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.

Billy went to his sled to fetch the hollow aluminum pole he used to probe ice. He scampered nimbly back to where Geoff and Craig kneeled at safety's edge. Billy carefully measured a few paces beyond his companions and pushed the end of his pole deep into the hardened surface. He had to lean quite hard to get the ice to break. Once through, the pole easily probed the slush. Billy knew it would not stay slush for long. Craig held the camera under his parka to shelter it from the cold. The brittle film nearly snapped in the sub- zero weather. (The days of digital cameras had yet to arrive.) Learning from the past when he would rip or break the film from winding the spool too roughly, this time he wound deliberately and tenderly. The sun vanished behind a low- lying bank of thick Arctic fog as he waited for the whales to begin their next breathing cycle. He popped open the back of his camera to adjust for the changing light conditions by replacing the fi lm.

The forecast high for that Tuesday, October 11, was four degrees above zero degrees Fahrenheit, seventeen degrees colder than the average for this time of year. Since it seldom got that cold at that time of year without insulating cloud cover, the men knew they might confront "whiteout," a dangerous but common Arctic weather condition. The slightest wind can trigger it by whipping the dry, almost weightless snow into the air, blending it so uniformly with the white sky that all else is obscured. Whiteout blinds everything in its midst, but since it usually sticks very low to the ground, the Arctic's most deadly predator, the polar bear, which on its hind legs can stand up to fourteen feet high, uses the paralyzing condition to hunt defenseless prey. While aware of the danger, the three men were smart enough to be cautious but calm.

The whales resumed surfacing after a four- minute dive, right on schedule. First the two larger whales, followed by the smaller one. Craig snapped his way through an entire roll of fi lm in one such respiration cycle. He hurriedly reloaded his camera to shoot more before the whales dove again. He was tempted to get flustered, but remembered he was an expert, not a tourist. Suddenly it dawned on him that he could take all the time he wanted; the whales weren't going anywhere. He could hang around the edge of the spit for as long as he could stand the cold. The next time the whales reached up for air, he could take even better pictures.

For nearly an hour the men said barely a word. Then, when the silence was broken, all three spoke at once. Their exhilaration was tempered by their inability to help do much for these magnificent creatures. The whales seemed stuck in what looked to be a hopeless quagmire, yet they were rational and deliberate. They avoided the panic they must have instinctively known would doom them. Their fate was intertwined and they seemed to know it. The whales had to work together to survive, which required both leadership and cooperation. One of the three whales had to be in charge, but Craig and Geoff couldn't quite figure out which one that was yet.

It was a mystery that would remain unsolved until the very last hours of what was to be a nearly three- week odyssey. What was it that enabled the whales to prioritize, strategize, and improvise their own survival? Was it genetic code, sheer intelligence, or a combination? These were some of the questions that would dog biologists, rescuers, reporters, and millions of people around the world for the weeks to follow.

From Big Miracle by Tom Rose. Copyright (c) 2011 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Griffin. 

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