Five Makah Nation members harpooned and shot a gray whale east of Neah Bay on Saturday morning, shocking environmentalists and tribal leaders...

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Five Makah Nation members harpooned and shot a gray whale east of Neah Bay on Saturday morning, shocking environmentalists and tribal leaders alike. The whale died less than 12 hours later, sinking while heading out to sea.

The move short-circuited years of wrangling in the courts over whaling by the tribe, which hunted its first whale in 70 years in 1999.

A marine biologist who works for the Makah pronounced the whale dead at 7:15 p.m., U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Shawn Eggert said. The whale went under about a mile from Cape Flattery, and did not resurface. The Coast Guard, following the whale at a distance of 500 yards, saw that buoys attached to the harpoon stopped moving.

The Coast Guard took the five rogue whalers into custody and turned them over to Makah tribal police for further questioning around 6 p.m. Saturday.

“Their fate will ultimately be decided by the tribe,” Eggert said.

The hunt wasn’t authorized by the tribal council or by the federal government.

“I don’t know why they did this. It’s terrible,” said John McCarty who, as a former member of the tribe’s whaling commission, has been an advocate of the Makah Nation’s right to resume whaling under an 1855 treaty.

“I think the anti-whalers will be after us in full force, and we look ridiculous,” McCarty said. “Like we can’t manage our own people, we can’t manage our own whale.”

The hunt was starkly different from a federally sanctioned hunt in 1999 during which a whale was harpooned and then quickly killed with a large-caliber rifle. That was the tribe’s first whale hunt in 70 years.

After the hunt, environmental groups won a 2002 ruling in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the Makah Nation must obtain a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act before it could hunt whales again. The tribe has worked since then to obtain the waiver, and McCarty said the process was close to completion.

Makah Nation Tribal Chairman Ben Johnson said tribal whalers had been out practicing hunting skills Saturday in connection with their sovereign treaty rights to hunt whales.

Dave Sallee, a non-Indian from Forks, Clallam County, said he and a friend were fishing from a boat near Seal Rock east of Neah Bay when they saw two boats surround a gray whale and pursue it. The whale was pulling floats that appeared to be attached to it by harpoon lines. Sallee said he heard 21 gunshots during the hunt, which he said he first observed around 9:30 a.m.

Sallee said the whale appeared to be an adult and that he’d seen it rising and diving, but that before long it appeared to be still.

The Coast Guard was alerted to the incident at 11 a.m., and three vessels from the guard’s Neah Bay station arrived on the scene at 11:45, said Petty Officer Kelly Parker. The Coast Guard set up a 1,000-yard-diameter “safety and security zone” to keep other boats away from the whale. It later was reduced to 500 yards.

The Coast Guard, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and state Department of Fish and Wildlife are investigating, in cooperation with Makah tribal police, Parker said.

Officers confiscated the gun that was used, a high-powered Weatherby rifle, Eggert said.

The men who attacked the whale could face civil penalties of up to $20,000 each under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, NMFS spokesman Brian Gorman said.

Criminal prosecution under the act is almost unheard-of, but some environmentalists said the federal government should get tough on the whalers.

“This is a crime. It’s illegal and should be prosecuted,” said Will Anderson, of Seattle, who has fought against Makah whaling on behalf of Friends of the Gray Whale and other organizations. “I don’t think they should hide behind any treaty rights if the information we have currently is correct.”

For centuries, the Makah hunted gray whales. In 1855, a treaty reserved the tribe’s right to continue whaling on its accustomed grounds. To some Makah, whaling contributes to tribal unity and cultural pride. Some tribal members also say they became more vulnerable to diabetes and other illnesses after straying from their traditional diet.

Makah tribal members said reactions on the reservation were mixed. “It just gives me the shivers,” said Charlotte King. “It’s kind of good news and sad news. I have mixed feelings. It’s exciting that we are exercising our right to go whaling, but I like whales, too.”

Before the 9th Circuit placed new restrictions on Makah whaling, the tribe had a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service allowing it to hunt whales on the outer coast of its homeland on the north Olympic Peninsula at Neah Bay. The limitation was imposed by the federal government to protect so-called resident whales known to frequent the nearshore waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Saturday’s hunt, done within the strait, would have violated the permit.

The permit also required the whale to be secured with a harpoon from a traditional canoe before being dispatched with shots from a high-powered rifle. Sallee said he did not see hunters paddling a canoe in the water Saturday.

About 20,000 gray whales migrate from breeding lagoons in Mexico to feeding grounds in Alaska and back, passing through the Makahs’ traditional hunting grounds off the Olympic Coast.

The whales had been hunted almost to extinction by non-Indians by the 1930s. But the population rebounded, and the whales were taken off the endangered-species list in 1994.

Feeding on small crustaceans and tube worms, the whales weigh 30 to 40 tons and can reach up to 50 feet long. They have a streamlined body and tapered head. Gray patches and white mottles mark their skin.

On Saturday, tribal officials appeared in disarray over the event and declined to speak publicly on the advice of their attorneys. A closed community meeting was called Saturday night to talk about what had happened.

“It’s not good,” said tribal council member Micah McCarty, a former captain of the whaling crew in 1999, as he headed back to the reservation from out of town upon hearing the news.

“I’m still trying to figure out what happened.”

Seattle Times reporter Ken Armstrong contributed to this report.