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White Float Coats Protect Alaska Native Whalers

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Many Alaska Native whalers risked navigating Alaska's icy waters without lifejackets, opting to wear white clothes rather than sticking out against the arctic landscape in bright-colored flotation coats, reported the Associated Press.

Recently, lifejackets became available in white--the only color that allows the hunters to fade into the background, disguised from their gigantic prey. Personal flotation devices (PFDs) must be in boats at all times, but only persons below 13 years of age are required to wear them, mandated by federal and state law.

Alaska Native hunters from coastal villages will sport the white "float coats" when subsistence whaling season commences in April. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) Injury Prevention Program, with assistance from the U.S. Coast Guard, Mustang Survival Corp. and the Department of Natural Resources, launched last year, providing whalers with 52 coats. The consortium dipped into $12,000 of its funds to order the coats at about $250 each, according to The Arctic Sounder, from British Columbia-based Mustang Survival Corp., a company that specializes in flotation and extreme-weather protection, reported the AP. The consortium aimed to reduce disproportionately high drownings among Alaska Natives. Between 2000 and 2006, Alaska Natives accounted for only 17 percent of the state population, but represented 44 percent of all drowning deaths, according to a study published in the consortium's article, "Drowning in Alaska: progress and persistent problems."

"Villages are very small and many people are related, so even one drowning hits a whole community," Hillary Strayer, an injury prevention specialist with the consortium, told The Arctic Sounder.

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Eight whaling crews from Barrow, Wales, and Wainwright pilot-tested the float coats beginning in early May 2010. Since the project caught wind around Alaska, walrus and seal hunters have shown interest in using white float coats, according to the ANTHC Web site.

This season, 96 coats will go to crews in villages that are members of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. Another two dozen whalers will be outfitted with white float pants. Shell Oil donated $15,000 to this year's efforts, and nearly $11,000 came from ConocoPhillips, an oil producer on Alaska's North Slope, where some whalers reside. Shell explores offshore oil in the region.

Gordon Brower--whaling captain from Barrow, located on the northernmost tip of Alaska, and 47-year-veteran whaler--caught a 30-ton bowhead with his crew on their first expedition clad in the white gear.

Over the course of his whale-hunting years, Brower recalls witnessing a number of tipped canoes. The boats run a mere 24-feet, half the length of most whales, which average a ton per foot. "Once in a great while, somebody has lost their lives," he told the AP. "The potential is always there, especially when you are attempting to harvest a whale and the animal is a big animal."