ANCHORAGE - An anti-whaling group says Gambell whalers killed two children by allowing them to participate in a whale hunt, and angry villagers in the St. Lawrence Island community want an apology.
Cousins Yolanda and Leonard Nowpakahok, both 11, were among four people dead or missing in the Bering Sea after their boat capsized in high seas around 2 a.m. on April 27.
After the accident, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, formed in 1977 to protect marine mammals, called on the Coast Guard to investigate the deaths and take steps to prevent others.
The group's news release largely repeated previous reports but appeared under the headline, "Alaskan Whalers Kill Two Children and an Endangered Bowhead Whale."
Sea Shepherd President Paul Watson elaborated in a written statement last week.
"The people of St. Lawrence Island may have the right under law to slaughter the endangered bowhead whale, but they should not be allowed to expose minors to the risks involved in killing whales," Watson said.
The group's comments angered Gambell residents.
"We are appalled and outraged," village tribe vice president Branson Tungiyan wrote back in a letter demanding an apology. "WE DID NOT KILL THOSE TWO CHILDREN."
The Yupik village of 650, Tungiyan said, is still reeling from the accident that also claimed village mayor and whaling captain Jason Nowpakahok and a fourth crewman, James Uglowook, 20.
Two other crew members were rescued by a second boat's crew, who heard Nowpakahok's call for help in 8-foot seas and 35-knot winds.
Nowpakahok's walrus-skin boat had been helping other whalers tow a 44-foot bowhead back to Gambell. Shortly after he cut loose from the whale to return to the village, the 16-foot boat capsized.
None of the crew had life jackets, contrary to state and federal law. Whalers say flotation devices are rarely used because they are expensive and cumbersome.
Not all whaling villages allow children in boats, but Gambell residents say the practice of passing subsistence skills through experience is an integral part of the culture.
In a telephone interview from Vancouver, British Columbia, Watson told the Anchorage Daily News he had nothing to apologize for.
"The fact is, two 11-year-olds were taken out on a whaling trip and died, and I think that's irresponsible," he said. If two kids died while helping on the deck of a Bering Sea crab boat, he said, "There would be hell to pay."
The Coast Guard has shown little interest in the Gambell incident, Watson said.
"Quite frankly, I find it racist that people act this way - that it's OK for Inuit people to kill their kids, but it's a different story for white people."
Watson, whose boats have rammed vessels suspected of illegal commercial whaling and interfered with fur seal harvests, said he requires life jackets and thick neoprene survival suits on his own ships and dinghies.
"The number one responsibility of any captain is to ensure the safety of their crew," he said.
He said he asked the Coast Guard to be more vigilant in protecting minors from at-sea accidents.
A Coast Guard spokesman in Juneau, Lt. Cmdr. Kenneth Moser, said the agency does not investigate recreational boating deaths.
In a letter seeking Watson's apology, Tungiyan said that St. Lawrence Islanders have "since time immemorial ... included our children in our hunting practices, whether it be on land, or in the Bering Sea or for whaling. This is an age-old practice that has been handed down from generation to generation - something your society does not practice."
Tungiyan said Watson's view of subsistence hunting was painful, but no surprise.