|Whaling Season: A Year in the Life of an Arctic Whale Scientist
Scientists in the Field Series
written by Peter Lourie
It’s late April in Barrow, Alaska, which is about as far north in Alaska as you can get. The call comes in over the two-way radio—a crew has caught the first whale of the spring whaling season. Men, women, and teenagers jump on snow machines and drive out onto the ice to help harvest the whale, a tradition the Iñupiat Eskimos on Alaska’s North Slope have followed for over two thousand years.
John Craighead George, or Craig as he's called, heads out too. He is an Arctic whale scientist, and out on the ice with the whales and the whalers is just one of the places where an Arctic whale scientist works. He and his colleagues have an agreement with the Inupiat to study these whales, bowheads. He has studied them for nearly thirty years and the mysteries of these large creatures never fail to amaze him.
As a scientist, Craig asks many questions about the creature he studies, questions their behavior, morphology, population issues, lifespan, and migration patterns. Some things he can learn by studying measurements of whales. Others he learns by dissection and comparison. But there are lots of things that Craig doesn't know, and doesn't yet understand: Where do they go in the winter? How much food do they need to survive? Do they really live 150 years? Do they grow and grow until they die, or do they reach a physical maturity? How is global warming affecting them? Craig studies the bowhead whale year round. He lives in and raises his family in Barrow, Alaska, because he has to be where the whales are—there is simply no other way to do it. He also needs to be with the Inupiat people, whose traditions and age-old relationship with the whales makes them the foremost experts on them.
Readers will join Craig, his wife, their colleagues, and the Iñupiaq people as they go out on the ice and harvest whales. The pictures are not always easy to look at, but the Inupiat people revere the whale and have deepened on its meat and blubber for centuries to live in this harsh climate. They bless each whale that comes in, and don't leave a bit of whale to waste. And they trust that Craig will do his part to learn more about these whales, and to help protect them with the information he does learn. Readers will go back to Craig's ramshackle lab where he studies various organs and body parts, takes careful measurements, and crunches numbers. There are no hard and fast conclusions here. There is just a scientist who loves the animal he studies, and who loves gathering information about this animal, year in and year out. The Iñupiat, too, are people who you will not soon forget. Their excitement and enthusiasm over a whale harvest, and their reverence and understanding of the bowhead whale, as well as the numerous varieties of ice that surround them, will show readers just how in tune they are with their surroundings.
This latest entry in the Scientists in the Field series is a real profile of what it is like to be a scientist who lives where he works, who harvests his own subjects, and who uses information passed down from generations of Eskimo culture to help him as he becomes the world's leading expert on bowhead whales. Craig George is the son of legendary children's author Jean Craighead George, and it is easy to see that Craig grew up in a household where nature and human interaction went hand in hand. Author Peter Louries's stunning photographs will transport readers to the top of the world, where the days and nights are long, the people respectful, and the whales are at the center of it all.
Behind the Book
Awards and Recognition
“Lourie skillfully describes the delicate three-way relationship that exists among the Iñupiat of Alaska, the bowhead whales, and the scientists who are there to collect data and study the animals. The Iñupiat have hunted bowheads for thousands of years and their very existence depends upon the harvesting of the leviathans. The scientists are there to determine whether the whaling done by these communities is sustainable and not decimating the bowhead population. Using a day-in-the-life format, Lourie follows one particular scientist, John Craighead George, as he goes about collecting the necessary data. The biologist is careful not to disturb the integrity of the harvest and, in fact, works closely with the Iñupiat to do what he needs to do. Interwoven throughout this daylong saga are historical information, scientific facts, and cultural tradition. Crisp color photographs on every page provide a lush complement to the engaging, informative text. Young readers will come away with a stronger appreciation of the bowhead whales, the people who both hunt and respect them, and the scientists who straddle the traditional and modern worlds to gather important information. An excellent addition to any collection.” (School Library Journal, starred review)
“In yet another standout title in the Scientists in the Field series, author and photographer Lourie transports young readers to Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost town in the U.S., where scientist John Craighead George has studied bowhead whales for more than 30 years. Combining exemplary color photos and simple, vivid language, the chapters detail not only George’s day-to-day methodology but also his motivation: to explore ‘the mystery of the whales—all the things that remain unknown about the animal.’ George conducts his research in tandem with local Iñupiaq whale hunters, and some of the book’s most engrossing passages show how crucial (and accurate) the hunters’ knowledge, passed down through thousands of years, is to George’s modern scientific inquiry. A chapter about George’s childhood in a nature-loving family (his mother is the children’s book author Jean Craighead George) and pictures of him playing electric guitar at an open-mike night in Barrow add personal dimensions, but what will draw young readers most are the rich descriptions of the Iñupiaq community, in which George has so thoroughly rooted himself, and the riveting images of the Arctic whale scientist at work on the ice, holding a giant bowhead eyeball or reaching into the immense, bloody cavern of a whale’s stomach. Maps, glossaries, and suggestions for further research round out this fascinating portrait of science and daily life at the “top of the world.” (Booklist, starred review)
“This is a wonderfully informational book. It not only describes how and why zoologists do what they do but also provides an understanding of the culture of the native Iñupiaq people of Alaska. Details of whale biology, life cycles, and oceanography are woven into what is essentially a story of scientific adventure.
“This book chronicles the life of John Craighead George as he studies the bowhead whales of the Arctic Ocean and how he balances scientific inquiry with respect for the Iñupiaq's way of life and cultural beliefs. It describes many characteristics of the bowhead whale and how George has gone about his scientific inquiry into the species. It shows how he collects his samples and shares his knowledge with the local school children. In a way that will encourage understanding, the book paints a picture of the Eskimo tribes, what they do to capture whales, and why they need them in order to live. The biography includes many interesting images of the town in Alaska, the people, and what they do to survive. Each page includes detailed photographs of the work and habitat.
“This book is a great way to show students how scientific inquiry happens, explain what the nature of science is, and showcase a type of scientific job that is physically active, exciting, and interesting. (NSTA Recommends)
“Craig George is a whale biologist with the Department of Wildlife Management who has lived and worked in Barrow, Alaska, for over thirty years. He works in concert with the Inupiaq community documenting the bowhead whale population and Inupiaq hunts. These data propel scientific investigations but also keep the Inupiat in compliance with International Whaling Commission regulations. Lourie brings us to the busy April hunting season, where George and his team are ‘on call’ as each whale is hauled in (none of the hunting is profiled, just the scientific data collection on the freshly killed whale, a process lucidly conveyed here). Information comes from whale samples and measurements but also from the knowledge of the community—both direct experience and the scientific knowledge embedded in traditional stories passed down through generations. Along with showing George in the lab and speaking to a middle-school science class, the book conveys his thoughts on living in such an extreme region and describes his path to becoming a biologist (son of noted author Jean Craighead George, George grew up in a nature-saturated family). The numerous color photographs capture the piercing whites, grays, and blues of Alaska in the sunny spring as well as the bloody work of taking apart a whale. Glossaries, lists of books and websites, and an index are appended.” (The Horn Book)
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