POINT BARROW, Alaska — Two California gray whales made a run for freedom early Wednesday evening, leaving behind a series of breathing holes cut through the ice by Eskimos with chain saws and popping up moments later in a channel in the ice cut by a Soviet icebreaker.
"Everyone is extremely jubilant," a Coast Guard spokesman said minutes after learning from scientists flying over the whales that they had been freed.
Although the whales still have more than 200 miles to travel through ice-filled waters before they can turn south and leave behind the frozen sea that had trapped them for nearly three weeks, Operation Breakthrough had clearly succeeded.
Unusual Rescue Effort
"Those whales are in the lead (an open area in the ice) that the (ice)breaker made," biologist Tom Albert radioed to other members of the rescue team, scattered across miles of frozen shoreline in what may rank as the most extraordinary animal rescue effort ever undertaken.
And, in the end, the whales seemed to understand what was happening.
For several days, the whales had seemed to grow more listless as the effort to free them dragged on and on. But, by Tuesday night, after Eskimo whalers had cut more than a mile of holes through the ice, allowing the whales to reach deeper water, the animals changed, according to scientists who have been monitoring their behavior.
"They seem to sense something is happening," Mark A. Fraker, senior environmental scientist with Standard Oil of Alaska, said earlier in the day.
The whales raced up and down the chain of holes, in marked contrast to their earlier reluctance to leave the first hole cut in the ice for them, at which they had found at least temporary safety.
And, by Wednesday afternoon, as workers frantically cut more holes in the ice to move the whales closer to open water, the whales seemed downright eager to head out.
"The whales are more energetic than I've ever seen them," David Withrow, a U.S. federal marine mammals specialist, said.
Sometimes, they didn't even wait for the Eskimos to finish cutting.
"When we have a hole half cut, they're already in it," biologist Geoff Carroll radioed to other members of the rescue team.
An unlikely team of of Eskimos, Soviet seamen, environmentalists and oil workers took part in the rescue mission.
While the Eskimos worked on the chain of holes to move the whales to deeper water, the two Soviet ships were clearing ice farther out.
The Soviet ships, 20,241-ton Admiral Makarov, an icebreaker, and the 13,514-ton Vladimir Arseniev, an icebreaking cargo vessel flying an American flag alongside the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union, had responded to a request for assistance from the environmental group Greenpeace and the U.S. government.
The closest American icebreaker, which had been defeated by the same thick ice last month on its way back to Seattle, was too far away to aid the rescue.
Broke Through Wall of Ice
The Soviet ships arrived here Tuesday and immediately began bashing down a wall of ice that rescuers feared would keep the whales from ever reaching open water. But the wall--called a pressure ridge--proved no contest for the ships.
After working throughout the night, the ships had cut a hole through the ridge half a mile wide, more than enough to allow two whales to head for California.
Late Wednesday, to speed the rescue effort, rescuers began to use the Archimedean screw tractor, a gargantuan device propelled by pontoon augers, to rapidly clear away floating ice cut by the icebreaker, a National Guard spokesman said.
The whales, which became trapped after getting a late start on their southern migration from their arctic summer feeding grounds, were finally freed on the 20th day of a mission of mercy that fascinated the world.
Third Whale Apparently Died
A third, smaller whale that was with them when they were first discovered on Oct. 7, huddled at a breathing hole in the frozen Beaufort Sea, apparently drowned under the ice during in long ordeal.
The Coast Guard spokesman said the whales were not tagged with any electronic devices, which would make it possible to track their progress down the Alaska coast on their delayed migration. But, he said: "We'll monitor them whichever way we can to ensure that they don't turn around and come back to say, 'Thank you.' "
The Soviet icebreakers provided the final surge in the protracted rescue operation that had also involved heroic work in bitter cold with chain saws, a 7-ton "concrete Yo-Yo" strung from a giant helicopter, the Archimedean screw tractor and Jacuzzi-like devices that kept water in the ice holes from freezing.
Barge Never Arrived
Rescuers first had hoped to use a giant icebreaking barge, but it never got close to the site, barely getting out of Prudhoe Bay.
After hours of planning Operation Breakthrough with U.S. rescuers, the Soviet ships sailed one behind the other through ice-covered water to the ridge, which extends for several miles, leaving a long trail of broken ice behind them.
"Let us begin to cut ice," Capt. Sergei Reshetov of the Admiral Makarov declared as the Soviet vessels began their assault.
"We feel very good about it," said Rear Adm. Sigmund Petersen of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "The cooperation has just been fantastic. The Soviets came in here with a very positive attitude and went to work immediately."
Praise From Reagan
In Washington, President Reagan late Wednesday lauded the efforts of the crew members of the two Soviet icebreakers, among others, for their work in freeing the whales.
"I am gratified that the California gray whales have been released to the open sea," Reagan said in a statement read by a White House spokesman. "The human persistence and determination by so many individuals on behalf of these whales shows mankind's concern for the environment.