ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Gordon Brower has been hunting bowhead whales for most of his 47 years, forgoing lifejackets because no one made them in white, the only color that works as camouflage on Alaska's icy arctic coast.
Now the whaling captain from the nation's northernmost town of Barrow and other Eskimo whalers have begun to wear personal flotation devices, custom-made in the white they've traditionally used to make them more invisible to their massive prey.
When the subsistence whaling season arrives this spring, more Alaska Native hunters from coastal villages will be outfitted with the white "float coats" being distributed through a safety program that debuted last year.
The program handed out more than 50 coats in its first year and will provide nearly 100 this spring. A couple dozen whalers also will receive white float pants.
Brower's crew was among the first to try the coats. On their initial trek with the new gear, the crew even landed a 30-ton bowhead.
"Everything kind of lined up in a straight line and the stars were with us, and we got a whale," he said, noting the only glitch with the coats is the noise they make in extremely cold weather. "Other than that, I think they work pretty good. We were happy to use them."
The coats are the result of efforts by the Coast Guard, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and Burnaby, British Columbia-based Mustang Survival Corp., which makes flotation and extreme-climate protection products.
They have a nylon shell and buoyant foam filling, which also offers protection from the Arctic's frigid conditions.
Mike Folkerts, a recreational boating safety specialist with the Coast Guard, was participating in a mission to Barrow in 2009 when he noticed the town's main grocery and general store had no lifejackets for sale. Local whalers told him lifejackets were too bright and would scare away the animals. He asked if they would wear the jackets if they were available in white. The hunters said sure.
Folkerts called a couple of companies, including Mustang, which sent prototype samples. He then showed the samples to the whalers.
"They loved them," Folkerts said.
While lifejackets must be on board, there is no federal or state requirement to wear them in recreational boats, unless a person is younger than 13, he said.
The Coast Guard can't buy equipment to give to the public, so Folkerts turned to the tribal health consortium. The organization tapped $12,000 of its own funds and ordered 52 coats from Mustang, distributing them among whalers in Barrow and two other villages.
It was an apt connection.
One of the consortium's areas of interest is reducing the disproportionate rate of drownings among Alaska Natives.
Between 2000 and 2006, Alaska Natives accounted for 179 drowning deaths in the state, or 45 percent of the 402 such deaths in that period, although they represented less than 18 percent of Alaska's population at the time, according to Hillary Strayer, the consortium's injury prevention specialist.
Folkerts maintains drowning deaths are a rarity among whalers, who are extremely safety-conscious.
But Brower has seen his share of tipped boats over the years. He noted his canoe is only 24 feet long, while whales can be more than twice that, and average a ton per foot.
"Once in a great while, somebody has lost their lives," he said. "The potential is always there, especially when you are attempting to harvest a whale and the animal is a big animal."
Bowheads — blue-black baleen whales with massive heads and layers of blubber up to 2 feet thick — live only in the Arctic and are harvested by Alaska Natives living along the coasts of the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas. They are an essential food source for the area's Native communities, which view hunting the whales as a cornerstone of their cultural identity.
As far as Strayer is concerned, whalers are role models. She's hoping they inspire others to start wearing lifejackets.
"They are pillars of their community," she said. "They're really looked up to."
For the upcoming whaling season that begins in April when bowheads are heading north, the consortium is distributing 96 coats among crews from the remaining villages that are members of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, which represents 11 communities. Four crews, including Brower's, will get the float pants.
The funds for this year's effort came from a $15,000 donation from Shell Oil and almost $11,000 from ConocoPhillips, one of the oil producers on Alaska's North Slope, home to some whaling villages. Shell has offshore oil exploration projects in the region.
Representatives of the companies said the donations stemmed from their devotion to safety and their support of area Natives' subsistence lifestyle.
"If outfitting North Slope whalers with traditional-looking, but effective float coats saves a life, that's a behavioral change that we're proud to be part of," Shell's Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith said.
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