NEAH BAY – A California gray whale harpooned and shot Saturday morning died hours later in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Coast Guard reported.
Five Makah tribal members were detained after the whale, which was about 30 feet long, was wounded.
Saturday’s killing – the first by a Makah tribal member since 1999 – was conducted without permission from the Makah tribal government, tribal officials said.
Possibilities being investigated are whether it was illegally hunted, or the whale was harpooned and shot in a humane attempt to kill it after it had become entangled in a fishing net and couldn’t be cut loose.
The whale died as it was swimming toward the Pacific Ocean under the watch of the Coast Guard, said spokesman Petty Officer Shawn Eggert.
It was declared dead at 7:15 p.m. by a marine biologist working for the Makah tribe, after it had stopped moving and did not surface, he said.
The Coast Guard has no plans to recover the carcass, leaving it about a mile east of Cape Flattery, Eggert said.
The whale died as federal investigators were trying to learn why the whale was harpooned and shot, and whether the action was illegal.
According to witnesses, the gray whale had been harpooned by 9:30 a.m. about one-fourth mile off Seal and Sail rocks, which are about 2½ miles east of Neah Bay.
Witnesses said they saw five men on two small boats and that shots were fired at the whale with what sounded like a high-caliber rifle.
Five men were detained by the Coast Guard, questioned, for between three and five hours, then turned over to the Makah tribal police, Eggert said.
The Coast Guard declined to name the men, and Makah Public Safety, the tribe’s police department, declined to confirm or deny if anyone was in custody or if anyone had been arrested.
The whale’s death is under investigation by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which enforces the nation’s whaling moratorium, said Mark Oswell, a spokesman for the agency.