Every spring Inupiaq hunters camp on the sea ice north of the Arctic Circle, in hopes of capturing a bowhead whale to share with their village. But as global warming accelerates ice melt, it threatens the tribe’s 4,000-year-old tradition. National Geographic photographer Kiliii Yuyan recounts the five years he spent documenting these whale hunters, including one harrowing experience when the sea ice groaned—and then collapsed underneath them.
KILIII YUYAN (PHOTOGRAPHER): An ivu is an amazing word for something terrifying. It is when the pack ice that is floating on the other side of the ocean gets pushed by the wind, and it comes in, and it impacts the ice that we're standing on.
PETER GWIN (HOST): This is photographer Kiliii Yuyan.
In 2018 he was on his first National Geographic assignment, north of the Arctic Circle, near Utqiagvik, Alaska.
He was documenting the bowhead whale-hunting rituals of the Inupiaq people.
And to do this, he camped with the Native hunters for weeks on Arctic ice—where temperatures stay below freezing and there’s nothing but ice and sea for miles.
YUYAN: There was one whaling season when we happened to put our camp on a place where we knew that the ice was a little bit unstable—that there was a crack in the ice between the land and where we were.
GWIN: So Kiliii shared the story of this journey and other adventures with our senior editor, Eli Chen.
Hey, Eli. Welcome to the microphone. We're dragging you from behind your editor's desk and throwing you in the mix here. This sounds like a crazy story.
ELI CHEN (EDITOR): Yeah, it is, Peter. So that day Kiliii had been camping with a whaling crew on sea ice, of all places.
GWIN: Yeah, this sounds really dicey.
CHEN: Oh totally. I mean, Kiliii is thrilled to be there, but all sorts of things can go wrong.
YUYAN: And so we kind of always had someone going back and forth to check on this little crack in the ice and make sure that we weren't going to crack off and just float away somewhere, which definitely happens.
GWIN: Yeah, total nightmare scenario. So how do you even prepare yourself for an adventure like this?
CHEN: Well, one of the things the crew did was sleep fully dressed every night, in case of an emergency.
One night, it was Kiliii’s turn to keep a lookout for any ivus. And that’s when he heard rumbling.
(Snow machine engine)
YUYAN: And one of our guys came down racing on a snow machine, and he came up and he was like, We gotta go. We gotta go right now. And I knew right away, like, OK, this is the time.
GWIN: OK, how does an ivu happen?
CHEN: Well, the way an ivu happens is kind of like plate tectonics.
One plate of ice that could be several miles wide and many meters thick slowly moves and hits another plate of ice. Kiliii says that can buckle all that ice in as far in as three miles.
YUYAN: So we have to get off of that ice as fast as possible.
CHEN: Kiliii woke the captain, and the entire crew rushed to gather all of their belongings into their skin boat—and that took about 15 minutes. But what was really memorable for Kiliii was how the ice felt under his feet.
YUYAN: And what was really creepy about that moment was that as we were packing everything up, I suddenly felt it. I felt this like this thing that was unsettling, and I didn't quite know what it was at first. And then I realized what it was, was that the piece of ice that we were standing on was bobbing up and down—like it no longer felt like solid ground the way it normally feels. But it felt like, oh, we're floating on something—and that’s the really unsettling feeling.
CHEN: That’s crazy. What was going through your mind at the time?
YUYAN: You know, it was a bummer that I couldn't film it really. You know, I mean, like this is—the moment is happening. This incredibly dangerous moment. I was thinking, Gosh, when things are going wrong, that's when you need to have the camera out. That's when you're photographing, because these are the things that are happening that are real, that people don't get a chance to experience and understand what it is. But I also knew absolutely that the number one priority was making sure that we were all safe, and that the gear was safe, and that, you know, like the captain would toss me off the crew in a second if he saw me taking a picture instead of working on everything.
CHEN: I’m Eli Chen, and you’re listening to Overheard at National Geographic, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.
This week, a photographer shares what he experienced over five years while camping on sea ice with native Arctic whale hunters, and how climate change is increasingly becoming a threat to the lives of these hunters—and could forever change their ancient traditions.
More after this.
CHEN: Every spring, the ice that stretches from the North Pole all the way to Alaska cracks and melts, and gives way to the ocean.
When that happens, the Inupiaq do what they’ve done for thousands of years.
Men and women head out to where the ice meets the sea and look for bowhead whales, as they begin their migration from the Bering Sea to the Canadian Arctic.
The black-bodied whales have triangle-shaped heads that they use to break through the ice. And they can live up to 200 years, making them one of the longest living mammals in the world.
And when they spot the whales, hunting crews set out on umiaks—long boats made of animal hide—in hopes of catching bowhead whales.
YUYAN: I love being out. I'll like wake up at 10 p.m. and then be up through the night.
CHEN: Kiliii spent collectively 10 months over five years with these whaling crews. He often volunteered to be the night watch—keeping an eye out for ivus and other threats. The skies are often overcast, but during the spring, it’s light out all through the night.
YUYAN: The light is glorious and it's beautiful. It's like sunset for several hours of the day, because it's 24-hour light. And I wake up, and I just go out and I sit down at the windbreak, which is basically one of the sleds put on tops of big blocks of ice.
CHEN: It’s mostly quiet, until the wildlife start to sing.
YUYAN: And then I hear the bowhead whales going off in the distance. [makes whale sounds.] You know, coming up, and then I can hear the eiders flying by—de de de de de de de de la—as they migrate by. And I just like after a while, I kind of on those really good days, I just sort of lose myself. I don't know where I end and the sea ice begins, you know, it's all just one continuous thing that's happening.
CHEN: The hunters also listen for wildlife in the water. Kiliii would watch a co-captain of the crew stick a wooden paddle in the water and plant the end of the paddle to his ear to listen for sounds of whales.
YUYAN: You hear this deep drooooooning sound like a deep male opera singer, kind of. And it just goes on, and it's very slow. And then there's the bearded seals who are singing, who are almost like sort of like pop singers [makes seal noise] like it's very flighty and full of different ups and downs and it’s really quick.
(Bearded seals singing)
CHEN: Access to fruits and vegetables is extremely limited in northern Alaska, so the Inupiaq heavily depend on maktak—or whale skin and blubber—for essential vitamins and nutrients. Their diet also includes seals, walruses, and other Arctic animals. So the Inupiaq people learn how to hunt in childhood.
YUYAN: A lot of my Inupiaq friends, they'll say that the ocean is our garden, because all the food in the form of marine mammals and animals that, you know, come from the ocean.
CHEN: The whale also feeds them spiritually. It’s so central to their culture that every spring, they hold a festival where everyone in the community gets a share of the maktak. And for three days, they sing traditional songs, dance, tell stories, and celebrate what the whale has given them.
How many whales might these hunters capture in a season?
YUYAN: The village of Utqiaġvik normally gets around six or seven whales in the season. It can vary a lot.
CHEN: But Kiliii says the Arctic environment has changed drastically in recent years, and that’s had a real impact on whale hunting. He says last year was the first season where no one caught any using a traditional skin boat—they had to use a motor boat to catch them.
YUYAN: And that was a really big deal. That was an enormous deal because no one understood why the whales weren't coming. As it turns out, it's probably climate change-related because the ice had receded so much.
CHEN: Arctic ice has been melting at alarming rates because of rising global temperatures. And the increasing ice melt means more open water up in the Arctic and more distance between the ice and the whales.
YUYAN: So they weren't getting close enough for it for the hunters to access. So that turns out to be a big problem because those whales feed a lot of people.
CHEN: When the crew sees a whale, they’ll rush from the ice into their boat, row right up to the whale, and spear it using harpoons.
Then they’ll tie a rope around its tail and tow it back to the village. Once they get there, they have to pull this whale ashore—an animal that can weigh more than 60 tons.
(Sounds of Inupiaqs pulling the whale up onto the ice)
YUYAN: There is about 50 people pulling on it with a rope that goes through a series of pulleys, and the bulk of the whale is still in the ocean.
Kiliii saw this tug of war between about 50 people and one huge whale.
And while people are trying to pull the whale, sheets of ice will break off from under them, under the sheer pressure of the whale’s weight.
YUYAN: So that's really not good, because that means every time the whale breaks through and breaks chunks of ice, that means we lose hours of work, because it takes hours and hours and hours to pull up a whale with all of these people and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to get the whale up.
CHEN: The crew will try their best to find a thick body of ice to pull the whale on but...
YUYAN: Sea ice is so thin now that it's really hard to find any place to pull up the whales at all.
CHEN: Kiliii knows that whale hunting can be a touchy subject, especially with the general public.
YUYAN: Like I see in my Instagram comments. And I know that when I talk about whaling, that for non-Indigenous people, the first thing they think of is, Oh my God, how can you guys be hunting whales, these beautiful creatures, when there's so few whales left?
CHEN: Kiliii says the Inupiaq have hunted bowhead whales for so long that they have tactics for hunting them without overharvesting them.
YUYAN: The Inupiaq know which ones are pregnant females and they won't hunt those. There's a strong taboo on that. And they know which ones to chase down and how to hunt, what seasons to hunt. And they do things like hunt from traditional skin boats to make sure the take isn’t too large, etcetera.
CHEN: But commercial whaling that started in the 18th century and lasted until the early 20th century decimated the bowhead whale population.
The International Whaling Commission then tried to ban Alaskan Native bowhead whaling in 1977. And the Inupiaq fought for the right to hunt and manage their own bowhead whale population.
Kiliii says that the population rose after the Inupiaq began managing it.
YUYAN: The bowhead whale population has literally tripled in the last 40 years. It's an amazing, amazing feat. And now Inupiaq are known as the poster children for Indigenous traditional knowledge.
CHEN: The Inupiaq want to protect the species to preserve their ancient culture and ensure that the whales will be around for their children and many generations after that.
YUYAN: Conserving the land is all about having a relationship with the things in it. And if we don't have our hands in the water, if we don't have our hands on the wildlife, you know, if we aren't deeply engaged, if they're not feeding us—you know, literally feeding us—then we forget about them.
CHEN: So as we’ve established, trying to catch a whale is hard work. And on top of that, the Inupiaq hunters also have to deal with another major threat—one that’s gotten worse in recent years.
YUYAN: Do you want to hear about the polar bear attack? CHEN: Sure.
YUYAN: It’s a good one.
CHEN: Yeah, tell me about the polar bear attack.
So just to set up this story: Kiliii’s on his first trip with an Inupiaq whaling crew. They’d spent a pretty exhausting week chopping down ice mountains—the ice is full of them—and they'd made their way to the edge of the ice sheet to set up camp.
YUYAN: We get there and everyone's relaxing for the first moment of time.
CHEN: But even when you’re tired, you have to stay vigilant.
YUYAN: And then all of a sudden I hear, “Nanuq! nanuq!,” which means polar bear in Inupiaq. When I heard that, like, I could just sort of feel all of my senses, like snap into sharp relief. I was like, Oh my God, something is happening big time, you know? And my first thought was, Oh gosh, there's a polar bear out there—do I have the right lens on?
CHEN: Kiliii and the other members of the crew didn’t see the polar bear at first—they looked all over the horizon for it.
YUYAN: And then I see it all of a sudden, and it's right there. And I realize that I've been looking like out on the horizon, and it's not on the horizon. It's way closer. It's less than 15 yards away from us, which is very close. That is way too close for a massive predator like that.
CHEN: The polar bear looked like it was going to charge at them. Kiliii remembers one crew member next to him searching through his pockets.
YUYAN: He's got a rifle in his hand and the bullet—you know, the chamber is empty. He's looking around for bullets, but there's no bullets in any of his—he's got no ammo in any of his pockets or anything.
CHEN: And then another crew member—a hunter named Makalik—sprang into action.
YUYAN: And he has grabbed his rifle and spun around 180 degrees and taken a shot before he's even stopped moving. And this polar bear—which is in mid-motion—just collapses to the ground and skids forward.
CHEN: Makalik hit the bear right in the spine, killing it immediately.
YUYAN: My heart is racing, of course, and we're waiting, and the polar bear is just lying there, not moving or anything, but everyone knows that it's still dangerous.
CHEN: The crew throws some blocks of ice at the bear—just to make sure it’s dead. Then they go over to inspect it.
YUYAN: And one of the things that was surprising to me was when we opened its mouth, you could see that of the four canine teeth—these giant, these massive, like human thumb- sized teeth—that two of the four were broken and they had cavities.
CHEN: Kiliii says the cavities indicate that the bear is old or diseased. The men also noticed it was really skinny. And they wondered why the polar bear was there.
YUYAN: A nanuq is not a stupid animal. They would never attack a group of men like that, even though it's this large, massive predator, because the animals in the wild, they don't take chances. They don't take risks. They have to know that they're not going to get injured in the process.
CHEN: So they followed the bear’s tracks in the snow.
YUYAN: And what we found was even more chilling, actually.
CHEN: Basically, they traced the nanuq’s steps back to an area where two crewmen had been repairing snow machines. It looked like the bear positioned itself to attack the men. But just then, they had finished repairs and headed back to rejoin the crew.
YUYAN: So the polar bear had seen that. You could try to see its pacing around a little bit, trying to figure out what to do.
CHEN: Then it crept to where there were a bunch of giant boulders big enough for it to hide.
YUYAN: You know, it would walk for a little bit, then it would crawl for a little bit until it got so close that it was right underneath us, you know, which is an amazing thing.
CHEN: These conflicts between polar bears and people are happening so often now that they’ve become a part of life for people in the Arctic.
That’s in large part due to climate change melting the ice that seals and other animals depend on.
When the ice retreats in the summer, bears will follow the ice and the seals that live on it. They’ll travel hundreds of miles to stay near their food source. But catching a seal in open water is more difficult than catching one on ice.
So when prey is hard to find, the nanuq come after people.
YUYAN: If anyone goes anywhere, you have to have a rifle.
CHEN: That includes the teenage boys on the whaling crews.
YUYAN: You never go more than 30 yards away from the tent or from another person, even to take a poop, because really, you know, there's a very good chance that a polar bear’s right behind an ice boulder that you were walking towards, and it will grab you and you will be dead before anyone can help you.
CHEN: More after this.
When you make it back home after fleeing collapsing sea ice, surviving attacks from polar bears, and towing home a massive whale, it’s time to celebrate.
YUYAN: The whaling festival called Nalukataq is—it's just an amazing thing. It's the moment in time when it becomes really clear that whale hunting isn't just about eating the food, but that it's very much about the gift of the whale.
(Trampoline jumping sounds)
CHEN: Everyone gets their share of the whale meat. And for multiple days, they sing, dance, and jump on the traditional trampoline.
Dozens of Inupiaq people will hold a blanket that’s made of seal, walrus, or whale—and they’ll hold it taut to turn it into a trampoline.
It’s tradition for the whaling captain and his wife to jump first. Then people will take turns, jumping as high as 20, 30 feet in the air.
(Inupiaq villagers counting and sending people into the air)
CHEN: Kiliii says it’s scenes like this that showed him what story he was really there to tell.
YUYAN: You know, I came in thinking that this would be a great story about whaling and the whale hunt and realized eventually that what it was really about was community, about how community comes together and about the relationship between the bowhead whale and the Inupiaq people.
CHEN: It’s worth mentioning that Kiliii has a personal connection to Indigenous people.
Could you talk about why you’re drawn to Native communities and telling stories about them?
YUYAN: Yeah, I think in a lot of ways, the biggest draw for me is wanting to get something back that I had lost.
CHEN: Kiliii is Chinese-American and Nainai, or Siberian Native.
During the Communist Revolution, Kiliii’s parents fled China for the United States.
YUYAN: With the Communist revolution in China, that really kind of took away my homeland from my parents and myself. You know, we were forced to migrate and forced to leave. My parents were refugees, which is the story of so many, so many East Asian people. And so for me, going to these Indigenous communities is a way for me to feel like I was getting a part of that back.
CHEN: His name, Kiliii, is also connected to folklore. As a kid, Kiliii grew up hearing mythical stories told to him by his grandmother, who grew up with the Nainai tribe. These are hunter-gatherers who live alongside the Heilong Jiang River, which separates China and Russia.
One of these stories was about a hero named Kiliii, a man who could transform into an orca whale.
YUYAN: I think to myself, Gosh, why did I become so interested in hunting and fishing and being out on the land and interested in people who were living so close in that relationship. And that's absolutely due to my grandmother just sort of filling my head with all these cool stories, which I think as a kid really swept me away.
CHEN: Killi says many stories about Indigenous people are told through a Western Euro-centric lens, which may not take into account cultural differences and the ways they affect how a journalist reports a story.
YUYAN: And one of those things is permission. You know, in Western culture, for the most part, you have the ability—you can do anything you want to unless told otherwise. But for Indigenous communities, it's the other way around. You really don't have permission to do anything unless you've been specifically allowed to. So it's a huge difference in the way that things work.
CHEN: Most news organizations—including National Geographic—have a policy of notcompensating interview subjects. But the Inupiaq culture operates on a gift economy, so Kiliii has made sure to give something in return to the people he’s documented.
YUYAN: It is important to acknowledge that when they're sharing of themselves and sharing their stories and sharing their culture and family lineage, that's respected—and you understand that that's a real, true contribution. So the thing that I do is I try to make sure that anyone I take a portrait of gets a print in the mail. No matter where it is they live, I always make sure to send them that. And if I tell someone that I'm going to send them a picture, I do.
CHEN: And Kiliii says news publications often will parachute a reporter into an Indigenous community for a very brief amount of time. He says journalists need to spend months and years to build trust with Native people.
YUYAN: Even though I have Indigenous ancestry, that doesn't mean that I understand what's going on in the community either. But at least I know well enough to spend a lot of time in a place, to be really open-minded and to try to understand that the culture that I am learning about and spend weeks, months there to finally get in to be able, to put on a pair of goggles that allows me to see from, say, like the Inupiaq point of view.
CHEN: And that’s why he spent years with the Inupiaq.
YUYAN: So when you come back, it shows to people that you are actually committed, that you really want to be there, you really want to share the story. And it becomes this magical thing. When people see you again, they're like, Oh, hey, I know you. You're my friend. You know, let's hang out together. And also that happens to be the best part of the job—is just hanging out with people, getting to spend time with them and living, you know, just that part of living, which is really wonderful. I love that part of it.
CHEN: More after this.
If you’d like to learn more about bowhead whales and even hear their songs, we have a story in our show notes featuring recordings of their wild sounds.
We also have more in-depth coverage on the challenges facing polar bears in the Arctic.
To see Kiliii’s stunning photography and short film about the Inupiaq people and their whale hunting traditions, Nat Geo subscribers can check them out in an online story titled, “Meet the Bowhead Whale Hunters of Northern Alaska.”
You can also follow Kiliii on Instagram @kiliiiyuyan where you can see amazing portraits he’s taken of Native people, wildlife and—maybe my favorite thing—kayaks that he built himself.
That’s all in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.
Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Laura Sim, Brian Gutierrez, Jacob Pinter, Carla Wills, and Ilana Strauss.
Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.
Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer.
Our copy editor is Amy Kolczak.
Hansdale Hsu sound-designed and engineered this episode. He also composed our theme music.
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funds the work of National Geographic Storytelling Grantee Kiliii Yuyan.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences. Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.
And I’m your host and senior editor, Eli Chen. Thanks for listening and see you all next time.
Learn more about bowhead whales and hear their recordings of their wild sounds.
And take a look at our in-depth coverage on the challenges facing polar bears in the Arctic.
To see Kiliii’s stunning photography and short film about the Inupiaq people and their whale hunting traditions, Nat Geo subscribers can check them out in an online story, titled “Meet the Bowhead Whale Hunters of Northern Alaska.”
You can also follow Kiliii on Instagram where you can see amazing portraits he’s taken of native people, wildlife and kayaks that he built himself.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The episode has been corrected to clarify that 2020 was the first year that the Inupiaq did not catch any bowhead whales using a traditional skin boat and that the Inupiaq word, muktuk, refers to whale skin with blubber attached. An earlier version of the transcript also misspelled the name of the hunter who shot the polar bear.