On the Silver Screen
The movie, starring Drew Barrymore as a Greenpeace volunteer (whose character was based on a real Greenpeace representative), dramatizes the events of October 1988, when the world had all eyes on Barrow, Alaska and the effort to save three gray whales trapped by sea ice.
With the release of the movie, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has revisited its part in the amazing rescue. What follows are images taken during the real rescue by those on the scene, scanned from slides at the National Marine Mammal Lab in Seattle.
The whales became stranded after they stayed too long in their feeding grounds, long after the other whales had left to migrate south for the winter. The holes in the ice were needed for the whales to breathe.
Inupiat hunters help out
"The Inupiat people who lived in and around Barrow did most of the hole-cutting, and their knowledge and guidance helped the operation stay safe and on track," said Dave Withrow, a NOAA Fisheries marine mammal biologist who participated throughout the two-week rescue, in a NOAA interview.
Checking on the whales
Clearing sea ice
Keeping holes clear
Withrow said companies were eager to help in the rescue effort, sending chainsaws to cut holes in the ice and generators to provide light and power.
Series of holes
In the image above, places where the whales have surfaced and broken through the ice before the arrival of the pumps can be seen.
It was important to keep the icebreaker from getting too close to the whales, Withrow said, so the breathing holes cut in the ice were a little apart from the channel, slowly leading up to it.
"Once freed, the whales still had a difficult path, swimming through jumbled ice left behind by the ice breakers, but we led them to the best possible spot for returning to the migratory path, and even the weather was in their favor," Withrow said.
What happened to the whales after that isn't known. The team had originally planned to put satellite trackers on the whales, but with the loss of one of the whales, the team didn't want to stress the remaining two any further.
Operation Breakthrough team
"There were so many groups Inupiat hunters, biologists, oil companies, United States and Soviet Union government agencies, the military, non-profit organizations, and the press on the scene and everyone wanted to play a part," Withrow said.