Rescue's expenses mounting; Soviets expect results

Two Soviet icebreakers were expected to join the effort to save two stranded whales today an effort that has cost close to $1 million and "may be out of control, " according to a top federal official on the scene.

The Soviets were scheduled to arrive about midnight Monday. To prepare for them, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration officials in Barrow were granted a request to close air space in the vicinity today, according to Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Paul Steucke.

The icebreakers may have arrived just in time, as rescuers at the scene lost ground in their efforts to coax the imprisoned mammals toward freedom. Biologists stopped cutting new breathing holes through the Beaufort Sea ice Monday evening after the whales, apparently reluctant to approach a shoal, headed back toward the shoreline where they have been trapped more than two weeks.

Biologists switched tactics in the frustrating effort to get the whales through the shallow water. With Eskimo crews providing the backbreaking labor, they connected a series of intermittent breathing holes to form

a single open channel some 600 yards long. Instead of pushing the ice blocks back under the adjacent ice, the Eskimos used long poles to guide the miniature icebergs to the rear of the slot.

The idea was to try to keep the whales from reversing their course toward the nearest open water. Initially, the strategy worked. The whales would swim back and forth between the edge of the shoal and the rear of the iceclogged channel.

"They're doing what they're supposed to, " said federal whale biologist David Withrow, as the backfilling operation forced the whales toward the shoal. But when the channel behind them was almost completely filled, the whales reversed course, struggling up through the large slabs of ice and thick slush.

"It's discouraging, " Withrow said as the whales began surfacing farther and farther back from the shoal. "Why come back here when they know it's open up there?"

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration biologist Ron Morris said the Soviets were confident that at least one of the Soviet vessels would be able to breach the ice ridge, called a pressure ridge, at its narrowest point. The larger of the two vessels, the Admiral Makorov, is 443 feet long and needs about 35 feet of water to operate, he said. The smaller vessel, the icebreaking cargo ship Vladimir Arseniev, needs about 22 feet. Charts indicate the water depth at the ridge is about 30 feet.

Meanwhile, specialists determined through soundings that there is about 40 feet of water beneath the pressure ridge, a jumbled mass of ice chunks about 30 feet high and as wide as two football fields.

"There is a lot of water flowing beneath the ridge, which should mean it will be easier (for the Soviet icebreakers) to break through" than had been expected, Morris said.

NOAA Rear Admiral Sigmund Petersen, Morris, Coast Guard Capt. Jim McClelland of the U.S. icebreaker Polar Sea, and NOAA interpreter Lt. Salina Andreeva were to board the Soviet vessel today to assist in the operation.

NOAA officials asked for a temporary airspace closure to keep a fleet of aircraft from startling the Soviet visitors, Morris said. FAA spokesman Steucke said the restriction was granted for safety reasons. It would extend for a radius of four miles and was to begin at 9 a.m. today.

The Coast Guard has two icebreakers of its own, but neither is in a position to help. The Polar Sea is in Seattle. The Polar Star is in Halifox, Nova Scotia, headed for the Panama Canal and a return to Pacific waters. It had been caught in the Arctic Ocean, and separated from the whales, by impassable ice. The vessel was forced to escape east through the Northwest Passage.

Costs of the rescue effort continue to rise and may have already reached $1 million.

Because so many agencies and corporations are involved in the rescue, some of which are reluctant to discuss cost, it is difficult to determine exactly what the tab will be for the rescue. Petersen, of NOAA, said Monday that all agencies involved in the attempt were determined to continue until the whales are free. But he admitted he had personal concerns about the expense.

"There are a lot of expenditures being made, I understand that, " he said. "Somehow, it may have gotten out of control. We decided at the very beginning that there was a need for saving these whales. They were caught here and stranded and NOAA has responsibility for endangered species.

"Ron Morris was asked to come up here to evaluate the situation. An offer was made to move this (hover) barge over here. Then there was one offer after another that wasn't turned down. All of a sudden we were in a massive type of operation."

North Slope Borough officials said that as of Friday, their outlay had topped $300,000 which they need help in paying. Spokeswoman Marie Adams said the borough was asking for donations to a special fund to offset the expenses.

"A lot of people are calling in with their pledges, but they aren't sending checks, " she said. "We're getting the phone calls, but not the checks."

To cut costs, and to make equipment available for emergencies, the borough Monday stopped flying reporters from Barrow to the ice pack to see the whales.

VECO International Inc., an oil field construction and service company, donated use of a $3 million "hoverbarge" first used in the rescue attempt. It was abandoned six miles offshore near Prudhoe Bay when Army National Guard helicopters could not tow it over coastal mud, shallow water and sand bars.

The National Guard has spent "in excess of $400,000" but since the rescue is ongoing it is difficult to estimate total costs, according to the guard's adjutant general, Maj. Gen. John Schaeffer. He said the money probably would have been spent anyway on training missions "boring holes in the sky."

VECO on Saturday donated an icebreaking tractor to the effort. The huge screwonfloats was demonstrated Monday for the 50 or so members of the media in Barrow but had yet to be put to work, according to Staff Sgt. Patricia Owens of the National Guard.

Bill Allen, chairman of VECO, said his company may have spent as much as $200,000. That does not include the costs of VECO employees who have worked on the effort.

There were no cost estimates from ARCO Alaska Inc., which supplied fuel for the "hoverbarge" and the helicopters and provided living quarters for the National Guard in Prudhoe Bay, or Standard Alaska Production Co., which provided heaters, tow cable, manpower and a chainsaw mechanic at Barrow. The company also fabricated poles needed to push ice out of the whales' breathing holes.

Omark Industries Inc. of Oregon has donated at least $10,500 in chain saws and saw chains used to cut air holes for the whales.

The tractor donated by VECO was ferried to Barrow from Prudhoe Bay aboard an Air Force C5A, the largest plane in the U.S. military inventory. "The C5 flew about 41|4 hours carrying the equipment. At almost $6,500 an hour and some change, that makes about $30,000, " said Capt. Tom Dolney of the Military Airlift Command at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois.

NOAA's Petersen estimated his agency has spent about $6,000 on the operation.

As the small war to save the whales escalates, some biologists question the wisdom of the effort. It isn't so much the huge cost of flying in exotic equipment, or the thousands of hours devoted to breaking up the ice trapping the whales that bothers Withrow, the National Marine Mammal Laboratory research biologist.

It is the way man is once again challenging nature.

While acknowledging that he, too, has been touched by their plight, he said the trapped whales are not needed by their species, which is flourishing despite its endangered status.

"It would be appropriate for nature to remove these animals from the general population if these animals are doing so well that the environment can't support them, " Withrow said. "There's no loss from a biological standpoint because they are not breeding animals."

Part of the reason for all the interest in the whales is that they are considered an endangered species. But biologists say the gray whale family is strong and getting stronger. Their numbers are growing, more than 20,000 right now, to about the level they were before commercial whaling nearly wiped them out in the late 1880s.

"They're doing fine. They're doing great. They're doing wonderfully, " said John Sease, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist in Juneau.

He said there was an attempt several years ago to downgrade the gray whales from endangered to threatened that failed because of public opposition. "As we've seen in Barrow, it's an emotional issue and it gets crazy. But when you look at scientific evidence there is no reason to keep gray whales on any list."

Howard Braham, considered the country's leading gray whale researcher, said from Seattle Monday that there are studies under way that may lead the government to propose taking the grays off the endangered list. Braham, director of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory, said he would not speculate on whether any change would be made when the studies are completed.

The Soviets riding to the rescue add two new odd twists to the saga of the trapped whales. While the Soviets are sending the two ships to save the two whales, it is Siberian Natives who kill nearly every gray whale hunted each year. The International Whaling Commission allows 179 gray whales to be hunted for subsistence each year, with only a handful taken by Alaska Natives.

The environmental group Greenpeace has been active in the whale rescue, and a Soviet|Greenpeace alliance is also a strange turn. The last time the Soviets and the environmentalists met was in 1983 when Greenpeace landed on the Siberian coast to take photographs of what they said was an illegal commercial whaling operation.

After a highseas chase, Greenpeace crew members were taken into custody by the Soviets. They were later released at a meeting on the international date line between the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior and two Soviet vessels.

Daily News staff and wire reports