On Mistaking Whales | Bathsheba Demuth | Granta

On Mistaking Whales

Bathsheba Demuth

Before a gray whale becomes a home, or a barrel of oil, or a metaphor, before she enters the realm of human meaning, she is a being complete in herself. Born as most gray whales are on an early January day off northwestern Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, her mother swims upside down, tail lifted, straining up, up, and she emerges head first not into water but into the air. Two thousand pounds of smooth pewter muscle born facing the sky. For the next three months, she practices pacing her breaths, the rise to the surface that keeps her from drowning in the water that is her home. In the calm lagoons, she grows more than a ton each month.

In April, the gray whale and her mother begin traveling north. They are often in sight of land, desert scrub becoming grassland, grassland turning to redwood groves and temperate rainforest as they move up the long arc of the North American continent. Their nearshore waters are punctuated by din: the ports of Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle and Vancouver, each calling in its braided lanes of shipping traffic. In June, as they reach Unimak Pass in the Aleutian Islands, there is less clamor. They have swum more than 4,000 miles not for quiet but for the Bering Sea’s pastures of clams and tube worms below them in the muck, creatures that have rounded generations of the whale’s kin in blubber. As mother and calf scoop up the benthic riches, muddy blooms rise and trace across the sea’s surface.

In midsummer, the feeding path of the gray whale and her mother turns west toward Russia, toward good eating and shelter amid the bays and inlets of the Chukchi Peninsula. Their route meanders across the International Date Line, between today and tomorrow, yesterday and today. A demarcation as meaningless to a whale as a day – that contained pulse of light and dark – is to a human being in the endless sun of an Arctic summer.

In one such Arctic summer, I go to Chukotka, crossing the Date Line to the Bering Sea to look for whales. A historian by training, I had for several years been gathering records about gray whales and their meanings: Indigenous Yupik and Chukchi histories transcribed in St Petersburg; whalers’ logbooks in New Bedford, Massachusetts; Soviet economic plans on onion-skin paper in Vladivostok; the minutes of International Whaling Commission meetings in Washington DC. I spent that time imagining a whale, the contours of her life. Arriving in Chukotka, what I have are fragments. I am here, in the easternmost region of Russia, out of a kind of compulsive hope that in visiting the origin of these fragments, the place that has hosted centuries of varying relations between my species and the gray whale, I might find the line of a story. I am on the dawn-land edge of Eurasia looking for the plot.

I have a temporary apartment in Provideniya, a Soviet-era concrete town in the middle of Beringia National Park, its bays and beaches thick with whales and whaling sites. Seeing them is not simple. Alaska is close enough to be visible from points along this coast, so the Russian government considers all 737,700 square kilometers of the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug to be a border zone. Foreigners can travel here only with a propusk, a pass stamped by the governor and the Federal Security Service, or FSB. My propusk lists whether I have a curfew and what settlements I can visit. I also require minding; for anything further afield than a stroll, I am supervised by Nikolai Ettyne, a park guide. He makes our plans based on the weather and places in the park he has the vehicles and need to go. Or to avoid; one plan was scrapped because thousands of walruses had hauled themselves out onto the beach we were to see, and our presence might have caused them to stampede, crushing their young in a panicked heave toward the safety of the sea.

On a morning with fast-moving clouds and no rain, Nikolai collects me at my apartment. He is Chukchi, his ancestors native to this peninsula for generations, but not from here, he explains, as he was born 160 kilometers north in Lavrentiya. So it is good to travel with locals. Today, Alexei comes with us, driving the park’s Trekol. It is clear, once we are outside town, why we need the vehicle’s four-foot tires. Our way is along a narrow lake held by parallel ridges, their lichen-dark tops snow-boned, with barely a track ahead and no gentling of the incline where hill becomes lake. Americans, Alexei explains as water splashes over our hood, make roads. Russians make vehicles that do not require roads.

After a jolting hour, Alexei turns east. The Bering Sea is immediately on our left, the lake to the right; once, I think, the lake was a fjord, open to the sea, but the waves chose over some years to close the mouth with sand. Ahead is a low grassy hill, radiant green and rippling silver where the wind flips over the larkspur leaves. Clusters of beams rise pale and weathered. I take them to be wood, the edges worn ovoid and organic, but the beams are arrayed with the kind of order that marks to the eye things made by people.

As we walk up among them, I see that the beams were born. Slipped into the sea as the internal architecture of whales. The largest, ribs wide as I am, grew inside bowheads, the smaller come from grays. As we walk among them, I can see the bones are the ceilings of half-underground spaces. Many are sunk now below the larkspurs and monkshood, their sentinel ribs fallen to earth. These were houses, Nikolai says. This was the village of Eunmyn, that’s the Chukchi name. In Yupik, they call it Avan.

Avan: a name I know from libraries. People have made houses from whale along the Bering Strait for thousands of years; the practice is more recent in Avan, starting perhaps a millennia ago. Over the subsequent centuries, waves of inhabitants, drawn to this place because of its vantage for hunting whales, left strata of tools and dwellings. At a museum in St Petersburg, I saw photographs from the 1920s, when this was a Yupik settlement. The Avatmiit, the Yupik of Avan, lived in walrus-hide tents, not these bone homes, and did not trace their ancestry to the builders. When Vasilii Ankatagin, born here in 1924 or 1925, gave an account of Avan to anthropologist Igor Krupnik in the 1970s, he described it as ‘a good place: good hunting, many sea animals, fish, birds. To live here was good.’

There is a thrumming life still, among the houses where Vasilii must have run as a child, trampling the grasses as we do, hearing peregrine falcons keen as they ride the thermals high above. Perhaps he also touched the old whale bone, feeling how pliant it is with age. Or perhaps the sense of retained memories echoing up from these pits was too acute. I approach one house by crawling on my belly to peer down. In the dimness, the pale heavy brow of a whale’s skull holds back the earth. A bone wall. The people who lived here lived in the heads of whales.

In twenty-first-century New England, the time and place that I live, whales are usually the subject of awe and benevolence. I have had neighbors tell me they love them, sentiments that do not require regular observation or even the precision of a species. Here whales have been homes. A practical space, shelter and host to meals and births and deaths. Host to the least abstract kinds of love. Familial, romantic, parental. Here whales have made those intimacies, by giving people the capacity to live.

I pick myself up and walk with Nikolai down to the gray sandy beach. The sea, which is constrained less and less each year by the tempering presence of sea ice, is eroding the embankment that separates Avan from the water, exposing the skull foundations of another house. At my feet are pieces of bone. Some were clearly tools, things worked by human hands. Among them, incongruously bright, is a Yoplait yogurt container, the English on the sea-worn plastic still legible: fat-free strawberry.

We turn and look for whale spouts. You can tell the species by their plumes of breath, Nikolai tells me. Gray whales exhale in heart-shapes. The horizon is a clean line between blue-green water and a sky purpling with more rain. We see no whales.

I had seen whales on my way to Provideniya, the week before. I was in Nikolai’s village, Lavrentiya, waiting for the Kapitan Sotnikov, a small cargo ship heading for Provideniya, to set off. Young men in jeans and black windbreakers lashed bags of reindeer antlers onto the deck. Gathered from the inland herds and bound for China, Gena Zelensky told me. I had known Gena for some years; he is a master of Chukotkan logistics, fixer of my propusk and first port of call if things go awry. And they had. My plan was to fly straight to Provideniya from the regional capital of Anadyr, but there was an issue with my ticket – the sort of Russian bureaucratic problem that is never clear except in its outcome – and no empty seats for weeks. Gena improvised: I could go via Lavrentiya, where he lives in the summer, then take the Kapitan Sotnikov thirteen hours down the coast.

Lavrentiya was not listed on my propusk, however. As we waited for the ship, two plainclothes men from the security services asked me questions. We spoke in Russian. They mentioned my husband by name, casually, but also to make clear they knew things about me, things written in a file somewhere that I had not told them. After they left, Gena grumbled: what do they think you’re going to do, steal the damn reindeer? Spy on the whales?

That evening I climbed from the diesel-scented passenger area of the Kapitan Sotnikov, in search of a horizon. The view through the portholes kept moving up and sideways or down and backward, leaving my stomach in transit between. I tried focusing on the flat-screen television playing a dubbed version of Air Force One on a continual loop, which was worse. On deck the cold wind knocked me breathless but took the nausea with it. The evening was silvery, the late sun filtering through low clouds and breaking through, here and there, in streamers of light.

I thought about the FSB men. A century and a half ago, a person in Chukotka from New England was a kind of robber. They sailed from New Bedford and Nantucket and other port cities to skin the fat off of whales and refine it into lamp oil. The want for light decimated Atlantic whales, sending hunters to harrow the Pacific. In 1845, commercial ships reached Baja California, where gray whales give birth in sheltered inlets each winter, the southerly reach of a migration that brings them north to the Bering Sea in summer. Gray whales gave little oil, of poor quality. But whalers were paid their share of a voyage’s take only after its sale back in port. Every hand aboard knew the fastest way home was through killing any animal they could. So they lowered their small boats with the long harpoons into the nursery lagoons.

Within a few years, the whalers’ pursuit of oil trailed the grays north to the Bering Sea. Gray whales learned that the ships brought danger and attacked their tormenters. Whalers feared and hated them for it, calling them devil fish or scrags. In waters not far from the Kapitan Sotnikov’s route, one ship’s mate described ‘chasing devil fish’ only to have ‘the head of the boat knocked off’. So many meetings between whales and people took place in which the singular experience was terror. For such people, the meaning of a whale was reduced to present injury risked for future profit. And for the whale? As seen from the surface by her killers, she raged.

It did not stop the slaughter. Thirty years on from the first commercial kill, there were perhaps 4,400 gray whales left to migrate between Baja and the Bering Sea. The sea floor was littered with thousands of bones that never became houses. New England sailors did not even eat much whale. Many judged the Yupik and Chukchi who did as lacking ‘habits of industry’, as one captain wrote, in part because they killed few whales and did not sell the blubber. But the commercial fleet was aware that whale was to Chukotkans what grain was to New Englanders. In New Bedford newspapers, ship captains castigated themselves for the famines they had caused, for how commercial slaughter was ‘taking bread out of [Yupik and Chukchi] mouths’.

On the deck of the Kapitan Sotnikov, I watched three crepuscular sunbeams touch the rocking surface. In the shadows between, a back rose and split wide the sea in blasting exhale. A second followed. A mother gray and calf, by their sizes, and distinct from humpbacks or bowheads for having no dorsal fins. They were two of the nearly 27,000 gray whales then alive, descendants of those who survived being known by commerce.

What is it Herman Melville wrote? Quoting Daniel Webster, early in Moby-Dick: whalers added ‘largely every year to the National wealth by the boldest and most persevering industry’. Melville had spent long enough in the gore and fear of whaling ships that the quote was ironic, but not untrue; he knew how in New England, on streets lit by blubber, remorseless havoc was made into a story of triumph. Light by which to read an American plot of progress.

The whales swam for a time in and out of the luminescence, pooling and dispersing on the water, the tips of the small waves shattering into fragments of light.

Bathsheba Demuth

Bathsheba Demuth is an Assistant Professor of History and Environment and Society at Brown University, and the author of Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait, which has won a number of prizes. Her writing has appeared in publications ranging from the American Historical Review to the New Yorker.

Photograph © Peter Goldberg

More about the author →