POINT BARROW, Alaska — Two Soviet icebreakers were en route to Point Barrow Sunday to join in a rescue effort that began as a humble attempt to help three stranded whales but has turned into a bizarre extravaganza that seems to have a life of its own.
"I hope people realize that this thing ain't about whales any more," one bewildered official groaned as the rescue attempt teetered toward turning into a theater of the absurd.
It seems that there is almost no cost too high, or effort too great, to throw into the battle to save the two surviving whales that have been trapped in the ice pack here since Oct. 7. A third whale died Friday night.
Tass, the official Soviet news agency, said the icebreakers would not be able to get within 5 miles of the beasts, United Press International reported from Moscow, and it was unclear what the Soviet vessels will be able to do.
"Since the ocean in the area is 13 to 16 feet deep and the icebreaker needs at least 39 feet of depth for a reliable approach, it will not be able to get closer to the whales than 5 miles," Tass said.
Brian Gorman, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration public affairs officer in Washington, said that the United States requested an icebreaker's help under an international environmental agreement, which has been used in the past to exchange information from research vessels. "We are expecting the icebreaker to be operational around noon Tuesday," he said.
Meantime, U.S. officials are throwing everything they've got into freeing the whales as soon as possible. The only thing that seems to be working, however, is the hard labor of a band of Eskimos--many of them whalers--who have cut more than 60 holes in the ice to permit the whales to move about a third of the way to open water.
The Eskimos, armed with chain saws and tools normally used for hunting bowhead whales, are moving with stunning precision across the ice, cutting holes and then pushing slabs of ice back under the ice pack to make room for the whales to surface for air. The Eskimos do not hunt California gray whales like those that have been the center of world attention the last couple of weeks because the gray is considered an endangered species. Besides, grays are not considered very tasty.
But come the spring thaw, many of those Eskimos who are working so hard to free "Poutu" and "Siku" will be out hunting the five bowheads allowed the Barrow community each year under international whaling treaties.
As the Eskimos continued their work, the rescue was turning into something like guerrilla warfare between the hard work of the local people and the fancy gadgets brought out by big oil and big government.
The latest piece of equipment to arrive on the scene is an 11-ton ice-breaking machine that looks like it could only have been designed for James Bond. The massive machine, which looks sort of like a tank on pontoons, is owned by VECO Inc., a huge pipeline service company on the North Slope.
It is called an "Archimedian Screw Tractor," and it is so big that it had to be flown in from Prudhoe Bay aboard the largest aircraft in the world, a U.S. Air Force C-5A Galaxy from Travis Air Force Base in Northern California.
The giant aircraft was on a trip from California to Japan, with a stopover in Anchorage for supplies for U.S. forces in Asia. But it was diverted from Anchorage to Prudhoe, where it picked up the tractor, and then to the small airfield at Barrow. After delivering the machine, it returned to Anchorage and resumed its original mission.
The aircraft was requested by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), ranking minority member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee for defense appropriations. Some here said the fact that the White House checks daily on the progress of the rescue did not hurt the effort to obtain the aircraft's services.
The tractor is so huge that it had to be partly dismantled to be loaded aboard the C-5A, and as soon as it was reassembled here it broke down. Sources familiar with the huge mechanical beast said that it has not been used since 1982 and that it did not work well then. But if it works as advertised, it should begin cutting through the ice at the rate of 3 miles an hour sometime today.
The tractor is to begin near a giant ice ridge 5 miles offshore and work its way toward the Eskimos.
"It's a little touchy," said Bill Allen, chairman of the board of VECO, who arrived here ahead of the tractor on a private jet. "These people are really enjoying cutting out those holes," he said of the Eskimos.
The tractor is named after Archimedes, the Greek inventor who lived from 287 to 212 B.C., who is said to have discovered the laws of levers and pulleys. Archimedes, who invented a screw-type device to lift water, was the first to use such tools to increase the lifting power of humans.