‘They’re on Their Own’ : Eager Whales Freed, Head for the Open Sea

Times Science Writer

Two California gray whales swam to freedom Wednesday, leaving a series of breathing holes cut through the ice by Eskimos with chain saws and popping up moments later in a channel in the ice cut by two Soviet ships.

“They’re free. They’re on their own,” shouted a jubilant Ron Morris, the biologist who coordinated what may rank as the most extraordinary animal rescue effort ever undertaken.

News of the success of Operation Breakthrough was flashed by hand-held radios to workers scattered over miles of frozen Arctic waters.

Follow Icebreaker


“They’re moving down behind the (ice)breaker,” one excited scientist radioed his colleagues. “They’re following the breaker. That’s all we know. They’re following the breaker.”

For awhile the whales “milled around,” Morris said, suggesting they wanted to become more familiar with their new territory before heading south. One of the whales also was bloody, apparently from crashing into jagged ice, but scientists who have monitored their behavior seemed confident that the international effort to save the whales had succeeded.

“They’re not finished” with their long journey to the warm waters of Baja California, where grays spend the winter, said Rear Adm. Sig Petersen of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “But they are on their way.”

Scientists were amazed that, in the most perilous phase of their bid for freedom, the whales did a lot to save themselves. Their last jaunt required them to swim more than 1,200 feet under thick ice and then break through a thin layer of ice that had formed over waters cleared the night before by the Soviet ships. That was quite a change of heart for two whales that only a few days earlier had been afraid to leave the breathing hole where they had survived since Oct. 7.


In the end, the whales seemed to understand what was happening.

For several days they had grown listless as the effort to free them dragged on and on. But by Tuesday night, after Eskimo whalers had cut more than a mile of holes through the ice, allowing the whales to reach deeper water, the animals changed, according to scientists who have been watching them closely.

“They seem to sense something is happening,” Mark A. Fraker, senior environmental scientist with Standard Oil of Alaska, said earlier in the day.

The whales raced up and down the chain of holes in marked contrast to their earlier reluctance to leave the first hole cut in the ice for them, where they had found at least temporary safety.

But by Wednesday afternoon, as workers frantically cut more holes to move the whales closer to open water, they seemed downright eager to head out.

“The whales are more energetic than I’ve ever seen them,” David Withrow, a U.S. federal marine mammals specialist, said.

Sometimes, they did not even wait for the Eskimos to finish cutting.

“When we have a hole half cut, they’re already in it,” an obviously excited biologist Geoff Carroll radioed to other members of the rescue team.


Unlikely Team Forms

An unlikely team of Eskimos, Soviet seamen, environmentalists and oil workers took part in the rescue mission.

But it was mainly Eskimo workers and Soviet icebreakers that won the whales their freedom.

Robert Lewellen, an ice scientist who is a consultant to oil and mining companies throughout the Arctic, estimated that Eskimo workers removed 600 tons of ice by hand to enable the whales to move farther from shore and into deeper water where they could be reached by the Soviet ships. The whales must surface to breathe every four or five minutes.

The Soviet ships, the 20,241-ton Admiral Makarov, an 11-story icebreaker, and the 13,514-ton Vladimir Arseniev, an ice-breaking cargo vessel flying an American flag alongside the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union, had responded to a request for assistance from the environmental group Greenpeace and the U.S. government.

The closest American icebreaker, which had been defeated by the same thick ice last month on its way back to Seattle, was too far away to aid the rescue.

Wall No Contest

The Soviet ships arrived here Tuesday and immediately began bashing down a wall of ice that rescuers feared would keep the whales from ever reaching open water. But the wall--called a pressure ridge--proved no contest for them.


After working throughout the night, the ships had cut a hole through the ridge “close to 3 miles long,” Lewellen said. “That was one hell of a job. They did a number on it.”

Late Wednesday rescuers began using the Archimedean screw tractor, a gargantuan device propelled by pontoon augers, to rapidly clear away floating ice cut by the icebreaker, but the 11-ton contraption ended up playing only a bit part in the drama.

Like so many high-tech devices flown in here at considerable expense, the screw tractor proved less effective than Eskimo resolve. A 5-ton concrete basher, suspended from a National Guard Skycrane helicopter, also proved of little value. It was used to break holes in the ice far offshore, but the holes quickly froze over again, and the effort had to be abandoned because of mechanical problems with the helicopter.

The whales, which got trapped getting a late start on their southern migration from their summer Arctic feeding grounds, were finally freed on the 20th day of a mission of mercy that fascinated the world.

News crews from around the globe reported on every phase of the project, which proved far more difficult than had been expected.

Toiled Through Night

Working in temperatures that ranged from well below zero, and with only about seven hours of daylight, rescuers frequently toiled through the night to keep the breathing holes open for the whales.

They also were just plain lucky. Weather experts here say they cannot remember such a long period without a major storm that would have shut down the rescue operation.

There were times, even early on, when the whales seemed to know what was going on. They would rise up out of the holes, most of which were about the same size as a back yard swimming pool, and look around. Whales frequently do that to orient themselves, and the trapped whales grew so accustomed to the sounds of chain saws and the close proximity of humans that they allowed some scientists to reach out and touch them.

It all proved too much for a third whale, however, which disappeared late last week. That whale, the smallest and weakest of the lot, had been named “Bone” by the biologists because it had rubbed its snout raw, exposing the bone below. It apparently drowned.

Scientists had hoped to tag the whales, making it easier to monitor their progress during their long journey south, but that proved inadvisable in the latter stages of the operation. The whales were already spooked enough, one scientist said, so no transmitters were attached to them.

A Coast Guard spokesman said it will be more difficult to keep track of them without the tags, but “We’ll monitor them whichever way we can to ensure that they don’t turn around and come back to say ‘thank you.’ ”

Campbell Plowden, whale campaign coordinator for Greenpeace, issued a statement hailing the whales.

“These whales showed us the way toward global consciousness and true international cooperation,” he said. “If this much attention would only be paid to the plight of hundreds of whales harpooned each year by Japan, Iceland and Norway, the whales could truly be saved.”

Scientist Credits Soviets

Much of the credit for the rescue belongs to the Soviets, according to Lewellen, one of the leading experts on ice ridges in this part of the world.

“If it wasn’t for the Russians, it’s very unlikely they would have made it,” Lewellen said.

After hours of planning Operation Breakthrough with U.S. rescuers, the Soviet ships sailed one behind the other through ice-covered water to the ridge, which extends for many miles, leaving a long trail of broken ice.

“Let us begin to cut ice,” Capt. Sergei Reshetov of the Admiral Makarov declared as the Soviet vessels began their assault.

And break ice they did. Lewellen said the Soviet ships removed “colossal amounts of ice.”

“The cooperation has just been fantastic,” said NOAA’s Petersen. “The Soviets came in here with a very positive attitude and went to work immediately.”

Victory Party Planned

An “Operation Breakthrough” victory party was planned for today. Fifty Soviets were among those on the guest list.

In Washington, President Reagan said: “The human persistence and determination by so many individuals on behalf of these whales shows mankind’s concern for the environment. It has been an inspiring endeavor.

“We thank and congratulate the crews of the two Soviet icebreakers who finally broke through to the whales,” he added. “They were part of a remarkable team effort--by governments, individuals and business.”

HOW THE WHALES WERE FREED Three dozen Eskimos with chainsaws carved a path of more than 60 air holes that have allowed the whales to move about one and a half miles from where they were originally trapped Oct. 7. Water churning devices keep water from refreezing in the air holes. The Archimedean Screw Tractor, capable of churning a path through the ice, was used Wednesday to clear floating ice after it was broken up. A National Guard CH-54 Skycrane helicopter punched holes in the ice by repeatedly dropping a 5-ton steel and concrete slab, but was out of commission as of Monday with a damaged rotor. The holes it had made refroze, and played no part in the final effort. Two Russian icebreakers, the 13,514-ton Vladimir Arseniev and the larger Admiral Makarov smashed a half-mile-wide hole through a massive ice ridge and cut through the remaining half-mile of thin ice to reach the last of the air holes cut by Eskimos. When it reached the last air hole, it stopped and began backing up. The whales followed the Soviet ship at a safe distance through heavy slush to an existing 220-mile ice-free channel and freedom.