Biologists say freezing water is shrinking whales' breathing space

Susan Gallagher

Three gray whales remained trapped by ice off the Arctic Coast on Thursday as biologists assessed the animals' plight from the air and a concerned public asked an environmental group to get involved.

The whales in the clogged sea near Point Barrow continued to swim several hundred feet offshore, using two holes in the ice for the air needed to survive, said Geoff Carroll, a wildlife biologist for the North Slope Borough. He said renewed efforts to communicate with an icebreaking ship thought to have been in the area were unsuccessful.

After an observation flight on Thursday, Carroll estimated the openings in the ice were about 15 by 30 feet, providing barely enough room for the three California gray whales as they rose for air about every four minutes. Earlier reports about the holes' size were inaccurate.

The trio was more than four miles from open water, Carroll said.

"It's all fairly new ice, " he said. "If they were bowhead whales, they could break that pretty easily."

But biologists believed time was running out for the whales as nighttime lows of minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit continued, solidifying the offshore area and threatening to shrink the whales' breathing space. Help from an icebreaking ship appeared to be the only solution, Carroll said.

Biologists believe the whales were migrating from the Beaufort Sea to their winter grounds off the coast of Mexico when they became trapped. Several vessels, including a Coast Guard icebreaker, were delayed by arctic ice this month and last, and hunters in the village of Nuiqsuit relinquished their whale quota because impassable seas kept them home.

The Anchorage office of Greenpeace received several calls on Thursday from people asking if the organization could help the whales, said Cindy Lowry, Greenpeace director in Anchorage. The wildlife advocacy group's efforts on behalf of whales have been publicized widely.

"There's not much we can do, " Lowry said. "We don't have a boat."

The whales' presence in the Arctic Ocean this far into the fall is unusual, said Steve Swartz, a marine mammalogist for the Center for Environmental Education in Washington.

"They should have their little butts further south by now, " he said.

Swartz and Steve Zimmerman of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau said they do not know of another incident in which California gray whales have been icebound. About two years ago, some 200 beluga whales caught off the coast of Siberia were freed by an icebreaker, Swartz said. He also said a blue whale occasionally gets caught in ice near Newfoundland.

The population of California gray whales is about 20,000 and has been growing at an annual average of 2.5 percent for the past decade, said Swartz, who has conducted whale research in the arctic and off the Mexico coast.

Anchorage Daily News