The life of an Arctic whale scientist. John Craighead George. Alaska. In his recent presentation about adventure writing, Peter Lourie emphasized that appeal of his career lies in the information he learns, the people he meets, and the places he visits. The same holds true for me in my reading of his nonfiction text, Whaling Season.
It takes years to become a whale scientist. As part of this position, one tries to answer questions about the unique biology of whales. In March, the itch begins for whaling season. Scientists will study satellite images of the ice. They figure out the direction of the winds and the currents that are responsible for opening up the “leads” in ice where whales might migrate. The Inpait hunt twice, once in the spring and later again in the fall. To get the data they need, scientists must arrive at a caught whale before locals begin to butcher it. No matter time it is, or how long the process takes, scientists must measure and take samples of blubber, blood, internal organs, flukes, among other things. After all measurements and samples are taken, scientists will also remove contents from the whale’s stomach for later analysis. Why do scientists care so much about the special biology of whales? A major reason is curiosity, but another is the preservation of the bowhead whales and their habitat.
In trying to select which of Lourie’s many books to purchase, what drew me to Whaling Season was the fact Laurie got to meet Craig George. He is the oldest son of children’s book author, Jean Craighead George, most famous for her My Side of the Mountain and Julie of the Wolves books. Jean herself is the daughter of an insect scientist. She’s also the younger sister of twins John and Frank, grizzly bear experts who have worked for National Geographic. Craig’s father was a scientist and conservationist, as well as a pioneer in pesticide ecology. Craig learned about science from his dad, but also from his Uncle Frank who taught him to respect the wilderness. His wife is a former veterinary technician, who worked for seventeen years at the town clinic in Barrows, Alaska, before she began to collect samples of whales in her free time. That’s how she and Craig met. Now the two work at Wildlife Management in Alaska, sharing a mutual interest in the mystery of bowheads.
The final topic I’ll cover in my write-up about Whaling Season is setting. Peter Lourie focuses on Barrow, Alaska, a small town at the top of the world. Here, men and women and even teenagers jump on snow machines and drive out onto the ice to help harvest the whale. The harvest is part of a tradition the Inupiaq Eskimo have followed for more than two thousand years. Barrow is a place of thick ice, polar bears, harsh cold, and bowhead whales. It’s also a location impacted by global warming, where climate changes are making the ice and whale hunting more unstable. Here too, for weeks on end, it’s dark for twenty-four hours. But one can also experience the privilege of watching the midnight sun sink into the Arctic Ocean. Lourie found it a place rich in culture and beauty, an area to which he wishes to one day return.
Whaling Season is a highly visual and informative narrative about the adventure of scientists, whales, and life in the Arctic. It often had me thinking fondly of my home province of Newfoundland, which also features a unique landscape and once too used to depend on the ocean for its livelihood. Peter Lourie has a passion for research and exploration, both of which shine in his nonfiction texts.
My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.
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