Rescue workers believe that they have convinced three trapped California gray whales to trust them enough to leave their haven and move on to newly created holes in the Arctic ice, increasing the chances that the whales can eventually be led to freedom.
But it took an Eskimo whaling captain to find a way.The best chance for freeing the whales lies in creating a series of additional holes - possibly with a huge chunk of concrete that will be repeatedly dropped into the ice by cable from an Alaska National Guard helicopter.
But biologists had feared that the frightened and tired whales would refuse to leave the area where they have managed to survive.
Early Thursday morning workers completed a new hole and tried to get the whales to move there. Ron Morris, a marine biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who is coordinating the effort, said that the whales initially went to the new hole, apparently attracted by the humming noise of a small de-icing machine, but quickly returned to their original refuge and refused to leave.
Finally, Arnold Brower Jr., a member of a prominent whaling family here, reached out in the blackness of the night and touched one of the whales with a stick.
The startled whale swam instantly to the new hole, followed by the two others. This time, all three stayed, huddled around the de-icer with its soothing hum.
Biologists now hope to condition the whales to associate the hum with open water. Then, they might move quickly to new holes that are to be broken open between the whales and an open area in the ice about 4 miles away.
Rescue teams, working around the clock, got a little encouragement Friday from the National Weather Service. Generally favorable weather, with winds out of the east that are holding the Arctic ice field off from the newly formed ice along the shore, was expected to continue at least through the weekend.
By early Friday evening, the National Guard was to begin the effort to break through the ice with the 10,000-pound lump of concrete. Col. Tom Carroll said that the block of concrete has a sharp point and is one of three of varying sizes that crews had practiced with in nearby ice fields.
There is still a slim chance that an ice-breaking barge can be towed here by helicopter from the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, but National Guardsmen who have worked for the past week to make that happen were considering abandoning that plan, Carroll said. It has turned out to be extremely difficult to tow the barge over the ice.
The whales, who had spent too long storing up food for their long journey south, must surface for air every four or five minutes. So by the time they were discovered it was already too late for them to swim several miles under water to the narrow band of sea that lies between the coastal ice and the Arctic ice field.
Unless the whales could be somehow helped to safety, they would soon die.
The effort to help them began slowly here, as Eskimos from Barrow worked alongside biologists who are assigned to this area, to keep the small hole from freezing over. They used chain saws to continuously carve off pieces of the ice.
Through their ordeal, the whales seem to have grown almost affectionate, allowing biologists to reach out and touch them as they brush against the razor-sharp edges of the ice.
It wasn't long before word of the rescue attempt was picked up by the press, and what has happened here since is nothing short of phenomenal.
One day this week Ron Morris, a marine biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who is coordinating the effort, was talking on the telephone in a small office in a hangar that is serving as rescue headquarters.
At one point he looked up at the window that separates the office from an adjoining room and found himself staring into the bright lights and cameras of NBC, CBS, ABC and CNN. About a dozen other photographers and reporters poked their heads and cameras through the arms and legs of the network crews.
Morris, who could not be heard inside the closed office, chuckled to himself. All he was doing, after all, was talking on the telephone.
The drama of the trapped whales has also attracted news crews from as far away as Japan, London and Australia.
The rescue effort has brought together military personnel, scientists, oil company executives and environmentalists, groups more accustomed to feuding among themselves than working together. Now, caught up in a life-and-death mission, they are struggling against nature in a cold and forbidding landscape, but one that can become strikingly beautiful when the sun skirts across the flat horizon, washing the air in pastel tones of blues and greens and reds. For a long time Thursday, a spectacular rainbow arched through atmospheric ice crystals from one horizon to another.
The urgency of the rescue effort has taken top priority here, and the fever is running so high that no one has stopped to count what it is all going to cost.