Frustrated whale rescuers accomplished their first breakthrough here Thursday when they succeeded in forcing three trapped California gray whales to move from their old breathing hole to a new one cut through the ice with chain saws.
Ron Morris, rescue coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the three whales are not out of the ice yet, but there is now reason to believe the huge, airbreathing mammals can be led four or five miles to an open lead in the Arctic Ocean.
The lead appeared to have moved slightly inland Thursday as strong northwest winds dispersed loose ice.
"On the plane today, we were really getting excited about seeing all that open water, " said Cindy Lowry, Alaska representative of the environmental group Greenpeace. "It was only 4.3 miles."
That is about as close as the lead can be expected to come to shore, according to local whaling captain Arnold Brower Jr. He said the ice that has imprisoned the whales will not move.
Eventually, Morris said, this ice will freeze down the 30 feet to the ocean bottom. If the whales aren't rescued by the middle of the winter, they will be either entombed in that ice or eaten by polar bears.
But biologists believe that if the whales can be helped to the open lead and into the shifting ice offshore they have a fair chance of eventually making the open ocean and, finally, their breeding grounds off Baja California.
Though Thursday's developments marked only a 100foot step toward the lead, biologists found their first encouragement in days.
Earlier attempts to move the whales to a new hole had proven futile. This time, the biologists forced the whales to move by pulling a gray tarp over their old hole.
Sudden darkness there apparently sent the whales off searching for a new opening of light in the ice, and they found the manmade hole biologists wanted them to find.
Rescuers can now envision the whales being guided from ice hole to ice hole on a slow journey seaward to open water.
With an icebreaking barge still stalled near Prudhoe Bay, this seems the best hope for freeing the whales. Morris said he has asked the National Guard to begin using its helicopters and a steelreinforced concrete ram the socalled Ice Masher to smash holes in the ice today.
Rescuers will then try to force the whales to the new holes by using the tarp or calling them with tapes of guitar music.
Greenpeace has brought to town a whale researcher from Friday Harbor, Wash., who claims he can play the part of the Pied Piper in the latest plan to lead the whales to safety.
Jim Nollman said the guitar music he has used to communicate with other whales can be played underwater to inform the gray whales of new breathing holes.
"I don't make any claims, but this has worked with orcas, " Nollman said. "The gray whale isn't by any means an orca, but they have more in common than not."
Morris said he is willing to let Nollman try his scheme. It is no more than basic Pavlovian theory, Morris said. Pavlov's experiment involved training a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell.
What Nollman wants to do is condition the whales to associate the guitar music with a breathing hole. Then, if he moves the guitar music, the whales should come to it looking for a place to breathe.
Consultations with animal behaviorists have made it reasonable to believe this could work, Morris said. He said a team of animal behaviorists working with the National Marine Fisheries Service were largely responsible for coming up with the idea of putting the tarp over the hole to move the whales on Thursday.
Scientists are also speculating that several water recirculating devices brought here by two Minnesota men on Wednesday could be used as the conditioning sound to attract the whales.
The two men Greg Ferrian and Rick Skluzacek of Minneapolis arrived to save the day Wednesday night.
They got off a plane in Barrow with their small and simple water recirculators just as rescuers were worried about ground snow blowing into the whales' breathing holes and freezing them over by morning.
Pilots for the North Slope Borough Search and Rescue Department made a night flight through blowing snow to take Ferrian and Skluzacek the 18 miles out to the trapped whales.
The men fired up a couple of portable generators provided by the borough, put their floating bubblers in the water, and made the slush in the breathing holes disappear.
By morning, both holes were largely free of slush. The openings in the ice had not grown in size as Ferrian and Skluzacek had hoped, but the relatively simple devices that sat and bubbled in the corner of each hole were holding their own against the cold.
"It'll keep the holes open, I'm sure of that, " Ferrian said. He and Skluzacek were planning to have more of the recirculators flown in if plans proceeded to open more holes.
Both men had appeared in Barrow uninvited merely to help with the rescue.
"I saw it on the news, " Ferrian said. "We just jumped a plane and came up."
Efforts were made to call rescuers and explain the iceclearing machines, Ferrian said, but "I don't think they understood it."
"You tell them what it is and they think it's the size of a 55gallon barrel, and it's going to be in the way, " Skluzacek said. When people are told the machine is only a 2by4 foot block of Styrofoam beneath which floats a footlong motor, they won't believe it works.
The two men and their machines, which fit in small cardboard boxes, got a less than enthusiastic welcome when they first arrived in Barrow.
"We just went from person to person, " Ferrian said.
"Finally, somebody said, "Let's see what you can do, ' " Skluzacek said.
They showed what they could do, and by 2 a.m. Thursday, as the ice was being driven back from the whales' breathing holes, people were patting the two Minnesotans on the back and shaking their hands.
The two men said they are now committed to stay in Barrow as long as they are needed.
"We're basically right now committed to stay until the situation is resolved, " Skluzacek said.
Between the recirculators and the success in relocating the whales to a new hole, Morris said the whales have new hope.
Despite the fact the hightechnology, hoverbarge seems to be going nowhere, low technology and backbreaking labor might yet save the whales.
By CRAIG MEDRED
Anchorage Daily News