Photographer revisits early days of 1988 Barrow whale rescue

February 6, 2012 

Bill Hess took some of the first photographs of the California gray whales trapped in ice off Point Barrow in 1988.

BILL HESS PHOTO / LOGBOOKWASILLA.COM

Photographer and blogger Bill Hess of Wasilla, author of "Gift of the Whale: The Inupiat Bowhead Hunt - A Sacred Tradition," was among the first to see the stranded California gray whales off Point Barrow in 1988. With the release of "Big Miracle," the Hollywood film based on the attempt to rescue the whales, Hess is scanning his photographs from the event and uploading them in a series of posts on his blog. He opens his posts with photos from the bowhead whale hunt that was just ending when the grays were spotted, then follows with a post that includes some of the first photos taken of the trapped whales.

Hess writes:

The holes were empty when Billy [Itta] first pointed them out to me. Then, a snout rose into one, followed by that hollow, blast of a sound that a whale makes when it exhales.

Soon, another whale followed. Shortly thereafter, another. A bit later, the third - the smallest one, the tip of its snout already eroding from pushing through and scraping against the slushy ice.

After a bit, the whales moved to the other hole, and then they kept going back and forth between the two holes. It was both wonderful and horrible to witness. Wonderful, because it is always wonderful to see a whale, and to hear the hollow, blasts of their breath. Horrible, because in those breaths I heard both their desire and desperation to live - and I did not believe they had much time left to live. Their deaths could potentially be drawn out and miserable, as the slush hardened and the ice slowly enclosed over and suffocated them to death.

The best thing, it seemed to be me, would be for skilled hunters to come and quickly put them out of their misery. Yes, so far, all the hunters that I heard had agreed that these gray whales should be given some time, to see if maybe a hard wind would blow from the west and sweep the distant pressure ridge and this slush out to sea and so free the whales. If that failed, then perhaps the hunters themselves might think of something - I couldn't imagine what, but, again and again, I had been amazed at the incredible resourcefulness the hunters had shown in dealing with all kinds of challenges on their frigid ocean homeland.

Check Hess' blog, Logbook Wasilla, in coming days for more of his writing and photos from the Barrow whale rescue.

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