The youngest and smallest of three stranded California gray whales has died, abandoning its two stronger companions in an epic struggle for survival just as the effort to save them appeared to be making significant progress.
When it was last seen late Friday night, the whale appeared to be literally riding on the back of one of the others, its snout so battered that a bare bone poked through as it fought its last battle.
The whales had always remained together, surfacing as a trio in the holes cut through the ice, but by Saturday morning, only two whales remained, and it is presumed that the small whale, named “Bone” by the biologists and “Kannick” by the Eskimos, has drowned--exhausted, bloodied and bruised from its long ordeal.
“It was having its problems right from the beginning,” said David E. Withrow, a whale expert with the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle.
Withrow said the two remaining whales appear to be in reasonably good shape.
“They are rotund, which is a very good sign,” indicating that they have dined well during their five months in the North, he said.
Eskimo rescuers successfully cut the first series of breathing holes in the ice late Friday and the whales were swimming from hole to hole.
On Saturday, both of the surviving whales seemed more robust than they have the past few days, indicating that their enlarged living quarters agree with them. When Eskimos with chain saws resumed cutting holes in the ice before dawn, the whales instantly responded.
As soon as the workers finished each hole, the whales swam to it, checked it out, and then went back to the last hole cut Thursday night. That hole, about a half a mile from the spot where the whales were discovered two weeks ago, was equipped with a de-icing machine to which the whales obviously are attracted, possibly because of its humming sound.
By sunrise, the Eskimos had created about a half dozen new holes, and after swimming to them the whales stayed at the hole with the de-icer. The plan is to continue adding more holes, and gradually move the de-icer forward, luring the whales with it.
That strategy, which the Eskimos came up with themselves after all sorts of high-tech attempts had failed, appears to be the whales’ only chance for survival.
If the weather holds up--and that remains a very big if--the Eskimos with their chain saws could complete a series of holes by late tonight that would join with a chain of holes being poked through the ice near open water by an Alaska National Guard helicopter using a 5-ton chunk of concrete dangling from a cable.
Even then, however, the whales might not be out of danger. A giant pressure ridge--a wall of ice created by two huge slabs of ice forced together by currents and winds--lies between the whales and open water. No one is sure at this point whether the whales can find openings in the pressure ridge, which could extend all the way to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.
The death of the whale was a severe disappointment for scientists and workers who have struggled so hard to set the whales free.
“The youngest one is missing,” said marine biologist Ron Morris, who is coordinating the effort. “What else can I say?”
About a Year Old
Withrow said the lost whale was probably only about a year old, based on its estimated length of 27 to 29 feet. The other whales are around 35 feet long, suggesting they are “two, possibly 3 years old,” he said.
The trio strayed much farther north than is customary for grays, he added.
“The bulk of the population normally doesn’t come up this far,” Withrow said.
He described the whales as “young and inexperienced,” and in good condition--but in the wrong spot.
Although the California gray whale is on the endangered species list, Withrow said their numbers have grown annually by about 2 1/2% in recent years, and there are now about as many gray whales--around 21,000--as there ever have been.
And these particular whales, he noted, must not be too bright, judging by their predicament.
“It would be appropriate for nature to remove these from the gene pool,” he said.
Meanwhile, many people in the nearby community of Barrow were apparently beginning to think the same thing. Whales die all the time up here, and many local people are clearly astonished at all the interest in saving these.
Some are privately saying that it would have been best if nature had run its course, but when these were discovered, stranded and helpless, the plight of the whales came under a worldwide spotlight.
Now, many believe, the people of Barrow cannot turn back. The rescue effort will go on until the whales are free, or until nature pulls its own plug on the operation.