At Tony Roma's Place For Ribs in balmy North Miami Beach, the color television set flickered in the dim light. The bar and restaurant, packed as usual, were a din of chatter and laughter. The afterwork crowd didn't bat an eye as the local newscaster recounted the latest news about the BushDukakis campaign and the details of a grisly Miami murder.
But as the picture changed to show three California gray whales trapped under an expanse of ice and snow 18 miles from Point Barrow, Alaska, the conversations stopped. The laughter stopped. There was silence.
"Everybody turned to watch, " said Kevin Hall, a journalism professor at Florida International University. "It has the unusual element of slowmotion desperation, " he said. "And I sense the intelligence of these animals and I'm afraid they may have emotions maybe they're afraid. How can you not be touched by that."
Across the United States and around the world, the unfolding drama of the trapped whales has grabbed the attention of television viewers and newspapers readers. The plight of the three young gray whales has become one of the biggest stories in the world.
News teams from ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN have set up shop on the ice. Kansans are reading about the whales on the front page of the Topeka CapitalHerald. Reporters from as far away as London were Barrowbound Wednesday. President Reagan called rescuers Tuesday to say tell them that "Americans' hearts are with you." The whales starred in ABC's "Nightline" Wednesday night.
Such interest has baffled many Alaskans, who know that in the Arctic, whales die. Why has this story, of three whales in a predicament, become one of the top news events in the world? Newspeople, average folks and even some mediawise personalities groped for answers yesterday. Everyone knows it's a compelling story. Few can say exactly why.
Tom Taylor, a social worker in Milwaukee, Wisc., was so bothered he called Alaska Wednesday with a question he felt the news reports hadn't answered. He said he and his friends are following the story avidly. "There's a sadness to it the drama of can we make it in time, " he said.
Taylor said his wife turns the television set on every night to find out what is happening to the three whales. "There is something really special about the story. I hope they make it, " he said.
New York public relations executive Lydia Ruth said she was following the story intently because helpless animals are involved. "Personally, I love animals and when animals are in the news, I watch, " she said.
In Columbia, Mo., a cocktail waitress at the Heidelberg Bar and Restaurant said she had been watching the story unfold on ABC's Nightly News. "Everyone knows about it, " Colleen Gannon said. "I had a party the other night at my place and friends of mine were asking, "have you heard about the whales in Alaska?' "
A switchboard operator at the trendy NiemanMarcus department store in Dallas said she too was enthralled by the rescue effort 5,000 miles away. "I'm just hoping they can set them free, " Volette Childress said.
Luminaries have caught the whale frenzy. "Their plight touches a universal emotion in all of us regarding animals, " said comedian Johnny Carson through a spokesman. "It transcends countries and different groups of people.
"I find it fascinating, " he said, "that there is more concern for the whales than either George Bush or Michael Dukakis."
The story has gotten frontpage play in large and small newspapers from Seattle to New York. Robert Heisler, deputy metro editor of New York Newsday, said the story was competing for space with the Bess Myerson trial. Myerson, a former Miss America and highlevel staffer for the City of New York, is on trial for alleged conspiracy.
Peter Williams, Dallasbased reporter for the News Group Newspapers of London, which owns the London Times, the London Sunday Times, the London Sun and the News of the World, called the Anchorage Daily News Wednesday asking how the whales were doing.
Williams said the London newspaper group was trying to decide whether to send him or a reporter from Los Angeles to Barrow. "Obviously, it has become a worldwide story, " he said.
Asked why he thought the world is watching so intently, he speculated about a "whale mystique."
"People are very close to them, " he said. "They are in ways so much like man. They have this higher intelligence. They can love as well as think we identify with them. There is a lot of sentimental attachment to whales. They are closer to us than other animals. They are like chimpanzees.
"What captures the imagination here, " he continued, "is that these are young whales, they have made a mistake and we are identifying with their situation."
Like many newspeople interviewed, Williams likened the whales' story to the saga of Jessica McClure, the 18monthold Texas tot who fell down a well last year. Rescue efforts stretched over 58 hours
"It is an offbeat story, a human story that diverts us from more serious and depressing news, " Williams said. "The world gets a story like this about once a year. These stories serve as a kind of counterpoint to the serious stories."
Ryu Inouye, operations news editor for the Seattle Times, agreed. "The image is emotional. It's heartbreaking. It's a hell of a story that has all the elements of Jessica McClure, " he said. The story, accompanied by a fivecolumn inch photo, ran on page one of the Times Tuesday.
"As we speak, the whales are on CNN, now, " Inouye said as he watched the story on his television monitor in the Seattle newsroom. "There they are, rising out of the water."
Ron Morris, news editor of the Topeka CapitalJournal in Topeka, Kan., also saw the whales' plight as similar to the Texas girl's. "It's like a kidfallinginawell story, " Morris said. "We'll definitely have something in tomorrow's paper, " he said. "People are talking about it."
The whale story made the front page of the London Evening Standard Wednesday, according to Joanna Sheldon, environmental correspondent of the Mail on Sunday. She said British interest in whale conservation was the reason.
"Greenpeace is incredibly popular here, " she said. "The savethewhales campaign is very big."
Sheldon was laying plans to fly from London to Barrow to cover it.
In Washington, D.C., USA Today's Sam LaSpada, assistant national editor for the 5.3million circulation daily, attributed the story's popularity to the strangebedfellows nature of the rescue attempt.
"What makes this story different is that you've got a tremendously expensive rescue operation and weird groups oil companies, Greenpeace and Eskimo hunters, people who are normally at odds working together to save them.
"That in itself makes a story, " he said.
USA Today used the story as its frontpage "Cover Story" in Wednesday's edition.
ABC Nightly News spokesman Scott Richardson said that without the whales, the news of the day would have been "pretty boring." "It's a great humaninterest story. Outside the presidential campaign, it's the best we've got, " Richardson said.
The San Antonio Light in San Antonio, Tex., ran the story on page five along with an Associated Press wirephoto. Deputy Managing Editor Jeff Cohen said the plight of the whales was an "intriguing story because people are enamored by whales. When three whales become trapped, it is of real interest, " he said.
"Besides, it's more exciting than the presidential election."
Psychologists also had a hard time explaining why the public was so fascinated by the story. Amy Bollenbach of the University of Alaska psychology department said, "Humans seem to respond to animals. It's something they can focus on, " she said.
The three trapped whales, like Jessica McClure, capture the public's attention more than calamities with vast numbers of faceless victims, she said. "It's easier to identify with one child falling in a well than with thousands of children falling in a well."
Anchorage psychologist Ken Mueller said people look for something to transcend the struggles of their daily lives. "Here's something that people can project altruism on safely. Who would oppose the rescue of these whales?"
Mueller also said the whales' struggle creates a phenomenon where people who are polarized for one reason or another can find relief.
David Shaw, a media critic with the Los Angeles Times, saw several reasons for the story's popularity. Stories about animals in trouble have always played a "unique role in the media, " he said. And they provide a break in news events, especially when the news has been focused on politics, he said. "It's been a long campaign and it's a pleasant diversion."
He also suggested that at least part of the reason the story has become a big story is that the news media have become interested in it.
"Once the press picks up on it, the story tends to become self-perpetuating, " he said.
By JOHN TEPTON
Anchorage Daily News