Search continues into its third week for missing Newtok seal hunter

Newtok, Alaska (Google Maps Screenshot)

Searchers continue to look for a seal hunter who went missing off the coast of Newtok last month.

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18 miles west of Newtok, an Arctic Cat snowmachine sits by the shore. Two tents sit beside it: one for storing equipment and the other for searchers to sleep in.

The snowmachine belongs to 59-year-old Tom John, who was last seen leaving Newtok for a seal hunt on March 26. He was towing his new red and yellow, fiberglass, single-person kayak.

Neither John nor his kayak have been seen since.

Tom John grew up seal hunting, and his friends say he’s maybe the last hunter to use a kayak to go after the animals. He learned the traditional method from his father, and, despite newer technology, John continued using a canvas covered, wooden frame kayak. John Andy, Newtok Search and Rescue Coordinator and Tom John’s friend, said it’s the kind of kayak you would see from the 1960s in a museum, the kind that replaced the traditional seal skin kayaks.

But on March 26, the last day John was seen, John Andy says the hunter didn’t take his canvas one. Instead, for the first time, Tom John took a new, fiberglass kayak to sea.

Whether the new kayak led to the hunter going missing, Andy said, “that question I don’t know. It could be possible.”

Currently, 15 volunteers from Tununak, Nightmute and Newtok are at the search camp, leaving with the outgoing tides to look for the missing hunter. Day after day they’re dragging hooks along the ocean bottom, prodding it with poles, and screening its depths with sonar. Dozens of volunteers from surrounding communities have helped with the search. For the first two days, the Civil Air Patrol, U.S. Coast Guard and State Troopers looked as well. Earlier this week, a Trooper came out for a day to search with an underwater camera.

The day John left to go hunting was beautiful: sunny, clear, calm waters. John Andy called the hunter “a good hunter, a family provider.” But the Bering Sea can overpower even the most experienced hunters.

“We are told never to challenge the Bering Sea, never underestimate the Bering Sea,” Andy said. “Respect for the ocean, respect for the land. That’s what we’re taught by our elders.”

Search and Rescue Coordinator John Andy said the searchers are tired and stressed, but they’re not giving up. They’ve gone out every day since Tom John was discovered missing, and they’ll only stop when they find him, or when his wife and mother say it’s over.

When asked if the searchers have hope that they will find the missing hunter, Andy replied, “that’s the only way that we’re going. With hope. It’s hard to find him. We don’t know where he is, but using hope we will find him.”

The group is collecting donations of cash, fuel and food to keep the search going.

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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