In 1889, the year after Lonsdale's visit, the first whaling ship entered western Canadian Arctic waters, part of the American Beaufort Sea whaling fleet based in San Francisco and Seattle. They reported that bowhead whales were "as thick as bees," and by 1894 fifteen whaling ships were wintering at Herschel Island. Smaller numbers wintered as far east as Cape Bathurst and Franklin Bay, and in the 25 years from 1890 to the First World War they took about 1500 bowhead whales from Canadian waters. In so doing, and despite often friendly intentions, they destroyed the traditional culture of the Inuvialuit and almost obliterated them as a people. With the whalers, the isolation of the Inuvialuit was shattered.
The impact of the whalers could be felt in nearly every aspect of life. They were able to import large quantities of inexpensive trade goods, completely outflanking the Hudson's Bay Company with its interior supply routes. In 1893 (?), the traveller Frank Russell met Inuvialuit west of the Mackenzie who had been trading with the whalers at Herschel Island. They had several large bags of flour ("as much as some northern posts receive for a year's allowance"), a new cloth tent, and syrup and coffee ("articles quite unknown in the interior"). Whale boats rapidly came to supplant traditional umiaqs, repeating rifles were in wide use, and even clothing was imported. Russell describes Inuvialuit on Herschel Island dressed in broad brimmed sombreros, and with "tight fitting red flannel drawers over their deerskin trousers." The excavation of an Inuvialuit house on Herschel Island dating to the 1890s revealed hardly a single item of native manufacture. Alcohol was enthusiastically embraced, and Herschel Island rapidly became a "hive of debauchery."
At the same time, the animals which supported the traditional economy were being decimated. Bowhead whales, a staple for some Inuvialuit, almost disappeared, and local caribou herds went into a steep decline. Fortunately neither fish nor beluga stocks were seriously threatened, and there was little outright starvation.