Barrow whalers share harvest with English town

Bones sent to former whaling community in England to replace deteriorating arches

Posted: Friday, March 22, 2002

ANCHORAGE - Two of the largest jawbones in creation left Anchorage on Thursday morning, destined for an English city where they'll become an arch of friendship, shared history and cultural exchange.

The bowhead whale bones - each 17 feet long and about 395 pounds - link the North Slope city of Barrow and its whaling culture to the old North Sea port of Whitby, a major English whaling center of the 19th century.

The connecting thread loops through Anchorage, a Sister City of Whitby. President Bush secured the knot. Several airlines are paying the freight.

On Wednesday, in an Alaska Airlines Air Cargo warehouse at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, none of the red tape and international treaties that for 18 months complicated this simple gift were apparent.

Instead, there were the bones - immense curved spears fastened side-by-side on a bunch of wooden pallets and padded by shrink-wrap. The plastic sheathing was torn in places, so a person could touch the bones - rock-hard beneath a thin layer of greasy brown gunk.

The bones come from a whale taken in the 1996 fall hunt by a Barrow whaling captain, Don Nungasak. For a long time the bones lay on a beach where the whale was butchered, he said.

Then an appeal came from Whitby: Its famous whale-bone arch, donated in 1960 by Norway, was deteriorating and replacements were needed, said Chris Kennedy of the Anchorage Sister Cities Commission.

The Whitby arch, Kennedy said, honors William Scoresby (1760-1829), a Whitby seaman and one of the world's most successful whalers. It also honors Scoresby's son, William (1789-1857). He was an explorer and a pioneering scientist of the Arctic who urged conservation of northern whales, Kennedy said.

Whitby also was the home base of the great explorer, Capt. James Cook. Cook (1728-1779) was the first European known to have sailed up the Southcentral Alaska inlet that bears his name.

Inupiat communities of the North Slope generally don't erect whalebone arches like Whitby's, although an arch of bowhead jawbones stands as a kind of gateway to a Point Hope burial ground, said Arlene Glenn, liaison officer of the borough's Commission on Inupiat History, Language and Culture.

It used to be the case that during the spring hunt, the bones were left out on the ice or dropped into the ocean.

"That's supposed to somehow signify the whale's spirit still lives, and more whales in the future will be harvested," Glenn said.

Nungasak called it "a traditional way of saying thank you and come back again."

When members of the Anchorage Sister Cities Commission contacted North Slope Borough wildlife officials in Barrow, seeking a pair of jawbones for Whitby, they learned about the remains of Nungasak's whale. Borough officials asked the whaler if they could clean up the bones and give them to Whitby. Nungasak agreed.

The bowhead, however, is an endangered species and a marine mammal protected by treaty. Bowhead parts generally can't be traded or transported. At least a half-dozen American and British permits were needed to ship the bones, Kennedy said.

Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens inserted a provision in a bill that President Bush signed into law in November. It allows for the shipment of one pair of bowhead jawbones to Whitby, England, Kennedy said.

Air Cargo Express of Fairbanks shipped the bones from Barrow to Anchorage, and Alaska Airlines is taking them to Seattle. Neither company is charging a fee. Cargolux International Airlines will fly them from Seattle to Scotland at a reduced rate paid by the Sister Cities Commission.

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