Ucluelet, BC – Almost every aspect of Nuu-chah-nulth life has been enriched by whaling, said Huu-ay-aht hereditary chief whaler Tom Mexsis Happynook.
“It has strengthened the economic structure of our community by providing very valuable products to sell, trade and trade,” he said. “It strengthened our relationships with other communities because it brought people from all over the Pacific Northwest, which often resulted in inter-tribal relationships and marriages…and ultimately it strengthened our people. physically and mentally due to the nutritional value of the whale.”
Hereditary chief whalers were preparing for a whaling hunt up to nine months before the species’ annual migration from Mexico to the Arctic. It involved fasting, bathing, prayer, as well as secret rituals and sacred ceremonies that were performed in harmony with the rhythms of the moon in caves and pools, Happynook described.
Happynook comes from a long line of whaler leaders. Both his father and grandfather participated in his family’s last whaling in 1928 at Chap-is, the former site of the summer village of Huu-ay-aht on Diana Island.
“I am very proud of my family’s whaling heritage and will soon be handing over my hereditary seat and my treasures to my son, Tommy,” he said.
While traditional hunts no longer take place, whales continue to be celebrated each year on the West Coast through the Pacific Rim Whale Festival.
The festival was born 34 years ago when a group of concerned citizens came together to raise awareness about the then endangered gray whale.
For centuries gray whales were hunted commercially for their oil and it was only a year after the International Whaling Commission was established in 1946 that they were protected.
Festival coordinator Sarah Watt said gray whale populations have since rebounded, but new threats have emerged.
Boat traffic, pollution, climate change and entanglement in derelict fishing gear continue to threaten the species, she said.
More recently, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Fisheries Administration said a spike in whale strandings along the West Coast was an unusual mortality event.
Since the phenomenon began in 2019, more than 500 gray whales have stranded along their migratory route between Mexico and Alaska, according to NOAA Fisheries.
Although the underlying cause remains unknown, Watt said climate change and changing weather patterns in the Arctic could impact their diet.
“Even though the festival is in its 34th year, raising awareness about gray whales and the ecosystem is still as important as ever,” she said.
In 2019, NOAA Fisheries said the population of North Pacific gray whales was around 27,000. This number fell to around 20,580 whales in 2021, based on a new population assessment by NOAA. Fisheries.
These aren’t the statistics Watt said he hopes to see, but they underscore the need to “celebrate the migration of gray whales and the ecosystem as a whole to raise awareness.”
“We hope people feel more connected to nature through our educational, artistic and cultural events,” she said.
For most of her life, Watt said gray whales only existed for her through books and movies. That changed when she moved from England to Canada four years ago and saw one in person for the first time.
“They were almost like this otherworldly species to me – they’re these huge mammals,” she said. “I think that’s part of the fascination.”
As part of this year’s Whale Festival lineup, Jamie’s Whaling Station has partnered with Huu-ay-aht First Nations to offer a tour of Bamfield, with whale watching along the way. In Bamfield, participants were given a guided tour of the traditional site of the Huu-ay-aht village of Kiix̣in by Wish Key.
Combining whale watching with Indigenous cultural tours is “really important because they’re both so intertwined,” Watt said.
Ucluelet Aquarium staff also participated in the festival by carefully dragging a seine net along the ocean floor in search of sea creatures for the Terrace Beach Aquarium. This is the 10th year that the aquarium has hosted the Beach Seine event, which allows visitors to interact with surrounding organisms.
“Our local ecosystems can be so vibrant and full of life,” said Laura Griffith-Cochrane, curator of the Ucluelet Aquarium. “And it’s hard for people to know that when they just look at the surface of the water.”
While the festival is largely a celebration of whales, Watts said it aims to highlight how everything – from the rainforest to the ocean – is connected.
As Happynook reflects on his family’s relationship with whales, he credits the species with boosting their spirituality.
“We know whaling was an important part of our lives,” Happynook said. “All you have to do is look at the designs of our sculptures, paintings and basketwork and you will clearly see that the whale has truly inspired and influenced our way of life.”
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