After making an initial run toward freedom, two California gray whales lingered off the tip of Point Barrow so long Thursday that their escape was threatened by sub-zero temperatures and refreezing of channels cut to save them from entrapment by Arctic ice.
Rescuers had to return to what has proved to be the strongest weapon in their arsenal: Eskimos with chain saws.
The Eskimos cut more than a mile of new breathing holes and marched the whales farther out toward open water.
Two Soviet ships that had knocked down a wall of ice Wednesday continued to carve up the adjoining ice floes, but the channels left by the ships were so littered with chunks of sharp ice that the whales quit using them after moving about a mile and a half Thursday morning.
“The real progress is (being made by) manpower,” said Alaska National Guard Col. Tom Carroll, who is in charge of the Guard’s role in the rescue.
Marine biologists who have been working for nearly three weeks to save the animals said the whales took a little too long to adjust to their new freedom.
And there was some concern that the young whales had grown so accustomed to the sound of chain saws that they were reluctant to move on.
Whales Move to New Holes
That theory was supported in part by the fact that the whales moved quickly to new holes that teams of Eskimos cut in the ice Thursday, sometimes poking up through a newly created hole so quickly that workers had to snatch the chain saws out of the way.
And weather was beginning to be a problem.
Although the sky was clear Thursday, cold winds blowing out of the southeast sent the wind chill factor to minus 40 degrees. It was clearly the most uncomfortable day since the whales were discovered trapped in the ice just a few yards offshore on Oct. 7.
The weather was so cold that Eskimos could be seen from the air walking on ice that had formed over what had been open channels carved just a day earlier by the Soviet ships, the Vladimir Arseniev and the Admiral Makarov. The ships are assisting in the rescue at the request of the environmental group Greenpeace and the U.S. government.
A Mile From Freedom
The openings in the ice began freezing over when the whales were only about three miles from open water. But the whales followed the sound of the chain saws out to where the icebreakers had spent the night, and by late Thursday they were only about a mile from open water and another chance for freedom.
The lure of the chain saws was a fascinating development to marine biologists, who noted that little is clearly understood about gray whales, but they are known to be acoustical animals.
“They will follow the chain saws,” said biologist Ron Morris of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who has coordinated the rescue effort. So the saws were taken back on the ice not only to cut new breathing holes but to lure the whales along the path to freedom as well.
“We will tell them, ‘Here we are, guys, here’s this friendly noise,’ ” Morris said as workers began the 21st day of the rescue.
May Not Head South
Some biologists feared that the young whales may have become trapped in the ice before they had learned the ropes, and, with no elders around to lead them south, they might not be sure what they should do next.
David E. Withrow, a research biologist with the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, said it is not known if whales go south to Baja California for the winter entirely because of instinct or if they are taught to do that by older members of the community.
“We don’t know what role the learning process has in their migration,” he said.
Nonetheless, scientists were reasonably sure that the two whales would do what is right and head south, although they may spend the winter considerably north of Baja because they are already so far behind the other grays.
Whales Looking Good
Both whales, Morris said, “looked good” Thursday and did not appear to have been injured significantly by their long ordeal. But it is safe to say that just about everyone here is ready for the long rescue attempt to end.
“I thought they would be gone by now,” Morris lamented Thursday morning. “I want them gone.”