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Whales Aren’t Fully Free, Soviet Ships Turning Back : Icy Slush Hampering Their Swim

United Press International

Two California gray whales, trying to follow a Soviet icebreaker’s channel to open seas, were caught today in the icy rubble left by the ship in their rapidly refreezing path, the Soviets said.

“Quite simply, they did not get free,” said Ken Freeze, a Coast Guard spokesman at Pacific Command headquarters in Alameda, Calif., who received a message from the Soviet icebreaker ship and its companion ship.

The two Soviet ships prepared to turn around and reclear the 3- to 4-mile path for the whales. Meanwhile, the whales were left bobbing in a small open area.

Trapped for Three Weeks

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The whales were trapped by ice for almost three weeks after getting a late start on their migration south and had been following a route of hand-cut holes until the Soviet icebreakers came to the rescue Wednesday.

“The whales made a dash for an open area but it was a small one,” Freeze said, paraphrasing the message from the Soviets. “What was keeping them from open water was all the icy rubble. (The Soviets) are informing us that there is too much rubble for them to pass through, so the icebreaker will cut a new path.”

The whales should have been able to escape their Arctic prison and finally begin their long-delayed migration to California and Mexico, marine mammal experts said. But they hung back too long and there was too much icy debris in their way.

Too Slow for Escape

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David Withrow, a federal marine mammal specialist, said the whales--one a yearling and the other 2 or 3 years old--moved too slowly, perhaps because they were wary of places where the ice rubble was too thick.

It also was possible that they were reluctant to leave the security of being around the humans who have been trying to achieve their rescue for nearly three weeks, Withrow said.

“I think there’s still hope,” said Cindy Lowry of Greenpeace, whose members also have been involved in the mammoth rescue effort. “I don’t know if they’re attracted to people or what. We’ve done everything we can do and now it’s up to them.”

The whales were further endangered because the chunks were freezing together quickly and blocking their channel to the open sea. The temperature dropped 20 degrees in the area and was 18 below zero early today with a wind chill that made it feel like 45 below.


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