From Chapter 1: The Hunt
The bitter weather came early along Alaska's North Slope in September 1988. The Siberian air that rolled in brought high winds and unseasonable cold. In one week, the average temperature went from ten degrees above to twenty degrees below zero. An unusually strong rim of ice formed along the shore, sealing off America's northernmost coastline from the ﬁerce Arctic Ocean.
Most of the thousands of whales that feed in these waters began to migrate south a few weeks early. Three young California gray whales did not. Two adolescents and one yearling did not sense the ice closing in overhead. Had they known what was in store, they obviously would have joined the others. Instead, they continued to feed on the tasty crustaceans that lined the endless ocean bottom.
These whales were in no hurry to leave. Why should they be? Their food supply was as limitless as their appetites were voracious; they faced no dangers of which they were aware. Besides, once they left these rich feeding grounds for their winter, warmer home off Baja, California, they wouldn't eat again until they returned to Alaska the following spring — ﬁve months later. By then they would have completed a 9,000-mile round-trip, the longest migration of any mammal in the world. That's a long time for an eating machine to fast.
Migration meant confrontation. Killer whales, great white sharks, and many other predators feed on young grays because it is their youth that makes them such easy pickings. These uninitiated gray whales would soon be provided a ﬁrst-rate education in the real world of Arctic survival.
The whales heedlessly rolled on their sides to suck the shrimplike amphipods from the seabed just a few hundred feet off Point Barrow, a narrow sandspit ﬁve miles long. It was the very tip of North America. Four miles to the southwest stood Barrow, the largest, oldest, and farthest northern Eskimo settlement on the globe. At any other time at any other spot on the Arctic coast of Alaska, the whales would have drowned unnoticed under the ice.
In just a few short weeks, a strong case can be made that these three creatures would become the luckiest animals in all history; the recipients of unprecedented assistance from an alien species. The ﬁrst of their kind before or since to be spared — at least as far as we know — the fate that had doomed all the others. They would not drown like other stranded whales; they would not be reduced to Japanese beauty products or Russian ice cream by high- tech factory ships; nor, at least for now, would they end up as local Inuit dinners, as the Inuits took advantage of unﬁlled whaling quotas.
After each spring thaw, carcasses of young whales almost littered Alaska's Arctic coast. The locals who found them months after their deaths every year knew the most probable cause of death was drowning because nearly all the carcasses were of young or even infant grays. Lest a tear be shed in vain, one can rest assured that these dead did not die in vain. Nothing in nature ever does. They were an important element all the way up and down the Arctic food chain.
These three whales occasionally stopped eating to scratch their ungainly snouts on the gravelly bottom for relief from the whale lice and barnacles infesting their skin. Ironically, it was these itchy pests that would deliver them from the ﬁrst of many death traps they would encounter over the next several months.
Since time immemorial, local Inuits (they used to call themselves Eskimos — and did not take offense when others did, too) built an entire subsistence civilization around the whale upon whom they depended for survival. Over the centuries, they acquired a taste for the much tastier bowhead whale. The bowhead's clean, glossy sleek skin made far better eating than the unsightly and unappetizing California gray.
While the barnacles annoyed these three grays, the tiny pests were nothing compared to one local Eskimo hunter. Despite a ﬁve-foot-three-inch frame, his prowess as a whaling captain earned him the nickname Malik, which, in his Inupiat language, means "Little Big Man." He spent most of his sixty-odd years roaming the always oscillating ice shelf off Point Barrow in search of the bowhead. Most older Eskimos, like many other peoples only recently introduced to the Western calendar, can't tell you exactly how old they are.
Until recently, whales were the only food source plentiful enough to feed all the people who lived at the frozen and forlorn top of the world. The bounty from a typical sixty-foot bowhead whale could feed a standard-size Inuit village for an average year. Outsiders called Malik's job "subsistence whaling." But one man's subsistence whaler is another man's cowboy.
From Big Miracle by Tom Rose. Copyright 2011 by Tom Rose. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.