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Real life ‘Big Miracle’: World followed Barrow’s 1988 attempt to save stranded gray whales

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Posted: Sunday, January 29, 2012 12:39 pm | Updated: 1:41 pm, Thu Jan 17, 2013.

FAIRBANKS - The media poured into Barrow, Alaska, in the fall of 1988, as people tried to save three whales trapped in sea ice with no way to get to the distant open water. As sympathy spread across the world, oil companies, Greenpeace, local residents, Soviet vessels and the U.S. government came together to help.

A new feature film, “Big Miracle,” based on the event, stars Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski, among other big-name actors. The film opens in theaters Friday.

The movie focuses on Barrymore’s character, Greenpeace volunteer Rachel Kramer, and her effort to draw national attention to the whales and free them from the unbroken ice.

The movie suggests a romance between the fictional characters Kramer and reporter Adam Carlson, played by Krasinski, was one reason the story became a worldwide sensation. However, in reality, the whales created their own story.

Barrow resident Roy Ahmaogak was out snowmachining on Oct. 7 that year when he came upon the whales’ breathing holes in the ice about 18 miles east of town. The trio of California gray whales were about four miles from the nearest open water. They kept their two breathing holes open with their movements, sometimes smashing through the sharp ice fragments and cutting their skin.

Ahmaogak reported what he saw to local wildlife biologists, including Geoff Carroll with the North Slope Borough’s Department of Wildlife Management. Carroll thought it would be a good idea to get some more photos and video footage of the animals.

North Slope Borough employees used video equipment to shoot a short segment, including an interview with Carroll with the whales in the background. The national media picked up the video.

Suddenly, people around the world — even President Ronald Reagan, according to news reports — wanted to help free the whales from what was surely their death trap.

Fran Tate, owner of Pepe’s North of the Border Restaurant, watched the wave of people arrive and became swamped in their business. She said her restaurant is the largest in town, so visitors would eat there daily.

“It was a zoo because there was about 12, 15 different television companies and all these extra people here,” she said Tuesday. She would open up early for reporters to eat breakfast.

She never saw the whales.

“We were too busy here,” she said. Instead, she would watch the happenings on the television.

Some local residents were actively involved in the whale rescue.

“They wanted to save the whales,” Tate said.

This might seem odd to people who know North Slope Inupiat people hunt whales for food. But whalers in Barrow don’t typically hunt gray whales, preferring the larger bowheads, Tate explained. Barrow residents wanted the whales to get to safety, so they could continue their journey south.

“From a whale biologist (perspective), it was just amazing to have whales in our backyard for a couple of weeks,” said Carroll, who now works for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Barrow.

He said Tuesday that people can often see toothed whales in captivity, but it is rare to get a chance to study baleen whales up close. As the whales breached inside the holes in 1988, Carroll was able to measure their breathing rates and catch some of their spray and have it tested for disease.

A few days after they were discovered, the whales’ holes began icing over faster as record low temperatures hit the area. Local biologists stayed at the area at all hours of the day, trying to keep the water open. They used chainsaws to saw away at the ice. They noticed the smallest whale, named the Inupiaq word for “bone” by Greenpeace volunteers, began to show symptoms of pneumonia. In old news stories, Carroll told reporters that the whales, who normally took breaths every four minutes, were breaching every two minutes, indicating exhaustion.

One day, people noticed the smallest whale was not breaching with the other two. On Oct. 23, news stories reported that the whale was dead.

Charles Mason, a former News-Miner photographer and current University of Alaska Fairbanks photojournalism professor, arrived in Barrow just in time to see all three whales. The next day, Bone was gone. Mason traveled to Barrow on contract with a photography agency rather than solely for the News-Miner. He was able to sell his photos around the world and earned awards for his work.

Sherry Simpson, a News-Miner reporter at the time and now a creative writing professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, arrived shortly after Mason. She wrote stories for the Washington Post and the News-Miner. Some of her stories appeared on the front page of the Post.

The two Fairbanks correspondents were part of the wave of media members that boosted the small town’s economy for a few weeks.

“No one knew the first few days that it was going to last two weeks,” Mason said.

Reporters and photographers stood on the ice next the breathing holes and saw the whales come up to breach. It was almost like they would come close to the humans to get a better look.

“They spit on me,” Mason said.

“I was incredibly close, often. They would come over to where people were — I’d watch this over and over.”

He got intimate photographs of Barrow residents, dressed in parkas, reaching out to the whales. He never reached out himself, though.

“You’re not part of the scene,” he said. “You’re just documenting.”

Simpson never touched the whales either.

“I had opportunities to, and I watched people doing it, but I just felt like it wasn’t the right thing for me to do,” she said.

Simpson had no qualms about locals touching the whales because “that was part of their lives,” she said.

Even with Bone gone, optimism for the whales was spreading. Locals had figured out a way to lead the whales closer to open water.

Oil companies tried coming up with innovative ways to break through the ice. VECO rigged up its icebreaking barge to two Alaska National Guard Skycrane helicopters and began to tow it the 200 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Barrow. Another oil company donated a 5-ton weight to help crush a 30foot-high pressure ridge of ice. A helicopter would drop the weight on the ridge in attempts to smash holes in it. “One high-tech thing after another failed,” Carroll said.

Then, “all of a sudden we had 20 of these heavy-duty chainsaws.”

Carroll couldn’t remember who donated the saws, but locals picked up the tools and began cutting rectangles in the ice, making a path for the whales to reach the nearest open lead.

“That’s what was effective ... local people cutting the holes,” Carroll said.

But the whales didn’t want to move. The path toward open water included some shallower areas that made the whales feel as if they were beaching themselves, Carroll said.

Convincing the whales to breach hole-to-hole took some innovative thinking. Soon enough, people realized the whales were attracted to the noise from water circulators that were brought up by some Minnesota residents.

The Minnesotans used the circulators to keep the water surrounding their boats icefree during the winters.

The whales followed the noise of the circulators, perhaps imagining they were boat motors in Baja Mexico, Carroll suggested.

Then, the ice cutters could hardly keep up with the whales’ movement. The long line of rectangular holes in the ice didn’t stretch far enough, and the hope for the oil company’s icebreaker barge had run out. The barge was stuck in ice and mud.

Cue the United States Department of State and its request to the Soviet Union for use of two of its icebreaking vessels. The Admiral Makarov and Vladimir Arseniev showed up to clear through the pressure ridge and lead a path to open water. The whales, seemingly, were free.

The movie will probably end there.

But Carroll doesn’t think that’s where the story ends.

The icebreakers created a path of jagged, crushed ice for the whales to navigate. All the people had been ordered off the ice when the vessels came through, but Carroll and some locals went back out the next day to check on the whales.

The two mammals were struggling in the thick slush of the icebreaker path. It was freezing quickly, having never really been cleared the way the sawed holes had been. The whales’ heads were scratched and bleeding once again.

Carroll and the locals went back to using chainsaws. At this point, they were about two miles from the lead of open water. Carroll said they went “great guns” with the saws and came within a mile of the homestretch.

Then the icebreakers were ordered back in by the National Marine Fisheries Service, and once again the people were ordered back from the ice.

“After all that time, just a little more patience, we could have just walked them right out,” Carroll said.

He believes the remaining whales, named the Inupiaq words for “Bonnet” and “Crossbeak,” were scared away by the noise of the threateningly close ships, probably backwards from the open lead.

“Who knows where they went,” he said.

Caroll never saw the whales again.

For Alaskans and biologists, the whole mission left questions. People wonder whether the whales ever made it out of the arctic waters.

Others wonder why all the money and effort went into saving the whales, which some believe were weak animals destined to die anyway.

Alaska media outlets wrote editorials and investigatory pieces on where and how money was spent and where and how it could have been spent differently.

“Whether the reporters thought it was a story or not, the readers did,” Simpson said.

Mason agreed. He worked out his own deal to fund the trip to Barrow because of the indifference back at the newsroom.

“It was the hottest story in the world at the time,” said Mason. “Everybody fled after the whales got to the icebreaker path. The story had a good ending.”

Tate, the restaurant owner, still wonders about the money spent on the ordeal.

“It was a tremendous price, I don’t know if it was worth it,” she said. “Once the whales got out, you don’t know how long they survived. Hopefully they made it south. You never know.”

Despite such reservations, those involved in the 1988 story said they will see the movie.

Tate said her restaurant was recreated on a set in Anchorage.

“My dog team is in it,” Carroll said. When the film crew came to Barrow, his dog team made the cut.

Still, he said he has some doubts because none of the production crew wanted his take on the real events.

“Of course I’m a little curious to see it, but I kind of just shudder ... ” he trailed off.

“From what I’ve heard, I think they get the basic gist right.”

Simpson feels the same way, regarding the movie’s accuracy.

“I’m sure I’ll see it,” Simpson said. “I wish there had been a John Krasinski on the spot at the time. As it was, it was a bunch of us who weren’t taking regular showers and (were) up at weird hours. It sort of seems retrospectively romantic.”

Contact staff writer Reba Lean at 459-7423.


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