Museum curator pursues the men who pursued the Arctic bowhead whale
New Bedford, Mass. — As John Bockstoce hustles around his office-laboratory in the basement of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, he gives the impression of a man continually running at full throttle. He jumps up to locate an obscure Alaskan whaling camp on one of the dozens of maps that festoon his walls, then charges to the opposite side of the room to grasp a towering, slate-colored piece of baleen, the pliable, bonelike material found in the mouths of some whales. Baleen, Mr. Bockstoce explains with characteristic earnestness, was a mainstay of the 19th-century whaling trade -- the crucial raw material for such Victorian commodities as corset stays and whips. Spring-steel substitutes and changing fashions demolished the baleen market soon after the turn of the century, he notes, concluding a brief lecture.
In those days, little thought was given to the conservation of the whale, although it's a burning environmental issue today.
This bespectacled, quick-talking man -- whose credits include a doctorate in archaeology from Oxford, eight books, and a trip through the Northwest Passage in a walrus-hide boat he built himself -- has spent the last 11 years working for the whaling museum as curator of ethnology, the study of comparative cultures.
But for a much longer time than that Bockstoce has been gripped by the vanished world of New England's whalemen. In particular, he has painstakingly traced the inroads made by those hearty mariners into the icy environs of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, on the north coast of Alaska.
That isolated region has become a specialty for Bockstoce. ``Nonstop since 1969,'' he says, ``I have spent every summer in the Arctic.'' It was in the late '60s, as an undergraduate in archaeology at Yale, that he was encouraged by a professor to join an Eskimo whaling crew if he really wanted to understand the Arctic's indigenous people. The whale had been central to the cultural and economic lives of Alaska's Eskimos since AD 800.
Bockstoce not only joined a crew that summer, but helped man a native whaling boat during nine subsequent summers in the Arctic. Ironically, perhaps, through the 1970s he became immersed in research that was used to help set restrictions for native whaling. Under a grant from the National Geographic Society and the National Fisheries Service, Bockstoce and a colleague plunged through the yellowed logbooks of whaling ships -- of which the New Bedford museum has the world's largest collection -- to arrive
at a credible estimate of the bowhead whale population in the mid-19th century, just as American whalers poked northward through the Bering Strait.
Their exhaustive search of the logs -- covering nearly one-third of the 2,700 whaling cruises into the western Arctic between 1848 and 1914 -- yielded reams of data about the number of whales seen, struck, and taken. They concluded that some 20,000 bowheads had been killed over those years, out of an original population of 30,000. The latter figure, interestingly, coincided with the estimate that conservationists opposed to the Eskimo hunt, lacking any statistical basis, had ``pulled out of the air,'' s ays Bockstoce. The Eskimos themselves had estimated an original whale herd of 10,000. Some 3,000 to 4,000 of the whales are said to inhabit the western Arctic today.
The bowhead's earlier numbers are important in assessing how rapidly the population had declined and hence how threatened the species is now. As it turned out, according to Bockstoce, their poring over whaling data did not matter much when it came to public policy. Lobbying and compromise among the federal government, the International Whaling Commission, and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission resulted in a current quota of 26 whale strikes for natives, a figure that conservationists continue to decr y.
But those countless hours spent with whaling logs were hardly wasted for Bockstoce. They gave him ample material, along with piles of notes from years of poking around hundreds of abandoned Arctic whaling stations, for a new book, ``Whales, Ice, and Men.'' The book will attempt to set down what Bockstoce calls ``a great unwritten chapter'' in American history -- the mixing of native northern cultures with the Yankee culture carried by the whalemen, and the impact of those seafaring ambassadors of Americ an commerce on such events as the purchase of Alaska by the United States and its annexation of Hawaii, an important resupply stop for whalers.
After more than two decades of constant preoccupation with the far North, Bockstoce says that he's probably completed 98 percent of the whaling research to be done along the shores of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. He may go north for a few more summers, but he concedes that he's ``looking forward to being a straight museum man'' -- rather than a field researcher who combines archaeology, biology, history, and ethno-history. After all, he says with a quick grin, he's lived in Massachusetts for more than
10 years and hasn't yet had a chance to exclaim, ``Gee -- green!'' during one of its lush, humid summers.