Expert Opinion: Marine Biologist vs. 'Big Miracle'

on February 10, 2012 by Dave Withrow

expertopinionbigmiracle.pngI'm a marine mammal biologist with NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I was first sent up to Barrow because during the early parts of the rescue, there was a lot of misinformation and just downright bad information being spread by the medianot on purpose, they were just interviewing everybody that would be in front of a camera. They had the whales confused, they didn't know anything about their migration, they didn't know anything about their life history, social units, all that stuff. So my supervisor sent me up to Barrow to talk to the media and give good information about the gray whales in Barrow, and then we stayed on to help with the rescue.

Big Miracle the movie is the story of the Greenpeace gal Cindy Lowry (Drew Barrymore), who was there, and the White House person (Vinessa Shaw) who was talking to the National Guard. Really, that was done through NOAA. We were a big presence at the rescue, but we don't show up in the movie at all. I'm not really sure why? I think they wanted to push the Greenpeace point and make it look like the Greenpeace girl and the news photographer (John Krasinski) were the main ones there, and there was certainly a Greenpeace connection early on. But really, NOAA was the central agency involved in all of this. We had a management person up there, two biologists, weather service, and an admiral from our NOAA Corps who led the interfacing between the National Guard and the Soviet Union. And then we also involved Greenpeace and the oil company who you see in the movie.

It was absolutely a media frenzy when I arrived. And I kind of don't know why? It was the story of three gray whales who stayed too long in their feeding areasall the other gray whales had migrated south on timebut these were on the younger side. One was very young. And they stayed too long and got trapped. It started when a whale hunter came by and saw these whales and mentioned it to one of the biologists in the area who said, "Before you guys kill the whales, I'd like to get some photos and some movie footage of it." So they went into town, got a movie camera from the high school, and when they got back, the person who took the footage released it to the newswire. And then it just got picked up by all these different news services. I don't know if it was a slow news week or what, but it just captured the nation's attentionand then eventually, the world's attention.

We'd sit around at night and watch all the newscasters talking about it and go, "What's with this story? Why is it getting so much attention?" Like little Baby Jessica who fell down the well, it was just one of those stories that strikes a nerve with everyone. We're scientistswe're not used to that kind of exposure. This was the first moment when NOAA was really thrown in front of the public eye. We all learned a lot from that for sure. Every night, you're on the evening news. My daughter was 5 or 6 at the time and she'd call and say, "Daddy, I miss you. But whenever I miss you, I can just turn on the TV and see you."

The news media is very good at figuring out if there's something that you haven't told them yet. We're just biologistswe're not used to standing in front of camerasand we got tricked early on. And then on, whenever someone asked you a question, you had to think of what the sixth question was going to be down that line and it was like, "Oh, okayI get what's going on." I remember someone asked me in Barrow, "How is the gray whale population doing, and if these three whales don't make it, how is that going to affect the population?" My answer was that it was no big deal, there's 20,000 of these whales and the population is growing, it's healthy, so if these whales don't make it it's sad, but it's not going to affect the population at all. They would record that, and then you'd get on your local news and they would have a local TV personality ask a different question and show your original answer. One of them was like, "These poor whales stuck in the icehow do you feel about that?" And it cuts to me saying, "It's no big deal, the population is healthy and strong." We got hate mail for that one.

I'm sure some people who were there at the time thought it might be a movie eventually. It was a totally interesting storyand most of it will never, ever be told. Like, I got a call from Russia from a guy who spoke very good English. A phone call from Russia in those days was very curious. And this guy was obviously someone with the type of job I shouldn't even say, but he had contacts and he said, "If you need anythinganythingan icebreaker, anything, just let me know." I was like, "Holy crap! This is way above my pay grade!" I just sent it up the line and eventually we did end up getting one of these icebreakers.

But one of these Russian icebreakers, the United States didn't even know about. It was a new one and it didn't have any underwater signatures to it, so the Navy was all upset that this new vessel that they didn't know anything about could be dropping all of these listening devices into our waters. At that time, there wasn't a whole lot of U.S.-Russia anything. They were the bad guys. Sending an icebreaker was maybe a goodwill mission. That's what I got out of it: sure, there was all this energy spent to save these whalesand all this money, but a lot of that would have been spent anyways. The oil companies got great PR out of this. But all in all, it was these diverse groups working together: the U.S. working with the Soviet Union, us working with the oil companies and Greenpeace, everybody working together for a common goal. That's pretty unusual, especially at this scope and level.

There was a theory at the time that the Soviet Union was very proud and would never ask for help with anythingparticularly from the U.S. But when they came in with these icebreakers, they maybe felt like they were owed something, and a month later there was this huge, huge earthquake in Armenia, and the Soviet Union asked the Americans for help. Everyone was just shocked because the U.S. had always offered help and aid, but for them to accept it was very unusual. And the people I spoke to on the inside said they thought it was because of this gray whale rescue. The ice had been broken—literallyand they felt comfortable asking for some assistance. I don't know if it's true or not, but it makes sense.

It was a little disappointing not to be in the movie. We had our discussions over who we'd want to play us like two years ago when we heard Drew Barrymore was going to make a movie about the whales. I was like, "I bet they get Brad Pitt for me," and the other biologist who was in Barrow said Leonardo DiCaprio was his. And then no one contacted either one of us. So it was like, "Oh? Okay. So I guess they're basing it on an ancillary story."

Initially, I thought—and this is the scientist in me coming out—that it was going to be more of a documentary. Once I got past that and saw that this is just a movie, a really nice feel-good movie based loosely on some real events, I could understand and enjoy it more. But there certainly are some things in the movie that aren't exactly what happened, and there is a disclaimer at the end of the movie saying some of the characters were invented and some of them were left out. And that's true, but people are going to remember the movie—they may forget what really happened.

Drew Barrymore as Cindy Lowry was pretty dead-on. She was adamant about her points of view. She's very passionate, even though we weren't always on the same side of the issues. She's kind of a thorn in people's sides, but in a smart, good way. And there's a place for Greenpeace—that's kind of their role. I think they hit the story of the Eskimos wanting to hunt the whales for food a little hard. Eskimos don't really like to eat gray whalesthey eat towhead whalesso it wasn't so much that they wanted to kill these whales and eat them. It was more that they'd considered killing them just to put them out of their misery. But none of us were really in those discussions, so who's to say?

Barrow wasn't that big of a community. It only had one hotel and just a few restaurants. I ended up sleeping in an old Quonset hut left over from when there was a military base there, just in a sleeping bag the whole time because there was no room in town for any of us. I never saw anybody selling pieces of cardboard for people to stand on like you see in the movie, but certainly I saw people charging outrageous prices like $500 for a ride on their snow machine out to the whales for reporters. People would try to get breakfast and everything was sold out. The town was a zoo, but out on the ice it wasn't much of a zoo because it was so hard to get out to. The media was brought out once a day on helicopters for an hour or two just to check in. Beyond that, most of the time, it was just us scientists out there—I had my own snow machine—as well as the local whalers who were helping dig the holes on the ice.

Although the Eskimos didn't use chainsaws like they do in the moviethere was no reason for them to need a chainsaw. They were just using their picks to keep the holes open as they were freezing over nearly as fast as you could chip ice. And then one day, someone sent us a bunch of chainsaws. And then someone else sent a bunch of generators. People just donated these things. The movie hits on these two guys from Minnesota who brought this underwater circulation pump, and that's exactly what happened—they just showed up.

Actually, after we started cutting air holes in the ice to get them closer to the ocean, then we had to convince the whales to follow them. My job before I was at NOAA was as a killer whale and dolphin trainer. A lot of my education was in animal behavior and training, so I was hoping I could use these underwater breeding sounds of gray whales in Mexico to attract them from one hole to the next. We were all prepared to do that, and then we found out that these whales liked these water circulation pumps, so when we moved a pump from one hole to the next to keep it from refreezing, the whales would move over to follow it. We just kept moving the pumps from hole to hole and the gray whales just kept swimming—it made our jobs a whole lot easier.

Even though the whales in the movie were animatronic, they captured the look of being at the hole very well. Initially, I thought they had the shape and the color of the whales right, but the texture was off. But then there were some close-up shots where you could really see the white barnacles—I thought they did a pretty good job. But the underwater sounds they had of the whales? Those weren't gray whales—they were killer whales, or maybe humpback. But who else was going to pick up on that besides someone who works in our field.

The three whales were not a family unit as was portrayed in the movie. Gray whales don't travel in families, they're more individual whales. There's kind of two groups of whales: toothed whales, which are your killer whales and your sperm whales, and then your baleen whales who filter plankton. It's more then toothed whales who travel in families and have good communication with each other, not so much the baleen whales, at least as far as we know. And they weren't named after the Flintstones. We used names like Bone and Crossbeak and some Eskimo names that mean the same thing.

We never did find out the sex of any of the whales. You can't tell by looking at the topyou need to see the bottom and we never got the upside-down view as no one ever went into the water. There was no reason to. I know the movie studio had some discussionsat least, I was told recently that they did-with NOAA, and NOAA tried to convince them not to have an underwater scene with the whales because 1) it's very dangerous, and 2) it's against the law. But the movie studio kind of wanted the underwater footage and I can certainly understand why—it really drew people into the movie. And there was no fishing net on the tail of the smaller whale, which is why Drew Barrymore jumped into the water in the first place. But fishing nets are a problem, so again, I can understand why that made it into the movie.

It was 30, 40 degrees below in Alaskavery coldand I spent several nights out there with the whales. I'm this boy from California, and that kind of cold just hurts you right in your lungs. Bitter cold, goes right to the bone. You didn't want to work up much of a sweat because the sweat would freeze on you. Like in the movie, we did have to deal with generators not starting up. I didn't come home with many pictures because the film would freeze inside the camera. It was quite an ordeal.

But it was also gorgeous. One of my fondest memories was the night before the icebreaker came in, Jim Harvey, the other biologist, was out there with me and it was just the two of us with the whales. Some Northern Lights showed up and it was just totally weird because they were on the ice, not on the sky. We thought we were going crazyit looked like someone was on this green, iridescent snow machine going 200 miles an hour across the ice. We were like, "Are you seeing what I'm seeing? Are we going nuts?"

It brought back all kinds of memories for me to see a movie about something I saw firsthand. It was just weird. Jim Harvey and some of the other guys that were that have kind of just been reminiscing about that time. It was surreal. And I was surprised that so many of my younger colleagues had never heard of the event—literally, the whole world was watching. So I think it's good that this movie is exposing a whole new generation to what really happened.

But that final push from the icebreaker when all the people were standing around on the ice cheering it on didn't happen that way. If people standing on that ice when the icebreaker was coming through like that, they would have all ended up in the water with the whales. It was a really dangerous situation. Actually, no one was on the ice when that happened. I was up in a helicopter when the icebreaker finally jammed through the wall of ice. I don't want to say it was an anti-climatic rescue, but it was definitely a safe rescue.

Most stories when a whale winds up on a beach don't end well. Even when researchers can pull that whale or that group of dolphins back out to sea, invariably they go to another beach and strand themselves again more often than not. But this one had a happy ending, or at least we can envision it had a happy ending.

When I saw Drew Barrymore jump into the water in the trailer, I wasn't expecting a lot. But I was pleasantly surprised. It was better overall than I expected, even though I'm a little disappointed that it didn't show NOAA. To be left out of the movie when we were really running the whole thing was a little disingenuous. I'm actually going to go and see it again and just view it from a feel-good movie standpoint.


Tags: Expert Opinion, Big Miracle

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