Third in a series about life on St. Lawrence Island.
SAVOONGA — Fish and seals, whales and walruses all flourish in the Bering Sea. But for people it is cold, unforgiving and uninviting, a body of water from which few emerge alive.
Joe Akeya can’t wait to go in.
More than 20 years ago, the Savoonga local became an ivory diver of the Bering Sea. He’s 51 now with no intention of stopping. All summer he glides underwater looking for old ivory, bones and whatever else of interest or possible value.
“Oh boy,” Akeya says about many things. About diving, he adds: “It is hard work, physical hard work.”
It’s his getaway and his job, a wondrous undersea world that strengthens his spirit and tests his aging body.
“I love going into the water. It’s where nobody can bother you,” Akeya said. “It’s my church. I pray to God under there.”
The peace of it lures him.
“And then you find things. You find old fossilized thousand-year-old ivories.”
He learned by watching others but never had formal dive training.
“I’ve done truck driving. I’ve done welding. I’ve done diving,” Akeya said. He’s not certified but doesn’t have to be. He wears a dry suit and uses a hookah air system, not a scuba tank.
In April, with big ice chunks still washing up along the Savoonga shore, he was so excited about the prospect of the new diving season that he pulled on his dry suit to demonstrate.
“Piece of cake,” he said. He passed up one rough section of shore then eased his way into the water between ice floes.
“Woo hoo!” he hollered. He rode one floe to shore.
He normally dives from a boat on the far eastern side of St. Lawrence Island off tiny islets called the Punuk or Poongook islands, where his family has a cabin. He lives there much of the summer. He is glad it has no phone or internet.
Three crew members support him. An older brother drives the aluminum skiff; nephews and others rotate in and out as they can. An air compressor sits on the boat. From it a 100-foot floating air hose runs to his regulator mouthpiece, so he can breathe underwater for hours. His longest spell? Five hours without surfacing.
“In these waters, oh boy,” Akeya said.
He’s always been high energy and athletic, though an old neck injury still bothers him. He used to run around what he called a lonely mountain just south of Savoonga in the Kookooligit range.
“I miss those days. A lot of running did me good when I was growing up,” he said. He grew up in Savoonga and spent more than 20 years in the Alaska National Guard. He keeps a book about walrus skin boats that includes a photo of his father’s handmade plywood speedboat on the beach in Gambell back in 1973.
These days on the cliffs of Savoonga, he climbs freestyle to collect the eggs of murres, large black-and-white seabirds. When he brought some visitors by late one recent night, his wife, Rachel, was watching a video of his extreme egg collecting.
They live with their two sons in a small one-bedroom house he built, not far from the sea. Pictures and awards of children and grandchildren cover the walls.
The Arctic entryway is packed with his gear and finds. Old whale bones. A potato-sized mammoth tooth. Old boat props. A polar bear’s shoulder blade. A flat bone used long ago in a contraption for killing foxes.
He hunts when he can, goes whaling too. He attached a long wooden handle to a commercial knife to carve whale meat.
“Given a chance, I would butcher a whole whale by myself.”
In the water, he wears fins, goggles and a weighted belt, then slightly inflates his dry suit so that he moves easily. Sometimes he feels like he is flying underwater. He’s gone as deep as 60 feet.
He makes anchors from old nets and rocks to keep the boat in place.
One time he was diving and the crew member monitoring his line gave three sharp tugs.
Get up fast.
Akeya surfaced and gripped the boat.
“I’m looking down and there goes a gray whale. Whoa! Right under me.”
Curious sea lions have checked him out, too. He sees crabs and little striped fish that he calls Nemos, like the Disney character. He figures the animals know he’s around. His work is noisy, from the gurgle of air bubbles, the moving of rocks and bones.
He sells to local carvers who turn it into earrings and little figures as well as ivory buyers from Nome and beyond. This ivory, unlike fresh ivory from harvested walruses, can be sold to non-Natives as well as Natives and usually goes for more money. It all depends on the size, condition and special attributes of each piece. Ancient ivory sells for $100 and up a pound.
He only collects the old ivory, with various hues, black and blue, red and golden, old bones too, and puts then in a diving sack supported with a surface float.
His most productive experience? “Four gunnysacks in 10 days, hard work.” Each sack held maybe 100 pounds of ivory, tusks of all sizes.
He doesn’t like to talk about what he makes. He said it’s always split among the four in the boat, including his brother, nephews and any other crew. He and his brother pay for the grubs and gas. Sometimes, he said, they lose money.
“You got to buy stove oil for the winter, buy gasoline, snowmachine parts! Expensive. It’s hard work. Paying off bills. Boy!” Akeya said. “You don’t get rich. Whatever you work hard for is gone, for your needs, your kids’ needs, your grandkids’ needs, your wife. The husband stays broke.”
After years of diving around this old walrus haulout on the east side of St. Lawrence Island, it’s getting harder and harder to find ancient ivory, he said.
“It’s a challenge not knowing if you are going to come home alive sometimes,” he said. “A little bit of fossilized ivory, oh boy.”
Sometimes he donates his time and dives as part of a search and rescue effort looking for the missing, trying to bring peace to families. He’s found belongings, a phone, a man’s pants. Last year he dove in a search for a snowmachiner who disappeared off the edge of the ice on a trip from Elim to Koyuk. He didn’t find the man but saw in the water what looked like an intact mammoth tusk. He remembered his brother’s guidance about how to proceed during searches for the lost. He left the tusk there.
“We’re not looking for that kind,” he said.
He said he’s been asked to dive for gold but wouldn’t do that. “Gold kills,” he said.
On a Sunday afternoon in April, Rachel was cooking pancakes. Akeya was drinking coffee. He stopped smoking after a bleeding ulcer nearly killed him while he was at the diving cabin. Later he was going to fry muktuk. He likes it dipped in soy sauce.
He shared the day’s Bible reading from the book of Psalms.
He dives, he said, from the heart, to support his family and find treasures, thanking God each time. It’s a good, quiet life under the sea.
“It doesn’t matter if I find nothing,” he said. “It’s the same. Same same same. … I just happen to love diving.”
Alaska Dispatch News reporter Lisa Demer and visual journalist Marc Lester recently spent a week on St. Lawrence Island. This is the third in a series of articles about life in Savoonga and Gambell. Next: What subsistence looks like at the Apassingok family dinner table.