Media circus gives boost to business in Barrow

Stan Jones

Eric Danner knew something big was up when the first network TV crew hit town.

"The first couple or three days my drivers were coming in with $40 tips, " said Danner, who runs a Barrow taxi company called Arcticab.

What was up, of course, was that the Outside world had declared the plight of three California gray whales trapped in the sea ice near Barrow the hottest story of the week, perhaps the whole month.

The tiny Eskimo community at the tip of North America was suddenly the vortex of a media cyclone.

About 50 journalists crowded into a small Barrow TV studio Friday to get the latest word on efforts to free the whales. From as far away as London and Chicago, they stood sweating shoulder to shoulder in the welllighted room.

Outside, there were only two temperatures, one of them joked: "Uncomfortable and excruciating."

Another, a CBS cameraman, was dressed for the cold in polypropylene long johns, down pants and a down parka bought just for the trip. But he didn't want to talk about it, not for the record.

"I don't want you to use anything I say, " he told a reporter. "I cover stories. I don't want to become part of one."

Nonetheless, the cameraman and his colleagues are very much part of the Barrow whale story. On Friday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration temporarily banned reporters from the ice for fear they would frighten the huge animals that have been trapped for two weeks. NOAA spokesman Ron Morris warned that any who defied the ban could be arrested for harassing an endangered species.

The media invasion may be making whales and government officials nervous, but it's just fine with Danner and other Barrow merchants.

"Oh, it's great for business, " Danner said. "Geez, we take them reporters out, about three groups of them, three times a day."

Mostly, the reporters travel by helicopter to and from the holes in the ice where the whales continue their struggle for life.

But earlier, said Danner, it was possible to drive a taxi out over the ice and right up to the edge of the holes.

"At first it was pretty easy, " Danner said. "Then more people started following the same route and it kind of made ruts." The average tab for a cab run out to the whale crisis, Danner said, was about $50.

Down at Pepe's North of the Border Mexican restaurant, business is up 20 to 25 percent and proprietress Fran Tate is feeding the journalists all the tacos, chimichangas and burritos she can make.

"Pepe's was 10 years old yesterday and all our Mexican dinners were 10 bucks, " Tate said Friday afternoon. "So you can imagine they ate nothing but Mexican dinners."

Ordinarily, she said, the dinners go for up to $19.

Next door at the Top of the World hotel, every room is full. The occupancy rate is normally 25 percent this time of year.

"Some of our staff is very overworked, but we're enjoying it now because in a couple of weeks it's going to be dead again, " said manager Ron Hewitt.

Still, says Hewitt, the saga of the trapped whales promises to continue to pay off well into the future.

"We're on the world's mind, " Hewitt said. "We're already getting calls for next summer from people wanting to come up."

The whales were certainly on people's minds as of late Friday, with reports of new efforts to help with the search popping up on all sides:

* NOAA, for its part, was flying in an admiral.

"I have to establish my role and find out how I can assist when I get there, " Rear Admiral Sig Petersen said during a Friday afternoon stopover in Anchorage.

Hal Alabaster, a press aide in NOAA's Seattle office, was confident the trapped whales would be in good hands once Petersen reached Barrow. When Humphrey the humpback strayed up the Sacramento River in 1985 and got lost for 20 days, said Alabaster, nothing happened until "someone of authority took over."

"Once NOAA got there, he was saved, " said Alabaster, even though Petersen was not personally present.

"The admiral is a manager, a leader, " said Alabaster. "If you got a problem in Barrow, you want a senior NOAA official there to manage and organize NOAA's responsibility."

* In Anchorage, a movie chain announced plans to donate the proceeds of a showing of "Star Trek IV" to the savethewhales effort.

In Star Trek IV, the starship "Enterprise" beams up some whales from a Pacific Coast seaquarium and transports them to the future to repopulate oceans that had been fouled by pollution.

* From Portland, there was word that a machinery dealer was shipping 10 Husqvarna chain saws to Barrow to assist in the battle against ice and cold. The saw in question is a 2101XP, according to a press release faxed to Anchorage late Friday, "the largest saw in the Husqvarna line . . . built to work hour after hour, even when the going gets tough."

"Lucky Distributing and Husqvarna Power Products supports the attempt to save this endangered species, " the press release concluded.

* Across the Bering Strait, the Soviet Union offered to send an icebreaker to free the stranded whales if nothing else works by next week.

The ship, the Admiral Makarov, currently is 300 miles north of Point Barrow setting up a research station and freeing a Soviet vessel that, like the whales, is trapped in the ice.

* And not to be overlooked was a reported donation of submarine sandwiches by an Anchorage sandwich shop. These, however, were not for the endangered whales, but for an Anchorage camera crew in Barrow to report on them.

Despite the excitement elsewhere, neither the journalists nor the whales are getting much notice from the average Barrow resident, according to Danner. The journalists don't mingle and whales are old news.

"We're whalers up here, " he said. "That's an everyday thing."

One Barrow resident singularly unimpressed with the rescue effort is Bob Aiken. About a year ago, said Aiken, a local hunter was lost on the ice and the National Guard refused to help search. Aiken said local searchers eventually found the missing man dead.

"How come the whales' life is more important than human life?" Aiken asked. "The government has strange priorities."

National Guard spokesman Mike Haller defended the guard, saying the circumstances were different last year. The North Slope Borough, he said, has a fine searchandrescue department of its own to work arctic searches.

To Barrow residents such answers are sometimes confusing, said local radio reporter Earl Finkler.

Villagers wonder why, with so many reporters in town, no one does stories about Barrow, or the people of Barrow, or their long and interesting cultural attachments to the whales.

Outside reporters, Finkler said, seem largely preoccupied with saving the whales.

Daily News reporters Craig Medred and John Tetpon and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

By Stan Jones
Anchorage Daily News