Three gray whales trapped in the Arctic Ocean ice were near exhaustion Sunday after beginning their second week of swimming in place against a strong current. The whales were moving slower and the ice was closing in as a lastditch rescue attempt began.
The fate of the whales, stuck off the coast near Barrow, depends on the weather, their health, and the success of an expensive rescue plan that uses two huge fuelsucking helicopters, an icebreaking barge that rides on a cushion of air, biologists, pilots, North Slope Borough employees and Prudhoe Bay oil field crews working 24 hours a day.
"Everybody is all hepped up. They really want to save these guys, " said Bill Allen, president of VECO Inc., an oilfield service company which is donating the use of an icebreaking barge for the rescue. Allen was in Barrow on Sunday to help oversee the operation.
Officials hope the ice breaker will give the whales a passage to open water so they can continue their migration to California.
Even Barrow whalers, who earlier had considered killing the whales for food or to put them out of their obvious and growing misery, have pitched in to help keep the whales alive at least long enough for the rescue to begin in earnest. Sunday, several whale hunters were on the ice for a second day with chain saws enlarging the swimmingpool size openings that are keeping the whales alive.
"I'm playing along with the biologists, " said Arnold Brower Sr., a 66yearold Barrow whaling captain. Brower said he had supported harvesting the whales, which are not usually hunted, to save the meat and blubber. "If we had done it our way, and done it earlier, maybe we would have salvaged them. I don't think anybody would want to eat them now, after looking at them."
Those involved in the whalewatch and rescue attempt were not optimistic Sunday. Federal fisheries biologist Ron Morris said it was "mainly doom and gloom but anything could happen." Brower said he doubted the whales would ever make it to California, even if they got out of the ice. But Alaska National Guard and oil company executives coordinating the rescue said they were going ahead with their plan.
"We have to keep trying now that we have made the commitment, " said Maj. Gen. John Schaeffer, head of the Alaska National Guard, which is providing the two helicopters. "The people of Barrow have to keep trying to get those holes open so the whales can keep breathing, at least until we can get the barge there.
"There are a lot of "ifs.' It may be a lost cause. But we are committed now to trying to save them and we are going to do it. But there are so many things going against us I wouldn't bet on our success."
Greenpeace's Alaska representative Cindy Lowry arrived Sunday evening in Barrow and said she has a plan to help get the whales to open water, if the ice can be cleared. She brought recordings of migrating gray whales which she wants to play along the ice floe to lure the whales to safety.
The three whales, which Brower estimated to be about 3 years old about 20 feet long, swim between two openings in the ice, one about 10 feet by 20 feet and one 17 feet by 24 feet. "Right now they seem to be swimming together and are all going from one opening to the other, " said Morris, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Morris flew to the whales Sunday morning in a North Slope Borough search and rescue helicopter.
"My first impression is they look a little more lethargic, " Morris said. The larger of the two openings, widened Saturday by chainsawwielding villagers, had closed in by about a foot, he said.
The whales continued to butt their heads on the ice and swim against the strong current. Said Morris, "They stay on the surface for five or six minutes inhaling constants and occasionally they get down for about four minutes and then they come again. This morning, though, I didn't see them bringing their heads out of the water as much."
Morris said food is not a problem for the whales. "If they die, it would probably be exhaustion and fighting the current to stay in that hole to breathe."
Today will mainly be spent trying to keep the holes open until the ice breaker can arrive.
Early Sunday, two Ch54 Skycrane helicopters took off from Anchorage for the sevenhour trip to Prudhoe Bay where the VECO barge has been stored the past two years. A crew of eight to 10 VECO workers has been working around the clock to get it operating. Allen said two new turbochargers had to be flown in from Seattle, at cost of about $15,000, but that the ice breaker was up and running Sunday evening.
The ice breaker rides on a cushion of air like a Hovercraft which crushes the ice beneath it. But it is not selfpropelled and must be towed across the ice.
This morning, one of the helicopters was scheduled to begin towing the barge 200 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Barrow. Ben Odom, senior vice president of ARCO, which is paying for all the helicopter and barge fuel, said the helicopter will be able to travel no faster than about 10 mph. The second Skycrane will follow behind as a backup.
The biggest costs for the rescue will be for fuel for the helicopter and barge. According to Odom, the helicopter will burn as much as 800 gallons of fuel an hour while pulling the barge. The barge will use 60 gallons of diesel fuel an hour to create its air cushion. Schaeffer said the Skycranes cost about $2,000 an hour to operate. Total fuel costs could be $500,000.
Schaeffer, Odom and Allen said they did not know how much it would cost to pay for all the people involved in the rescue. At least 30 borough, state, federal and oil company workers are involved in the effort. The costs to the National Guard will be paid for by the Defense Department and will not affect the Guard's budget for Alaska search and rescues.
"There are a lot of unknowns, " Odom said. "We don't know whether the whales are going to use the route we open up for them, assuming that we can open it up through seven miles of ice. We don't know what they are going to think of that and then it is a little uncertain what will happen when they get out to more open water."
But with all the "ifs" in the helicopter|Hovercraft effort, officials say it has a better chance of working than most other whalesaving suggestions. Worried people from around the country have called Gov. Steve Cowper's office to ask that the state do something to help the whales. They have also made a few suggestions on the best way to free the whales: start large fires on the ice to melt a passage way, drop a huge iron ball on the ice from a helicopter and run a path of rock salt from the whales' natural pen to open water.
And Sunday night, after the network news programs showed more of what one state official called "the lonely and weeping whales, " a Los Angeles man began calling around Alaska with another suggestion.
"There's a simple way to get them out, " said L.A. resident John Lindgren when he called the Daily News. "All they would have to do is drill holes in the ice and put some kind of charge, TNT or a smaller charge, and just blast them out.
"That's what they ought to try."
By David Postman
Anchorage Daily News