Whale hunters, crew plucked from ice floe

Posted: Wednesday, May 15, 2002

ANCHORAGE -- About 75 people taking part in a whale hunt were lifted by helicopter from an ice floe Sunday after Arctic Ocean shore ice broke free and began to drift west of Barrow.

Rescuers from the North Slope Borough needed 11 hours to ferry people and gear by helicopter to safety.

No one was injured but a whaling crew was forced to abandon a bowhead whale being towed onto the ice.

A south wind Saturday night began driving ice from shore while a current from the west flooded the beach and cracked the ice.

''It opened up five places at the south end and one up north, and the current was so swift that they were drifting out,'' said Lucy Adams, who helped relay radio calls at the search and rescue headquarters along with her husband, whaling captain Jacob Adams.

Hunter Justin Gatton said he was halfway back to the shoreline on his snowmobile when the ice shelf he was riding across ''started breaking all around.''

''I got to a real large crack and that's where I left my snowmachine and started jumping from ice to ice,'' he said.

The ice shelf, shattering and creaking, tore loose from shore and began carrying Gatton and the other people out into the Arctic Ocean. About 90 people had been on the ice.

When Gatton saw the cracks, he began racing the splintering ice.

He and two other men jumped the open leads, some of them 4 to 5 feet wide. When they reached safety, he radioed his whaling crew and told them the ice was breaking. Many of the hunters had not realized the shelf had come loose, he said.

People close to the shore scurried to get as much equipment as they could across before the gaps grew too wide, said Arnold Brower, coordinator for Barrow Search and Rescue.

''There was quite a ruckus,'' he said.

Once the ice shelf drifted out from the shore it began to break up into smaller pieces. The remaining 75 people huddled into two clumps about seven miles apart, Brower said.

The North Slope Borough Search and Rescue got the emergency call at 1 a.m. Sunday, said Doug Mealor, the rescue team's chief pilot.

When the team arrived, the closest chunk of the ice shelf was three or four miles out to sea. Two Bell 214 helicopters flew people, plus snowmachines, sleds and boats back to shore, Mealor said.

The weekend hunt added to what residents are calling one of the most difficult whaling seasons in recent years. Another struck bowhead under tow was caught by a dangerous current, witnesses said. When the carcass began hauling the whale boat, the whalers were forced to cut it loose to make it to safety.

Earlier, Gatton said, the crew he was with lost a third struck bowhead after it sank.

The incidents were frustrating and sad for the community and the whalers, who rely on the spring subsistence hunt, said Lucy Adams.

''They had to give two of them up,'' she said. ''They were harvested; they were caught. But they weren't moving the whale. They had to abandon it in order to get their gear.''

Gatton said only two whales have been fully butchered and given to the people.

In general, ''it's been a horrible whaling season,'' said Barrow resident Geoff Carroll, a state biologist. ''First the ice went out in March with open water up to the shore. ... When it came back it was fractured and weak.''

On March 17 helicopter crews rescued 18 seal hunters from a similar emergency off the Barrow coast. In May 1997, in the same area, 142 whale hunters were rescued from a floating ice sheet.

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