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Break in Weather Boosts Effort to Save Three Whales

Times Science Writer

Rescue workers, blessed with weather everyone here says is too good to last, raced against time Thursday to help three California gray whales escape from their icy prison before a shift in the wind brings Arctic conditions.

As they waited for more help to arrive, the workers were having some success keeping the whales’ breathing holes in the ice open with an underwater device usually used to prevent icing in northern marinas.

At the same time, wind out of the east, so bitterly cold that it cut at human flesh like a million rusty fishhooks, forced another opening in the ice that now blankets the Arctic Ocean. The opening, which from the air looks like a river, comes to within about four miles of the two small, square holes that have become the whales’ last-gasp refuge. The mammals need to come to the surface every four or five minutes to breathe.

“It’s marvelous,” said marine biologist Ron Morris, the rescue coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Anchorage, who is heading the rescue effort.

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Morris said the east wind was the best news Operation Breakthrough has had, but he added grimly that it won’t last much longer. Long-range weather forecasting is quite reliable here, he said, and by Saturday the wind is expected to shift and blow out of the north, closing off the break in the ice and driving temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero.

If the three whales are not free by then, the effort to save them--involving the work of scores of volunteers--may be at an end.

“One of these days, it will get so cold you’re afraid to go outside,” said Tom Albert, a biologist who has been researching this area for 10 years. “When that happens,” he said, “it will all be over.”

As they raced against that eventuality, rescue workers came up with several options, including using an Alaska National Guard CH-54 Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter to drop a 14,000-pound concrete weight on the ice in hopes of breaking it up. The helicopter would carry the slab to the site on a cable and use it “kind of like a yo-yo” to try to smash through the ice, one National Guard spokesman said.

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That maneuver will be tried, Morris said, if an ice-breaking barge cannot be towed by the helicopter to this northernmost point in the United States from the Prudhoe Bay oil fields 200 miles to the southeast.

The Skycrane helicopter has had trouble towing the barge across the Arctic because of a variety of problems, and officials were close to giving up on that effort Thursday evening.

It may be that the best hope for the whales lies in the small ice melting device.

Greg Ferrian and Rick Skluzacek of Kasco Marine in Lakeland, Minn., were watching a television news program when they saw the story of the trapped whales--a story that has been beamed around the world by an army of reporters and cameramen who have flocked to this frozen outpost that people here like to call the “top of the world.”

“I realized what we could do,” Ferrian said, referring to the de-icing machines his firm manufactures. “I asked my wife, ‘why aren’t we up there?’ ”

Brings Up Warmer Water

Ferrian and Skluzacek loaded four of their small machines on an airliner and flew to Barrow. The machines use a propeller to suck slightly warmer water up from the depths and push it over the surface, keeping ice from forming.

One of the machines was put in one of two small holes where the whales come up for air, “and the most amazing thing happened,” Ferrian said. “The whales came over and popped up.”

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Mark A. Fraker, a marine biologist with Standard Oil of Alaska, said the whales seem to like the faint humming noise made by the de-icers.

“They’re acoustic animals,” Fraker said. “They may be attracted to the sound.”

Workers late Thursday chopped another hole in the ice about 40 feet from the ones used by the whales to test out the theory. A de-icer was put in that hole to see if the whales would migrate to it.

May Be Lured to Open Water

They did, and Morris speculated that it might be possible to open a series of holes and entice the whales to hopscotch under the ice to open water.

But getting them to leave the area they are now using may not be easy, he said. He fears the whales may have become “genetically keyed to these two life-saving holes” and will refuse to leave the area.

“They are so distressed they may not leave” the safe haven where they have survived now for several days, he said. “They won’t even move when the chain saws are being used.”

The biologists working on the project really are not sure if anything will work because, as Morris noted, “this has never been done before.”

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Today may be their last chance before the weather changes and the effort has to be abandoned.

The rescue project has attracted worldwide attention, much to the astonishment of Alaskans who normally see few visitors this time of the year. The small hangar from which the rescue is being coordinated is crawling with reporters from as far away as England and Japan.

“What a zoo,” John Miller, administrative manager of the Guard’s rescue center here, said as he elbowed his way through dozens of reporters.

Miller said that last Tuesday, when the story of the stranded whales began making headlines around the world, the communication channels that link Barrow to the rest of the world were used more heavily than at any time in the state’s history.

Meanwhile, on the outskirts of town, several dozen caribou strolled across the snow-covered tundra just a few miles from the whales.

A little farther away, several polar bears waited for whatever meal the future might offer.

Had it not been for all the attention, the bears would have made their way a long time ago to the hole where the whales surface for air. Battered, weary and weakened by their long ordeal, the whales would have been easy prey for the powerful bears.

And that, some folks around here were saying Thursday, just could be the way this story eventually ends.

Biologists at the hole are armed to defend themselves. But if the end appears inevitable, and the bears get too interested, no one here is seriously talking about killing the bears to save the whales.

In the end, nature may write its own conclusion to the dramatic tale.


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