Alaska News

'Big Miracle': The real story

Once Roy Ahmaogak decided to report three gray whales trapped in the ice near Barrow rather than leave them to their natural fate, it was probably inevitable that their story would wind up in Hollywood.

What's amazing is that it took 23 years for a film to be made.

Now that "Big Miracle" is opening -- the movie is loosely based on the 1988 rescue effort in Barrow -- how close is the movie to actual events?

How on earth did Greenpeace, Veco's Bill Allen and the oil giant Arco, Ted Stevens, the Soviets, the U.S. military, a chainsaw distributor, a guitar-playing whale-song singer, a couple of Minnesota ice fishermen and, most importantly, a brigade of Inupiat whalers all manage to find themselves on the same side, if only for a couple of brief, bizarre weeks in a bitterly cold arctic October?

I was there for part of it, feeling the walls close in with the rest of the media zoo and legions of government officials, volunteers and company reps at the Top of the World Hotel -- just as the ice was closing in a few miles away at Point Barrow.

The story had something for everyone. For the participants, it was an opportunity to show how far they would go to help stranded whales, even if, in the case of the Inupiat, they hunted whales for subsistence, or, in the case of the oil industry, they might disturb whale migration with seismic testing, drilling or, worse, an oil spill.

For the public, there was real drama. Like the story of Baby Jessica, who fell down a well in Texas only the year before, there was no assurance of a happy ending. In fact, as failure followed failure and plunging temperatures signaled the approaching arctic winter, the outcome didn't look good at all.


Here's the story from my notes at the time.


On Oct. 7, 1988, Barrow whalers had authority to strike three bowheads for that fall's hunt. Roy Ahmaogak was spending that Friday afternoon peering at distant open water from a tall offshore ice ridge, scouting for whales for his father's crew.

Clambering over the freshly frozen sea ice on his way back to town, Ahmaogak came across a small open pool. In it were three young California gray whales. For about an hour, he watched them take turns surfacing to breathe, the huge eyes on either side of their barnacle-encrusted heads staring back at him. He went home and told his father, Lawrence -- Savik in Inupiaq.

Word got to Geoff Carroll, the North Slope Borough's marine biologist. He checked out the pool the next Tuesday and the whales were still there. He thought they might still swim to freedom, but on Wednesday, the temperature dropped to 13-below, a record for that day in October. The cold threatened to close the hole and drown the whales.

Gray whales are not the normal target of Inupiat hunters. A migratory species, grays spend summers feeding in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska, then depart for warm waters off the Baja coast of Mexico, where females give birth and tourists come to watch.

Before they were protected by U.S. law and international agreements, grays were hunted by commercial whalers to near extinction. But by the mid-1980s, they had bounced back strongly. Though they wouldn't get off the endangered species list until 1994, some biologists at the time believed their population was approaching an historic high.

No one knew why the three whales got trapped near Barrow, but their age and condition suggested they had wandered farther east to feed than the bulk of the grays. Perhaps there were so many gray whales they were exhausting their regular food supplies, driving these three youngsters so far beyond the main feeding grounds that they missed the signals to head to Mexico. Maybe they were just laggards destined to pay for their foolishness. In fact, a few grays perish every season -- carcasses, sometimes stripped clean by polar bears, showed up each spring along the arctic coast.

"Speaking strictly from a biological standpoint, (a rescue) doesn't make sense," Jim Harvey of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle would say a few weeks later. "That's natural mortality. The ones that make mistakes, the ones that are weaker, are the first that are going to die. And there is a reason for that. That's what keeps the population strong."

But of course, that's not what happened.


On Oct. 12, biologist Carroll called the Coast Guard for help, to no avail. A pilot had seen an icebreaker in the vicinity; none answered radio calls. (It might have been the Coast Guard's Polar Star, which was crossing the Northwest passage eastward to Halifax and didn't turn around. The Polar Star could have foreshortened the whole effort considerably, but the Coast Guard proved irrelevant in the whale rescue except for an icebreaker captain who flew to Barrow as an adviser.)

Carroll also called The Associated Press in Anchorage and spoke to reporter Susan Gallagher. The whales were on the 6 o'clock news that night and in the papers the next day. Cindy Lowry, the Greenpeace representative in Anchorage, began getting calls. Her initial response was nonchalant.

"There's not much we can do," she told a reporter. "We don't have a boat."

There were shrugs from other quarters as well.

"Pity our hover-barge isn't there -- it can break ice," Rod Christ of the oil field service company Veco told one of his bosses, Pete Leathard. The National Guard declined to send a Skycrane helicopter to pull the barge 230 miles from a dock at Prudhoe Bay to Point Barrow.

There was a fateful meeting on Saturday, Oct. 15. It didn't take place in Anchorage or Washington, but in Barrow. The Inupiat whaling captains got together to decide what to do.


The whales were starting to show signs of stress. The near-shore ice was getting thicker and open water farther away. The small breathing hole was shrinking.

Several captains thought the most humane action they could take would be to shoot the whales -- put them out of their misery. The men operated by consensus, though, and after everyone finished talking they had a decision: Let's try to save the whales.

The same day, Ron Morris arrived in Barrow from Anchorage. A New Yorker originally, he was a marine mammal official from the National Marine Fisheries Service, which administers the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. Shortly after checking in at the Top of the World, he got a call from his boss: he was in charge of the rescue operation.

His room became command central. At night, there was always enough whiskey to go around.

Cindy Lowry -- everyone was soon calling her Cindy Greenpeace -- arrived Sunday, Oct. 16. She still didn't have a boat, but she had recordings of whale songs she hoped would lure the whales out to sea.

Were the whales confused or bemused by the songs? Did they just not care? In any event, they didn't budge.

By now the Inupiat had cut a second hole and were using chainsaws, ice tongs and poles to keep them open. Their teamwork, practiced from an early age in small whaling boats, was fluid and precise.

"It's the same sort of affair as when they're out there hunting bowhead whales," said Marie Adams, the former director of the Eskimo Whaling Commission. "It's that same sort of commitment and purpose."


"I think this episode with the whales, it's showing everybody that the Inupiat people are very compassionate with the animals," Brenda Itta, then a North Slope Borough assemblywoman, said at the time.

Aside from maintaining breathing holes, there were a lot of ideas, although none of them much better than whale songs. Veco was still thinking about the hover-barge, hard frozen in Prudhoe. Years before, when it was operational, its weight, riding on a small cushion of air, broke thin ice, so maybe it could cut a trail from the breathing hole to open water.

Bill Allen, Veco's chairman (and the man whose bribes would eventually bring down Sen. Ted Stevens), ordered a crew to get it in shape. He chartered a jet to bring in a replacement turbine.

After Stevens reached the head of the Pentagon's National Guard Bureau, the Alaska National Guard reversed course and ordered two CH-54 Skycranes to fly from Anchorage to Prudhoe to tow the hover-barge to Barrow. On Tuesday, Oct. 18, President Ronald Reagan called Guard Col. Tom Carroll, then in Prudhoe Bay, to offer his encouragement.

"This has gotten into super-drive," Morris told reporters. "I have to report to Washington every two hours. . . . This is completely out of proportion."


The hover-barge was freed from the ice that evening, but it got caught on a sandbar. Tons of fuel, donated by Arco, were off-loaded to make it lighter. A three-inch cable of nylon and steel ran from the barge to the helicopter. If it snapped, it could whip into the blades and bring down the helicopter. But as the operation got riskier, it developed a life of its own.

By Wednesday, Oct. 19, it was obvious the hover-barge idea was futile. After four hours, it had traveled only five miles and was still in sight of the Prudhoe dock. At that rate, it would take more than a week to reach Barrow, and conditions were worsening by the hour. The wind howled. Snow blew. Visibility was less than a mile.

In Barrow, blowing snow drifted into the holes and the windchill felt like 50 below. The holes had to be tended constantly; two new holes cut the day before froze solid.

The smallest of the three whales, nicknamed "Bone" for the bone protruding from its scraped-up snout, was wheezing. A veterinarian thought it might be suffering from pneumonia. The whales got Inupiaq names -- Putu, Siku and Kanik (ice hole, ice and snowflake) to go with the physically descriptive English names of Bone, Bonnet (from the pattern of barnacles around its blowhole) and Crossbeak (its jaws didn't line up).

Late that night, two Minnesotans, Greg Ferrian and Rick Skluzacek, arrived uninvited with a set of bubblers that had been invented to keep ice-fishing holes clear. The bubblers circulated just enough water to prevent freshwater holes in Minnesota from freezing, and by 2 a.m. in Barrow, they were doing the same in arctic seawater. The bubblers provided a reprieve; with fewer people needed to keep the holes open, the Inupiat started cutting a line of holes out to sea.

Tragedy struck Barrow at dawn on Thursday, Oct. 20, when three children died in a house fire. Villagers were shocked that the media covering the whales barely noticed.


In a last-ditch effort to move the hover-barge, the second Skycrane was hitched to it in a dangerous operation involving both helicopters. By nightfall, they had travelled only six miles more. It now looked like a 40-day journey.

The second helicopter returned to Barrow with another hare-brained idea: pound holes in the ice using an 8,000-pound concrete block suspended from the helicopter. It didn't work. The helicopter became disabled when one of its tail rotor blades delaminated from the cold; it was an expensive mishap, but at least no one was hurt.

Veco's Bill Allen, on hand in Barrow, was feeling sorry for the whales.

"It's a pitiful thing," he said. "Their noses are a terrible sight. They beat the meat plumb down to the bone to get air."

Greenpeace whale singer Jim Nollman took his guitar out on the ice expecting to lure the whales to the more distant holes. The whales may have listened, but they didn't move.



By Friday, Oct. 21, Bone was no more, gone without a trace. But the other two whales appeared strong enough. They seemed to have no fear of humans, keeping their heads out of water as people reached over to touch them from the edge of the holes.

Now the State Department got involved. With the Coast Guard icebreaker uninvolved, only the Soviet Union could help. A formal request was made for assistance.

At the same time, in Barrow, a new obstacle was becoming apparent. A huge ice ridge -- probably the same one used by Roy Ahmaogak to scout for bowheads -- stretched between open water and the growing string of breathing holes being cut by the Inupiat.

The ridge, created by the pressure of different floes of ice squeezing together, rose 35 feet from the surface. If the ridge also extended downward and was frozen fast on the shallow sea floor, there was no getting through it and the entire effort was doomed. If it was still floating, a notch would have to be smashed through it somehow.

Someone suggested explosives, but Morris said that wouldn't be a good idea.

"If we make the whales deaf, we'd never get them out," he said. "But the way this is going, we'd probably fit them with hearing aids and eyeglasses."

Meanwhile, Veco had another idea, or actually another piece of equipment sitting in Prudhoe Bay -- a one-of-a-kind, $650,000 machine called an Archimedean Screw Tractor. Built as a prototype by the Japanese manufacturer Mitsui, it was a vessel propelled by two rotating pontoons with screw threads. Allen thought the screw's weight and the steel pontoons could gouge a trail through the ridge if only the machine could be reconditioned after six years in mothballs and brought to Barrow.

That was easy, or so it seemed. On Saturday, after Veco brought the tractor to life, a massive C-5A Air National Guard cargo plane was diverted from a mission from California to Japan and flown to Deadhorse to pick up the 25,000-pound tractor. With all that weight, officials were concerned about the C-5A being able to land on the shorter Barrow runway. They cleared the area and diverted a MarkAir passenger airliner. The cargo plane landed without incident and the tractor was unloaded.

Did Veco and the oil industry have an ulterior motive? At the time, Congress was nearing a vote on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and passage had as good a chance as ever. Ben Odom, an Arco vice president, said at a hangar in Barrow that some people would "oppose us" under any circumstance, but he was hopeful that industry could change some minds. "If we can get the message out, there ought to be some benefit."

Six months later, the Exxon Valdez would run aground on Bligh Reef. Even the strongest proponents gave up on ANWR drilling.


By now it was Sunday, Oct. 23. A line of some 50 breathing holes extended two miles toward the ridge, but the whales refused to go more than a mile. They appeared to be intimidated by a sandy shoal that reduced the depth of the water to about 10 feet. The biologists and Inupiat tried to coax the whales past it, but instead they retreated to the first holes.

Someone ordered construction of a net that could be used has a last resort to haul the whales over the ridge by helicopter, if there was only a way to capture them.

More officials arrived. Rear Adm. Sig Petersen of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stood with Ron Morris to announce that the Soviets were sending two ships: the icebreaker Admiral Makarov, named after the man who built the first Russian icebreaker, and the icebreaking cargo ship Vladimir Arsenev.

Only five years before, during a protest of Soviet whaling, seven Greenpeace activists invaded a Siberian whaling station and were arrested. The seven had been dropped off by Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior, and as the Greenpeace ship escaped through the Bering Sea back to Nome, it had to outmaneuver a Soviet freighter that tried to ram it.

But Cindy Lowry was ecstatic that the Russians were on their way to Alaska. Greenpeace had made the initial contacts with the Soviets, but it took official calls from the State Department and the Coast Guard to make it happen.

Sitting on a sofa at the Top of the World after a press conference, Petersen was asked by a reporter whether he had ever seen anything like this before.

"Vietnam?" Petersen said. "That was one of my first thoughts."

The Russian ships were expected around midnight on Monday, Oct. 24. Ice experts from Maryland brought to the scene by NOAA used side-scanning radar and determined there was water beneath the ridge -- another piece of good news.

All day Tuesday, the Soviet ships rammed the ridge. The Federal Aviation Administration, believing the Soviets felt the urge for secrecy, closed the airspace above them. But it was glasnost, the era of openness that preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russians invited American media onto the Makarov and gave them the run of the ship. The Americans reciprocated and allowed the Russian reporters to board the North Slope Borough helicopter for its regular media tours. An Air Force officer from one of the Distant Early Warning radar stations was deputized as a Customs official.

One of the ship's officers, Vladimir Morov, told American reporters he was getting calls from Moscow newspapers seeking information.

"Our whole country is watching, just like everyone else," Morov said. "We love animals, just as anyone."

By nightfall Tuesday, Oct. 25, the notch was three quarters through the ridge and the ships planned to work all night. The Inupiat, meanwhile, cut a new 1.5-mile series of breathing holes to skirt around the intimidating shoal.

"We've got to think like the whales," said North Slope Borough Mayor George Ahmaogak, Roy's uncle. "We hit the wrong path till the elders came along and said you better think like the whales and put those holes in a little deeper water. We listened to them and it worked."


On Wednesday, Oct. 26, the ridge was pierced and by late afternoon, the whales entered the channel. Victory was declared, but it was premature. The whales refused to swim out to sea.

On Thursday, Oct. 27, first light revealed the whales were still there. The Soviets were eager to get home. So was everyone else.

"I thought they'd be gone by now. I want them gone," Morris told reporters.

Later, on board the Makarov, Morris asked the captain to make one last pass through the ridge and up to the last breathing hole, kept open all night by one of the bubblers.

No American reporters were present as the Arsenev made the final cut. At least one whale was supposedly seen entering the channel. On Friday, Oct. 28, helicopter flights at first light failed to find any whales in the breathing hole or the channel. Morris declared the rescue a success.

But was it really?

Morris decided against attaching radio tags to the whales. He said he didn't want to stress the whales any further, but no one believed him. The rescue was going to have a happy ending untroubled by whether the whales got trapped again in the closing arctic ice, or died from exhaustion after their ordeal.

In November, personal and scientific curiosity got the better of some biologists. At the Cabrillo Marine Museum in Los Angeles, 100 volunteers trained to identify the two whales. They would be placed on whale-watching boats when the season opened Dec. 26 in Southern California.

"We'll be copying the photos and giving lectures and hopefully we can spot them," the museum's whale program coordinator, Larry Fukuhara, told The Associated Press.

But no identification was ever made.

Reach Richard Mauer at or 257-4345.


Anchorage Daily News

Richard Mauer

Richard Mauer was a longtime reporter and editor for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2017.