The Operation Breakthrough patch is a throwback to 1988 when gray whales became trapped in sea ice off Alaska’s coast. Courtesy Dave Norton

Editor’s note: This is one of a series of columns exploring bowhead whales and the bowhead whale exhibit now on display at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

In early October 1988, Roy Ahmaogak, traveling by snowmachine, discovered three young gray whales trapped by early-forming sea ice in Elson Lagoon, east of Point Barrow. Iñupiat whalers knew the perils facing these whales, confined to a rapidly shrinking patch of open water. They were separated from the alongshore lead of open water on the Chukchi Sea side of Point Barrow by several miles of thickening continuous sea ice.

That lead was the whales’ escape route southward to their California wintering habitat. Without intervention, the migrant whales were doomed. Unlike bowheads, California grays cannot break breathing holes in ice, nor do they appeal to Iñupiat whalers as food.

On the other hand, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1988 was still imposing miserly quotas on Alaska’s Indigenous subsistence whalers. If Iñupiat whalers could rescue these trapped gray whales, the IWC might be sufficiently impressed with whalers’ conservation ethic, and understanding of whale biology, to relax those quotas.

Older readers may remember the gray whale rescue from contemporary news accounts. Younger readers may know of it from Hollywood’s dramatization a generation later, in the 2012 film, “Big Miracle.”

International press coverage of the gray whales’ plight exploded as winter bore down on the northernmost community in the United States. I recall marveling at how shrewdly Indigenous whaling captains anticipated public interest. Participation snowballed. Petroleum companies, environmental organizations, resource agencies, President Ronald Reagan and even the USSR’s Mikhail Gorbachev became involved.

I was scheduled to meet in Utqiagvik with members of the North Slope Borough’s Science Advisory Committee (NSBSAC) the last week of October 1988 on recent Arctic research. Expecting the gray whales’ fates to be resolved by then, we had not altered that schedule. Several NSBSAC participants flew north to Utqiagvik on the Oct. 24.

Two days later, the North Slope Borough’s Department of Wildlife Management took NSBSAC members out onto the ice. Our hosts wanted us to witness whalers clearing a string of breathing holes in Elson Lagoon’s ice, through which the trapped gray whales could surface to breathe, as they neared two Soviet icebreakers. We saw those icebreakers poised to break through the pressure ridge of ice, the deep keels of which discouraged whales’ final dash to open water.

Crews of a dozen men chainsawed, then cleared, a string of 20-foot by 10-foot foot breathing holes in foot-thick ice. Their mastery of sea ice physics was superb: each slab of ice weighed about 1,250 pounds. Men used poles to get each slab rocking, until those on the slab’s “high side” could push it underneath the intact ice opposite them.

Two of the whales were judged to have reached open water through the icebreakers’ breach in the pressure ridge on Oct. 28.. Amid throngs of journalists seeking airline passage south, Greenpeace’s respected observer, Cindy Lowry, urged resident biologists Craig George and Geoff Carroll to prepare for Hollywood’s imminent production of a feature-length film dramatization of the whale rescue.

Dave Norton is a retired UAF research faculty member, instructor for UAF’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and member of Friends of the University of Alaska Museum of the North.