Life returned to normal Saturday in the United States' northernmost community as the last of a crowd of people left town after the rescue of two whales trapped by Arctic Ocean ice.
"It's pretty quiet," said Connie Kunaknana, desk clerk at the 40-room Top of the World Hotel, packed since mid-October when the plight of three California gray whales drew scientists, other rescuers and reporters to Barrow.Two of the whales apparently swam to freedom Friday after one of two Soviet icebreakers crashed through the ice that imprisoned the mammals for nearly three weeks off the northern Alaska coast. A week earlier, a third whale ceased to appear at a breathing hole in the ice and was presumed dead.
"They can just boogie now," federal whale biologist David Withrow said.
The two Soviet icebreakers that helped free the whales were hugging the U.S. coast on their way out of the ice-infested waters.
After spending three weeks trapped in the Beaufort Sea ice, 18 miles northeast of Barrow, the whales were swimming west through an ice-free channel in the Chukchi Sea on their long-delayed migration to warm winter waters.
"The whales have a 3-to-5-mile-wide channel of open water all the way to the Bering Sea," said rescue coordinator Ron Morris. The channel of water rounding Alaska's northwest coast will point the whales and Russians south.
The whales are on their own, and the Soviets are traveling the Alaska coast with U.S. permission and with American satellite maps and charts.
With the rescue over at a cost of more than $1 million and the out-of-towners gone, residents of Barrow settled back into their Saturday routines.
"People get up and go to the post office, some people work," said K.P. Miller, an announcer at KBRW-AM. "When the store opens, they go to the store and do their shopping. A lot of people do laundry." The school gymnasium opens later in the day and is a popular gathering place, she said.
With winter approaching, first light in the town of some 1,500 residents doesn't come until about 10:30 a.m.
"It's getting dark now, so people aren't getting up as early as they were," Miller said. "If it were hunting season, people would be getting up early and getting their boats ready."
Whales are among the animals hunted by Eskimos, who have subsistence hunting rights.
But they generally hunt bowheads, and when the California grays were confined by the ice, Eskimos wielding chain saws put in long hours to cut holes that allowed them to breathe. The series of holes gradually led the two survivors toward a channel cut by one of the icebreakers.
The sawyers were paid $15 to $16 an hour under a jobs program run by the North Slope Borough.
The influx of people triggered by the trapped whales generated work and income in addition to the jobs on the ice. A T-shirt industry offering at least three commemorative logos took shape quickly, some of the visitors bought fur garments, taxi services did a booming business and residents rented out their snowmobiles.
By Saturday, only three guests remained at the Top of the World, where people had been lodging three to a room during the crush, Kunaknana said. A hotel near the airport also had been full, and part of the overflow went to quarters at an arctic research laboratory nearby. Residents willing to turn their homes into temporary inns put their names on a list.