BARROW, Alaska — A Soviet icebreaker smashed its way to within half a mile of the two trapped California gray whales early today, raising hopes that the huge mammals could swim to freedom later in the day.
Two Soviet vessels arrived off the Barrow coast Tuesday and worked through most of the night smashing Arctic ice and crashing through a ridge of solid ice, Alaska National Guard spokesman Lt. Mike Haller said.
By dawn one Soviet icebreaker was half a mile from the whales and the second vessel was not far behind, Haller said.
The whales "are acting in a very excited manner, almost like they can sense freedom," said Sgt. Ian Robertson, spokesman for the Alaska National Guard.
Later today, rescuers planned to use a Gargantuan, tractor-like device propelled by pontoon augers to cut the relatively thin ice remaining between the whales and the icebreakers' farthest advance.
'It's Positively Balmy'
Rescue coordinator Ron Morris of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the whales could be free by late today if all went well.
The weather looks favorable and a predicted warming trend should help the rescue effort, Robertson said. "It's positively balmy today," he said. "It's going up to 5 above, with light winds."
The breakthrough in the effort to free the migrating gray whales caught in an early freeze came after more than a week of delays and disappointments.
"We feel very good about it," said Rear Adm. Sigmund Petersen of NOAA. "The cooperation has just been fantastic. The Soviets came in here with a very positive attitude and went to work immediately."
On Tuesday, the Americans moved the huge mammals around a shoal that had stymied progress for three days. Eskimos with chain saws cut a detour in the ice so the whales could swim around the shallow water they had refused to pass.
'Like Deeper Water'
When the Eskimos started cutting the air holes, the whales "followed the water right to the end. They like that deeper water," Petersen said.
Working in the other direction, the Soviet icebreakers reduced to rubble the ice ridge standing between the whales and open water. The ridge, formed by colliding ice masses, was a jumble of ice blocks as big as small houses.
The whales, which normally migrate to the Southern California coast in the winter, were discovered off Alaska's northern coast three weeks ago, the ice closing in around them and leaving them only a few small breathing holes.
The whales could not swim the 4 miles to open water without surfacing for air.
A third whale disappeared Friday and is believed dead.