Eskimo whaling captains in Barrow plan to meet today to consider the possibility of harvesting three California gray whales if the animals remain trapped by frozen seas along the Arctic Coast.
The three young whales became stranded a week ago just offshore near Point Barrow, and since then have been regularly bobbing their heads out two small breaks in the ice to breathe. The nearest open water is four or fives miles away.
Biologists have been besieged with suggestions from people around the United States on how to get the whales to open water, but said on Friday that shifting ice was the whales' only realistic hope.
No icebreaking ships are in the region, and schemes that included using dynamite to blast a path through the ice and tranquilizing the whales to somehow move them have been discarded, biologists watching the situation said.
People in Barrow, who harvest a small number of larger bowhead whales each year for food and other uses, have begun to talk about the possibility of killing the whales if they remain trapped much longer.
"The situation looks quite grim at the moment, " said Arnold Brower Jr., a member of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission who flew over the whales in a helicopter on Friday and later walked out on the ice near the holes.
"They seemed to be in a mild state of shock. We're very concerned about them. They're lost. . . . If no one else is able to help them, then we want to stop them from suffering. We'd like to do that if nothing else happens."
Geoff Carroll, a biologist for the North Slope Borough, also saw the whales on Friday and said the situation didn't look promising.
"Nothing's changed. We're really in a tough spot. . . . There's a bit of a current in the spot where the holes are and they're probably not getting rest. It's probably quite stressful on them."
The ice along the coast was formed by record cold temperatures in recent days it was 13 degrees below zero two nights ago and Carroll and federal biologists were fearful that the whales' breathing holes could freeze over or be slammed shut by shifting ice. But by Friday, temperatures in the area had warmed into the 20s, and the biologists were holding out hope that the water might open up or cause the ice near shore to shift. The whales' constant bobbing in the water had kept the holes from freezing.
"We're not closed in for the winter with pressure ridges and things haven't got to the point where it's all doom and gloom, " Ron Morris, an official with the National Marine Fisheries Service, told The Associated Press. A 96hour forecast showed the potential for ice movement along the coast. Most of the ice in the area is 6 to 8 inches thick, he said.
"Holes open up and close all the time, " said John Sease, a Juneaubased biologist with the fisheries service who's studied whales in the region. "It's very changeable and you could look up in a halfhour and it could be an entirely different situation. It's not a solid sheet of ice. . . . I wouldn't be surprised if the whales should suddenly disappear and find a way out."
Ice has been especially heavy in the region since summer. Over the past two months, several ships have been gotten temporarily stranded in the ice pack, and the village of Nuiqsuit gave up its bowhead whale allotment because of impassable seas.
The whales are stranded just a few hundred feet off a cape, about 15 miles north of Barrow. People who've seen them say two of the whales appear to be quite young, and the other is perhaps 30 feet long. Adults gray whales grow to between 40 and 50 feet long.
The whales normally spend their summers feeding in the Beaufort Sea off the North Slope, then migrate south through the Bering Strait during the fall. They spend their winters in the warm waters off the Mexican and Southern California coasts.
No one is sure how the whales got stranded, but the biologists said they apparently got separated from other whales as they were migrating west and became trapped by the ice.
"They just messed up and got stuck. All the other gray whales are gone and they're here, " Carroll said.
Gray whales aren't nearly as adept as bowheads in moving under or through thin ice, he said. Bowheads, which grow up to 60 feet long, would probably be able to simply break through the 6inch ice in the region and swim to icefree water.
"They're masters at finding the open seas, " Carroll said.
While bowheads can swim under water for as long as a halfhour, Carroll and Sease said, gray whales normally come up for air every five minutes or so.
"Gray whales just aren't good at moving around ice, " said Sease, . "They're just not used to being around it. They won't go under the ice for very long. It's like asking a cat to swim."
Still, Carroll said the ice is so thin that he thought the gray whales were strong enough to push through and make a path to the open water if they got the urge.
"If the whales could just realize it, they could probably just take off and break up the ice themselves. It's not that thick. But they're not used to it. They're used to California."
Federal biologists originally hoped an icebreaker might be able to come to the whales' rescue, but learned that the closest ship was sailing east toward the Northwest Passage from Prudhoe Bay. Pack ice was so heavy, the Coast Guard decided it would be too risky to send the ship toward Barrow. The only other Coast Guard cutter is in Seattle.
After the trapped whales were mentioned on a television network news program earlier this week, biologists have been flooded with calls from wildlife organizations around the country.
Carroll and federal biologists said most of the callers just wanted more information, but several had passed on suggestions for saving the whales.
"Most of them were pretty thoughtful, " he said. But no one has been able to think up a way to get the whales out without endangering them or human rescuers.
Using dynamite to open up holes in the ice, for example, might work, they said. But then again, the noise might also frighten the whales away from open water or damage their sensitive ears. And there's no way to assure that gray whales, unused to swimming through ice, would follow the air holes.
Someone suggested tranquilizing the animals, then transporting them to the water. But Carroll said there's no way to guarantee that the whales wouldn't sink and then get trapped under the ice.
One possibility still being worked on, Carroll said, is to get an icebreaking hovercraft from Prudhoe Bay, more than 200 miles to the east.
While this is apparently the first time gray whales have been found to be trapped in ice off the Arctic Coast, it's probably not the first time they've been icebound, biologists said.
"What's unusual is for people to see it, " said Sease.
Over the past few days, a procession of snowmachines has roared up the cape from Barrow as word spread about the whales.
"People are very concerned about them, " said Rosie Habeich, office manager for the whaling commission in Barrow. "It doesn't take a biologist to figure out that they're tired and not doing good."
The population of endangered California gray whales numbers about 20,000 and has been growing at an annual average of 2.5 percent for the past decade. They normally aren't hunted by subsistance whalers on the North Slope, in part because they have less meat and fat, although Eskimos on St. Lawrence Island and villages on the Northwest Arctic Coast occasionally harvest them.
Whalers in Barrow are eager to talk with federal biologists to figure out what to do, Brower said. If there's little hope that the whales can get free, harvesting them is the most humane thing to do. It was unclear whether whalers would need permission from the federal government to take the whales.
"We want to stress the emergency nature of the problem to the federal people, " he said.