In October 1988, the big news was presidential politics — the race between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis was in its final weeks — but a dramatic whale rescue was about to captivate the world. This story is the focus of a movie now in theaters starring Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski.
It's called Big Miracle, and the real miracle might be how this event became a story at all. The fact that three whales could draw a media horde to frigid Alaska — not to mention grab the attention of President Ronald Reagan — might say a lot about the power of television and how drama can turn a story that doesn't seem all that important into gripping news.
Journalist Tom Rose was among the journalists assigned to bundle up and head to a remote outpost in Barrow, Alaska, to cover the whale rescue in 1988. He authored the 1989 book Freeing the Whales that inspired Big Miracle. He talks with NPR's David Greene about the events that unfolded both above and below the ice.
On how the three gray whales got stuck
"Most of whales that are meant to survive end up getting on their way to their summer breeding grounds a lot earlier than the middle of October. These three, for some unknown reason, were stuck — ended up perhaps feeding too long. There was a baby among them. Perhaps the baby didn't have — you'll pardon the pun — his or her sea legs. They waited, and the next thing you know, they're stuck in the ice.
On how these whales got attention
"It was a natural and normal cause of death for those kinds of whales [to get trapped in the ice]. Anyway, as it happens, there was a guy out on the ice who managed to capture this ... on a TV camera that he had. The images were so compelling that — to continue with this awful arctic metaphor — the snowball grew in size and scope."
On the human drama happening above the ice
"Everybody came to this story with their own preconceived notions about what was good or bad with the world. The environmentalist lobby had battled bitterly with commercial fishermen in the southern part of Alaska, in the rich commercial fishing grounds. They battled ferociously with whaling communities on the Arctic fringe of Alaska. Yet here, the subsistence whaling communities needed the environmentalists to help them make their case to the gathering media hordes that these were not bloodthirsty whale murderers — that they were subsistence hunters who knew more about whales, respected ... whales, had a greater love for whales than any of the environmentalists could've fathomed in 1,000 lifetimes."
On the role played by environmentalists
"Had it not been for a woman who's portrayed in the movie [by] Drew Barrymore, the real-life character Cindy Lowry — she was the Alaska field rep for Greenpeace back at the time of this in the late 1980s — none of this would've happened."
On the various motivations for covering the story
"It might've been all about ratings, but I guess, who cares, if the end result is served? Let me put it this way — and I'm an admittedly cynical guy, even back then — you couldn't help but be moved by these creatures. The initial hole that was secured for these whales was no more than 10 or 11 feet long, six or seven feet across. So when they came up, and they had to take turns coming up to breathe, you literally could touch them ... And it's hard not to identify with the majesty of a California gray whale when you're in that kind of constant proximity to them.
"So, again, intentions ... who knows? I can't judge anybody's intentions. But at the end of the day, folks were brought together who otherwise never would've come together."