As part of Operation Breakthrough, holes were cut in the thick pack ice around Point Barrow, Alaska, to allow three stranded gray whales to breathe. Ultimately, Soviet icebreakers carved a path to the sea, although the success of the $1 million rescue effort has been questioned.
Photograph NOAA Central Library Historical Fisheries Collection

Download this file

  • Audience versions of this page: Family

    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.”
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    Arctic Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: Arctic
    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.

    ice Noun

    water in its solid form.

    Encyclopedic Entry: ice
    icebreaker Noun

    powerful ship made for creating paths through thick ice.

    immediately Adverb

    at once or quickly.

    indigenous Adjective

    characteristic to or of a specific place.

    international organization Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: international organization
    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.

    region Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: region
    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.