Jason Nowpakahok, 04-27-05
Yolanda Nowpakahok
Leonard Nowpakahok
James Uglowook

Four missing or dead after whaling boat capsizes

One confirmed dead; two children, Gambell's mayor missing

Anchorage Daily News, Published: April 28th, 2005

The St. Lawrence Island village of Gambell was grieving Wednesday with news that four residents, including two children and the mayor, were missing or dead after their skin-covered whaling boat capsized while helping tow home a bowhead in the overnight darkness.

Two other crewmen survived.

"It's a tragic day for Gambell," whaler Merlin Koonooka said by telephone. "The whole village is in kind of a shock right now."

Missing and presumed dead after his boat capsized in high seas around 2 a.m. Wednesday were whaling captain and mayor Jason Nowpakahok, 38, along with his 11-year-old daughter, Yolanda Nowpakahok, and his 11-year-old nephew, Leonard Nowpakahok.

Rescuers from another whaling boat managed to locate Davis Uglowook, 37, Darin Slwooko, 25, and James Uglowook, 20, in the dark a few minutes after the boat rolled, but James Uglowook was pronounced dead in the Gambell health clinic Wednesday morning.

The Siberian Yupik community of 650 has a tradition of whaling that goes back eons, but Wednesday's accident was the worst in memory, not only in Gambell but in any of the 10 northern Alaska villages that hunt whales for subsistence. Villagers were stunned, Koonooka said.

"We always say that whenever they catch a whale, a way home will always be provided. That's what always happened before," he said, but not this time.

Bowhead whales, which can grow to more than 60 feet and weigh 60 tons, pass St. Lawrence Island every spring on their way north to the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Historically, the whalers of Gambell and Savoonga chased them in lightweight, wood-framed sailboats covered in walrus skin.

That's still largely the case today. Many captains still sail quietly to the whaling grounds but carry outboard motors to help them return. Others have begun using outboard-powered aluminum skiffs, said H. Vernon Slwooko, one of four or five captains who left Gambell around noon Tuesday hoping to land a whale before the migration ends. By late April, chances of success are growing slim, he said.

The weather was calm all day, forcing the whalers to use their paddles, Slwooko said, but there was no sign of bowheads until evening, when they spotted several of the distinctive V-shaped spouts. "We started chasing them when they were jumping out of the water," he said.

The wind also began picking up, though not enough to slow the hunt, he said. "You become focused on the whale instead of on the weather and your surroundings," Slwooko said.

Around 8 p.m., he and his crew harpooned and killed a whale about 15 miles southwest of Gambell. It eventually measured 44 feet. At that length, biologists estimate, bowheads weigh nearly a ton per foot.

All the boats, including Nowpakahok's, pitched in to help tow the behemoth back to Gambell, Slwooko said. Among them were several skin boats, along with small aluminum skiffs. They use small outboard motors when towing a whale, he said.

But as the sun set late Tuesday evening, the wind switched direction and blew harder, with gusts later estimated at 35 knots. Waves grew to 8 feet, Slwooko said. Whitecaps formed and sprayed the whalers. In most years, a radio call would bring additional help, and on Wednesday several boats responded from the village, but others were forced to turn around, whalers said.

Whaling crews are used to harsh conditions, said longtime captain Wade Okhtokiyuk. But conditions in the Bering Sea have changed in recent years. There are more storms caused by low pressure zones, he said, and the sea ice is farther away, creating more room for waves to build.

"We never had big swells and rough seas this time of year," Okhtokiyuk said. "Now we're getting that more and more."

Nowpakahok had been whaling since he was a child and was president of the Gambell Whaling Captains Association. He recently built a new skin boat, variously estimated at 16 to 18 feet, said friends on the island.

Around 2 a.m. Wednesday, when the whale was seven miles from Gambell, Nowpakahok cut loose from the tow line and pulled his boat alongside Slwooko's.

"He told me their boat was taking on water and they were getting real wet so they were going to head home and change boats," Slwooko said. "That was the last conversation we had. And off he went into the night."

It isn't clear what happened next. Nowpakahok used his CB radio to call for help, but apparently, according to Koonooka, the only whaler who heard the call also was helping tow the whale. Koonooka said he didn't hear anything. And, like him, the other captains were protecting their radios from flying spray or couldn't hear because of the wind and engine noise, he said.

Slwooko said he saw two boats drop their tow lines but didn't know why. "Either they were taking off because they were taking on water or because they heard the mayday call. I didn't know what the deal was," he said. "I was paying attention to where I was heading and didn't want to get sideways to the wind or the waves."

The Alaska State Troopers reported that one boat responded to the rescue call.

Somehow, in the darkness and high seas, the rescuers found Davis Uglowook and Darin Slwooko clinging to the capsized boat and James Uglowook in the water nearby. No one on board wore a life jacket, troopers said.

"The captain of the (rescue) boat said it was all he could do just to keep the boat afloat ... with the weather and trying to get an unconscious, full-grown man onto the boat," said trooper Brian Miller in Nome.

The rescuers unsuccessfully searched for Nowpakahok and the children, Miller said, then left for Gambell. After daybreak, the troopers and a Coast Guard C-130 searched from the air for several hours but saw no sign of the three. Experts say most people would only last about 15 minutes in the near-freezing water.

The Coast Guard is expected to resume its search today, a spokeswoman said. Savoonga whaling captain George Noongwook said he wasn't surprised that none of the crew had life jackets.

"They're pretty cumbersome, especially when you have to wear really heavy clothing to keep warm," he said, though some whalers are open to the idea. "We're still looking for a good flotation device," Noongwook said, perhaps even going back in time to use parkas made of reindeer or caribou hide, which he said float.

The three survivors were taken to Gambell's health clinic. The Village Public Safety Officer and clinic staff performed CPR on James Uglowook for three hours before pronouncing him dead, troopers said. The other men were treated and released.

The other boats and the whale reached St. Lawrence Island around 9 a.m., Slwooko said. But the celebration of providing food for the village was overshadowed by grief, he said.

"I don't think we're going to want to celebrate," he said later that morning. Slwooko planned to oversee the butchering and distribute the meat and mangtak (known elsewhere as muktuk), then visit Nowpakahok's mother and offer his condolences.

Despite the inherent danger of hunting whales in small boats, no one in Gambell can remember a whaler being killed before. Even with up to several dozen whaling crews in the 10 whaling villages, accidents are rare, said Maggie Ahmaogak, executive director of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission in Barrow.

One whaler died off Little Diomede Island in 2002, when a gray whale flipped his boat. An elderly Barrow whaling captain died after falling from his boat. Two women were killed in Barrow in 1992 as they helped haul a whale ashore.

The danger usually comes after catching a whale and the weather turns bad, Ahmaogak said. "In my recollection, it happens when the winds catch up with you," she said, as occurred Wednesday.

The Gambell accident was particularly tragic, she said. The loss of four people, including two children, will reverberate throughout the subsistence whaling community. "It's a very sad day for us," Ahmaogak said.

In some villages, including Barrow, children that young would stay on shore during whale hunting, Ahmaogak said. But on St. Lawrence Island, it's not unusual for children to go along in the boats, several Gambell whaling captains said. Whaling, like hunting, fishing, berry picking and other traditional skills, is passed down through the generations, they said.

"This is the traditional life of whaling," said Okhtokiyuk. "We start them young, if you really want them to participate."

The uncle of Leonard Nowpakahok, Sam Mokiyuk of Savoonga, said the boy had been whaling for five years but also went on walrus and seal hunts and fished for halibut. "Hunting was his favorite thing," Mokiyuk said.

Yolanda Nowpakahok, also 11, first went whaling with her father last year, said longtime family friend Charles Lane, of Anchorage. "That was daddy's little girl from the word go," he said.

Nowpakahok taught his daughter how to hunt, fish and shoot, Lane said. On her first seal hunt, her father told her to shoot the animal in the nose, Lane said. "They couldn't find a hole in that seal. She shot that seal right in the nose, through its nostril."

Yolanda was the only child of Jason and his wife, Sherry Nowpakahok. She is currently serving a one-month sentence in Nome for assault, according to the Department of Corrections.

Sherry Nowpakahok's mother, Dorcas Bloom of Nome, cried as she described her daughter as being heartbroken. "Anybody who loses her husband and daughter would fall to pieces," she said.

The loss of two children and two adults in a village laced with family ties was going to make the job of butchering the whale more of a chore than it should be, Okhtokiyuk said.

"It's going to be kind of a brown day with heavy things on your mind," he said. "There's work to be done. But this will not stop us from going whaling."

Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at jgay@adn.com or at 257-4310 and Megan Holland can be reached at mrholland@adn.com and 257-4343.