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Reality takes a holiday in the big spin on 'Big Miracle'

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published February 16, 2012

Enough with all the spin on "Big Miracle". It's a film. It's made up. It's fiction. And yet....

"This whale of a tale — an inspirational rescue-adventure about three gray whales trapped in the Arctic Circle — would be hard to swallow if it weren't based on actual events from 1988."

"Big Miracle: The real-life whale rescue which inspired new Hollywood blockbuster.''

"If you love whales, you won't want to miss Big Miracle (rated PG)...It is a rescue adventure movie that tells the amazing true story of Adam, a small town news reporter (played by John Krasinski) and Rachel, a Greenpeace volunteer (played by Drew Barrymore) who work to save a family of majestic gray whales trapped by ice in the Arctic Circle."

Sad to say, there was no rescue. "Big Miracle'' would really be a big miracle if the whales had been saved. At most, an accurate recounting would reveal the whales disappeared from sight. They were, at least for a time, freed from their entrapment in ice near Barrow. What happened after that is conjecture. Those who believe in the Tooth Fairy may believe the whales somehow made it to the open ocean. For those who believe in reality, let's be real.

A miracle?

The people who lobbied hardest against tagging the whales so that their final fate would be known were the scientists who know gray whales. Why? Because they knew what was going to happen. The whales were going to die. Gray whales have no affinity for travel in ice, and when the whales were last seen, there were tens of miles of ice between them and open ocean.

Could they have survived? Sure. Strange things happen in nature all the time -- even some things people call "miracles.'' Deadly cancers suddenly disappear. Paralyzed people walk again

The could-be list is endless. The earth could be hit by an asteroid and life as we know it destroyed. Anchorage could be wiped out by an earthquake. There could be a second coming.

Reality, however, doesn't exist in the world of "could be.'' Reality exists in the world of what is known factually and what is probable. Lee Harvey Oswald was in some way linked to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. We don't know it for sure. He never confessed. There are at least some small reasons to believe the bullet that killed the president was not fired by Oswald. It could be he wasn't a lone assassin. It could be had help. But he was in some way involved. The evidence is clear.

Wolf fiction

It is the same for the whales. The evidence in 1988 was clear. They were doomed. They ended up stuck in the ice near Barrow because they were unable to negotiate the Arctic ice between the Beaufort and Chuckchi seas. Their species is known for its lack of ability in negotiating ice. Do the math, three young whales lost in the Arctic can't deal with a little ice and become trapped, but they are quote-unquote "rescued" by humans getting them out of sight to run a gauntlet of ice?

That's like rescuing someone from a urban ghetto by kidnapping them and parachuting them into remote Alaska wilderness with only a box of matches and knife. Could they survive? Sure. There is, in fact, a movie playing now that has a plot something like this. It's called "The Grey.'' It starts with an airplane crash instead of a parachute drop, but otherwise the scenario is pretty similar.

And it's a fiction. Just like "Big Miracle.''

Wolves make great villains in "The Grey,'' and never mind that wolves don't hunt humans anymore than gray whales navigate successfully through miles and miles of miles of Arctic ice. Could wolves hunt humans? Sure. I know people who've felt themselves stalked by wolves. Do wolves kill humans? Yes, sadly they do. There was one such killing here in Alaska in 2010.

Poor Candace Berner, a child-size woman, was a sad target of opportunity for some hungry wolves. But the pack didn't hunt her down. Wolf packs don't do that. Wolf packs don't pursue a group of grown men because it's a losing strategy for survival. Humans have been killing wolves for thousands of years. The wolves have figured it out. Tribes of humans don't make good prey.

But wolves pursuing a human tribe makes for a pretty good movie.

"Star Wars'' didn't happen either. All episodes were made up. There was no Luke Skywalker, no Darth Vader.

And there was no whale rescue in Barrow, or at least no rescue that anyone can confirm. There was a huge waste of government money and a media circus. Tom Rose, a TV news executive and reporter, estimated the cost at close to $5.8 million in a book he wrote in 1989 -- "Freeing The Whales -- How the Media Created the World's Greatest Non-Event."

Revisionist history

Yes, there were people bashing the media even before former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin made it part of her celebrity act. Still, it is interesting to note that in this topsy-turvy world of ours Rose is now credited with writing the book that inspired the movie, and the book is now called "Freeing the Whales.'' The rest of the title apparently was dropped.

Ah, revisionist history. You gotta love it.

But at least some of the Barrow history has remained the same. Everyone still agrees there was a media mob in Barrow. Rose reported more than 150 journalists from four continents representing at least 26 TV networks. I was one of the first of them, along with Associated Press reporter Bruce Bartley. I still remember him uncasing the sawed off pump shotgun he brought and stuffing the magazine full of shells before heading out on the ice one night to see what the whales did when no one was around.

And there were few around in those first days after the story broke. Bartley, me, a few locals who dropped by to see if the whales were alive, and -- of course -- the polar bears, which was why Bartley was packing. When I saw his shotgun, I sort of wished I'd brought mine.

Somehow "Big Miracle'' quickly and miraculously went from a couple Podunk reporters witnessing the natural death of a trio of young gray whales to the world's greatest rescue. My other strong memory of Barrow is waking up in an overheated motel room with a fan spinning overhead and the world thundering outside with the whup-whup-whup of helicopters. There was a moment where it seemed a lot like the movie "Apocalypse Now.''

As Americans, we grow up conditioned by movies. At the start, the whales were just part of a story about nature in the Arctic, and then they became the center of the global media world. As one trained more as a scientist than as a journalist, I quickly came to realize those whales needed rescue about as much as an injured squirrel in New York's Central Park. The species wasn't in any danger. The Pacific Ocean was, and still is, chockablock full of gray whales. Saving two or three was ecologically meaningless.

At least to the world's population of gray whales.

Barrow paradox

To the polar bears? Well, to the polar bears this was a different matter. Polar bears were already struggling. A trio of whales left to die might have helped some polar bears survive. It's not hard to imagine a starving sow and a pair of cubs stumbling on a carcasses washed ashore come summer. For a family of polar bears, that sort of carrion could mean the difference between life and death. It was the Barrow paradox.

Save the whales; doom a polar bear.

Nobody wanted to hear about such things in 1988, however. The visiting media's only interest in polar bears was in shooting video of them from North Slope Borough helicopters. The helos spent a fair bit of time chasing the bears across the ice with cameramen and photographers gleefully snapping away. The added stress that put on the bears certainly didn't help their survival prospects, but it did help keep them away from the whales so that nobody needed to pack a shotgun anymore, and so no bear would arrive on the scene to pounce on the snout of a surfacing whale in an effort help nature along more quickly on its natural course.

This wasn't going to happen because, by God, all the environmentalists and their supporters in the media weren't about to let nature do its thing. The story had a "narrative,'' as the scribblers far more worldly than I call it, and the narrative was clear. Tom Brokaw and the big boys of NBC News defined it in their second report on the whales. The first simply said the animals were trapped. By the second, the story was this, as summarized now by the NBC archives: "RESCUE OF CALIFORNIA GRAY WHALES TRAPPED IN PACK ICE OFF ALASKA CONTINUES.''

A rescue was on; the media pack was off and running. The story had been defined: rescue, rescue, rescue.

(Yes, sadly, most everything Palin says about the media is right. She often gets the reasons wrong, but as a victim of the "narrative,'' she understands the way the pack behaves. After defining its prey, it fixates on it. Once it cuts the calf out of the herd, it cares only about the calf. The big picture disappears. Everything shrinks down to the target of the hunt.)

The target of this hunt was an environmentalist chant: Save the whales! Save the whales! Save the whales!

It was bullshit. Excuse the use of that word, but there is no other that fits as well. I pretty much started to call it bullshit, too. The Alaska newspaper for which I then worked did not like that. I was summoned home. Another reporter who could stick to the narrative was dispatched in my place. With 149 reporters in Barrow (I'll take Rose at his word on the count) swimming one way, Alaska's largest newspaper wasn't about to swim the other way.

No way. No how. Get on an airplane. We'll get someone up there who understands the narrative.

No repeat incidents

And so I came home just before an ice breaker from the Soviet Union arrived to bust the whales free. They swam out of sight. Victory was declared. Everyone went home. Barrow was once again forgotten. The world moved on. The Arctic warmed. Scientists began talking about how it might go ice free within the century. Fear grew for the polar bears, a creature of the ice. No more whales got trapped.

Or, if they did, the folks in Barrow had the sense to cleanly and humanely dispatch them quickly with a bullet through the brain so as not to attract another media circus. Once was enough for the community at the northern tip of the continent. Then came the "Big Miracle.'' It's entertaining movie fiction. I emailed a scientist who was in Barrow about it the other day. His memories paralleled mine.

"It was a large expenditure of money, and mostly for PR purposes,'' he wrote back. "I guess we need to do this every once in awhile to make us feel better about all the other crap we do to the environment.''

That last sentence pretty much sums up what went down in Barrow in 1988. There was a whole lot of time, effort and money spent in an effort to "make us feel better about all the other crap we do to the environment.'' In retrospect, it's just too bad somebody didn't come up with the idea for the "Big Miracle'' in the early 1980s and shoot it before 1988. Then nobody would have needed to go through the costly waste of public money in Barrow.

Whale rescue? "Who cares? Forget about it. Old news. Didn't you see the movie 'Big Miracle?'"

TheEnd of story. Because all the dogs in the media pack at least know the same miracle never happens more than once. Especially a Big Miracle.

And most especially if its been made real by a movie.

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