Whales are mysterious creatures. Although whales are some of the largest mammals on the planet, they live almost completely out of sight. They spend their entire lives submerged, only coming to the ocean’s surface to breathe.
Some whales eat the tiniest animals by the ton, millions and millions of krill and plankton in a day. Some communicate long-distance through complex and sophisticated sounds.
There are at least 14 species of whales in Alaska, making the state a great place to enjoy watching whales and to research their behavior. This month, the University of Alaska Museum of the North is offering a variety of hands-on programs to help you learn about whales.
Museum educator Emily Koehler-Platten said it’s a good time to feature whales because it is close to the start of the spring whaling season.
“In February and March, people begin preparing the boats and equipment to go out whaling,” she said. “This activity is incredibly important to Inupiat and Yup’ik communities as a source of food and as a deep cultural tradition.”
Whales are ambassadors of the ocean. Studying whales helps us consider topics from ocean conservation to Arctic food webs, and from cultural uses of marine mammals to how museums care for specimens that take up so much space.
The UA Museum of the North cares for a number of whale-related objects. One of the biggest and most impressive is an entire humpback whale skeleton. After the animal died and washed up on shore near Anchorage, the museum team worked with a number of partners to salvage the bones and airlift them off the beach. Then, they transported the skeleton over land to the museum. Imagine driving the truck that hauled the entire whale skull on a trailer up the Parks Highway to Fairbanks. The skull alone weighed 807 pounds. Museum staff are working to prepare the bones and samples to add them to the museum’s extensive marine mammal collection, the largest in North America.
Before this whale was added to the collection, the museum did not have a complete humpback whale skeleton, although the mammals collection does have a complete beaked whale skeleton, as well as a variety of preserved whale skulls. There are also baleen plates from minke and bowhead whales in the collection, along with sperm whale teeth and even a preserved whale embryo.
Visitors can see three different whale skulls In the Gallery of Alaska. There are bowhead and gray whale skulls located in the Western Arctic Coast section. These giant bones are bigger than most adults. A small Minke whale skull, about as long as a sled dog, is on display in the Southeast section. You have to look up to see it, though. It is displayed on top of the cases.
Some of the objects in the Gallery of Alaska show what it’s like to live in a community that relies on whales for subsistence. A video display shows a crew getting ready to go hunting. You can also examine an umiak, which is a traditional boat used for whaling. There are harpoons, harpoon heads and even a whaling captain’s charm bag. The painting “Bowhead Whale Hunting” by Rusty Heurlin and the drawing “Whale Hunting” by George Ahgupuk also bring this whale culture to life.
Whales have captivated our imaginations for centuries, starring in epic novels, myths and legends. Many of the earliest residents of Alaska carved figures of whales from ivory and other materials. They also used whalebone to create unique sculptures.
Other whale-related art in the Gallery of Alaska includes an ivory sculpture of a humpback whale, whalebone masks, animal figures carved out of baleen and baleen baskets. In the Southwest section is a tobacco mortar made of a whale bone and a snuff box made of a whale tooth. In the Southeast section, there is a hat with a killer whale motif made by Anna Brown Ehlers and Steve Brown.
The Rose Berry Gallery has lots of whale art to see, from a sculpture by Earl Atchak made of whale bone to paintings by Claire Feje that depict women cutting belugas and other scenes. There are also ivory carvings of whales, a whalebone carving of a walrus, a killer whale tooth etched with a drawing and several baleen baskets.
Additionally there are archaeological objects related to whales on display, such as harpoon heads, harpoon blades and even a pair of snow goggles made of baleen. These objects show the diversity of whale art, from paintings and photographs to carvings and intricately woven baleen baskets.
In the Expeditions Alaska exhibit, on view in the museum’s Collections Gallery, visitors can look at a collection of harpoon heads ranging from those made 1,800 years ago to the present day.
“This display shows that whale hunting has been significant in Inupiaq and Yup’ik culture for a very long time,” Koehler-Platton said. “Visitors can examine how the artistic styles and designs changed over time. Archaeologists actually use harpoon head styles to date and identify archaeological sites in Alaska.”
If You Go
The UA Museum of the North, 1962 Yukon Drive, is exploring Alaska whales with hands-on programs in February. Early Explorers, for children 5 and younger, meet 10 a.m. to noon each Friday, except Feb. 16. On Family Day from noon to 4 p.m. on Feb. 10, the community is invited to meet whale researchers and see a variety of specimens. The museum will also host a whale program from 1:30-2:30 p.m. Feb. 25 at Noel Wien Library, 1215 Cowles St. Visitors can see whale specimens and art, make whale art and listen to a story about whales. For more information about the museum’s programs and events, visit www.uaf.edu/museum or call 474-7505.