Dr. John Craighead "Craig" George

Senior Wildlife Biologist (Bowhead Whales), Department of Wildlife Management

North Slope Borough, Utqiagvik, Alaska

 

Dr. John Craighead George, 70, died July 5, 2023, in a tragic rafting accident in Alaska. To most he was known as “Craig” or by his Inupiat Eskimo name “Umiŋmak” which means muskox.  He was born in 1952  to naturalist, artist and writer Jean Craighead George and ornithologist and wildlife biology professor John Lothar George in Poughkeepsie, NY.  Growing up in the suburbs of Chappaqua, NY, the family found wildness in the rivers, cliffs, and fields.   His mother wrote children’s and other books about places they explored and the animals they raised. Craig’s exploits were often included in the stories.

 

After graduating from Horace Greeley High School, Craig spent as much time as he could with his extended Craighead family in Wyoming and received his bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology from Utah State University in 1976.   He first worked as an animal caretaker at the Naval Arctic Research Lab (NARL), Barrow (now Utqiaġvik), Alaska in 1977.  He then worked with various field biology projects before starting his 35-year career with the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management as a wildlife biologist.  

 

Craig became known for his collaborative work with the Inupiat communities of the North Slope and his longtime work on bowhead whales. Beginning in 1982, Craig worked on and later coordinated bowhead whale ice-based population assessments near Point Barrow and in later years helped coordinate the first extensive aerial survey assessments. Since 1980 he conducted 100s of postmortem exams on bowheads harvested by Alaskan Eskimos and published more than 100 scientific papers covering Bowhead whale anatomy and physiology, population biology, age estimation, evidence of killer whale predation, Inupiat traditional knowledge, marine ecology, and sea ice dynamics.

 

Craig attended International Whaling Commission (IWC) meetings since 1987 focusing mainly on aboriginal whaling management procedures and assessments and population estimation.  Craig was also known as a musician, songwriter, artist, comedian, and outdoorsman.  He loved to work with school kids on the North Slope, at Sitka WhaleFest, and across the country on Zoom. He carried his guitar wherever he went.  His song “Keep on Whaling” is a favorite which he played for many events and is often played on KBRW.  He especially loved anything and everyone associated with traveling the tundra and local waterways, camping/hunting, spring ice-trail building, hearing local stories and observations, and listening for bowhead whales. An example of the bond Craig shared with the Inupiat community is when the Barrow Whaling Captains Association recognized him as “Honorary Whaling Captain” in 2021.

Craig met Cyd Hanns in 1985 and they married in 1990. Together they raised two boys, Luke (Kupaaq) and Sam (Ayalhuq) in Utqiagvik through high school.  Cyd worked as a veterinary/wildlife research technician and often accompanied Craig in the field.  The family traveled throughout Alaska and accompanied Craig on international scientific meeting trips all over the world.

 

 A Tribute to Dr. Craig George, Jenny Evan



Interviews

2009

Dr. John C. “Craig” George, a senior wildlife biologist in the Department of Wildlife Management for the North Slope Borough, shares his experience and involvement in Arctic research, particularly focused on bowhead whales. He describes his initial work at an animal research facility, his fascination with the Arctic ice, and his transition to studying bowhead whales. Dr. George highlights the significance of the native community’s knowledge and Iñupiaq collaboration in understanding the bowhead whale population. Through acoustic research and refining census techniques, scientists have discovered that a larger number of whales migrated under the sea ice than previously thought. The research findings confirmed the native hunters’ observations, leading to a better understanding of bowhead whale populations and their recovery.

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Dr. George reflects on his unexpected decision to raise a family in Barrow, Alaska, despite the expectations of leaving for better education opportunities. He highlights the unique and appealing aspects of the community, including its small size, diverse activities such as dog mushing, fishing, hunting, Eskimo dances, and the vibrant whaling culture. Dr. George emphasizes the positive aspects of the local schools and the supportive community. He expresses satisfaction with the experiences his family has had, including participating in whaling, festivals, outdoor activities, and encountering wildlife like caribou and polar bears. He appreciates the sense of safety and freedom for children to explore and enjoy the natural surroundings, which he believes is increasingly rare in urban areas. Overall, Dr. George describes his time in Barrow as a rewarding and enriching experience that has offered his family a unique and vibrant slice of America.

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An enthusiast of climbing mountains in the western states of the Lower 48, Craig found a similar sense of fulfillment when he came to the North Slope and in his decades-long exploration of the sea ice. He is passionate about the untouched, pristine nature of the ice and how it creates a feeling of being part of a renewable wilderness area. As a member of the close-knit Utqiaġvik community of whalers and scientists, Dr. George focuses on bowhead whales, emphasizing their extraordinary characteristics. Bowheads are massive creatures, known to reach lengths of up to 60 feet, and potentially even larger based on historical records. They possess thick blubber, long baleen plates used for filtering prey, and remarkably large heads that continue to grow throughout their lives. Bowheads captivated even Charles Darwin, he says, who recognized the uniqueness of their baleen structure. Additionally, evidence suggests that bowheads live exceptionally long lives, potentially exceeding 150 years. Various techniques, such as chemical aging and baleen analysis, provide insights into their slow growth and delayed maturity in frigid Arctic waters. The bowhead whale’s longevity and reproductive patterns contribute to their cultural significance among Eskimo communities, where whaling plays a central role. The act of hunting and sharing the harvested whale is a cooperative endeavor that brings joy and happiness to the community, highlighting the selfless nature of their sharing network. The experience of witnessing the communal celebration and the deep connection to this important resource leaves a lasting impression on Dr. George.

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Dr. Craig George discusses his experiences living and working on the ice and learning from the Iñupiaq about the complexity of ice dynamics and ice safety. The preparations for his study of whales start in winter. He and his crew typically begin moving out onto the ice around mid-April, setting up a 24-hour watch. Due to the changing conditions, they now have to end their work in late May as the ice becomes too soft to remain on the ice pack. Challenges he faces include dealing with polar bears and the risk of ice breaking off and stranding the scientists. Craig talks about when their camp drifted in 1987 and when the ice shattered in 1985, he narrowly escaped onto safer ice. Craig relates stories of his encounters with bears and the need for safety measures and training. His scientific crew consists of scientists and local Iñupiat, and the work is intense and unpredictable, with each year presenting different circumstances. The location of their work along the coast is uncertain, as ice conditions and pressure ridges vary annually. Despite the uncertainties, he acknowledges the success of bowhead whale conservation, with the population rebounding to approximately 13,000 or more after facing the brink of extinction due to commercial hunting early in the 20th century.

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Dr. George reflects on raising a family in the Arctic. Despite suggestions from family and friends in the lower 48 states to leave for better educational opportunities, Craig loved the small Utqiaġvik community, which offers good schools, a supportive community, dog mushing, fishing, hunting, Eskimo dances, and a vibrant whaling culture. He and his wife have had experiences unmatched elsewhere. The region is filled with beautiful rivers, a vast roadless region with few people and abundant wildlife. Utqiaġvik, Alaska, formerly Barrow, provides a sense of safety, allowing its children to freely explore and engage in activities that may not be possible in urban areas.

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2022

Dr. Craig George discusses fascinating new cancer research in bowhead whales. As long-lived mammals, bowheads have unique mechanisms for tumor suppression and DNA repair, similar to other long-lived species like elephants and naked mole-rats. Bowheads also exhibit low body temperatures and metabolic rates, which may contribute to their longevity. The research has implications for human medicine. Dr. George expresses excitement about the work but also emphasizes the importance of including the native community that provided the specimens in any major breakthroughs or benefits that may arise from the research.

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Dr. Craig George expresses his enduring passion for going out on the sea ice to observe and study whales, particularly during the spring whaling season. He describes the excitement of the upcoming whale migration, beluga sightings, and the impressive scale of the wildlife spectacle in the Arctic. The conversation also touches on a memorable moment when Dr. George had to briefly leave a whale study to attend a wedding, and upon returning, he was struck by the beauty and joy of being out on the ice. The strong connection between the local community and the whales is emphasized, and Dr. George reflects on how it took time for him to truly understand and appreciate this profound relationship.

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Dr. Craig George talks about local impacts of global warming and changes in the traditional whaling practices of the Iñupiat . The migration of bowhead whales seems to be happening earlier, and there are adjustments in hunting due to weaker ice. The opening of the Arctic has allowed for a more extended fall hunting season, and there are speculations about the potential reasons behind the variations in whale presence, including food availability and the influence of killer whales and vessel traffic. Despite changes, some communities still use skin boats, preserving this traditional method of whaling. However, the impacts of climate change and the ice retreat continue to affect whaling practices and the bowhead whale population.

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Dr. Craig George discusses the attitude of residents on the North Slope towards climate change. Unlike the climate-change hysteria found in some regions, the Iñupiat have a more adaptive approach to the changing conditions. They have been dealing with change and adverse conditions for a long time and are pragmatic about finding workarounds. While they acknowledge the impacts of climate change and potential sea level rise, they remain focused on practical solutions. Their resilience and sense of humor, exemplified by individuals like elder Billy Adams, help them navigate the challenges posed by the changing environment and maintain a positive outlook.

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Dr. Craig George and Peter Lourie discuss the remarkable adaptability of bowhead whales in the face of climate change. Despite the retreat of sea ice, the whale population has thrived, surprising researchers. Yet Dr. George highlights the emergence of new challenges, such as infections in adult bowhead whales and changes in Arctic biodiversity. Overall, the conversation offers valuable insights into the resilience of the Arctic species amid a changing climate.

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Dr. George reflects on raising a family in the Arctic. Despite suggestions from family and friends in the lower 48 states to leave for better educational opportunities, Craig loved the small Utqiaġvik community, which offers good schools, a supportive community, dog mushing, fishing, hunting, Eskimo dances, and a vibrant whaling culture. He and his wife have had experiences unmatched elsewhere. The region is filled with beautiful rivers, a vast roadless region with few people and abundant wildlife. Utqiaġvik, Alaska, formerly Barrow, provides a sense of safety, allowing its children to freely explore and engage in activities that may not be possible in urban areas.

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Dr. Craig George talks about the rapidly changing Arctic and exciting developments in bowhead whale research. Dr. George reflects on how much has been learned over the past 40 years, transforming our understanding of these creatures. He emphasizes that it’s an equally exciting time for young researchers to get involved in bowhead studies. Native communities have also stepped up their involvement, contributing to a successful integration of native and western science. Dr. George mentions some promising young researchers who are making significant contributions to the field.

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Pete Lourie Message for Craig George

I first met Craig down in Cold Spring, New York, where he owned a house he rented out. I knew his mom well and even on our first meeting at the bar he said to me, Come on up to visit in Alaska sometime. Twenty years later I had the chance to write a few arctic books and work on some video for arcticstories.net in Barrow, now Utqiagvik, and Craig and I became pals. It took some real convincing to get him to be a subject for my book Whaling Season: A Year the Life of an Arctic Whale Scientist, which won all kinds of praise. Sometimes when he and his wife Cyd were away he’d lend me his snow machine so I could get from NARL to town and back. We were the same age and just retiring and in fairly good shape. News of his death on a river came like the loud chop of a cleaver. How we all will miss such a gifted, kind, gentle, generous, humble and truly bold and brave man, I can hardly say. A titan in Arctic research, Craig George was truly one of the great ones on this planet.

 

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