A Brief History
On October 7, 1988, a native Alaskan hunter found three Gray Whales trapped by the sea ice near Point Barrow, Alaska in the Beaufort Sea, initiating a chain of events that culminated in a massive international rescue effort of the giant cetaceans. The rescue effort, named Operation Breakthrough, failed to save the youngest whale, which died before being freed, and the fate of the other 2 whales that were ultimately freed is unknown.
Whales and their kin have been hunted by humans ever since humans took to the sea in any sort of boat. Prior to actually hunting the great beasts, it is likely people feasted on dead whales that washed up on shore much as modern bears and wolves do today. Aside from eating whale meat and blubber, whales also provided a clean burning fuel for people to light their lamps, namely “whale oil.” Of course, other products produced by the rendering of whales have also been used by people, including as pet food and feeding the fur bearing critters at fur farms (such as minks and sables), especially in Russia. Human technology by the 17th Century with improved ships and boats enabled more efficient harvesting of whales, and by the 19th Century whale numbers were greatly depleted. During the 20th Century, modern power boats and cannon like harpoons devastated whale populations, culminating in an international outcry for the majestic creatures to be protected. Conservation efforts started after World War II, with whaling nations assigned a quota by the International Whaling Commission. Today, only Norway, Iceland and Japan still conduct whaling operations, as do a small number of indigenous people in Siberia, Alaska and Canada. Several species, including the Northern Pacific Gray Whale are off limits entirely. Whales, like elephants and rhinoceroses, are darlings of the conservation oriented crowd and are generally much beloved by the public. Learning of the lumbering leviathans in trouble triggered a strong protective reflex feeling among people all over the globe.
The Gray Whale, which can reach 49 feet long and weigh a whopping 90,000 pounds, are “baleen” whales, whales that feed by filtering out small marine life such as plankton, krill and small fish from the ocean. When Inupiaq hunter Roy Ahmaogak discovered the 3 Gray Whales trapped by the ice, the word went out to his village and the people made tremendous efforts with chain saws and pumps to free the whales, though they failed. News spread to marine biologists working in Alaska, and a giant helicopter was commandeered to break the ice with a 5 ton metal “hammer.” Barges and other vessels from Alaska were enlisted to assist with the efforts to create a path of clear water for the whales to escape to the open sea, and the United States government actually requested the Soviet Union to send ice breaking ships to aid the effort! A clear path was made through the ice, and when the joyous throngs of journalists on the scene crowded to get video, photos and a good look, the whales were spooked by the people rushing to the edge of the ice and they retreated back to their previous position! The whales were cut by the jagged pieces of ice created by the people breaking a path for the whales, and the youngest of the 3 was seen to have died. The other 2 whales disappeared from sight, with rescuers assuming they had escaped to the open water. The operation was declared a rousing success, though in reality that can only be considered a guess. Apparently, no one on the scene thought to tag the whales with radio transponders to track them.
The price of “saving the whales” was estimated at $1 million, and scientists were generally negative in their assessment of the rescue efforts. Those nay sayers pointed out the poor health of the 2 remaining whales that may well have died after all. Meanwhile, the television watching public around the world had been watching with bated breath hoping for a happy ending, and the entire incident did much to publicize the plight of the great whales. We tend to think the rescue effort was worth the cost and time, do you?
History and Headlines trivia bonus: How old was Noah when he was swallowed by the whale?
Answer: We got you! It was Jonah, not Noah that was swallowed by the “great fish” in the Bible, not even a whale!
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you believe all whaling should be prohibited, even by indigenous people? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Cawardine, Mark. Handbook of Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises of the World. Princeton University Press, 2020.
Oseid, Kelsey. Whales: An Illustrated Celebration. Ten Speed Press, 2018.