Whale of a Miracle

Whale of a Miracle

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

By Tom Rose
Published: 12/30/2011

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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Tom Rose

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