In the middle of the night, struggling to connect a telephone call to a distant time zone, the static of satellite relays snaped and crackled on the line. The international operator heard an Alascom operator request assistance. "You're from Alaska?" the international operator asked. "Did you free the whales yet?"
Thus had the story grown. It was a small Associated Press news item about three stranded California gray whales one day an international fixation just 48 hours later.
Oil companies decided to spend uncounted thousands as much as a half million dollars, by some estimates on a rescue effort. National Guard pilots risked their lives on an untested bargetowing operation. A couple of Minnesotans flew up uninvited, at their own expense, because they figured they knew how to keep the ice open. (They did.)
The president called.
But why? It defies explanation for one very simple reason: it really doesn't make sense.
When I was called last weekend to authorize a trip to Barrow for our reporter and photographer, my impulse was to say no. The story had not developed very far at that point; the rescue attempts were just proposals. It was not clear that the whales would live long enough to reach them.
And besides, what real difference would it make?
It is not cheap to get to Barrow, nor to stay there. I could envision spending thousands of dollars on a story that really didn't mean much or make much difference.
Wouldn't it be better to use that money for trips to Juneau for state government stories? Shouldn't I send somebody extra to Washington to watch our delegation? Maybe I should approve another UAA hockey road trip for the sports department, instead.
In the end, we decided to go partly out of responsibility. We're Alaska's biggest newspaper; if we didn't cover this, who would?
So much for my journalistic judgment. The whales are now as well covered as any three mammals outside the royal family.
But my initial reaction, by most rational measures, remains unchallenged. Lots of whales die unnoticed in the Arctic Ocean every year, trapped or crushed by the ice. Even rescue efforts for human beings like the seven Gambell whalers of last June are abandoned when the odds of success diminish. The Coast Guard spent about $1 million looking for those men, officials reported, and then quit because "There's a point where you've looked everywhere. . . so there was no point going on."
That point has not been reached in the whale rescue. People remain entranced by the icy drama; there have been few voices, indeed, to question whether the money has been wisely spent, or what the motives of the rescuers are.
One person who did was the editorial cartoonist at The Daily News. His drawing of whale rescuers racing for a public relations prize drew immediate criticism from oil industry executives and colleagues inside the newsroom alike.
"If you wanted to look for the dark, selfserving motives in the affair, we could just as easily have focused. . . on the members of our own profession. . . who jumped on this story in a blatant attempt to exploit the naive sympathies of their viewers, " one of our staffers wrote.
We could have, and probably will. And we will also examine the motives of the rescuers and their bosses, and ask questions about the public relations aspects. We'll dig into the anonymous phone call that alerted Greenpeace to VECO's barge. We'll ask Eskimo whalers why they wanted to kill the whales one day and told Ted Koppel two days later they had suspended hunting because they were too involved in the rescue.
We'll see if experts can suggest why people act this way. We'll wonder why a donation to the Brother Francis shelter wouldn't have made more sense.
We'll do our best not to serve simply as uncritical cheerleaders. And we'll probably make a few more people mad.
Howard Weaver is managing editor of the Anchorage Daily News.