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Joe Leavitt, Interview 2, Part 2

This is the continuation of an interview with Joe Leavitt on November 13, 2013 by Karen Brewster and Dyre "Oliver" Dammann  at the Tuzzy Consortium Library in Barrow, Alaska. In this second part of a two part interview, Joe talks about using common sense to stay safe when out on the sea ice, choosing whale camp and whale butchering locations, teaching the young generations, and the use of satellite imagery and technology. He also talks about the unusual late harvest of a whale in June 2013.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2013-25-04_PT.2

Project: Sea Ice in Northern Alaska
Date of Interview: Nov 13, 2013
Narrator(s): Joe Leavitt
Interviewer(s): Karen Brewster, Dyre Oliver Dammann
Videographer: Karen Brewster
Transcriber: Joan O'Leary
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Coastal Marine Institute, North Pacific Research Board
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
There is no slideshow for this person.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.


Using common sense when being out on the ice

Choosing whale camp and butchering locations

Timing of the whale harvest and the whale movement effected by ice conditions

Whale harvest in June 2013

Role of women in whaling

Teaching the young generation about the ice, wind, and current

Identifying ice thickness

Usefulness of satellite imagery, maps, and technology

Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.

After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: You had a couple questions?

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I was saying, it sounds like you’re willing to take some risks?

JOE LEAVITT: We have to. We have to, because we know the whales are going by. KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh.

JOE LEAVITT: That, you know, you want to catch a whale that’s small and tender and the first pod that goes by is -- in the springtime is the small whales.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. So for people who don’t know anything about ice, what you guys do out there for whaling sounds really dangerous. Do you feel like it’s dangerous?

JOE LEAVITT: To me whaling is -- to me I’ve been whaling so long it’s -- it’s more like common sense.

It's just some people that make it so dangerous. I don’t know why, but some people make it really dangerous for us.

And, you know, we have to listen to each other, too, out there. To me it’s more common sense.

You got -- you got all of the things that can tell you about the weather and all that. You just have to remember how to read the weather and the current.

And to me the current is always the most important. KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh.

JOE LEAVITT: But, you know, in high winds I would -- I would not keep my crew out there. It’s just -- it’s just too dangerous when the high winds are here.

We just get out of there. It’s just -- to me it’s being out there for over forty years, you know, it’s -- it’s more like common sense.

KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. JOE LEAVITT: That to me it’s that way.

KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. Well, you were talking before about where you put your whale camp, and you were saying you put it a place where you’re looking -- you can see whales.

Is there something about the ice where you decide there’s this kind of ice or that kind of ice?

JOE LEAVITT: You -- you -- you usually -- usually, you know, after being whaling this long, you know, you can -- you can predict where the whales are going to come up.


JOE LEAVITT: Like a little cove on the ice. Kaŋiqłuraq, they call it. When you -- when you -- even when you’re breaking trails and the whales are going by, you’ll actually see where the whales are popping up.

Where the whales are popping up near the ice -- ice edge, that’s where we try to go where the whales are coming up.

Even if we build a camp here and the whales are missing us, we’ll -- we’ll actually move our camp. KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh.

JOE LEAVITT: You know, to get -- the whales -- when we look at the whales they -- you can actually look at them and predict where they’re going to come up. Just -- just by, you know, just by experience.

KAREN BREWSTER: So you’re picking your spot based on the whales not on -- based on the ice type?

JOE LEAVITT: But the ice type has to do it, too. You -- sometimes the ice will be so thin you can’t even put up a whale.

When it’s like that, the crews start talking to each other and they’ll find out where they can do their butchering.

That’s -- you need -- you also need a place to butcher your whale or you’re just going lose it.


JOE LEAVITT: When the ice conditions are really bad and there’s no place to butcher it, a lot of times that will cause the whales just to go by us because people got no place to butcher it.

They have to have a solid place to butcher the whale. That’s -- KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh.

JOE LEAVITT: That’s, you know, that’s our important thing, too. Sometimes you have to have a solid place to bring up a whale. That -- that’s how it works.

KAREN BREWSTER: So sometimes do you have your camp in one spot and the place you’re going to butcher some place else?

JOE LEAVITT: Yeah, yeah. You can actually move the whale. KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh.

JOE LEAVITT: To a safer spot, you know, so the butchering can get done.


JOE LEAVITT: But the smaller -- even the smaller whales, you know, even ice that has gone under and lifted up a little bit and there’s young ice behind it, it all depends. Sometimes they'll put up a small whale there.

DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: How was those conditions for this year if -- if you did strike a whale, was there areas to --

JOE LEAVITT: Then there was -- there was -- there was -- there was areas that you could actually put up a whale for, you know, you could actually move the whale to where there's pretty good butchering spot or better trail.

There was places you could bring up whales last year, but the ice never really did cooperate with us. It just happens.

We -- we -- the weather and the current has got to be good if we're going to have a good season. It's hard for us to catch all our whales in Barrow.

It's always -- it's always the weather is -- the weather and the currents they got to cooperate with our whaling, and sometimes we got good years sometimes we got bad years.

DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: So we heard that this -- this last season there was a whale caught from a boat in June. If the ice starts breaking off earlier in the years to come, can you see that become a new trend or that you would go out in a boat from shore to catch whales during spring whaling?

JOE LEAVITT: See the -- When the whales were caught in June, the ice -- the water never really opened up and the whales got stranded somewhere. That’s why there was whales late in June.

The whales had no passage and they got stuck over there. That -- they’ll do that. They’ll, you know, they’ll go down to the -- where there’s less current and wait it out.

The whales they got all the time in the world.

They’ll actually congregate down there.

And another thing is when we got open water in front of Barrow, well, you know, the whales are going east. We know that.

And then we’re watching our whales go by. Then we know then the whales will go the other direction.

When we start seeing the whales going back, that tells us there’s hardly any water east of the Point .

When you look at the mirage for the smoke -- water smoke out there, you can actually tell when the lea -- when you get the mirage from the open lead past the Point, you can actually tell through the mirage that it's starting to close up.

When it's starting to close up and there’s no deflection zone over there, that’s, you know, that’s telling us it is time to start -- it’s time to start packing and get your gear out of there. We have to know.

The whaler always wants to know what’s going on on the other side of the Point, because that’s where the big pieces of ice can hit if there’s no deflection zone.

We always want to know what’s going on on the other side of the Point. That way -- that’s why they’ll always ask the guy who’s -- who’s the furthest east in the whaling camps.

And when he thinks it's starting to get dangerous because of the water closing up on the east side of the Point, then we listen to that guy out -- over there.

It's just communications. Somewhere communication gets lost and but when we got communication it’s -- that’s the way whaling is.

We always want to know what’s going on on the east side of the Point when we’re out on the ice.

What tells us that is the mirage. The mirage will actually -- you’ll actually see it way over here.

If there’s open water east of the Point, you’ll see it way over here.

And when that starts closing up into a thin line, that always tells us -- people are actually watching out for that and especially the guy on the eastern side of the -- of all the camps.

He’ll tell us when he’s -- he’ll tell us when he's packing up his stuff. And us -- and us whalers that go down south, we know we’re not going to stay on the ice too long.

We always want to know what’s going on on the east side of the Point.

That -- that always makes us feel better when we’re off the ice before we get floated out again.

DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Do you know for -- in terms of the whale that was -- that was caught from shore was that -- was that something the community was aware of that the whales were hanging out there and was that something you guys discussed? Like was that like a planned action?

JOE LEAVITT: No. DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Or was that some -- kind of spontaneous?

JOE LEAVITT: No, people -- people just went out there with their gear because whales are getting so numerous nowadays, too, and we know the population is real high.

Even when we doing our bearded seal hunting, we’ll run into bowhead whales now. We’ll even see them in August -- in July.

They know they’re out there. It's just when they got enough food they don’t really go after them, but this year they had no maktak at all so people --

people knew they were going to run into them. That’s why they went out with their gear.

DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: And was there at that time was there -- what was the ice conditions like? Were they -- was that dangerous -- JOE LEAVITT: The ice --

DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: -- to navigate with a boat or was it -- JOE LEAVITT: No, the -- DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: -- easy?

JOE LEAVITT: They got into the shore. The ice by that time -- by that time -- by that time there was already water from the beach through some of the ice -- some the Tuvaq that never went away.

There was already water. You just couldn’t go out there with a snowmachine. DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Uh-huh.

JOE LEAVITT: So they went out there with their boats.

DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Was the ice then pretty -- pretty stationary or was it moving so you kind of -- JOE LEAVITT: That’s what -- DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: -- had to navigate your boat?

JOE LEAVITT: That’s what -- that’s -- that’s -- they got a certain name for that ice that doesn’t take out the shorefast ice. They call it Tuvaq.

All the water towards the beach will melt, but some of the ice will stay grounded. That’s what we call Tuvaqtaq. There's actually a name for that ice that doesn’t take off with the other ice.

They call that Tuvaqtaq. There's actually a name for that.

And, you know, when seal hunting time is here, you have to be aware of the -- the grounded ice, the Tuvaqtaq that got left behind even there's water all the way to the beach -- the grounded ice.

Even when the ice comes in -- it'll -- it'll pile up on that Tuvaqtaq.

That’s -- that’s how a couple of people lost their boats last -- about three, four years ago.

KAREN BREWSTER: I have a question that's a little bit off the topic of sea ice, but you've been talking a lot about whaling, and I know in your family you've had women participating in whaling for a long time -- your sister Margaret, right?


KAREN BREWSTER: And I’m wondering how common is it or has it been through time that women have been out with the whaling crews?

JOE LEAVITT: To me, it’s all my life, but -- because we're a whaling family even my oldest sisters used to run the dog teams for my dad.

But the way that one works is -- the way to answer that question is when I'm out in the ice I -- my job is to take the whale home, okay?

I put it in ice cellar and store it and then after that I got nothing to say.

I’ll get the whale out of the ice cellar. When it comes to the land -- the whale and after I put it away, then the women come in.

That’s their job is to prepare it. And I got nothing to say at all on food preparations. That’s their job.

My job is to bring the whale and put it in the ice cellar for the women. We’ll get it out. That’s when the women come in.

KAREN BREWSTER: But do women go out on the ice and go in your boat?

JOE LEAVITT: Women -- women can go out on the ice and help oar with the boats.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. JOE LEAVITT: Yeah. A lot of women go out there do the cooking and all that, but women -- women -- women stay out there nowadays.

KAREN BREWSTER: Did they -- when you first started whaling in the 70’s, were there women who went and helped in the boats and helped with the hunting?

JOE LEAVITT: There was -- maybe not that much, but nowadays there’s a lot of them are out there. A lot of them were out there.

It’s -- even the women, you know, they’ll help out by going to get our share at the butchering sites.

They want to keep the crew out in the ice, especially when the whales are going by, the women will actually help butcher the whale.

And, you know, that works real good for us, too.

KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. I had another question which -- you talked about a little bit before about the things you learned when you were young about predicting weather and understanding the currents and the ice.

What are you teaching to the younger guys today?

JOE LEAVITT: Maybe -- the same. It’s about the same. It’s about current reading and how to monitor the wind.

But like I said the weather is -- it’s mostly about where to have a safe camp and all that. It’s just even the younger guys just from, you know, when they started going out there real young they’ll actually pick up on what we’re doing and where to cut up whales.

At the safe camps is when we -- when we're set out at the safe camps that’s when you can really talk to the younger generation about whaling.

That’s when you're all together and they’re playing games and all that and that’s where you can do your teaching, when we’re not busy chasing our whales.

On the safe camps, it’s a real good place for teaching the young people.]KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh.

JOE LEAVITT: The next generation of whalers. On the safe camps, because the young people they want to learn and they’ll actually listen to you out there.

It’s -- it’s, you know, it’s in their blood or something.

On the safe camps, you can teach them a lot of stuff right there.

Naŋiaqtuuvik is a safe camp. KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh.

JOE LEAVITT: Yeah. That’s where I learned when I was a young -- real young, you know, I used to never want to go to town from the safe camps.

That’s where the elders were always congregating and talking and you could listen, and that’s where you do a lot of your learning even you're not actually out on the lead. KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh.

JOE LEAVITT: But when the elders talk to you, that’s where you want to learn about -- you want to learn about whaling.

You just -- that’s where you learn about whale hunting is even at the safe camps.

KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. And do you show them things. You go out and you point out the types of ice and things?

JOE LEAVITT: Uh, not really, but maybe when we’re making our trail I will. KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh.

JOE LEAVITT: Because you’ll have thick ice, young ice, and when I see real thick ice and the lead is still further out, I try to make sure that they know that’s where we’re going to have our safe camp is on the thick ice.

Yeah, so it’s just little stuff like that, that we teach the whalers -- the young generation.

KAREN BREWSTER: And I have a stupid question. You talk about, you know, you’re out there and it’s thin ice or thick ice. I know if there's a pressure ridge you can see the ice, but if you’re out there and it’s just flat snow covered ice, how do you know if it’s thick or thin?

JOE LEAVITT: When it’s thin, it's usually flat, okay? It’s flat. It could be 18 inches.

When it’s flat it’s usually thin, but when you get to the shore edge you’ll see how much it’s out of the water.


JOE LEAVITT: Then you can -- then you can judge the thickness even -- even small pressure ridges tell us how thick the ice you’re on -- you’re standing on.

You know, that’s a real good indication, just the ice just all around you. It’s -- it’s little things like that that you learn when you go out there.

KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. Thank you. You wanted to ask your products.

DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Yeah, so as you know we produce these maps and the Sea Ice Group in Fairbanks has, you know, has their radar imagery off of downtown Barrow as you know, and what is -- are these products useful and what -- is there some improvement some other things about that you can think about that would be useful?

For instance, like a map that shows you something about the ice that is harder to determine from just looking at the ice for instance that you can -- that you can think of.

JOE LEAVITT: Maybe one of the good changes that you guys did on these maps is, you know, these are very, very useful maps.

We could actually -- it’s hard to tell where the lead is right here. If we could tell where the lead is. DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Uh-huh.

JOE LEAVITT: Or, you know, or you have a little outline of it. DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Uh-huh.

JOE LEAVITT: That’s very useful. And what I find very useful is the difference in the thickness of the ice.

To me, you know, to me it’s that kind of stuff that helps me on these maps.

On the locations too, it’s good to know where they’re at.

But if there was an outline on where the lead edge is all the way -- even a little bit further over here. That’s -- that to me that’s very useful. DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Yeah.

JOE LEAVITT: I like -- I like these satellite images. They’re --

I’ll even get them from the weather sta --weatherman over here, but he needs -- he always needs clear skies to do that.


JOE LEAVITT: So when there’s clear skies and I’m not doing nothing, I’ll actually go -- get a copy from him and they’re very useful to me. It’s --

people actually get them, through their phones now, you know. KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh.

JOE LEAVITT: And, but I don’t even have Internet. I don’t -- DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: So with --

JOE LEAVITT: I’m old school guy.

KAREN BREWSTER: So do you get those satellite maps throughout the year or throughout the winter?

JOE LEAVITT: I could do that if I want to, but the weatherman always needs -- I always just call him up and getting close to whaling I’ll get one maybe February, March before the --

when I know there’s a lead then I can -- then I can look at them and -- DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Uh-huh.

JOE LEAVITT: Know where -- know what the ice is doing actually, you know, just from one month here, one month there.

It’s just one, two, three, four pictures out of the whole year.

DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: So with, you know, with our -- with our radar we could -- we’re tracking where the ice is stationary and where it’s mobile, so this is something we potentially could do and would it --

Would it help to have just the present lead edge or would it help for instance to have several lead edges for several dates leading up to -- JOE LEAVITT: Maybe.

DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Would that help you at all?

JOE LEAVITT: That would be very helpful, you know, if it was color coded like, you know. DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Uh-huh.

JOE LEAVITT: One month’s it was here. DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Uh-huh.

JOE LEAVITT: And then it moved back. DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Uh-huh.


JOE LEAVITT: That would -- that would -- that would be very helpful, too.

That’s how these satellite images to me are very helpful when I -- when I can actually see the -- the lead. DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Uh-huh.

JOE LEAVITT: On the picture. To me, you know, that’s very helpful.

DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: And what about for -- I remember when I was out on your trail I -- I met some of your crew and they were very interested and they hadn’t seen the map.

Like how I can get the -- their -- I mean I can get their e-mail addresses for distributing the maps, but all other people I don’t meet is there a way that whalers could get these maps or a way to distribute them more effectively?

JOE LEAVITT: Maybe if you had a website just for the ice.

I know, you know, the younger generation will do it right on, you know, all the way out in the whaling camp they’ll do it on their phone. DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Uh-huh.

JOE LEAVITT: If you had a website maybe. DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Uh-huh.

JOE LEAVITT: Because those younger generation all they want to do is GPS and -- DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Uh-huh.

JOE LEAVITT: The website would be maybe very helpful for them.

DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Yeah, I could -- we could see if we can get this probably the map on the same place as the radar imagery for instance, but even that we have -- we have a web page.

I don’t if you’re -- you’re aware of where you can actually see the ice movement -- the updated radar images.

JOE LEAVITT: Yeah, some of the people, you know, some of the younger people they use the radar. DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Yeah.

JOE LEAVITT: They use the radar and they -- it’s -- that’s that kind of stuff is very helpful. DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Yeah.

JOE LEAVITT: It’s very helpful, especially when the ice breaks off down south, that kind of stuff the imagery on the satellites, you know, that -- that’s very helpful.

That’s very helpful, especially when the ice breaks off down south, we could actually see it on the water sky, but when it starts happening we could actually monitor the -- that ice coming in.

When it breaks down in -- down south way up here, it'll actually take off and go into Barrow.

And a lot of times it will hit right before the Point around Barrow area.

That kind of stuff is very helpful. It's the imagery of that kind of stuff happening when the ice breaks off down south.

To me that’s very helpful too. That is super helpful when somebody is monitoring it through the Internet. DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Uh-huh.

JOE LEAVITT: Especially the younger people, you know, they’ll -- they’ll tell us what -- what’s going on and that that’s very helpful.

KAREN BREWSTER: Arigaa. Quyanaqpak.

JOE LEAVITT: All right.