Byline: by Tom Leonard
WINTER came early to Barrow Point, the northernmost tip of Alaska, in 1988. A freezing wind blew from the east, blizzards covered the area in thick snow, and a sheet of foot-thick ice spread miles out from the sea.
By October most of the 20,000 California Grey whales -- almost the entire world population -- which had spent the summer frolicking in the Arctic waters and feeding on the plentiful supply of crustaceans on the sea bed, sensed the ice closing in above them and began to head south towards Mexico a few weeks early.
By the time three Inupiat Eskimos clambered over the freshly frozen pack-ice looking for heavier Bowhead whales to hunt for winter meat, the Greys had long since departed on their 12,500 mile round trip -- the biggest migration made by any whale, which takes two to three months.
But then, pausing by a hole in the ice, the Inupiats' leader, Roy Ahmaogak, watched in surprise as the mottled snouts of three California Grey whales pushed through the slush -- and kept reemerging every few minutes, taking it in turns to come up for air.
This young and inexperienced trio -- two adolescents and a baby -- were trapped, unable to hold their breath long enough to swim the five miles to open water and freedom.
Whalers once dubbed the Greys -- who can grow up to 52 feet long and weigh as much as 35 tons -- the 'devil fish' for their ferocity with hunters, but these three were a sorry sight.
They frequently surfaced to breathe, which showed they were scared, and their heads were bloodied from rubbing against the jagged ice every time they pushed through the small hole.
The men could have left them to their fate -- after all, the carcasses of trapped young whales turned up every spring, often stripped clean by polar bears. Killing them wasn't worthwhile as the Grey's meat is dry and tasteless.
Instead, feeling a pang of sympathy for the young whales plight, they reported the Greys to the captain of a local whaling crew.
Word quickly got around Barrow, a tiny 3,000-strong settlement, and reached the local marine biologist, Geoff Carroll. He alerted the U.S. Coast Guard and Alaska's media. By chance, U.S. TV anchorman Tom Brokaw of the national network NBC liked 'whale stories' and insisted they use this one.
Suddenly, the stranded cetaceans became national news.
Three weeks of nail-biting tension followed, as an extraordinary rescue mission, dubbed Operation Breakthrough, brought together the unlikeliest allies -- anti-whaling campaigners at Greenpeace, Eskimo whalers, oil companies, the U.S. military, the White House, the Soviet Union and even a New Age 'interspecies communicator' with a guitar -- all attempting to save three huge but helpless creatures.
Now, the story has been made into a new Hollywood film, Big Miracle, starring Drew Barrymore and Ted Danson.
Barrymore's character is based on a plucky Greenpeace activist, Cindy Lowry, then 38, an animal lover who was working in the state at the time. Lowry told reporters they needed an icebreaking ship to create a series of breathing holes in the five mile expanse of ice between the trapped whales and the open sea.
Greenpeace didn't have one, and she was desperate to find someone who did. 'It was heartwrenching,' she said. 'When we first flew over them I looked down and wanted to be like Superman and just punch a way through the ice to free them.' The U.S. fleet had just two icebreakers and they were not going to change course for three whales, officials told her bluntly.
Then Lowry discovered that a Soviet icebreaker was only 200 miles away.
The idea of encouraging an enemy superpower -- the two regions were still locked in the Cold War -- into U.S. waters might have given others pause for thought, but it didn't bother Lowry for a second.
'It really didn't matter what government it was at the time,' she said. …