NATURE

The whales of Alaska

A desperate rescue effort in the Arctic

NORA UNDERWOOD October 31 1988
NATURE

The whales of Alaska

A desperate rescue effort in the Arctic

NORA UNDERWOOD October 31 1988

The whales of Alaska

NATURE

A desperate rescue effort in the Arctic

It was an extraordinary joining of forces. Last week, members of the Alaska National Guard worked around the clock with oil industry personnel, federal and state officials,

environmentalists and Inuit hunters in a desperate effort to save three California grey whales trapped for more than two weeks in jagged ice near Barrow, a community on Alas-

ka’s frigid Arctic coast. Bitter cold, howling offshore winds and shifting ice made working conditions difficult and dangerous as rescuers cut a line of breathing holes to form a pathway for the whales to an opening to the sea, just five miles away. The drama attracted international media coverage. Said Maj.-Gen. John Schaeffer of the Alaska National Guard: “It’s like going out and freeing Bambi.”

But by week’s end, redoubled efforts to construct a seaward escape route apparently came too late for at least one of the whales. The smallest whale and the one that rescuers had nicknamed “Bone”—the skin on its snout had been rubbed to the bone by rough ice—was presumed dead after it had failed for several hours to surface for air as it had been doing every few minutes. Bone disappeared even as the rescue operation gained a measure of progress: the other whales, 30-foot-long greys nicknamed Bonnet and Crossbeak, began using a string of new breathing holes leading toward the sea that about two dozen Inuit volunteers had carved with chain saws.

Then, a National Guard helicopter equipped with a five-ton steel-tipped concrete block swinging from a cable joined the crusade by smashing ice holes on the seaward stretch of the intended escape route. Still, a huge ridge formed by colliding ice masses—apparently impervious to equipment on hand—stood in the way of a breakthrough.

Earlier, the whales had been surfacing regularly in two pools of open, shallow water within 50 yards of the shoreline and only 75 yards apart. But at times last week, the whales— estimated to weigh between five and 20 tons— appeared near death as frantic rescue efforts continued. Local wildlife biologist Geoffrey Carroll said that the whales—which have to surface about every four minutes for air— likely were suffering from stress and fatigue. In early October, they were trapped in the shifting ice pack during their annual migration. Unlike belugas, bowheads and some other whale species, the greys are more at home in warmer waters and are not biologically equipped to deal with ice conditions.

The volunteers’ original goal was to keep the whales alive until an ice-breaking hovercrafttype barge could be brought in from Prudhoe Bay, 230 miles east of Barrow. But that plan was abandoned after delays because of weather conditions and technical problems. Two U.S. army Skycrane helicopters joined the effort, but in two days, they managed to tow the 185ton barge only six miles.

Meanwhile, some experts said that the rescue operation itself might prove to be counterproductive. Jon Lien, a professor of animal behavior at Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld., for one, said that the noise and commotion could hamper the whales’ chances of survival by frightening them away from their breathing holes in the ice. And Ron Morris, an officer of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service in Barrow expressed reluctance to use explosives to blast open the ice for fear that it might harm the whales.

The stage for the whales’ misfortune was set during the summer, when an unusually heavy

layer of ice formed in the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska. At times last week, the ice surrounding the whales was two feet thick—too strong for the whales to break. Some experts speculated that the animals were trapped while trying to extend their Arctic feeding season—generally about four months long—before migrating to warmer Pacific waters off Mexico.

Memorial’s Lien said that the scope of the rescue operation and the international interest were likely connected to the fact that the whales’ predicament was easily understandable in human terms. “Their situation is not unlike people adrift in a lifeboat,” he said last week. “They’re fighting for scarce resources.” As well, the proximity of the whales to shore made it possible for television crews to file regular reports.

The worldwide attention that focused on the three grey whales also mirrored growing public interest in the fate of whales generally. Environmentalists say that, as a result of commercial whaling and pollution, all of the largest species of whales—including sperm, blue, fin, humpback and right whales—are now endangered species. Earlier this year, concern over the dwindling numbers of beluga whales in the heavily polluted St. Lawrence River prompted Ottawa to announce a $6-million plan to try to restore the region’s beluga population.

Environmentalists lodged bitter protests after Japan announced last month that it planned for the second year in a row to send a whaling fleet into Antarctic waters to kill about 300 small minke whales for scientific purposes. The decision appeared to defy a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling imposed by the 41nation International Whaling Commission. But many experts insist that some species of whale exist in sufficient numbers to be killed. The commission has estimated the worldwide population of minke whales at 430,000.

The debate over Japanese whaling emphasized a gulf that has grown between such nations as Canada and the United States, which say that all commercial whaling should be banned, and those that want to continue to hunt some species. After international whale catches went into a severe decline, the Cambridge, England-based whaling commission agreed six years ago to the 1986 moratorium aimed at giving depleted whale species time to recover. Despite that, Norway and Iceland still hunt whales. The moratorium comes up for review in 1990, and, if the commission decides that certain species of whales are still in need of protection, it could be extended.

Experts say that commercial whalers almost extinguished California grey whales early this century, when their numbers dwindled to only a few hundred. Since then, the population of greys has grown back to more than 20,000 in the eastern North Pacific—close to its original number. Still, the drama of the battle to save the grey whales off Barrow underscored the emotional attraction that many people feel for the giant mammals of the sea.

NORA UNDERWOOD with correspondents’ reports