‘Big Miracle’: True story behind film about 3 ice-stranded whales


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Hardly anyone is unaware of the plight of the three gray whales that were stranded under the ice near Barrow, Alaska, in 1988 -- especially since the release of a new movie, ‘Big Miracle,’ which documents the two-week international effort to save them.


Less known is the precise fate of the whale that didn’t make it; it disappeared under the ice as rescuers battled to rescue the remaining two.

But a marine biologist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle thinks he may know the answer. The young whale, he believes, may have been scared off when someone mistakenly played recordings of killer whales, a sound that would terrify a gray whale, or at least create an urgent desire to leave.

‘That would have been a fear thing,’ Dave Withrow, who works with the polar ecosystems program at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, told the Los Angeles Times.

The revelation casts a bit of a shadow on the otherwise heartwarming rescue effort that brought together oil men, Russian icebreakers, U.S. government officials, eco-activists and whale-hunting Eskimos together in a saga that gripped television viewers around the world -- and is gaining new attention by way of the film starring Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski.

The true story was also documented recently by Anchorage Daily News reporter Richard Mauer, who covered the 1988 rescue and dug up his old notebooks to describe the massive endeavor. One of the highlights in his tale is the Soviet icebreaker officer who, at the tail end of the Cold War, invited American reporters aboard his vessel.

‘Our whole country is watching, just like everyone else,’ the officer, Vladimir Morov, said at the time, referring to the phone calls he was fielding from reporters in Moscow.


Mauer also writes in detail about the role of the oil company executive who flew in and tried to move mountains to get heavy oil equipment on scene to help the stranded whales. Played by Ted Danson in the movie, that executive was Bill Allen, who later became famous when he went to prison for paying bribes to a variety of Alaska officials in a corruption scandal that included former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, who was accused of failing to report gifts from Allen.

Withrow was one of two NOAA marine mammal biologists and several other agency officials dispatched to the far northern tip of Alaska at Point Barrow, where an Inupiat whale hunter had spotted three young gray whales clinging to survival near a small hole in a sheet of ice that had otherwise closed in around them on all sides.

The whales already had their noses and chins bloodied, in one case to the bone, from ramming the ice to keep their small breathing hole open. The first instinct of some village leaders in Barrow was to shoot the animals and put them out of their misery -- but no one wanted to.

As reporters flew in and started filing stories, Withrow was asked to go up and help clarify some of the misleading information about gray whales that was coming out. Before he left Seattle, he shipped ahead some underwater sound projection equipment and tape recordings of the sound of gray whales breeding in Mexico -- a sound he hoped would lure the stranded whales to new holes that were being dug into the ice to help lure the creatures back toward open water.

He also included recordings of orcas, or killer whales, which prey on gray whales and which Withrow figured might be useful if needed to drive the whales toward safety.

Withrow asked someone to pick up the equipment from the airport and take it ahead to Barrow so it would be ready when he arrived. But when he got there, he found that someone not affiliated with NOAA had already unpacked the equipment and had actually begun broadcasting one of the tapes into the water -- the killer whale sounds.

‘They projected something, we think it was the killer whale sounds. And the whales just split,’ he said.

‘The two older ones made it back, and the younger one didn’t.’

Though it’s only speculation, Withrow believes it’s likely that the younger whale swam too far away in fear and couldn’t or wouldn’t come back, doomed under the thickening ice. ‘It’s an incredibly interesting story, but people will never know the answer,’ he said.

The other enduring mystery in the ‘Big Miracle’ is whether the other two whales survived. A Soviet icebreaker cut a channel to open water in the Chukchi and Bering seas, and Eskimo workers on shore, aided by donated chain saws, succeeded in cutting a series of breathing holes to guide the two whales to the channel.

The guiding part worked -- not so much because of the gray whale breeding tapes, as it turned out, but because of some small pumps donated by a company in Minnesota. The company had developed the pumps for ice fishing, and rescuers found that the sound and turbulence of the pumps acted as a powerful attractant to the whales. It then became relatively easy to attract the whales to new breathing holes as they were created.

At the end of the rescue effort, one of the whales was spotted from a helicopter in the ice-clogged channel that was the final path to safety, Withrow said. The other one was never seen.

Both whales, already weakened from their ordeal, would have had a tough swim through the ice floes and down to safety in California and Mexico.

‘None of us actually saw the whales swim through,’ Withrow said. ‘People want to know if they actually made it. We don’t know. There were reports of people seeing them all along the route, but there’s no way of knowing. I’m sitting there three feet from these whales for two weeks and I’m not sure if I could identify them again.’

In most cases, he said, gray whales are identified by patterns of barnacles on their skin, and barnacles don’t stay the same for long.

‘I’m sure people wanted to see them and we’d all like to believe they did, and that’s what really happened,’ Withrow said. ‘But we don’t really know.’

What about Drew Barrymore’s dramatic dive into the water to help untangle one of the whales, supposedly caught in some fishing net?

Didn’t happen, Withrow said.

‘We wouldn’t have allowed it,’ he said. ‘Diving in those conditions where it’s 30 and 40 below [zero] is just a really dangerous thing to do. And she wasn’t tethered [in the movie], she didn’t have a diving buddy, there’s laws that would have prohibited it -- no.’

[For the record, 6:01 p.m., Feb. 13: This post originally implied that Sen. Ted Stevens had accepted bribes from oil company executive Bill Allen. Stevens was accused of failing to report gifts from Allen.]


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