A trio of gray whales trapped by ice in the Arctic Ocean used two openings for lifesaving air Wednesday as biologists sought help to free the animals.
The California gray whales apparently were swimming from the Beaufort Sea to their winter grounds off the coast of Mexico when they got caught in the ice just east of Point Barrow a week ago, said Geoff Carroll, a biologist for the North Slope Borough.
He said the whales' movement kept open two holes in the ice, but those openings shrunk as temperatures plunged and new ice formed. By Wednesday, when Barrow's minus 13 set a record low for the date, the holes 450 feet offshore were about the size of basketball courts.
A bowhead whale, larger and better adapted to ice than its gray cousin, might break through the 6inchthickness, Carroll said. But he held little hope for the three trapped mammals.
"Apparently, they got over into the Beaufort Sea and stayed too long" before starting their long journey south, he said.
"Things don't look real good for them."
The borough's Department of Wildlife Management tried repeatedly to get in touch with an icebreaker that a government survey crew reported seeing from the air, but radio messages went unanswered, Carroll said.
A U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, Polar Star, began working its way to the Northwest Passage this week after ice off the northern Alaska coast blocked the vessel's intended route to the west. The Polar Star was too far from the whales to help them, Coast Guard spokesman Andy Connor said Wednesday.
Another spokesman in Alameda, Calif., said Carroll had requested help in freeing the whales but the service was unable to assist. The guard's second icebreaker, the Polar Sea, is in port in Seattle.
Carroll said the whales were stuck near Plover Point, a spit extending southeast from Point Barrow. They appeared in the holes about every four minutes, sending forth their characteristic spray when they exhaled, he said.
"They eat a lot and they have to keep moving, " Carroll said. "I'm sure they're going to eat everything that's there before very long."
He said the whales eat plankton from the ocean floor.
The population of California gray whales has been expanding, Carroll said, and in recent years the animals have been migrating over a larger area than they used previously. Near Point Barrow, the first gray whales of the season usually are observed early in June, he said.
The beluga and bowhead whales that also inhabit those waters spend their winters in the Bering Sea, Carroll said.