Whale of a Miracle

NOAA Office of NOAA Corps Operations

Whale of a Miracle

The race to free three gray whales trapped in Arctic sea ice.

By Tom Rose
Published: 12/30/2011

As two minutes became three, Geoff and Craig had a sinking feeling. Three minutes became four. The banter trailed off, overtaken by silence. At four minutes, resignation crept into acceptance that the whales were gone. Then, at the moment Geoff started to collect his things for the return trip to Barrow, Billy heard a low rumble gain momentum and traction. Sure enough, the mammoth head of a barnacled and slightly bloodied gray whale poked through the ice. The whales (one at least) had made it through the weekend but were fading fast. Craig, George, and Billy cheered with joy. They punched their fists through the cold air, shaking hands in congratulations for the vicarious achievement they rejoiced in.

Big Miracle - cover
Tom Rose's book has been made into a movie.
Like a locomotive letting off steam, the whale exhaled. Only a warm-blooded mammal could make that deep gargle. "FFWWWSSSSHHH," the whale belched. As soon as it filled its giant lungs, the whale slipped its head back into the hole and disappeared into the black sea. The displaced water rippled through the weak ice surrounding the hole, freezing as it moved. Then, a second rumbling. Another huge head, this one bigger than the last, fit into the hole with barely any room to spare. Looking through binoculars, Geoff could distinguish one whale from another by the pattern of barnacles on its snout. This second whale swallowed its portion of air and vanished as quickly as the first.

From what Geoff and Craig could observe, the whales stayed under as long as they could. They seemed to be protecting, even guiding each other. It sure looked as if the whales had worked together to develop a breathing system designed to allow them to share the hole. They pulled their heads back under and away from the hole to give each other a turn to breath. Remarkable. This behavior was new to Geoff and Craig. Nothing quite like this had ever been seen by anyone before. Neither biologist recalled learning or hearing anything about whales acting so cooperatively in any similar life- threatening predicament.

After the second whale surfaced there was a long pause. What happened to the third whale? Roy Ahmaogak reported seeing three. They didn't have to wait long to have that question answered. The third whale emerged; much smaller and much more timidly than the first two. It looked battered and tired. Nearly all the skin on this whale's snout appeared to have been rubbed off; probably from having scraped up against the sharp edges of the air hole. It swam with much less authority than the other two whales.

It seemed like the larger and older whales stayed under longer in order to give the smaller whale more time to breathe. How old was this third whale? Was it a baby . . . or somewhat older? Geoff and Craig could not immediately tell, but that it was a young one they had no doubt. When the two bigger whales surfaced, they rammed up through the sharp sides of the hole. Whales are many things but self- destructive is not one of them. The whales weren't purposely trying to hurt themselves; they were trying to expand their shrinking air hole. Their ramming kept slush from turning to ice. Here was more evidence that these whales possessed a keen and sharply developed social intelligence.

Billy knew a bowhead could break breathing holes in ice up to half a foot thick. These grays had trouble even with soft ice. No wonder it was grays and not their bowhead cousins that drowned under the ice. Each whale took several turns breathing and then dove for about five minutes. Craig dug into his knapsack and probed for his 35- millimeter camera. He had borrowed it from the borough to document the whales. Whatever photos he took would belong to the government. But this was a fantasy performance; he wanted copies of every shot for his photo album.

For almost an hour, the three men consumed as much sensory imagery as they could absorb. There was nothing they could do to actually help the whales yet since they still couldn't reach them. All they could do was watch and learn. None of their training and experience prepared them for this. They knew how to study whales. They were paid to help Inuits hunt and kill them. They didn't know how or even if they could help these whales.

The whales were tantalizingly close . . . so close that the men were lured to test the ice. The three men trod upon uncertain ground, which of course was not ground at all, but frozen ocean. Giddy at their unexpected good fortune, they carefully walked out until the ice could hold them no longer. Now they were only fifty feet or so away from the whales. From what little they could see, the hole did not appear much bigger than any of the whale's head.

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Tom Rose

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

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