale brain or eyeball or ear to study.

Whales are strictly protected under U.S. law and by the International Whaling Commission. They can of course be observed from afar, but that is not much use to Thewissen, who is interested in the finer points of whale anatomy. Dead whales wash up on the land sometimes, but they are usually rotting by the time scientists get to them. “This is really the only place,” says Thewissen. Utqiaġvik, formerly known as Barrow, is the largest of 11 communities where Alaska Natives are allowed to hunt whales for subsistence,

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