ANCHORAGE - Native Alaskans say a fourth-grader may have become the youngest person to kill a whale, delivering the fatal blow to a 32-foot bowhead during a hands-on hunting lesson from his uncles.
The crew landed the whale last Tuesday as hunters approached the city of Barrow's annual quota of 22 bowheads.
His uncle and whaling crew captain, Qulliuq Pebley, says 9-year-old Paul Patkotak is the youngest whaler in memory credited with a kill. He says the youngest before Paul was a 15-year-old.
Paul's father, Ellis Patkotak, describes him as a shy kid who loves snowmobiling, playing the "Rock Band" video game and hunting.
Paul joined his uncle's crew during the city's largely unsuccessful spring whaling season. The crew came home empty-handed, but Paul proved himself.
The uncle asked Paul if he wanted to play a bigger role in the fall season. The boy said he did.
"This day we were very, very fortunate," Pebley said of landing the whale. "I gave him what he asked for because he's such a hard-working little man."
Another uncle, Pauyuuraq Brower, first harpooned the whale using a darting gun. The weapon is a harpoon with an apparatus that fires an explosive charge into the whale upon impact.
The initial blow didn't kill the whale, so Brower used a shoulder-fired rifle to launch a second explosive into it, Pebley said, but that charge did not explode.
"That's when I told him I wanted Paul to go up front and throw the harpoon in again. Put another bomb into it," Pebley said.
Paul was given a darting gun with a handle carved from a birch tree. It was about eight feet long and weighed 30 pounds when loaded, Pebley said. Paul, 9, weighs about 75 pounds.
"He's kind of a little guy but he's pretty tough for his age," Pebley said. Brower aimed the harpoon for the boy and told him when and where to throw it.
"Paul did the rest. He threw like he had been doing it for years and years," Pebley said.
The bomb exploded, killing the whale.
The whole thing took about 10 minutes, Pebley said. Butchering the bowhead lasted another three or four hours, and Paul's family received hundreds of pounds of meat, his father said.
Paul's role in the hunt drew fresh attention to Barrow whaling, and subsistence whale hunting inside and outside Alaska.
After photos of Paul and the whale were posted online earlier this week, it was copied to a social-networking site for animal welfare advocates. The story drew dozens of comments from people who called the news "disgusting" and "horrific." A few defended the traditional hunt, while others wrote personal attacks against the young hunter.
Pebley was aware of the Internet comments.
"For me it's just like everybody has a right to their own opinion," he said. "I don't judge them on their opinion. One of the values I was taught was not to judge people by what they do or say."