The Mystery of Alaska’s Disappearing Whales

This story originally appeared in Undark and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

When Roswell Schaeffer Sr. was 8 years old, his father decided it was about time he started learning to hunt beluga whales. Schaeffer was an Iñupiaq kid growing up in Kotzebue, a small city in northwest Alaska, where a healthy store of beluga meat was part of making it through the winter. Each summer, thousands of these small white whales migrated to Kotzebue Sound, and hunts were an annual tradition. Whale skin and blubber, or muktuk, was prized, not only as a form of sustenance and a trading commodity, but also because of the spiritual value of sharing the catch with the community.

Now, nearly seven decades later, Schaeffer is one of only a few hunters who still spend the late weeks of spring, just after the ice has melted, on Kotzebue Sound, waiting for belugas to arrive. Many people have switched to hunting bearded seals, partly out of necessity: There simply aren’t enough belugas to sustain the community anymore.

In the 1980s, Kotzebue Sound’s beluga population began to dwindle, from thousands to hundreds, and then to the dozens or fewer that visit the region now. Kotzebue is not alone. Although some stocks are healthy, beluga numbers have fallen off in around a half-dozen regions over the last 50 years. Decades ago, hunting, commercial whaling, and other influences pushed the whales toward the brink. Now, even after hunting has ceased in some places, stresses such as climate change, increased ship traffic, and chemical pollutants are a gathering storm that threatens to finish the job.

But some scientists think that understanding how the whales respond to these stresses could end up being as important as understanding the stresses themselves. Belugas, like chimpanzees, birds, humans, and many other animals, create cultures by passing knowledge and customs from one generation to the next. With climate change and other human activities reshaping the world at an alarming rate, belugas will likely have to rely on innovative cultural practices to adapt—genetic adaptation is simply too slow to keep up.

Cultural practices can become rote, however, and just like humans, other animals can hold onto traditions long after they’ve stopped making sense. One key question, according to Greg O’Corry-Crowe, a behavioral ecologist at Florida Atlantic University, is: Will culture carry the whales through?

“When the change is so seismic, maybe, and so rapid, you’re trying to look for the innovators and the pioneers among the social conservatives,” O’Corry-Crowe said. At the same time, Indigenous people like Schaeffer are facing their own quandary. Continuing to hunt belugas may hurt the whales’ chance of rebounding, but if Indigenous groups give up the practice, they could lose knowledge that’s helped sustain them in the Arctic for thousands of years.

Philosophers and scientists have long suggested that animals can learn. But even in the early 2000s, scientists debated the idea that animals accumulate knowledge over generations. One animal that helped popularize that notion is the killer whale.