Alaska Eskimo dies after harpooned whale tips boat

Posted: Thursday, June 27, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- An Alaska Eskimo died Wednesday after a harpooned whale flipped his whaling boat and he struck his head.

Melton Ozenna, 41, was hunting with his older brother and two of his brother's children about 20 miles southwest of their home on Little Diomede Island when the accident occurred.

Seven whaling boats were involved in the subsistence hunt early Wednesday morning near the island in the Bering Strait, midway between the coasts of the United States and Russia.

The 30-foot gray whale was harpooned for a third time when it turned and tipped the 18-foot long boat, throwing the four men in the water.

The edge of the boat's bow struck Ozenna on the head, said Greg Wilkinson, spokesman for the Alaska State Troopers.

Another boat in the whaling party arrived within minutes to help and the whalers were pulled to safety. But the men noticed that Ozenna had blood coming from his ear and his eyes were glazed and dilated.

The men left the harpooned whale and turned toward shore but after about 10 minutes Ozenna stopped breathing. They started CPR and continued toward Little Diomede, arriving about 10 minutes later.

Efforts to resuscitate Ozenna at the village health clinic failed and he was declared dead at 6:07 a.m.

''Every year they go after whales. This is the first time it has happened here on Diomede,'' said Vera Ozenna, 47, who is married to Ozenna's 48-year-old brother Ronald who was in the boat with his 23-year-old son Ron Jr. and 13-year-old son Marty.

Vera Ozenna said nothing was out of the ordinary until the whale turned and collided with the boat.

''The whale was turning and the whale was faster and flipped the boat over,'' she said.

No one else on the boat was injured.

Vera Ozenna said her unmarried brother-in-law was an ivory carver and hunter who hunted whales in the summer to help provide for the needs of the traditional Eskimo village of about 150 people, where walrus skins are still used to cover boats for sea travel.

''It helps lots for the whole community -- the meat and the skin,'' she said of the whale hunts. ''We eat it the way it is and cook it. We dry it and cook it and we freeze the rest of it for the winter.''

Gray whales spend the summer feeding in the Bering Sea along Alaska's coast. In the winter they go to their calving grounds in southern Baja, Calif.

Gray whales were hunted nearly to extinction in the early 1900s but have made a strong comeback since laws went into effect in the 1930s and 1940s to protect them. There now are between 19,000 and 23,000 gray whales, close to their original population size, according to the American Cetacean Society.

Vera Ozenna said her husband will probably go whale hunting again.

''One time he fell in for one hour and there was ice and he pulled himself out,'' she said. ''That is the risk of hunting in Little Diomede.''

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