Hunter's odd discovery turns world's eyes toward Barrow

David Postman,Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch News

Roy Ahmaogak was out looking for a way to go whale hunting when he found whales instead. The difference between what he was looking for and what he found has turned Barrow and the world upside down.

Ray's whales have captivated the world for more than a week, thanks in no small part to a rare convergence of interest among groups that are often at odds: oil companies, environmentalists and the people of the North Slope. The three trapped whales had something for everybody, including politicians in far off Washington, D.C., and journalists from all over the world. So, thus far, no one has yet questioned, very loudly anyway, whether the lives of three whales are worth all the money and fuss.

The money?

The North Slope Borough estimated that by Saturday it had spent $300,000, mostly to fly reporters around. The oil companies' fueluse estimates have a $500,000 pricetag. It's not yet known what it cost to send a C5A to Barrow Saturday to deliver an Archimedean screw tractor and put the oil companies back in the rescue business, or what the White House will pay for President Reagan's encouraging telephone call Tuesday to Prudhoe Bay.

The fuss?

It started Oct. 7.

The Inupiat of the North Slope hunt bowhead whales under a quota system that limits the number of times they can strike whales with harpoons. Because bad weather had limited their hunting, the whalers of Nuiqsut transferred three strikes to Barrow which, being farther west, still had a chance to hunt the migrating bowheads.

That Friday, Ahmaogak was looking for open water in which to hunt bowheads, according to North Slope Borough biologist Geoff Carroll. "Instead, he found these three gray whales stuck in the ice, " Carroll said Saturday.

When he got back to Barrow, Ahmaogak told a borough employee named Billy Adams, who told Carroll, the biologist said. Some people from Barrow went out to look at the whales over the weekend. Carroll went out on Tuesday, Oct. 11.

"There was no concern, " he said. "Everyone assumed they would just swim out of here. The ice was still too thin to walk on."

But California gray whales are not very well suited to dealing with ice. Although still on the endangered species list, they are among the healthiest of the world's whale populations, numbering more than 20,000 animals. As their numbers have grown, so have their range. These whales were either too far north or too late leaving or both.

The next day, Oct. 12, Carroll decided that the whales were stuck.

So he called the Coast Guard and asked for an icebreaker. The Polar Star had been in the area, but was heading east through the socalled Northwest Passage because unbreakable ice had blocked its path to the west. The Coast Guard told him they couldn't help.

That afternoon, the Anchorage bureau of The Associated Press got a call.

"We got a tip Wednesday the 12th from Barrow saying a Native had spotted three whales in an ice hole, " bureau chief Dean Fosdick said Saturday. "(Reporter) Susan (Gallagher) called Geoff Carroll and the story took off from there."

Who called in the tip?

"Carroll called it down earlier in the day and we called back for confirmation, " Fosdick said.

Anchorage television station KTUU saw the AP story and News Director Randy Upton saw an opportunity. He consulted with his network, NBC, found they were interested and sent reporter Julie Hasquet and a crew to Barrow Thursday morning. They were the first of an eventual wave of media to arrive in Barrow.

Later, Upton said, he learned that the borough's TV studio had shot some footage of the whales. Still later that morning, Upton said, he showed NBC network employees the borough's video "and they went wild."

Upton credits the television pictures with capturing the world's imagination.

"No offense, " he said, "but some stories are mainly visual. . . . How did people get excited about this story? It hit nationwide through the networks. . . . The visuals of the whales surfacing, the sound of them, once you saw . . . then you could really feel empathy for the whales."

So there was something in this for the networks and for the print media, too.

"I've never seen media so excited about a story, " Upton said, "including when the pope and the president met in Fairbanks."

But even before Upton knew just what he had on his hands, KTUU used the AP story on its Wednesday night newscast. The Daily News used a version of the AP story on its front page Thursday morning. If TV hooked the world, print seems to have sparked the rescue attempt.

Thursday morning, Rod Christ, executive vice president of VECO International, walked into the office of VECO Inc. president Pete Leathard and started talking about the newspaper story.

"He said, "Pity our hoverbarge isn't there. It can break ice, ' " Leathard said. "I said, "Damn, let's see if we can get it over there.' "

The first thing Leathard did was call Ben Odom, executive vice president of ARCO Alaska Inc., "To see if the oil industry couldn't get involved in this. Ben said, "By all means.' "

Odom agreed to help find a helicopter to tow the barge the 230 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Barrow. The company also agreed to donate all the fuel for the helicopters and the barge. Odom checked with the Army and Air Force. Neither service had a chopper powerful enough to make the trip. Leathard, though, checked with the Alaska National Guard, which had two CH54 Skycrane helicopters that could pull the weight.

But the head of the Guard, Maj. Gen. John Schaeffer, said he would not authorize their use because no human life was at stake.

So far, no good. Then, Friday morning, Oct. 14, Greenpeace's Alaska representative Cindy Lowry got what she said was "an anonymous call that VECO had an icebreaker" and that the National Guard had a helicopter to pull it. Leathard said he doesn't remember if VECO called Lowry or how she found out the barge existed.

Lowry began lobbying aides to get Gov. Steve Cowper to send in the National Guard. "I kept saying, "This would be a really good thing for you guys to get involved in, ' " she said Thursday.

Why was Lowry interested?

"To save the whales, " she said. That's pretty much Greenpeace's business, saving whales.

But state officials still were reluctant. They agreed with Schaeffer that if no human life was in danger they could not justify spending the state's meager searchandrescue budget. This year the budget is $169,000 and has already been overspent because of the search for seven Gambell walrus hunters earlier this year.

Also on Friday, Schaeffer told Leathard that the helicopters could be used if the Pentagon authorized, and paid for, a rescue mission.

Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, a member of the Defense Appropriations Committee, then became the target of the wouldbe rescuers. Odom telephoned Barbara Andrews, Stevens' Anchorage assistant. She said she was going to the Navy Ball that night and would see Schaeffer and ask him what needed to be done to launch the rescue.

"She called me after the ball and said that she had contacted Schaeffer and that everyone seemed to be positive about it, and if there was anything Sen. Stevens could do he would, " Odom said.

Meanwhile, Leathard had contacted Cliff Groh Sr., a prominent Republican and attorney who has represented VECO, who said he would call Stevens.

"He's a personal friend of Stevens, " Leathard said. "He called Stevens directly and he said we will do whatever it takes in Washington to make it happen."

Stevens would only say he was contacted by a constituent and asked to persuade the Defense Department to help, according to his press secretary, Jane Robbins. It was midnight Friday when Stevens and an aide went to work to find Lt. Gen. John Conaway, vice chief of the National Guard Bureau.

Robbins said she thinks Conaway was finally located in Pennsylvania and authorized a National Guard training mission to rescue the whales.

National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Ron Morris was already in Barrow, having flown there to meet with Eskimo whalers about what to do with the three captive whales. He said no decision had been made when he got a phone call from his boss Saturday evening, Oct. 15.

"He said, "Ron, I've got some news for you. A decision has been made to try and rescue the whales, ' " Morris said Thursday.

He thinks the rescue and the international attention it has brought will be beneficial to the cause of saving whales.

"We've got to have a heck of an impact, " he said. "And it's got to be good for the whales in general."

And for oil companies in general, too.

"The only negative thing I could see is that somebody will say, "Oh sure, they are only doing this because they see the publicity value in it, ' " said Al Goldberg, a vice president of Hill and Knowlton Inc., the world's largest public relations firm.

Goldberg said many news stories on the whale rescue he has seen have not mentioned the oil companies so he was not sure how great the public relations impact would be.

"But it portrays them as a caring company. A company that is concerned about, in this case, animal life, wildlife." He also said the companies' participation will have more influence than if they paid for advertising saying what caring, compassionate companies they are.

The people involved insist public relations was not their motivation.

"We had no idea that this thing was going to evolve into what it has and that has not been our motivation, " Odom said. "I can't say that we are sorry that it has worked out that way. But there is a risk here and good PR can turn into bad PR all of a sudden."

"When we started this thing it was a little deal, " said Leathard. "We didn't create all this publicity. In fact, I wish it wasn't so much. It's a little bit embarrassing."

ARCO spokeswoman Susan Andrews said she did not know if the whale rescue would be used in any future advertising effort. But she did say that the firm's involvement with Greenpeace, "might be a story we will tell."

The media gets a story, the environmentalists and oil companies get to join hands and save some whales with a little public relations thrown in. And what do the Eskimos, who first saw the whales and have so far done most of the rescuing, get?

"I think the episode with the whales, is showing everybody that the Inupiat people are very compassionate with the animals, " said Brenda Itta, a North Slope Borough assemblywoman. "Our Inupiat people believe that whales are a gift from our Creator. We've always had a special relationship with the whales."

Is there no other value for her people?

"I know, with the Inupiat people, it's been that way for centuries. It's nice to see this compassion (on the news), though."

Daily News reporter Richard Mauer contributed to this story.

Anchorage Daily News