Two reluctant whales trapped by ice for three weeks disappeared from sight Friday morning, leaving a trail in slushy water leading out to open sea.
"It looks good, man. It looks like they're gone, " said the jubilant mayor of the North Slope Borough, George Ahmaogak, as he stepped from a search plane shortly after noon.
Rescue chief Ron Morris of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the rescue operation a success at a press conference a few moments later.
"We did see a whale track, an unmistakable whale track, " Morris said.
The mark, left in the slush by one of the whales after it surfaced for air, was in a channel reopened Thursday night by an icebreaking Soviet cargo ship.
"They've had to have made it and they're on their way, " Morris said. "I feel great. This is fini."
The open water was located about five miles off shore, and an NOAA ice expert said it extended in a band along the coast all the way around Alaska to the whales' winter grounds in the Pacific Ocean.
"It looks favorable where they are there's lots of open water, " said Ahmaogak, who is also a whaling captain.
After spending three weeks in tiny offshore breathing holes cut in the ice by Eskimos and capturing the world's attention the whales finally made their break this morning after an uncertain start.
The Soviet captain of the merchant ship Vladimir Arsenev said the whales entered the channel in the middle of the night.
"After the first pass, they saw whales spouting, " Morris said.
But at 8:45 a.m., Eskimos on the ice saw a whale in one of the breathing holes they had carved. The whalers had left in the last hole a generatorpowered water circulator, a device which, in the past, had attracted the whales. The Eskimos and a Greenpeace representative had opposed using the icebreaker, preferring instead to spend the day Friday digging more holes to the sea.
Morris was unhappy when he learned that the bubbling circulator was left behind, keeping the last hole free of ice.
"That was nothing but an attempt to keep the whales from leaving, " he said. "We were trying to wean them."
As it turned out, the circulator wasn't enough of a draw.
"If you were a whale living in a little hole, and there's a tremendous amount of green water all around, where would you go?" asked Morris.
Morris, Ahmaogak, Greenpeace representative Cindy Lowry and several whale biologists joined together at the news conference to dispel doubts that the whales had moved into open water.
Two days before, the whales were declared free by the world's media, which then had to report the next day that the huge mammals had willingly reentered their icy prison. By then, nearly everyone had grown tired of the event, from officials to the media. But still it went on.
The suspicions weren't dampened by the officials' unwillingness to discuss the situation until after they huddled. They had flown over the area in a helicopter and a twinengine plane, and even the pilots refused to say what they saw.
But later, the general verdict from a reporter pool that overflew the site to Eskimos watching from the ice was that the whales had finally left.
"There was so much water, " Lowry said. "I'm sure they're gone."
David Withrow, a NOAA authority on gray whales, declined to speculate on the odds of the whales' ultimate survival.
"These whales have a will, " he said. "They've hung on, they're going to hang on longer."
Another NOAA biologist, Jim Harvey, said gray whales normally cover 50 miles a day when they migrate, and that generally occurs long before the Arctic Ocean becomes this icy. Lacking the sonar that some other marine mammals possess, gray whales are presumed to navigate using visual cues from the coast, according to another NOAA expert, Gary Hufford. With ice clinging to shore over most of their 200mileplus route through the arctic, they may have difficulty finding their way, he said.
The events of Friday morning spared officials from having to decide when to pull the plug on the costly operation.
"Our orders are to stay until the situation is unresolvable, " said Hufford.
Arctic cold also took its toll on equipment and the chances for the whales' survival. With the overnight temperature down to 20 below, previously open water was starting to freeze and helicopters wouldn't start.
The Soviets told the Americans they were anxious to return to port after six months at sea, but they stayed an extra day to finish the job. They began steaming toward home Friday afternoon.
The rescue operation was made possible by a broad alliance of groups often at odds with each other, though with so many interests at work, it was often hard for Morris to keep control.
Morris, for instance, thought the whales might have left on their own Wednesday when they first entered the icebreaker channel, but the Eskimo whalers were anxious to finish the job they started, and on Thursday they cut more than a mile of new breathing holes.
But the happy ending left people marveling how well everyone worked together, from Greenpeace and the oil industry to the military, the Eskimos, NOAA and the North Slope Borough.
The cost of the operation was still difficult to assess Friday, with only preliminary figures available. But it certainly exceeded $1 million. The North Slope Borough, for instance, said on Sunday that it had already spent $300,000 on the rescue. Under its jobs program, the borough was paying whaling crew members $15 to $16 an hour to cut the breathing holes.
Until Thursday, the borough had its two search and rescue helicopters in the air nearly constantly during the eight hours of daylight. They ferried officials, rescuers and media between Barrow and the ice some 10 minutes away, and occasionally landed on the deck of the Soviet icebreaker Admiral Makarov.
But on Thursday, the borough's large helicopter, a 10passenger Bell 214ST, blew a compressor. The borough's finance director said that if the engine was damaged, as mechanics believe, fixing it could cost as much as $500,000.
Its other helicopter, a sevenpassenger Bell 206, was still flying.
The borough has established its own savethewhale fund. Mayor Ahmaogak said checks were coming into the borough daily, but he had no figure on how much had arrived.
Maj. Gen. John Schaeffer, adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard, estimated earlier this week that he has spent $400,000 already, primarily in logistical support. Most of that state money will be reimbursed by the Pentagon, which authorized the guard's participation as a special training exercise.
The biggest helicopter in the guard fleet, a CH54 Skycrane, was lost to service for several days when a rotor blade split in the bitter cold. A replacement was brought up, but couldn't be balanced to the exacting specifications required.
The guard's UH1H eightpassenger helicopter also refused to fly Friday after a night out in 20belowzero cold.
The Air Force diverted the largest cargo plane in its fleet, a C5A, from a mission between California and Japan, to bring an 11ton amphibious icebreaking tractor from Prudhoe Bay to Barrow. The plane had to be unloaded at Elmendorf Air Force Base, a planned fuel stop, to make room for the tractor.
The diversion took four and a half hours of flying time at $6,600 an hour, plus an additional six hours of ground time in Prudhoe Bay and Barrow, according to an Air Force spokesman in Anchorage, Lt. Col. Mike Conley. The plane resumed its journey to Asia a day late.
Costs were also mounting for the Soviets, who sent two ships, the icebreaker Admiral Makarov and the Arsenev. They arrived Tuesday night.
A Russian officer said the diversion was costing the civilian maritime company that owned the ships about 30,000 rubles a day, roughly $42,000 on the official exchange.
NOAA, the agency leading the rescue, had spent relatively little, according to Morris. Most of its costs were associated with travel expenses of the halfdozen NOAA employees brought here. By last weekend, those costs amounted to less than $10,000, Morris said.
The Alaska oilfield service company Veco Inc. had spent about $150,000 as of midweek, said Bill Allen, its chairman. Veco offered its hover barge as an icebreaker, but it got stuck in the Prudhoe Bay harbor. The barge is a huge platform that floats on a cushion of air generated by two huge propellers.
Arco Alaska estimated its cost to date at $90,000, including fuel donated for the effort. That figure doesn't include inkind services it provided, including lodging, said spokeswoman Veronica Dent. Omark Industries of Portland donated at least $30,000 worth of chain saws and saw chain to the effort, and sent two mechanics to get them operational and file the cutting edges on the saw chain to the ideal angle for cutting ice, according to company spokesman Rhys Campbell.
It won't help much, but on Friday Morris received a $75 check from Margaret Aughenbaugh, a fourthgrade teacher at Davidson Elementary School in Tucson, Ariz. The money was collected from her students, and with it came a stack of letters.
"I feel very bad about the whales, " wrote Yorke Struckmeyer, one of her students. "I think you are trying your best to free them. I heard about the whales in the newspaper and on TV. I feel very bad right now."
By RICHARD MAUER
Anchorage Daily News