One gray whale presumed drowned

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch News

Sometime during the late afternoon Friday, the California gray whale they called "Bone" disappeared beneath the ice of the Arctic Ocean.

No one will ever know why he went or, probably, where. One hour he was swimming with the two other gray whales that have been trapped in the ice here for a week, and then he was gone.

Shortly before dark, Eskimos cutting holes in the ice to rescue the whales noticed Bone wasn't surfacing to breathe with his companions.

They began a search up and down a halfmile row of 40 or more holes looking for him, but there was no sign.

"He was just never seen again, " Geoff Carroll, a biologist for the North Slope Borough who was out on the ice when Bone disappeared, said Saturday.

Bone most likely drowned beneath the ice.

"I'm presuming him dead, " said Jim Harvey of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle. "The chances (of survival) are very slim."

"I'd say there's always a possibility . . . he could have found a hole we don't know about, " added David Withrow, a colleague of Harvey. But Withrow admitted that was probably wishful thinking.

Withrow and Harvey are the federal experts on California gray whales. They arrived here on Friday to assist whale rescuers who are trying to guide the remaining two grays through the series of openwater holes for five miles to a lead in the pack ice.

Eskimo men from this village at the tip of North America are using chain saws to cut the holes. Close to 50 such holes now stretch from where the whales were first trapped within 100 yards of shore to nearly a mile out onto the ice.

As whale meat cooked in a warming shed on the Barrow spit Saturday, 25 men labored outside to make more holes. The meat was that of a bowhead killed this fall.

Eskimo whalers said they have no desire to kill the trapped gray whales because the meat of the larger bowheads is tastier.

They said they are helping to free the whales because they do not like to see animals suffer. They believe animals should be allowed to die quick and relatively painless deaths.

A caribou that ventured near the warming shed died that way. Four caribou came from off the ice near Elson Bay, and only three left. Rescuers were feasting on the meat of the fourth by afternoon.

The proteinrich caribou meat and the fatrich whale meat provided the calories their bodies needed to fight the cold as they worked.

The labors of these men have moved the trapped whales to within about three miles of a pressure ridge grounded on a shoal offshore.

The official estimate is that there are now 58 breathing holes in the ice and they reach about onethird of the way to the ridge.

On the far side of that ridge is the open lead, but rescuers have yet to come up with a foolproof scheme for getting the whales past a jumble of grounded ice 200 feet wide and 30 feet thick.

Among the options being discussed are explosives and highpressure streams of water.

Hightechnology solutions for rescuing the whales have been faltering daily in the harsh weather of the Arctic. An icebreaking hoverbarge that was to have been towed almost 200 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Barrow to rescue the whales never got more than about 10 miles from its point of origin. The barge has now been discarded as a means of rescue.

And an icesmashing, concrete and steel ram that was to be used by Alaska Army National Guard helicopters to break ice has seen little use. Problems with the slings that support the ram have several times forced pilots to stop efforts to break ice.

That has not stopped hightechsters from trying. Saturday evening an Air Force C5A, the largest cargo plane in the world, landed at Barrow. It was carrying an Archimedean screw tractor, a contraption about the size of four pickup trucks mounted on stainless steel pontoons and propelled by screwblades. The plan is to use the tractor to scout the pressure ridge, and, perhaps, to cut some ice as well. Like the hoverbarge, the tractor belongs to VECO, the oilfield service company.

While high technology falters, the Eskimo crews with their chain saws, aided by portable aerators provided by two men from Minnesota, have been successful.

Workers cut holes in the ice by chopping free blocks of ice 8 feet long and 3 feet wide. Those ice blocks are then forced beneath the surrounding ice, and the bubbling aerators are placed in the hole to keep it ice free.

The two surviving whales are regularly moving from hole to hole to breathe.

"That's a good sign, a real good sign, " said Ron Morris, rescue coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

He said the plan is to continue cutting holes toward the pressure ridge. Withrow and Harvey said the whales appear to be in good shape.

They give the whales a fair chance of making it south to breeding grounds off Mexico if they are freed. But they also said that there are no scientific reasons to get upset if the rescue fails.

"I don't think if these whales were lost it would harm the populations as whole, " Withrow said.

There are an estimated 21,000 gray whales in the Pacific Ocean at this time. Historic levels are pegged at between 15,000 and 25,000 whales.

"It's probably in the best shape of all whales, " Withrow said.

The whale is classified as an endangered species in the United States, but the scientists agree that it is not endangered.

"It's a very controversial issue, " Withrow said. "There is a move on to remove them from the list."

Opposition to removing them from the list has centered on the possibility that to do so could permit commercial whaling to resume.

The gray whale population continues to grow at about 21|2 percent a year, Harvey said. Both scientists agreed the whales trapped off Barrow probably got into trouble because they were exploring new territory as the populations of the species expanded.

All of the whales are young, Harvey said. They think Bone was a yearling. One of the two surviving whales is also probably a yearling and the other is thought to be a twoyearold, Withrow said.

These were inexperienced whales that probably got caught too far north while searching for food, Withrow said. The whales, he said, should have let the Arctic six weeks ago.

"They're typically not found this deep in the arctic ice, " Harvey said. The whales got too bold and got caught.

Daily News reporter Richard Mauer contributed to this story.

Anchorage Daily News