whales, chainsaws + ice, Alaska ’88

Gray whale blowing in its breathing hole as ice closes in, Oct 13, 1988 (photo Bill Roth, Anchorage Daily News) 
Gray whale blowing in its breathing hole as ice closes in, Oct 13, 1988 (photo Bill Roth, Anchorage Daily News)

When a trio of California gray whales was trapped by ice formations near Barrow, Alaska, in late 1988, the Anchorage Daily News tracked their wellbeing from at least Oct. 13 – 29. With temperatures dropping and new ice forming daily, the whales’ breathing holes shrank rapidly. People were concerned and tried to find ways to help the ways find their passage to the Bering Sea, where they would migrate south.

The newspaper reported that men with chainsaws hacked the edges of breathing holes to keep the pack ice from closing in. Heavy wind conditions battered an ice-crushing barge at Prudhoe Bay, 230 miles away, so much that it could only move five miles in one day. Volunteers used the power of their snowmobiles to pull ice chunks out of the breathing holes even though temperatures dropped to minus 50º F with windchill.

On October 29, reports said that an icebreaker – the passing Russian merchant ship Vladimir Arsenev – had cut a channel about five miles away from the whales. The grays were seen in the channel about a day later.

Around October 20th, the paper printed following list of suggestions they had received about how to free the whales. Compiled by John Tetpon, © 1988 Anchorage Daily News. Some sound dramatic, but I’ll bet we would suggest similar things, just with more updated explosives. Reading this, I get a sense of how strong the winter ice on the Arctic Ocean is, and how quickly it forms.

Top 10 suggestions received by the Daily News for getting the whales out of the ice:

10. Blow them out with TNT, placed at intervals between the whales and the open water.

9. Blow them out with black powder, a low-level explosive propellant that would not cause the heavy concussion of TNT.

8. Drop huge concrete blocks on the ice from a helicopter.

7. Pour a trail of salt on the ice from the pools to the open water.

6. Start large fires to melt the ice.

5. Use a huge iron wrecking ball, swung from a helicopter.

4. Go a few hundred yards away from the current air hole; cut a new air hole; entice whales there. Repeat until open water reached.

3. Use a 4WD vehicle to tow a sled with two huge chain saws hanging down to cut a canal through the ice.

2. Drop bowling balls to break the ice.

1. Use a helicopter to tow a Hovercraft-type barge 230 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Barrow, then use the barge to break the ice and lead the whales to open water.

Interestingly, the final article about the freed whales noted that the rescue operation had cost upwards of $1 million: the North Slope Borough (of Barrow) had kept its two search and rescue helicopters in the air constantly for at least eight hours; one of them blew a compressor. An adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard estimated that at least $400,000 went into logistical support. A US Air Force cargo plane was diverted from a mission between California and Japan to bring an 11-ton amphibious ice-breaking tractor from Prudhoe Bay to Barrow. And the Russian officers said their diversion cost their shipping company “about 30,000 rubles a day, roughly $42,000 on the official exchange.” Whaling was still active at this time but a comparison between whaling dollars earned and dollars spent to save these California grays was not calculated.

Source: the suite of Anchorage Daily News articles appear in a beat-up softcover journal in my library that announces itself as the premier edition of the “Alaska Review: A year’s collection of statewide news and local stories” copyright 1989 by LuAnne and James A. Nelson. 

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