'Float coats' keep arctic sea hunters safer

Alaska Natives outfitted with "float coats," personal flotation devices custom-made in white that works as a camouflage during whale hunts.
Alaska Natives outfitted with "float coats," personal flotation devices custom-made in white that works as a camouflage during whale hunts. (Stephanie Aguvluk)

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By Rachel D'Oro
Tuesday, January 18, 2011

ANCHORAGE - Gordon Brower has been hunting bowhead whales for most of his 47 years, forgoing life jackets because no one made them in white, the only color that works as camouflage on Alaska's icy arctic coast.

Now, the whaling captain from the nation's northernmost town of Barrow and other Eskimo whalers have begun to wear personal flotation devices, custom-made in the white they've traditionally used to make them more invisible to their massive prey.

When the subsistence whaling season arrives this spring, more Alaska Native hunters from coastal villages will be outfitted with the white "float coats" being distributed through a safety program that debuted last year.

The program handed out more than 50 coats in its first year and will provide about 100 this spring. A couple dozen whalers also will receive white float pants.

Brower's crew was among the first to try the coats. On their initial trek with the new gear, the crew even landed a 30-ton bowhead.

"Everything kind of lined up in a straight line and the stars were with us, and we got a whale," he said, noting the only glitch with the coats is the noise they make in extremely cold weather. "Other than that, I think they work pretty good. We were happy to use them."

The coats are the result of efforts by the Coast Guard, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and Burnaby, British Columbia-based Mustang Survival, which makes flotation and extreme-climate protection products.

They have a nylon shell and buoyant foam filling, which also offers protection from the Arctic's frigid conditions.

Mike Folkerts, a recreational boating safety specialist with the Coast Guard, was participating in a mission to Barrow in 2009 when he noticed the town's main grocery and general store had no life jackets for sale. Local whalers told him life jackets were too bright and would scare away the animals. He asked if they would wear the jackets if they were available in white. The hunters said sure.

Folkerts called a couple of companies, including Mustang, which sent prototype samples. He then showed the samples to the whalers.

"They loved them," Folkerts said.

While life jackets must be on board, there is no federal or state requirement to wear them in recreational boats unless a person is younger than 13, he said.


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