Date: Tue, 11 May, 1999

Makah Harpoon Misses First Whale

By Scott Sunde, Paul Shukovsky and Mike Barber - Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporters

NEAH BAY -- For the first time in 70 years, a Makah Indian stood in the bow of a hand-crafted cedar canoe yesterday and threw an 11-foot harpoon at a gray whale. It missed. But the attempt connected the tribe to roots stretching back centuries and marked a return to whaling, which has been banned in the lower 48 states for more than two decades.

The hunt -- much anticipated on the Makah Reservation and much reviled among animal-rights groups -- will likely continue for weeks to come. And so will the controversy it has generated. Two protesters were detained for questioning by the Coast Guard and then arrested last night for investigation of first-degree assault, said Clallam County Undersheriff Joe Martin said. The two men had tangled with Makah whalers on the waters off the Olympic Peninsula.

Makah whaler Theron Parker gets ready to throw his harpoon at a gray whale. The whale dived, and the harpoon missed in yesterday afternoon's tense renewal of an old tradition. The tribe's canoe, known as the "Hummingbird," came close enough to a gray whale just before 4 p.m. that crewman Theron Parker threw his harpoon.

Protesters then moved in, encircling the Hummingbird. Their harassment forced it and an accompanying motor boat to move north, closer to Neah Bay, to an area where the Coast Guard offered protection from protesters.
"We won today. The whales won today because they did not get one," said Jonathan Paul of the protest group Sea Defense Alliance.

Although the crew returned to Neah Bay empty handed, tribal leaders are confident of their chances. Migrating grays will be off the coast for days to come.
"They'll be swimming around here for another month," said John McCarty, a tribal member and former chairman of the Makah whaling commission.

The tribe may resume hunting this morning, with protesters again promising to intervene. But unlike yesterday's glassy seas, worsening weather may postpone the hunt. Gale warnings were posted for the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Winds off the coast are expected to reach 30 knots, and swells are expected to be 8 feet.

The hunt began yesterday, on a calm, warm morning. The boats -- a specially made canoe hewn from red cedar, and an accompanying motor vessel -- started their hunt about near Ozette, the ancient village where Makah whale hunts of old began. The hunters passed Shi-Shi Beach and Father and Son Rock at the Olympic National Park. Then the tribal crew neared Wedding Rocks, where Indian hunting parties of centuries past left carvings in huge boulders. Among the images are whales.

As gray whales neared, six tribal members in Hummingbird paddled so furiously that they created a wake. Later, they got reinforcements from the motor vessel, bringing the canoe's crew to seven. It can hold 11.

Nearby was a vessel from the National Marine Fisheries Service. A government biologist on board was there to witness the hunt and to perform a necropsy on the whale.

By midafternoon, the crew began to stalk yet another gray whale, trailing the animal as it dived, then came up for air. At 3:55 p.m., the hunters were practically on top of the whale as Parker stood and hurled the harpoon. He overthrew the whale but not by much. It was the crew's best chance of the day.

Throughout the afternoon whales glided tantalizingly close to the canoe, puffing mist into the air as they surfaced. At times, the crew would stop paddling and wait for a whale to spout, only to be disappointed when it would resurface in an entirely different direction.

Nearby, on a small power boat, crew member Donnie Swan waited in a wet suit. His job was to dive into the ocean and sew the whale's mouth shut after it was dead so that it would not sink. On the same boat was Wayne Johnson, captain of the whalers, who stood ready to fire a .577-caliber gun to dispatch the whale after it had been harpooned.

As the hunters worked, the Makah reservation took on a new air.
"It's exciting," said tribal Chairman Ben Johnson Jr. "We have been waiting a long time."
"To me, it would be a good feeling for the Makah to get that whale and bring it back to shore," added McCarty, a member of a family with a long tradition of whaling.
"I've talked about our ancestors who through all the years were whale hunters. That is a missing part of our lives. Now it is part of our lives again."

As the hunt continued, people stayed near radio scanners, waiting for word of success and where the carcass would be hauled.

A Coast Guard boat tows a protester's inflatable away from the whale hunt area during yesterday's confrontation. Two protesters were detained. As word of the hunt spread, the anti-whaling groups also began to mobilize. Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society was in Friday Harbor with his vessel Sirenian. He arrived in Neah Bay aboard the Sirenian last night.

Up the coast were two vessels of the Sea Defense Alliance, which describes itself as a militant environmental and animal-rights group. The boats had been waiting outside Neah Bay yesterday and shadowed the tribal motor boat.
"We knew they were going out there. We were waiting for them," said Paul, of the Sea Defense Alliance.

The two boats of the animal-rights group played a cat-and-mouse game with the tribe's motorboat until the Coast Guard interceded. Responding to reports that guns were being brandished aboard the alliance boats, armed Coast Guardsmen boarded the larger of the two vessels. Ed Kaetzel, a Coast Guard spokesman, said no guns were found. But a Coast Guard helicopter observed instances of interfering with a whaling boat and navigating too closely to another vessel. They remain under investigation.

Paul denied that guns had been brandished and said that the Coast Guard had detained two of his group's members.

Late yesterday afternoon, Clallam County deputies escorted the two protesters, Jake Conroy, 23, of Seattle and Josh Harper, 24, of Eugene, Ore., to the Coast Guard station at Neah Bay. Undersheriff Martin said his office would recommend they be charged with felony assault. He refused to describe what they were accused of doing.

Clallam County Sheriff Joe Hawe said earlier that his office was investigating reports that demonstrators shot a warning flare over the tribal canoe.
"We did it for the whales!" Harper said as he and Conroy were driven away from Neah Bay by Clallam County sheriff's officers.

The protesters' largest vessel, the Bulletproof, was joined yesterday afternoon by two inflatable boats from British Columbia. The three boats circled the canoe and tried to scare off whales.

Johnson, the Makah whaling crew captain, complained last night that protesters were "shooting flares at the canoe, they were shooting fire hoses at us."

Meanwhile, tribal police in Neah Bay were preparing to close the reservation to keep the protesters out, said Lionel Adhunko, tribal police chief.
"The tribal membership will come down to wherever the whale is towed in. There will be a ceremony; outsiders will be kept out," Adhunko said.
"This is a tribal cultural thing, and that's where it will stay."

Yesterday afternoon, protesters began arriving at Neah Bay, promising a demonstration today.

Should the tribe take a whale it likely will tow it to a secluded beach. In a ceremony for tribal members only, sacred songs and dances will be performed. Whaling captain Wayne Johnson will have the honor of butchering the whale. The first piece he will dry and decorate. Other choice pieces will go to members of the whaling crew. Other tribal members will get the rest.

Trucks with large ice chests will ferry the meat into town for refrigeration. The tribe will produce whale oil by rendering in dozens of large pots that have been collected over the winter.

The Makahs, whose whaling tradition stretches back 1,000 years or more, ended its hunts in the 1920s when commercial whalers had devastated the species. But gray whales have rebounded, so growing in numbers that the U.S. government took them off the endangered species list in 1994.

In 1997, the International Whaling Commission agreed to let the Makah Tribe resume whaling. Tribal members can kill up to 20 whales through the year 2002.

The controversy that the whaling has caused remains troubling for some tribal members. McCarty said he had mixed feelings about the hunt. He was glad the tribe was resuming its tradition, but worried about the repercussions, including a loss of federal funds.
"I think there are lot of people that are against the Makah killing the whale -- more than those that support our culture and our way of life," McCarty said.
"I've got mixed feelings whether it's worth it. As soon as we harpoon that whale and he's dead, our funding will be dead."

For the Makah, hunting whales has deep cultural and spiritual meaning. Whalers were honored members of the tribe, and the act of hunting, butchering and eating a whale was heaped in ritual. Tribal leaders saw a resumption of the hunts as a way to strengthen ties with the past and its cultural values. Besides, tribal leaders noted, a treaty signed in 1855 reserved the Makah right to hunt whales.

The tribe stuck on the northwest corner of the lower 48 states was all but forgotten for decades. But last year, the world discovered the Makah Tribe. Animal-rights activists gathered outside Neah Bay last summer and for much of the fall, promising to stop any hunt and, at all costs, protect the whales.

An intended fall hunt was filled with stops and starts. There were practice paddles, but never a hunt. An internal dispute crippled the crew.

Back to MENU

Whales in Danger Information Service