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NOAA's Big Miracle Worker

NOAA marine mammal biologist Dave Withrow and the event that inspired Hollywood

How Does NOAA Disentangle Whales?

A specialized team of NOAA and partners are trained to safely disentangle large whales, using guidelines that minimize risk to the animals and rescuers. This also maximizes the potential for success. Unlike the movies, real rescuers do not enter the water to disentangle whales. This is too dangerous for both the rescuer and the whale.

NOAA Rescuing Humpback Whales Near Hawaii (video)
Whale Disentanglement Network Team (video) 
Alaska Fisheries Regional Office - Large Whale Disentanglement
Northest Fisheries Regional Office - Large Whale Disentanglement
Hawaiian Islands Disentanglement Network


February 1, 2012

This Friday, February 3, Universal Pictures will premiere Big Miracle, a new movie inspired by “Operation Breakthrough,” the real-life rescue of three gray whales trapped by sea ice off the coast of Barrow, Alaska, in 1988. Dave Withrow, a NOAA Fisheries marine mammal biologist, participated throughout the two-week rescue. We recently caught up with Withrow, who still works for NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center, to talk about his experience, nearly 25 years ago.

How did you get involved in Operation Breakthrough?
I work for NOAA at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, and anything whale-related, especially on the West Coast, comes through our office. Initially, there were no gray whale experts on the scene in Barrow. We were watching the news reports every night, and the lack of factual information would make all of us cringe. A week after the whales were found, then director of NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory, Howard Braham, asked me to go work with the press and make sure they had accurate information about these incredible creatures.

Can you describe what it was like when you arrived on the scene?
It was freezing—about 30 to 40 degrees below zero every day during the rescue, so not at all like the average whale stranding at the beach. This was October in Alaska and everyone on the scene had to endure a lot of difficult conditions to be there. Meanwhile, it was a total zoo in Barrow with all the reporters there. At the time, we didn’t know why this had captured the whole world’s attention, but all eyes were on us. The whales were relatively young and confused. All of the other gray whales had started migrating much earlier, but these three whales stayed in the feeding grounds too long. As a result, they were trapped by ice as temperatures continued to drop. Once we started moving the whales toward freedom, however, I couldn’t help but think that they knew something was happening. They seemed to understand that we were there to help them along.

How did you keep the whales and people safe?
It did help that the whales were located a good way from Barrow and the only route there was by snow machine or on one of the helicopters dedicated to the rescue effort.  A rotating group of TV reporters and cameramen were flown out to the whales daily.  Access was limited for safety reasons and to minimize disturbance to the whales and those involved directly with the rescue effort. Most of the people who live in Barrow know the conditions out on the ice better than anyone. We followed their advice and they helped us make decisions along the way. If they said it was time to stop because it was too dangerous, we listened. The Inupiat people who lived in and around Barrow did most of the hole-cutting, and their knowledge and guidance helped the operation stay safe and on track.

Did things get complicated with so many people wanting to help with the rescue?
There were so many groups—Inupiat hunters, biologists, oil companies, United States and Soviet Union  government agencies, the military, non-profit organizations, and the press—on the scene and everyone wanted to play a part. There was a balancing act to include all of those who wanted to help with those that could really provide useful assistance. Aside from freeing the whales, it was the involvement of so many groups that actually became the operation’s biggest success story. Groups that were usually on opposite sides of major issues all came together to free the whales from the ice. This was during the height of the Cold War. Cooperation between the United States and Soviet Union on any issue was basically unheard of, especially on something so publicized. 

How did you rescue the whales?
We had a lot of support. One company sent chain saws to help cut holes in the ice. Another sent portable generators to provide light and power. We cut a series of holes in the ice, hoping that the whales would swim from one hole to the next but it was so cold that they kept freezing over. The owners of a Minnesota company that specialized in underwater pumps saw the TV news reports and sent us special pumps made to circulate water and prevent freezing. All along, we had planned to use whale mating sounds to lure the whales from hole to hole. Quite by accident we discovered that the noise generated by the pumps attracted the whales. The pumps allowed us to coax the whales to a new breathing hole ahead. It really helped us move them along. While we were carefully moving the whales, a Soviet ice-breaker arrived. It broke through a 15-foot area at the head of the bay area and cleared a channel for a few miles.  We didn’t want the ice-breaker getting too close to the whales, so continued cutting holes to meet the channel so the whales could swim freely.

Do you know what happened to the whales after they were freed?
Originally, we were planning to track the whales up to six months with satellite tags, which are attached by a small dart in their blubber. The health of the whales became questionable, however, after they had been trapped for so long. One of the whales did not survive, and we didn’t think it was worth putting the others through the additional stress of being fitted with a transmitter. Once freed, the whales still had a difficult path, swimming through jumbled ice left behind by the ice breakers, but we led them to the best possible spot for returning to the migratory path, and even the weather was in their favor. Without tags, it can be difficult to track whales. After the event, people claimed to see the two surviving whales in California and other locations, but we have nothing to confirm these sightings. Gray whales are usually identified by the patterns of barnacles on their backs and head. As they migrate from Alaska to the breeding lagoons in Mexico,they continually gain and loose barnacles, and it is unlikely that someone not trained in gray whale identification could reliably recognize one of these whales. 

Since you’ve been with NOAA, have you had any other experiences like this one?
I have been involved in quite a few stranding rescues on the West Coast. I’ve helped in the rescue of many gray and sperm whales in California and Mexico, and even the well-known stranding of 41 sperm whales in Florence, Oregon. Still, nothing can begin to compare to the Barrow whale rescue. The whole world was cheering us on.

Do you have any plans to see the upcoming movie? 
Definitely. Everyone at work wants to go as a group to see who will play me. I was just talking to someone recently in Barrow who was also involved in Operation Breakthrough. I think Brad Pitt should be me, and he thought Leonardo DiCaprio should play him. All joking aside, I hope they capture the true spirit of this great event and the message that we can all work together to help our ocean. I also hope the movie will be somewhat accurate. It’s hard to depict what truly happened during that rescue. I saw the trailer where the lead character [Drew Barrymore] jumps into the water with the whales, which I know absolutely never happened. Aside from the rescue of the whales, the big success of this operation was the cooperation between all the diverse groups and especially between the United States and Soviet Union during this tense part of our history.  

40 Years of Protecting Whales

This year, the Marine Mammal Protection Act is marking its 40th anniversary. Under the act, NOAA is responsible for responding to stranded and distressed marine mammals, including gray whales like those stranded outside of Barrow nearly 25 years ago. It also happens to be the 20th anniversary of the Marine Mammal Heath and Stranding Response Program, which manages regional stranding networks and investigates marine mammal incidents as they occur. 

NOAA would like to remind people to help protect whales by following the recommended viewing guidelines, which include staying at least 100 yards (300 feet) away from large whales and 50 yards (150 feet) from other marine mammals like dolphins and seals. Attempting to touch or handle marine mammals can injure the animal and put you at risk. 

Please report stranded or distressed animals to your local stranding network or local authorities. Trained professionals will help animals in need of assistance, for the safety and wellbeing of both the animals and people. A full list of these contacts can be found on our website.