threats hound a young Alaskan after a successful hunt.
Bering Sea on the shores of St. Lawrence Island, where the
Before his story made the Anchorage paper, before the first death
threat arrived from across the world, before his elders began to
worry and his mother cried over the things she read on Facebook,
Chris Apassingok, age 16, caught a whale.
It happened at the end of April, which for generations has been
whaling season in the Siberian Yupik village of Gambell on St. Lawrence
Island on the northwest edge of Alaska. More than 30 crews from
the community of 700 were trawling the sea for bowhead whales, cetaceans
that can grow over 50 feet long, weigh over 50 tons and live more
than 100 years. A few animals taken each year bring thousands of
pounds of meat to the village, offsetting the impossibly high cost
of imported store-bought food.
A hundred years ago even 20 years ago, when Gambell was
an isolated point on the map, protected part of the year by a wall
of sea ice catching the whale would have been a dream accomplishment
for a teenage hunter, a sign of Chris' passage into adulthood and
a story that people would tell until he was old. But today, in a
world shrunk by social media, where fragments of stories travel
like light and there is no protection from anonymous outrage, his
achievement has been eclipsed by an endless wave of online harassment.
Six weeks after his epic hunt, his mood was dark. He'd quit going
to school. His parents, his siblings, everybody worried about him.
Apassingok, 16, holds the darting gun he used to harpoon a
whale this spring outside his family's home in Gambell, Alaska.
In mid-June, as his family crowded into their small kitchen
at dinnertime, Chris stood by the stove, eyes on the plate in his
hands. Behind him, childhood photographs collaged the wall, basketball
games and hunting trip selfies, certificates from school. Lots of
village boys are quiet, but Chris is one of the quietest. He usually
speaks to elders and other hunters in Yupik. His English sentences
come out short and deliberate. His siblings are used to speaking
"I can't get anything out of him," his mother said.
His sister, Danielle, 17, heads to University of Alaska Fairbanks
in the fall, where she hopes to play basketball. She pulled a square
of meat from a pot and set it on a cutting board on the table, slicing
it thin with a moon-shaped ulu. Chris drug a piece through a pile
of Lawry's Seasoned Salt and dunked it in soy sauce. Mangtak. Whale.
Soul food of the Arctic.
Soon conversation turned, once again, to what happened. It's
hard to escape the story in Chris' village, or in any village in
the region that relies on whaling. People are disturbed by it. It
stirs old pain and anxieties about the pressures on rural Alaska.
Always, the name Paul Watson is at the center of it.
"We struggle to buy gas, food, they risk their lives out there
to feed us, while this Paul Watson will never have to suffer a day
in his life," Susan Apassingok, Chris' mother, said, voice full
of tears. "Why is he going after a child such as my son?"
watches his sister, Danielle, 17, cut mangtak with an ulaaq
in the kitchen of their home. The whale meat sustains the
community and is eaten as a snack and a main course, sweetened
On the day they took the whale, Chris and his father,
Daniel Apassingok, were cleaning a bearded seal on the gravel beach
when they heard a cousin shouting. A black back cut the waves a
few miles offshore. The three of them scrambled to their skiff.
Every whale is different, Daniel had told his son many times.
An experienced crew captain knows to watch how each one moves and
to calculate where it will surface. If they get it right, the boat
will be 5 to 10 feet from the animal when it comes up. Then everything
rests on the acuity of the striker in the bow, who holds a darting
gun loaded with an exploding harpoon.
Daniel works as the maintenance man at the village school, supporting
Susan, Chris, Danielle and Chase, 13. Daniel is a decent hunter,
but Chris is something else. The boy was born with a sense for the
direction of the wind, an eye for birds flashing out of the grass
and animals bobbing in the surf, Daniel said. He could aim and shoot
a rifle at the age of 5. By 11, he'd trained himself to strike whales,
standing steady in the front of the skiff with the gun, riding Bering
Sea swells like a snowboarder.
"He started out very young," Daniel said. "Chris kind of advanced
a little bit faster than most people, even for me. He's got a gift."
Apassingok, 13, Chris' brother, walks toward his sister, Danielle
Apassingok, 17, while they hunt for seals. Hunting is an integral
part of life in Gambell, and Chris learned to shoot by age
From the boat, Chris and Daniel's village appeared in miniature,
rows of weather-bleached houses staked in the gravel, four-wheelers
parked out front, meat racks full of walrus and seal, cut in strips
and hung to dry. Across the water the other direction, mountains
on the Russian coast shaped the horizon. Chris removed his hat to
pray and scanned the glittering chop, his compact frame taut, his
expression slack as always. Daniel nudged the tiller.
When Daniel was a child, the village hunted in skin sailboats,
chasing the whale in silence. Then as now, a boy started young,
mastering one job, then another, until, if he was talented, he could
try to make a strike. Daniel started as a striker at 19. He'd taken
two whales so far.
The weather seemed to have changed permanently since he was
a boy. He believed it was climate change. The ice didn't stay as
long and wasn't the same quality. Whales passed at a different time.
There were fewer calm days and more ferocious storms. The village
was still recovering from one in 2016 that damaged 60 structures
on the island, including their house.
Along with whale, the village relies on bearded seal and walrus
for food. In 2013, hunting conditions were so bad, the village required
emergency food aid to get through the winter. Subsequent harvests
have been below expectations.
"It's always hard," Daniel said. "But it's getting harder."
They were a few miles offshore when the dark oblong of the whale
passed their boat. Adrenaline lit up Chris. Just a few feet off
the bow, the bowhead's back split the sea. Chris raised the darting
gun, a heavy combination of shotgun and spear. He aimed.
"Please let us get it," he asked God.
He squeezed the trigger. The harpoon sailed, trailing rope.
Alaska Natives have been hunting bowhead in the Western Arctic
for at least 2,000 years. The animals were hunted commercially by
Yankee whalers from the mid-19th century until the beginning of
the 20th century, decimating the population. Since then, whale numbers
have recovered, and their population is growing. In 2015, the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated there were 16,000
animals, three times the population in 1985.
Alaska Native communities in the region each take a few whales
a year, following a quota system managed by the Alaska Eskimo Whaling
Commission (AEWC). The total annual take is roughly 50 animals,
yielding between 600 and 1,000 tons of food, according to the commission.
Subsistence hunting of marine mammals is essential for villages
where cash economies are weak. The average household income in Gambell,
for example, is $5,000 to $10,000 below the federal poverty level.
Kids rely on free breakfast and lunch at school. Families sell walrus
ivory carvings and suffer when there isn't enough walrus.
a population of approximately 700, the village of Gambell,
Alaska, relies on hunting marine mammals, birds and fish for
survival. Store-bought food can be very expensive because
the village is so remote.
Store-bought food can be two to three times as expensive as
it is in Anchorage, depending on weight. In the village grocery,
where shelves are often empty, a bag of Doritos is $11, a large
laundry detergent is more than $20, water is more expensive per
ounce than soda. No one puts a price on whale, but without it, without
walrus, without bearded seal, no one could afford to live here.
The harpoon struck, but the wounded whale swam on. A second
boat took another shot. The great animal lost power. It heaved over,
belly to sky.
Soon Chris had congratulations in his ears and fresh belly meat
in his mouth, a sacrament shared by successful hunters on the water
as they prayed in thanks to the whale for giving itself. He had
been the first to strike the whale, so the hunters decided it belonged
to his father's crew. They would take the head back to the village
and let the great cradle of the jawbone cure in the wind outside
They towed the whale in and hauled it ashore using a block and
tackle. Women and elders came to the beach to get their share. Every
crew got meat. Whale is densely caloric, full of protein, omega-3s
and vitamins. People eat it boiled, baked, raw and frozen. Its flavor
is mild, marine and herbal like seaweed.
People packed it away in their freezers for special occasions.
They carried it with them when they flew out of the village, to
Nome and Anchorage and places down south to share with relatives.
Everyone told and retold the story of the teenage striker. Then
the radio station in Nome picked it up: "Gambell Teenager Leads
Successful Whale Hunt, Brings Home 57-Foot Bowhead." The Alaska
Dispatch News, the state's largest paper, republished that story.
Apassingok, 13, Chris' brother, prepares to go out hunting
for seal and birds while Chris sleeps after a successful morning
hunt. An article from The Nome Nugget about Chris' whale catch
is pasted up on the wall with other family mementos.
It used to be that rural Alaska communicated mainly by VHF and
by listening to messages passed over daily FM radio broadcasts,
but now Facebook has become a central platform for communication,
plugging many remote communities into the world of comment flame
wars, cat memes and reality television celebrity pages.
That is how Paul Watson, an activist and founder of Sea Shepherd,
an environmental organization based in Washington, encountered Chris'
story. Watson, an early member of Greenpeace, is famous for taking
a hard line against whaling. On the reality television show, Whale
Wars on Animal Planet, he confronted Japanese whalers at sea. His
social media connections span the globe.
Watson posted the story about Chris on his personal Facebook
page, accompanied by a long rant. Chris' mother may have been the
first in the family to see it, she said.
"WTF, You 16-Year Old Murdering Little Bastard!," Watson's post
read. "... some 16-year old kid is a frigging 'hero' for snuffing
out the life of this unique self aware, intelligent, social, sentient
being, but hey, it's okay because murdering whales is a part of
his culture, part of his tradition.
I don't give a damn for
the bullshit politically correct attitude that certain groups of
people have a 'right' to murder a whale."
remote Alaska, subsistence hunting helps villagers survive
Until then, Facebook had been a place Chris went occasionally
to post pictures of sneakers and chat with his aunties. He heard
about the post at school. By evening, messages arrived in his Facebook
"He said, 'Mom, come,' and he showed me his messages in his
phone, calling him names like, 'You little cunt,' and 'I hope you
choke on blubber,' you deserve to die and 'You need to harpoon your
mom,'" Susan said.
A deluge of venomous messages followed, many wishing him dead.
Cleaning up after dinner, Danielle said she tried to keep count.
She got to 400 and they kept coming, from across the country and
from Europe. Chris has only been out of Alaska once, to a church
conference in Indianapolis, she said.
"There was this one message saying that, I read on his phone,
that they hope that our whole community dies," Danielle said.
"It was pretty cruel," said his brother, Chase.
Chris said he tried to ignore the messages, to laugh them off.
When he heard his parents and siblings talking about them, his eyes
grew wet and he clenched his jaw.
"It never stops," he said.
of the whale struck by Chris Apassingok in April 2017, rests
outside his family home. "It was his idea to put it there,
so we can see it through the window," Susan, his mother,
Across the Arctic, people responded to Watson's post with comments,
petitions and private messages in opposition. The Alaska Eskimo
Whaling Commission reported it to Facebook. Eventually, it was removed.
Across the region, whaling captains reminded hunters not to put
pictures on social media.
Watson wrote another post, refusing to apologize.
"This has been my position of 50 years and it will always be
my position until the day I die," he wrote.
Watson and Sea Shepherd declined to be interviewed for this
story but sent a statement.
"Paul Watson did not encourage nor request anyone to threaten
anyone. Paul Watson also received numerous death threats and hate
messages," it read. "It is our position that the killing of any
intelligent, self-aware, sentient cetacean is the equivalent of
Villagers have been familiar with Watson's opinions for many
years. They have seen him on cable, and many remember 2005, when
Sea Shepherd sent out a press release blaming villagers for the
deaths of two children in a boating accident during whaling season.
Many environmentalists who object to subsistence whaling have
a worldview that sees hunting as optional and recreational, said
Jessica Lefevre, an attorney for the whaling commission based in
"The NGOs we deal with are ideologically driven; this is what
they do, they save stuff. The collateral damage to communities doesn't
factor into their thinking," she said. "To get them to understand
there are people on this planet who remain embedded in the natural
world, culturally and by physical and economic necessity, is extremely
The organizations are interested in conservation, but fail to
take into account that Alaska Natives have a large stake in the
whale population being healthy and have never overharvested it,
she said. Some NGOs also benefit financially from sensation and
outrage, she said, especially in the age of social media.
clothesline hangs between homes in Gambell, Alaska, which
is isolated on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea.
In the summertime, village teenagers live in a different time
zone in the forever light of the Arctic. At 1 a.m. in June, their
four-wheelers buzz down to a large wooden platform basketball court
in the gravel by the school, where Drake pulses out of cellphone
speakers. The girls wear polar fleece jackets, sparkle jeans and
aviator frames. All the boys have Jordan sneakers. A half-dozen
fidget spinners blur.
On a recent night, Chris stood on the sidelines of a pick-up
game. There was a girl with him. They didn't talk, but they stood
close. Occasionally, someone threw him a ball and he made a basket.
It is hard to be alone in a village. Even if the adults are
inside, someone is always keeping track. Between blood relations,
adoptions and marriages, Chris' family is huge, with relatives in
many houses. Many are paying extra attention to him now.
Chris' grandfather, Mike Apatiki, lives just down from the basketball
court. He has a freezer full of meat his grandson brought. He worries
less about Chris leaving school hunting seasons have put
him behind for years than he does about him feeling shamed.
"These people do not understand and know our need for food over
here," he said. "Like the rest of Americans need to have a chicken
and a cow to eat out there from a farm, we need our whale and seal
and walrus. Makes us healthy and live long."
"Neqeniighta," the Siberian Yupik word for "hunter," doesn't
have a perfect equivalent in English, said Merle Apassingok, Chris'
uncle, who lives across the road from his grandfather. It means
something broader even than the word "provider," and is tied to
a role men have played for generations that ensures survival and
adaptation. When a boy is a good hunter, he is poised to be a leader,
"Hunting is more than getting a permit and fulfilling that permit
with a grizzly bear or a Dall sheep or whatever," he said. "There
is happiness when a boy gets his first seal, there is joy. There
is sadness when we have a tragedy. How can we isolate the word?"
He wishes that Chris' story never left the island. He worries
his nephew has not lived long enough to process all that's happened.
"As far as day-to-day dinner on the table, hunters are everything
in the village," he said.
After basketball, when most of the village is asleep, Chris
sometimes packs his backpack with ammunition, slips on his dirty
camouflage jacket and pumps up the leaky four-wheeler tire. Hunting,
he told his mother once, is like a story: Suspense, conflict, resolution.
He always prays the ending will be the animals showing themselves
so he can take them back home, she said. As twilight edges into
sunrise, he heads out alone down the coast, his rifle slung on his
back. After a long ride, he crawls into a seal blind tucked behind
driftwood on the beach, where he can stay for hours with only the
birds and the smell of grass and the racket of the sea.
Bering Sea on the shores of St. Lawrence Island, where the
Julia O'Malley is a freelance writer and third-generation Alaskan
who lives in Anchorage. Find her work at juliaomalley.media.