Resurrection

After a 70-year hiatus and a confrontation with the world, the Makah tribe resumes its communion with the gray whale

But there could be no hunt.

Not until the federal biologists arrived to observe the hunt and not before Wayne Johnson and the support boat showed up with the rifleman. Johnson arrived around 6:45 a.m. Within minutes, a media boat was on the scene with television helicopters hovering above.

Incredibly, after months of stalking the whaling canoe's every move, mounting blockades of the road into Neah Bay, broadcasting anti-whaling messages from ships docked in the harbor, offering large sums of money to the tribe if only it would give up the hunt, vowing to sink the canoe and do harm to the whalers, the protesters were nowhere to be seen.

A full-scale, red-cedar plank long house stands at the entrance to the Makah Cultural and Research Center in Neah Bay, Washington.
John Dougherty
A full-scale, red-cedar plank long house stands at the entrance to the Makah Cultural and Research Center in Neah Bay, Washington.

The hunt was on.

Several gray whales were in the area. The whaling canoe began tracking a 30-foot whale that appeared to be feeding. The weeks of practice paid off, and the team powered the canoe quickly into position.

Parker rose from the bow, his right hand clutching the harpoon, as the gray whale surfaced.

The action was being broadcast live on morning news shows.

"They have a target," a newscaster reported from a helicopter.

"There's the harpoon," the broadcaster said in the same tone a sportscaster would use during a field goal attempt -- "The kick is on its way. . . ."

The whale cut in front of the canoe. Only feet away, Parker thrust the harpoon deep into the back of the gray whale.

He was so close to the whale that he was able to lean into the harpoon with all his weight, all his strength, and ram the harpoon tip through the vertebra, piercing the whale's spinal cord.

The whale was stunned.

"It hurt the whale so bad that it buckled," Wayne Johnson says.

Which was a good thing for the crew because the bow of the Hummingbird was directly over the top of the whale -- the last place the whalers wanted to be in case the whale flipped its flukes in a furious response to the sudden attack.

Instead, the whale gently rolled to one side. (The Makah say the whale's passive reaction showed it was willing to give its life. Protesters say the whale was shocked from the unprovoked attack and didn't know what was happening.)

The crew quickly paddled backwards, seconds before the whale finally reacted and thrashed its fluke against the ocean surface before diving beneath the waves.

The harpoon tip lodged in the whale was attached to a rope, which ran to the canoe. The line connected to the whale went taut, and the wounded whale began towing the Hummingbird across the ocean. In historic times, the whale might have lived for several days and towed a whaling canoe far out to sea.

But this hunt was going last only several more minutes.

"We are going to show you what is unfolding live," the broadcaster told a breakfast audience. "This may be a disturbing scene to some of you. You may choose to turn away from your television right now. The harpoon has stuck. The support boat with the gunner is moving into position near the whale."

The first two shots from the rifleman missed. A second harpoon was thrust into the whale, this time from a crewmember aboard the support boat.

The third shot hit the whale in the spine, slowing it to a crawl.

"Between the two harpoons and the gunfire that has been shot at the whale, it appears the whale is mortally hurt at this time," a television reporter said from the scene.

The support boat again moved into position.

The rifleman aimed and fired. The bullet blasted a three-inch-wide hole into the skull of the whale, killing it instantly.

Elapsed time from first harpoon thrust to fatal shot -- eight minutes. Time of death: 7:03 a.m., May 17, 1999.

Moments later, the weather kicked up and a cold, heavy rain began to fall.

The protesters finally showed up. All Captain Paul Watson and the crew of Sirenian could do was mournfully blare the boat's horn.

Sea Shepherd spokesman Christie declined to comment on the Makah assertion that the protesters were late because they were partying. He says the Makah surprised the protesters by paddling "against the tide very early in the morning, contrary to common practice."

Christie says the Sirenian was "virtually the only" protest boat left after the Coast Guard had "methodically seized" nearly all of the other protest boats. The Sirenian was refueling and gathering more jet skis in Sekiu when its crew got word the hunt was underway.

"We arrived on the scene 15 minutes after the kill," he says.

By that time, the whaling crew had already given prayers of thanks, before thrusting their paddles into the air and cheering.

After some confusion, Wayne Johnson and members of the support crew secured the whale -- which had suddenly sunk to the shallow ocean floor before rising to the surface as decomposing gases made it buoyant. The 3-year-old female whale was attached by ropes to a Makah fishing vessel and slowly towed north along the coast.

Eleven hours later, the ship arrived outside Neah Bay. The Hummingbird, along with canoes from four other tribes, pulled the whale onto shore in a ceremonial procession witnessed by thousands of wildly cheering Indians, many dressed in traditional clothes.

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