Symbolic Whale Rescue Effort

NEAH BAY, Wash. – The 18-foot rigid-hull inflatable approached the reported area. Two crew members leaned over the bow, watching and ready. The boat bobbed on the rolling sea on a cloudy May 13 morning.

“Coming back under, to the right; he’s on our right,” the skipper called out.

Then, exhale and spray, as the 35-foot juvenile humpback whale surfaced at the inflatable’s bow.

Marine mammal biologists from Cascadia Research and the Makah Indian Nation cut crab pot lines entangling the whale’s body and tail.

While the whale rescue effort may have seemed routine, it had a deeper significance. It’s just one part of the story of Makah’s relationship with ciciwad – it’s a spiritual relationship between two beings that share the same environment, a relationship that goes beyond hunting.

While Makah, host of the 2010 Intertribal Canoe Journey, has been the subject of protests over its desire to resume treaty-guaranteed whale hunts, it has long been at the forefront of environmental and marine mammal protection.

In response to three ship-related oil spills in its traditional waters – in 1972, 1988 and 1991, totaling 3.1 million gallons – the Makah Tribal Council contributed $450,000 in funding to station a rescue tug at Neah Bay, which is where the Pacific Ocean and the Strait of Juan de Fuca meet.

In 2003, Makah was appointed to the Puget Sound Harbor Safety Committee. In 2007, the state Department of Ecology designated Neah Bay as a staging area for oil spill responses.

In 2008, the Makah Tribal Council created the Makah Office of Marine Affairs. In 2008, Makah was appointed to the Region 10 Regional Response Team and the Northwest Area Committee, which coordinates federal, tribal, state, local and international responses to oil and hazardous substance incidents in the Pacific Northwest Region.

And the Makah Tribal Council will participate in an upcoming meeting of the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force in Washington, D.C.

Within a week after the whale was freed from the crab pot gear, Makah’s Office of Marine Affairs and the Coast Guard closely monitored the efforts of a tugboat crew as it worked to regain control of a barge that was lost in tow. The barge was carrying about 700,000 pounds of construction material and 400 gallons of diesel fuel.

The tugboat Miki Hana temporarily lost control of the barge when the towing cable parted during heavy seas. The crew was able to recover the barge and re-establish the tow several hours later. A second towing vessel assisted. Makah, the Coast Guard, and four other federal and state agencies collaborated and were on standby in the event that further assistance was needed.

Back to the whale’s story:

The story of the relationship between Makah and whales is an ancient one; humpback and gray whale bones and barbs from harpoons dating 2,000 years have been found at the Makah village at Ozette.

“Whales gave oil, meat, bone, sinew and gut for storage containers: Useful products, though gained at a high cost in time and goods,” according to a history on www.makah.com. “To get ready for the hunt, whalers went off by themselves to pray, fast and bathe ceremonially. Each man had his own place, followed his own ritual and sought his own power. Weeks or months went into this special preparation beginning in winter and whalers devoted their whole lives to spiritual readiness.”

The relationship between Makah and the whale is the subject of and inspiration for basketry, dances and songs. The relationship, particularly whale hunting, “imposes a purpose and a discipline which benefits their entire community. It is so important to the Makah that in 1855, when the Makah ceded thousands of acres of land to the government of the United States, they explicitly reserved their right to whale within the (1855) Treaty of Neah Bay.”

And so, when the humpback whale was reported entangled, there was a spiritual element to its rescue.

A fisherman first reported the entangled whale off of Destruction Island on May 12. A disentanglement team in two boats – the Cascadia rigid-hull inflatable and a Makah Office of Marine Affairs boat – was on-scene with the whale at about 10:15 a.m. the next day.

“It was very severely entangled around its head, tail and pectoral fin,” said John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research. “It was anchoring it to the bottom. The whale was clearly in distress.”

Within a half hour, the team had successfully cut one line off the head of the whale. The team then removed entangling lines from the whale’s body and tail flukes.

This juvenile humpback was a survivor. Scars on its body indicated it had survived an earlier encounter with a boat propeller. It had also survived an earlier killer whale attack, Calambokidis said.

And now, entangled in crab pot gear, the whale was again in a struggle to survive.

Some gear was still wrapped around one of the whale’s pectoral fins when operations were suspended because of rough water conditions. A radio transmitter was attached to the whale to aid in relocation. A fisherman later reported seeing the whale about a mile from where it had been. Upon return to the scene the next morning, the whale could not be found and the radio signal was not detected.

Calambokidis hopes that means the whale was able to free itself and swim away.

Chad Bowechop, manager of the Makah Office of Marine Affairs, said Makah’s traditional stewardship of its waters and its hunting culture are complementary.

“There’s a spiritual connection. We’ve always understood that we could connect with the whale if we were spiritually prepared and physically capable to go on the hunt. We believed the whale could test us and knew when it was the appropriate time to pass its spirit over to us. Maybe we can’t completely reconnect with the spirit of the whale until we’ve contributed to a heightened awareness of what the ocean is doing and what physical state the ocean is in by exercising our knowledge as a good steward of the ocean and its resources.”

Calambokidis, who is not Native, said he has always believed the Makah had a legitimate treaty right to hunt whale. But while his research group and the Makah Nation have not always agreed on every issue related to whaling, he has come to believe that Makah’s care for the environment and marine life goes hand-in-hand with its hunting culture.

“There’s been a clear indication from the tribal council through its agencies that Makah has always been interested in research, conservation and protection,” Calambokidis said. “They want to ensure it’s protected and available. I view that as something not in contrast to them wanting to hunt. Rather, it’s an integral part of their relationship with that resource. It’s tied to their history and culture.”