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On October 7, 1988, a hunter reported three gray whales trapped in pack ice near Point Barrow, Alaska. He immediately used a chainsaw to enlarge holes in the ice so the whales (all juveniles) could breathe more easily. The ice was too thick for him to cut a path to the open sea of the Arctic Ocean, however.
 
The rescue operation to free the three whales—given the Inupiat names Putu, Siku, and Kanik—was called “Operation Breakthrough.” Operation Breakthrough was ultimately a million-dollar effort that involved cooperation between regional, national, and international organizations. Members of Operation Breakthrough included the indigenous Inupiat communities of northern Alaska, oil companies drilling in Alaska’s North Slope region, the Alaska National Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Greenpeace, and even the Soviet Union.
 
Operation Breakthrough may have worked, although the smallest, weakest whale (Kanik) died before the Soviet icebreakers cleared a path to the ocean. Radio tags were not attached to Putu and Siku, and they were not seen entering the ocean. Many observers assume the whales swam to freedom.
 
Scientists were skeptical of Operation Breakthrough. Whales being stranded and drowning in thick pack ice is a familiar threat in the Arctic. “Speaking strictly from a biological standpoint, (a rescue) doesn't make sense,” said one marine biologist. “That's natural mortality. The ones that make mistakes, the ones that are weaker, are the first that are going to die. And there is a reason for that. That's what keeps the population strong.”
Noun

region at Earth's extreme north, encompassed by the Arctic Circle.

attach
Verb

to fasten or affix.

cooperation
Noun

the act of working together.

drown
Verb

to die or suffocate in a liquid.

enlarge
Verb

to make bigger.

familiar
Adjective

well-known.

Greenpeace
Noun

 

environmental organization whose mission is "to use peaceful protest and creative communication to expose global environmental problems and to promote solutions that are essential to a green and peaceful future."

hunt
Verb

to pursue and kill an animal, usually for food.

Noun

water in its solid form.

icebreaker
Noun

powerful ship made for creating paths through thick ice.

immediately
Adverb

at once or quickly.

Adjective

characteristic to or of a specific place.

Noun

unit made up of governments or groups in different countries, usually for a specific purpose.

Inupiat
Noun

people and culture native to northern Alaska and northwestern Canada.

juvenile
Noun

animal that is no longer a baby but has not reached sexual maturity.

marine biologist
Noun

scientist who studies ocean life.

military
Noun

armed forces.

mortality
Noun

state or condition of death.

national
Adjective

having to do with the government or people of a country.

National Guard
Noun

military force controlled by a U.S. state but funded by the federal government and called up as part of the Army during national emergencies.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Noun

U.S. Department of Commerce agency whose mission is to "understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts; to share that knowledge and information with others, and; to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources."

observer
Noun

someone who watches, or observes.

oil
Noun

fossil fuel formed from the remains of marine plants and animals. Also known as petroleum or crude oil.

open sea
Noun

part of the ocean not belonging to any country or nation. Also called the high seas.

pack ice
Noun

large ice formation in seawater, pushed together by currents and winds.

population
Noun

total number of people or organisms in a particular area.

radio
Noun

wireless transmission based on electromagnetic waves.

Noun

any area on Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

rescue operation
Noun

planning and delivering aid to people in an emergency situation.

scientist
Noun

person who studies a specific type of knowledge using the scientific method.

skeptical
Adjective

doubtful.

Soviet Union
Noun

(1922-1991) large northern Eurasian nation that had a communist government. Also called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the USSR.

strand
Verb

to abandon or leave in a vulnerable position.

strict
Adjective

always or almost always following limits, rules, or regulations.

threat
Noun

danger.

trapped
Adjective

caught or held.

ultimate
Adjective

final or maximum.