Herschel Island – Whaling Ghost Town

It’s deserted today except for the formidable exemplars of Arctic wildlife that spend part of the year here, but this 117-sq.-km (45-sq.-mile) island on the top shelf of the North American continent was, for a very brief period in the late 19th century, a place that saw a lot of action. In the heyday of whaling, Herschel Island was an important harbor and wintering site for whale ships and their crews, who built everything—from ball fields to ball-rooms—they needed to make this island of tundra feel more like home. What brought them to this remote part of the globe was the bowhead whale, a baleen species that, by that time, existed only in the Beaufort Sea off the north coast of Yukon. But when, in the early 20th century, the advent of petroleum made whale oil obsolete, the whalers left Herschel, and the native Inuvialuit people soon followed suit, returning the island to the bears, caribou, and other fauna that thrive in the harsh conditions of the far north.

The Inuvialuits, Inuits descended from the Thule people, called Herschel Qikiqtaruk (“island”). The island is now designated as Herschel Island-Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park, administered by the Government of Yukon. Although nominally protected as a national park, Herschel is very much under threat from climate change. Ice in the Arctic region is melting fast, and the rising sea levels are encroaching on the shorelines of much of this part of the world. Herschel’s cultural heritage sites—including the archaeology of its whaling buildings at the European-American settlement of Pauline Cove, as well as Inuvialuit structures and graves—will disappear underwater unless they’re moved. The World Monuments Fund has placed Herschel on its 100 Most Endangered Sites list; in the meantime, the island is a likely candidate to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for both its cultural and its natural assets.

On the trip to Herschel Island from the mainland, a near-encyclopedic sampling of Arctic mammals can be seen here at various times of the year. Porcupine caribou are a common sight, and moose and musk oxen are also present. Black bears, polar bears, and grizzlies are all known to have dens on the island. Beluga and bowhead whales still swim in the Beaufort Sea offshore, unharried by the whalers’ harpoons.

For visitors, getting to Herschel Island, even though it’s only 6.4km (4 miles) from the mainland of Yukon and 72km (45 miles) from the north coast of Alaska, is a challenge. There are no regularly scheduled flights or boat services here, but charters can be arranged and kayakers traveling the Firth river can stop here.