An international rescue mission tried to move giant icebreaking machines into the battle to save two trapped California gray whales, while Eskimos had more success with a simpler method, chopping a path of air holes the animals were using to inch toward freedom.
Ron Morris, rescue coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the two surviving whales could reach open water by Wednesday if the weather holds. No storms were forecast.A third whale stopped coming up for air last week and is presumed drowned. Whale experts said Sunday the survivors were in good shape.
A growing international effort, including a pair of Soviet icebreakers steaming toward Barrow, was under way as scores of military, scientific and civilian volunteers battled subzero temperatures to free the stranded whales.
The world's biggest plane, the state's largest helicopter, the two Soviet icebreakers, a giant ice-eating tractor, a huge ice-crushing barge and a 5-ton concrete "bullet" were all being used or brought to the scene of an ever more bizarre and costly effort.
But the most successful strategy so far was being used by the Eskimos, who hacked away at the ice with donated logging chain saws and their own whale hunting tools to create a path of more than 60 air holes toward the open sea about 3 miles from the original hole where the whales were trapped Oct. 7 before they could begin their migration to Mexico.
"It's hard work. If we had more tools we could go faster," said Lawrence Ahmaogak, who led a recent successful hunt for bowhead whales. "It makes us feel good inside to save those whales."
At one time the whales were seven miles from the nearest open channel, but the air holes and winds shifting the ice has put the giant mammals just miles from open water.
Eskimos connected several of the holes Sunday to create a 250-foot trench in the ice, long enough for the whales to surface and breathe more normally.
As reporters from around the world kept pouring into Barrow, an Eskimo village of 3,100 and the northernmost town in the United States, to chronicle the effort to free the whales, military planes delivered a Navy admiral, an ice expert and more Eskimo ice cutters.
An ice-breaking barge got bogged down and traveled only eight miles from Prudhoe Bay in a week, and a National Guard Skycrane helicopter bouncing a 5-ton cement-and-steel bullet off the ice was not having much success because the holes froze over as fast as they were punched.
The heavy "bullet" was being used to try to smash through a 30-foot deep ridge of ice that lurks between the path of holes and the open sea - considered the last major barrier to the whales' escape. Officials planned to use sonar to try to pinpoint where the thick ice might be weak, have cavities or otherwise be penetrable by ice-fighting equipment.
Acting Mayor Warren Matumeak said local government has spent $300,000 so far on the rescue, but military and oil industry officials would not disclose their costs.