Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Big Miracle – Reality vs. Hollywood

Copyright Charles Mason, used by permission
I'm going to apologize right from the start. This is WAY long for a blog post, but I hope the readers will enjoy it enough to forgive me.

In October, 1988 one of the greatest media spectacles of our time took place. It didn’t take place on the national stage, it wasn’t the on-going presidential race between Dukakis and Bush. It wasn’t Reagan’s decision to tear down the U.S. embassy building in Moscow because of built in bugging devices. No, it was what should have been a non-event that took place in Barrow, Alaska.

Last Friday a movie titled “Big Miracle” opened nationwide. The movie announces proudly, it is “based on an inspiring true story.” The inspiration is the book by Tom Rose, “Saving the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event,” which was originally published in 1989. In 1988, Rose was a news reporter for a Japanese television network, and was part of the news army that descended on Barrow to cover the story of the whales. (The original book was edited a little and re-released with the title changed to “Big Miracle” prior to the release of the movie.)

Call me a cynic, but whenever Hollywood uses the words “based on” or “inspired by” in the promotion of a film, I suffer a nervous twitch.

Milton Hershey started making chocolate in 1894. The most famous Hershey’s product is wrapped in foil. Kids love chocolate. Hershey Company has had many promotional events during the life of the company. Given that information, and given Hollywood’s propensity to stretch facts, it’s surprising “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory” didn’t get a “based on” billing.

Alaskans followed the story not so much for what occurred, but because we all wondered why such a fuss was being made. Mother Nature is matron with a hardened heart, especially in the arctic. Whales, particularly gray whales, get trapped in the ice and perish all the time. Most of my acquaintances followed the circus with both incredulity and laughter. The entire situation developed into a comical frenzy of who could do what, and the most of it. It was that humorous aspect which prompted me to write the following poem based on the daily reports. I have added italic text in parentheses between stanzas to clarify certain items.

Copyright Charles Mason, used by permission
Gray Whales

An Inuit whaler from Barrow
Found three whales stuck in a hole.
“No big deal,” was all he’d say,
“They aren’t bowheads... they’re only grays.”
But word got out, and pretty soon
A full-scale rescue was in bloom.
Got a hot tip for NBC
Gonna go out and save a whale or three.
Tell me, what kind of flakes are these,
Stompin’ around on our frozen seas?
It’s a Green Peace rep with a camera crew!
Gonna go out and film a whale for you.
(The whales were originally discovered by a whale hunter from Barrow who was looking for a path over the ice to continue hunting bowhead whales. The whaling season had been cut short due to unseasonably bad weather in 1988, leaving three harvest tickets unfilled. The Inuit don’t hunt gray whales, vastly preferring the bowhead whale.)

Copyright Charles Mason, used by permission
Three lost whales in the arctic sea
Gonna be saved by the oil comp’nies.
Call for help!  Get the National Guard!
Hey!  VECO’s got an ice bustin’ barge!
Industry cares, you know it’s true
They’ll save the whales for me and you.
No expense too great; no step too far.
It’s the right thing to do!  (And damn good PR!)
Modern technology will save the day
The Archimedean Screw will clear the way.
They’ll take it apart, and airlift it in
But never get it back together again.
(In today’s vernacular, once the story went viral, there wasn’t anything anybody wouldn’t do to save the whales. The oil companies, constantly under fire from environmental groups, saw it as an opportunity to show that they did, indeed, care about the environment. The Archimedean Screw Tractor – also called “The Beast” – was an eleven-ton monster with screwed pontoons to chew through the ice. Theoretically, it was going to chew a path through the ice to the open water. The Air Force, under congressional pressure, diverted a C-5A Galaxy from its mission to Japan to airlift The Beast from Prudhoe Bay to Barrow. The contraption was disassembled for transport, and difficulties were encountered reassembling it. Ultimately, it was demonstrated, but never used. I have no idea what happened to it.)

The barge broke down, they can’t get through
One whale’s dead, so that leaves two.
The news folks think that this is great
Suspense will build for the next update.
There hardly is a newsman alive
That can keep the gleam from his eyes,
As he remembers the slow news days
Before there were these whales to save.
The Daily News and the London Times:
They’ve got reporters standing in line.
Everyone wants to save the whales
And sell more papers with the tale.
(VECO, an oil industry support company, offered the use of a huge ice smashing barge located in Prudhoe Bay – Prudhoe has all the neat toys. The issue was how to get it to Barrow. Enter the Alaska National Guard, who attempted to drag it across the 230 miles using Skycrane helicopters. They made it six miles out of Prudhoe before the barge became irretrievably stuck. In the mean time, a horde of reporters had descended on Barrow.)

It’s the strangest sight you ever could see:
Chainsawin’ Eskimos settin’ whales free!
Cuttin’ air holes so the whales can breathe,
But the stupid whales don’t want to leave.
Barrow’s not a normal port of call,
But the Russians don’t seem to mind at all
They’ll send an icebreaker to save the day
(And log radar sites along the way).
The channel’s cut, the whales are through
Green Peace is happy, and I am too.
Happy to see this circus end,
Good-bye gray whales!  Don’t come again!
(A more incongruous sight than Inuit whalers using chainsaws to cut air holes for whales couldn’t be dreamed up. There are no trees within a hundred miles of Barrow, and the Inuit understand the course of nature. The chainsaws were shipped up from Portland, Oregon by a dealer. They were the biggest model Husqvarna, with a six-horsepower engine, and up to a sixty-inch bar – not something commonly found laying around the average Barrow household. As far as Russian involvement was concerned, most folks were skeptical about letting them buzz right in. This was still a period of extreme distrust for anything Russian. Many thought the icebreaker offer was simply a ploy to do a little spying.)

Copyright Charles Mason, used with permission
So, with all that being said, have I seen the movie, and did I like it? Yeah, actually, it was enjoyable fluff –  with the exception of the urge to vomit every time the whales were called Fred, Wilma and Bam-Bam. The movie portrays the whales as a family group… how sweet: mom, dad and baby. In truth, all three of the whales were juveniles, the smallest being a yearling (called Bam-Bam in the movie, and Bone in real life). There is also the incredibly nagging question of why Drew Barrymore’s character had a scuba suit readily available. “And you dragged scuba gear out onto the frozen ocean because…” Ah, Hollywood. Never let reality get in the way of a story that might sell tickets. I’m not sure the movie did Rose’s book full justice.

I would like to thank Charles Mason, the photographer who took the pictures used in this post, for allowing me the use of his photos. Mr. Mason is a photojournalism professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. He was a photographer for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner at the time of the rescue and went to Barrow on contract with a photography agency.


  1. I wasn't sure where to post this comment, but since this was the post that led me to my introduction to your writing, it seemed as good as any ... I trust you will see it, despite this blog entry being 4+ years old and your last entry being 2+ months ago.

  2. Bottom line - I have just spent the last couple of hours "getting to know you" by reading many of your posts here and have been so amused that I purchased your books on Amazon. Btw, you should know that someone else has ripped off your title recently.

  3. I love your sense of humor, can empathize with your writer's block - it has to flow out of your fingers on to the page as a stream of consciousness or it can be a slog - and have very much enjoyed reading about your move etc. I look forward to the books and will certainty check in here to see how you're doing.

    Btw, my wife and I just experienced Alaska, only the East via an inside passage cruise, for the very first time last June and very much look forward to seeing more of the state on future trips.


  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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