When it Comes to Saving Whales, Who Doesn't Love a 'Miracle'?


I just saw Big Miracle.  The movie -- based on the 1988 rescue effort to save gray whales trapped by ice in the Arctic --  tugged at my heartstrings.  I laughed.  I cried.  And I was reminded of why I love my job so much. 

Big Miracle is based on true events: a gripping story set in Barrow, Alaska where people set aside their differences in an attempt to save three gray whales from drowning beneath rapidly forming Arctic ice.  It had a (mostly) happy ending, an inspirational storyline, and a profound message:  that the love for whales can unite even the most unlikely of allies.  Environmentalists, politicians, big oilmen, Inupiat whalers, the military, and the media suspended hostilities and worked together to save these three whales.  Even the Cold War began to thaw, when Russia sent an icebreaker to aid the rescue efforts.

More importantly, Big Miracle highlighted why people believe whales are worth saving.  As Greenpeace-activist Rachel (played by a parka-clad Drew Barrymore) said, “even though they’re strong and big and powerful, they’re vulnerable.”  The movie briefly touched on a number of ways whales are vulnerable to man-made dangers:

  • Hunting:  Although bowhead whales – not gray whales – are the usual target of native Inupiat hunters, the movie depicts whaling captains deciding whether or not to harvest the three trapped gray whales.  The whalers eventually decide to try and save the whales instead. (Sidebar: Before gray whales were protected by the International Whaling Commission’s 1986 ban on commercial whaling and the United States’ Marine Mammal Protection Act, they were hunted to near extinction.  Commercial whaling is currently illegal, although Japan, Norway and Iceland continue to ignore the ban.  The IWC does allow limited hunting for subsistence purposes.)
  • Entanglement:  In the movie, Rachel cuts off a net wrapped around the fluke of the littlest whale.  (Sidebar:  entanglement in fishing gear is one of the biggest threats facing marine mammals today.  There is a touching story of a humpback whale off the coast of California, entangled by 20 crab-pot ropes [240 feet long with weights every 60 feet] and 12 crab traps [weighing 90 pounds each].  The fishing gear was digging into the whale’s flesh and made surfacing to breathe difficult.  According to rescuers, when the whale was finally freed she swam to each of the rescue divers and nuzzled them in thanks.)
  • Ocean noise:  The movie depicts the whales panicking and fleeing to avoid the loud noise generated by the icebreaker. (Sidebar: man-made noise from seismic surveys, military sonar and shipping is truly drowning the oceans in sound.  Scientists have discovered that whales stop feeding, abandon habitat and cease vocalizing in response to seismic surveys.  Man-made noise can also cause death.)

(Spoiler alert) But like all good Hollywood movies, Big Miracle has a happy ending.  Two of the whales survive.  We see them swimming away – breaching and waving their flukes – presumably en route to their calving and breeding grounds off the coast of Baja, Mexico, one of NRDC’s BioGems.  (Another spoiler alert) Despite the heroic rescue, the whales were not spotted again and it’s unknown whether they survived their ordeal beneath the ice or succumbed to exhaustion.


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NRDC has been working for over 10 years to protect gray whales’ Baja calving grounds at Laguna San Ignacio

I’ll be visiting Laguna San Ignacio later this month.  From what I’m told, it’s a life-changing experience.  If I get the opportunity to look a gray whale in the eye, it will be my ‘Big Miracle’ and a reminder of why I and my colleagues work every day to protect these gentle giants.   

Fun Fact: Ted Danson, who plays the manipulative oil industry exec in Big Miracle, is actually a founding member and on the Board of Directors for Oceana. He is a long time ocean advocate.

Photo Credit: Drew Barrymore and her fiance Will Kopelman at the Big Miracle premiere, courtesy of Oceana; playful gray whales in Baja courtesy of NRDC; and the stunning Laguna San Ignacio, courtsey of Robert Glenn Ketchum.