The big ice wall posing the main obstacle to freeing two trapped whales began to yield Tuesday to the might of Soviet icebreakers. The progress of the two ships made officials optimistic that the whales could be on their way to the sunny Mexican coast as early as today.
"It's a piece of cake for them, " said Ron Morris of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the operation coordinator.
Getting down to business quickly, the Russians started attacking the 30foothigh pressure ridge a day earlier than expected, and by nightfall had chewed threefourths of the way through. The captain of the Admiral Makarov, the command ship of the two vessels, planned to work through the night and expected to be complete its work by this afternoon.
At the same time, Inupiat whalers with their chain saws began digging a new, 11|2milelong series of breathing holes to skirt a shoal that the whales had refused to cross.
The pair of California gray whales, trapped in ice near Point Barrow since Oct. 7, were advancing right behind the Eskimos. By evening, Eskimos and whales were about three miles from the 400yardwide ridge, closer to it than ever before.
The only potential hitch could be the shallow sea bottom beneath the remainder of the ridge. The Makarov, which needs 35 feet of water, was within a foot of the bottom and the sea was getting shallower. But the Russians were confident that the smaller vessel, the converted cargo ship Vladimir Arseniev, would easily finish the job. The Arseniev needs only 20 feet of water.
The Soviets became involved in the milliondollar rescue mission, now an international cause celebre and a glasnost demonstration project, when their assistance was officially requested by the State Department and NOAA over the weekend. The environmental organization Greenpeace had earlier asked for their assistance, but it took a call to the Soviet embassy by the government to get the ships under way.
A pool of five media representatives spent about six hours Tuesday on board the Makarov, a 13yearold, Finnishbuilt icebreaker.
Both are civilian vessels based in Vladivostok and owned by the Far East Steamship Co. They had been at sea about six months, most recently dropping a cargo of portable buildings and tracked vehicles at a floating ice research station about 285 miles northwest of Barrow.
The ships were on their way home but were diverted for the rescue.
One of the officers, Vladimir Morov, said the whale rescue has been big news in the Soviet Union, too. When the reporters boarded the ship, he told them he had just gotten off the phone from Pioneer Pravda, a youth newspaper, and its editors said they had been getting telephone calls from all over their country.
"Our country is watching just like anyone else, " he said. "We love animals, just as anyone."
Chief Officer Alexander Patzevich, the second in command of the Makarov, said his crew of 104, including nine women, didn't mind the diversion to Barrow.
"It's very nice to work together to do something good between two people, " he said. Even the elements were cooperating Tuesday. The wind shifted and was blowing from the east and was expected to blow that way through today. That meant that as a channel for the whales was cleared, the wind would blow ice chunks and slush out to sea, leaving clear, open water the kind needed by gray whales, which are poorly adapted to the Arctic.
As the Russians gouged a quartermile niche into the wall, the Eskimo workers went back to square one to cut a new series of breathing holes for the whales, ones that skirted the shoal. They were working faster than ever, hoping to reach the ridge on their own without any assistance from the oil industry.
Veco International's Archimedean Screw Tractor, an amphibious vehicle that drives along two rotating pontoons fitted with enormous screw threads, was on standby for use today.
By itself, the tractor was capable of cutting a 16footwide trench through the ice, but it left chunks of ice and slush in its wake, through which the whales had trouble surfacing for air.
Standard Oil crafted a plow in its Prudhoe Bay shop and planned to fly it to Barrow to solve that problem, but a new one cropped up.
Morris, the rescue coordinator, wanted to tow the plow with a helicopter, but the Alaska National Guard CH46 Skycrane had broken down and wouldn't be repaired until some time today. The North Slope Borough search and rescue helicopter may be substituted if the Eskimos don't reach the ice wall when the Russians break through and the screw tractor is needed to create more holes.
During the day, one of the whales snagged an extension cord used to power the floating water circulators that keep their breathing pools free of ice. The whale swam from pool to pool, the 50foot extension cord and circulator streaming behind. Officials were unable to pull the wire free and feared it may be stuck in his baleen, the bony tissue inside its mouth through which it filters its food.
They replaced the circulator.
If the whales reach freedom today, there is no plan to radiotag them to learn if they ever reach their destination. Morris said the whales are two weak to take the additional stress of a radio tag, which normally is affixed to a shaft fired by a crossbow at least a foot into a whale's blubber.
However, the scars from their ordeal will mark them for life, Morris said. With more than 20,000 gray whales swimming the oceans today, they may never be encountered again. But if they are, Morris said, they will be recognizable especially if one is trailing an orange extension cord.