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Media 'Miracle': The 'Big' Story Of Three Whales

Feb 4, 2012
Originally published on February 4, 2012 12:05 pm

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.


Interview Highlights

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."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

In October 1988, the big news was presidential politics. The race between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis was heading into its final weeks. But NBC's Tom Brokaw ended one "Nightly News" broadcast with a story about stranded whales in Barrow, Alaska. Turns out that was only the beginning. A dramatic whale rescue was about to captivate the world, thanks to news reports like this one from NPR's own Renee Montagne.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREENE: That 1988 story is the focus of a movie in theaters right now, starring Drew Barrymore. It's called "Big Miracle." The real miracle, though, is how this 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 people like President Ronald Reagan, might be say a lot about the power of TV and how drama can turn a story that doesn't seem all that important into gripping news.

Journalist and author Tom Rose wrote the book, "Big Miracle." He was among those in journalists assigned in 1988 to bundle up and head up to a remote outpost in Alaska to cover a whale rescue. And he joins us from Indianapolis.

Tom Rose, thanks for being here.

TOM ROSE: Thanks, David. Pleasure to be here.

GREENE: Well, set the scene for us if you can back in '88. I mean they're just so many elements that seem to come together to make this a story. These trapped whales weren't the kind that Native Alaskan Eskimos used to eat, so they weren't hunting them which allow them to survive. But kind of set the scene.

ROSE: These three gray whales were stranded off the coast of Barrow, Alaska; off Point Barrow which is the northern most point of Alaska...

GREENE: The top of the world, it seems like.

ROSE: Literally, I mean literally and figuratively about - I don't know - 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROSE: They waited, next thing you know they're stuck in the ice. It was a natural and normal cause of death for those kinds of whales. Anyway, as it happens, there was a guy out on the ice who managed to capture this on television. The images were so compelling that - to continue with his awful Arctic metaphor - the snowball grew in size and scope that if...

GREENE: You like the metaphors.

ROSE: There you go.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Well, we don't have the actual images but we do have some of the sort of compelling feel from the movie, "Big Miracle," that's out now that's based on your book. And I wanted to play one scene from it. This is a scene where a Native Alaskan fisherman is talking to an old 11-year-old boy, and telling him to put his ear up to the ice and listen to these whales.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BIG MIRACLE")

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALES)

: (as Malik) You hear them?

(SOUNDBITE OF A BABY WHALE)

: (as Malik) The mother is speaking to the little one. Her calls are calm, gentle. Oh, soothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF A WHALE)

GREENE: And, Tom Rose, these are obviously actors. But you wrote that the real drama unfolding was not under the ice but it was on top of it. It was the people.

ROSE: Oh, absolutely. 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 more of and about whales, had a greater love for whales than any of the environmentalists could have fathomed in a thousand lifetimes.

GREENE: And I suppose the environmentalists, this was a way to vindicate their view, that people care about animals and they really want to save them.

ROSE: Absolutely correct. And had it not been for a woman who's portrayed in the movie as Drew Barrymore, the real-life character of Cindy Lowery - she was the Alaska field rep for Greenpeace back of the time of this in the late 1980s - none of this would've happened.

GREENE: And so, let's actually play another bit of the movie. So, in this scene, John Krasinski plays the local reporter. He's with a whale rescue volunteer, played by Drew Barrymore. They're in a car and a network news reporter, played by Kristen Bell, is trying to hitch a ride with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BIG MIRACLE")

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

: (as Rachel Kramer) You don't care about the whales. You care about ratings.

: (as Jill Jerard) Yeah, the ratings are what's going to keep the rescue going, which is going to save the whales.

: (as Adam Carlson) She's right.

GREENE: You were one of the reporters up there. You were sent there by a Japanese television company. I mean were journalists fighting to get out there and capture these images for the right reasons? Did they feel like keeping the story going might save these whales? Was it all about ratings? What were the journalists thinking?

ROSE: It might've been all about ratings. But I guess David, who cares if the end result is served? I mean you couldn't help, let me put it this way - and I'm an admittedly cynical guy, now even back then.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROSE: You couldn't help but be moved by these creatures. The initial hole that was secured for these whales was no more than 10-11 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. I mean they were as close to you as the microphones are from you and me now. And it's hard not to identify with the majesty of a California grey 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, you know, and that in a way was what this whole episode was all about.

GREENE: Tom Rose is radio talk show host on Sirius-XM and he is the author of "Big Miracle." He joined us from Indianapolis. Tom, thanks for chatting.

ROSE: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.