Rescue workers carved two new breathing holes in the stubborn arctic ice pack, hoping to keep three trapped California gray whales alive until an ice-breaking barge can free them. The whales, however, ignored the new air holes and the barge remained stalled.
Many feared the endangered mammals - battered and bloody after being trapped for a week - were already doomed and talked of shooting them to end their suffering and provide food for the 3,100 mostly Eskimo villagers.Ice and mechanical problems delayed the start of a rescue journey for the ice-breaking barge and the biggest helicopter in Alaska and they remained stalled again Wednesday.
Despite the talk of killing the whales, Eskimo whale hunters and others worked in 16-below-zero cold to keep two shrinking breathing holes from completely freezing over and they carved two more holes in the foot-thick ice.
However, biologists and rescuers were mystified to see that the whales were not using the two new breathing holes but continued to swim back and forth between the original two.
The whales apparently stayed too long in the rich summer feeding grounds of the arctic and were trapped when the shifting pack ice surrounded them before they could begin their migration to the warm waters of Mexico.
Their snouts were scraped down to the bone from banging into the hard, jagged ice as they come to the surface to breathe. One was wheezing with pneumonia and trying to rest its battered head on the ice shelf as the trio gasped for air.
"It's really heartbreaking," said Cindy Lowry of Greenpeace, the environmental group that has joined in an unusual alliance with the military, Eskimo whale hunters and local oil companies in an effort to save the whales. But Lowry said the whales' condition had not deteriorated Tuesday and they seemed to be doingbetter.
In Prudhoe Bay, 200 miles away, a giant ice-breaking barge and a National Guard CH-54 Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter bogged down Tuesday afternoon after starting out on a mission to cut a 5-mile channel from the open sea to the whales.
The rescue plan was to fire up the 185-ton oil company ice-breaking hover-barge's powerful diesel engines and have the Skycrane tow it the 200 miles across the arctic to the whales.
The mission was barely under way when the barge got stuck in the ice, said Pete Leathard, president of VECO, a Prudhoe Bay company that owns the barge. Workers labored in sub-zero temperatures to free the barge and the journey began just before dusk only to be halted after less than a mile.
About 70 tons of fuel that would be used to refuel the helicopter were removed from the barge to lighten the load for the Skycrane, whose pilot, Gary Quarles, said he was too concerned about the safety of the touchy operation to dwell on the possible fate of the whales.
It could take one to two days for the barge, hovering just off the surface and dangling from four steel cables beneath the chopper, to reach the whales, and a way of refueling the copter must be found.
Alternate rescue plans were being considered, including having a helicopter bombard the pack ice with large concrete objects in hopes of smashing open a channel to the open sea. An experiment trying just that was successful and gave hope to Lowry and others waiting for the stalled rescue to start.
The drama was being watched all over the world, and President Reagan buoyed the rescuers with a telephoned message of support, telling National Guard officers in Prudhoe Bay that "our hearts are with you and our prayers are also with you, and anything that we can say or do to help you along with the success of the operation, we'd be pleased to do it."