Hunter not ashamed of killing whale without a permit

NEAH BAY, Clallam County -- It was about 6:30 on a beautiful summer morning, with gray whales all around, when Wayne Johnson decided he had waited long enough: It was time to hunt whales again.

Within minutes Saturday, Johnson and four other Makah tribal members were on the downtown dock at Neah Bay, boarding two motorized boats. By the end of the day, the men were in handcuffs and a whale was dead.

Sunday, even as tribal council members strongly denounced the hunt, Johnson said he had no regrets. "If anything, I wish I'd done it years earlier," he said.

The hunt started without a hitch: Less than a mile out, the men spotted a gray whale. But Johnson, 54, and the rest of the crew decided they were too close to shore to fire the .460-caliber rifle they'd brought.

Around 9:30, the crew saw another whale. This one, about 40 feet long, surfaced and came to the two boats.

"It chose us," Johnson said.

Into the animal's flesh, crew members plunged at least five stainless-steel whaling harpoons and four seal harpoons "so we wouldn't lose it," Johnson said. They then shot the whale with a gun powerful enough to fire a slug four miles.

The former captain of the whaling crew that in 1999 took the Makah tribe's first whale in 70 years, Johnson confirmed that the hunt that shocked his own tribe and anti-whaling activists Saturday was carried out without the permission of his Tribal Council or Whaling Commission.

And it was done without conforming to conditions of the federal permit that controlled that 1999 hunt -- permission from the tribe; prior notification to a federal observer who had to be in place at the time of the kill; restricting the hunt to the outer coast to protect "resident" whales in the Strait of Juan de Fuca; approaching the whale in a traditional canoe; and using first a harpoon and then a .50-caliber gun to dispatch the whale.

On Saturday, there was no permit, no observer, no canoe; no restricting the hunt to the coast. Just five whalers, four from the 1999 hunt, casting loose from the downtown dock.

"Why mess around with a canoe?" Johnson said. "It would have been more people in jail, and we would have lost the canoe."

The Coast Guard was on the scene within hours, and Johnson and the others found themselves in handcuffs. The Coast Guard confiscated the gun and the boats, and cut the whale loose -- harpoons and all -- to drift on the current. By evening, it was dead.

After questioning the whalers, the Coast Guard turned them over to tribal police. The men spent most of Saturday night at the tribal jail, then were released on bond.

Tribal statement

Early Sunday afternoon, the Tribal Council issued a statement denouncing the whalers' actions and promising prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.

The tribe said it would cooperate with any federal investigation of the hunt and that the whalers will stand trial in tribal court.

"We hope the public does not permit the action of five irresponsible persons to be used to harm the image of the entire Makah Tribe," part of the statement said.

The hunters could face federal charges if they are found to have violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Emily Langlie, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle, said prosecutors need to review reports from tribal police, the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration before deciding if or how to charge the men.

Protest, lawsuit possible

If charges are not filed, said Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which staked out the 1999 whale hunt for weeks, there will likely be a noisy protest. He also said a lawsuit is possible against the federal government for failing to enforce whale protections.

Early Sunday afternoon at the west edge of the Makah Reservation, tribal police and a Clallam County sheriff's deputy were stopping cars and asking occupants their business on the reservation.

Yet for most of the day, there was a sole demonstrator, and he was outside the reservation boundaries. Hans Barr, 24, a seasonal fisherman from Bellingham, propped a sign in support of the Makahs' right to hunt against a battered black pickup.

The Makahs are entitled by their heritage to hunt whales, when and how they wish, he said. "It's not up to white people to say what native culture is or is not."

Environmentalists' protests over the tribe's whaling amount to racism, he said.

Peter Cacace disagrees. He and his friends, fishing for salmon near the reservation Saturday, saw Coast Guard boats protecting the injured whale.

The Makah need to follow the laws of the U.S., said Cacace, who lives near Tacoma. "It's been a long time since those treaties were signed.

"If they did it the way they used to do it, with the harpoon and canoe, it'd probably be fine with me," he said.

"I'm not ashamed"

On Sunday, Johnson, sporting his trademark 50-caliber-shooting-club jacket, said he had no regrets.

Tired of more than eight years of wrangling in the courts over permission to once again hunt whales, he said: "The time just felt right. ...

"I'm not ashamed. I'm feeling kind of proud. ... There is only a few guys in Neah Bay that can get a whale and bring everyone home safely. You think one of the only whaling captains in 77 years could give it up? I should have done it years ago. I come from a whaling family ... It's in the blood."

The tribe needs to whale to keep its culture alive, Johnson said. "The time is now, when the people are still interested. And the whales are robust."

Gray whales were taken off the endangered-species list in 1994, and populations are healthy.

The animals make their way past Washington's coast migrating to and from their feeding grounds off Alaska and their calving lagoons off Baja California.

This time of year has historically meant prime hunting for the Makah, whalers for millennia.

"A black eye on us"

Saturday night, after the whalers were taken into custody, tribal officials met with community members for more than two hours to talk about what had happened. Some were concerned the rogue hunt would complicate and slow their efforts to legally hunt whales again.

Ed Claplanhoo, 79, a Makah tribal elder and member of the tribal whaling commission, said he and other tribal officials neither sanctioned nor agree with the crew's actions.

"We are a law-abiding people," he said.

His Indian name, Bahduktooah, was passed down from his great-great-grandfather, a whaler at Ozette, one of the tribe's original villages. And the women in his family have long made prized baskets decorated with the tribe's signature whale design.

But Claplanhoo disagreed strongly with Saturday's hunt.

"This ... puts kind of a black eye on us. I thought it was wrong. We pride ourselves that we are a law-abiding tribe, and we go by the rules and regulations.

"Even though we support our treaty 100 percent, we have to be within the guidelines and the rules that we work with to protect the animals, and the people themselves."

He said the tribe has work ahead.

"We will have to convince the powers that be that we are sincere in the rules we set up, and that we know what we are doing, and we are not going to sanction illegal activities by supporting this hunt. We are not that kind of tribe."

Should the matter come to tribal court, the tribe is equipped to handle it, Claplanhoo said.

"We are ready to accept that responsibility."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or

Seattle Times staff reporter Jonathan Martin contributed to this report.

Wayne Johnson was captain of the Makah crew that took a whale legally in 1999.
A California gray whale with a harpoon still sticking from its side is tethered with floats to a small boat on Saturday in the Strait of Juan de Fuca about two miles from shore northeast of Neah Bay. (KEITH THORPE / AP)