Ice Breaker Suite

Ice Breaker Suite

Among people the whales might count as best friends, citizens of the former Soviet Union have generally hovered near last place. Then, during the winter of 1985, they redeemed themselves, at least in the minds of about 3,000 beluga whales.

In late December a pod of migrating belugas (white whales) was chasing a shoal of cod near the Bering Sea. Unaware of the falling temperature, they lingered in the narrow Senyavina Strait too long. A brisk wind swept a wall of ice eleven miles wide and eighteen miles long into the passage, blocking their exit. There were only a few holes in the ice through which the whales could get to the surface to breathe.

Belugas are at home in ice—strewn waters of the far north. They routinely hunt or hide under shifting ice but, being sea mammals, must surface every twenty minutes or so for a gasp of air. Armed with a hard area on the back of its head that is covered with tough hide, the beluga can bash its way up through a four—inch thickness of ice. It has no dorsal fin to impede this ice—breaking trick, and a thick pad of blubber keeps it comfortable in the coldest waters. This ice cover was, unfortunately, up to twelve feet thick, far beyond the belugas' bashing ability. They were trapped!

When the ice—bound belugas were spotted by a native Chukohi hunter and his comrades, the hunters realized that this was too big a bonanza. If they took advantage of so generous a catch they would probably decimate the beluga population. Along with the villagers from the nearby settlement of Yandrakinot, the hunters decided to rescue rather than slaughter the whales.

Word of the trapped belugas reached Moscow, and soon helicopters brought marine mammalogists, reporters, and television crews to the scene. Local citizens dropped frozen fish to the whales and kept the airs holes open, but the plight of the whales continued to worsen as the winter became harsher and the ice began to close in. The thousands of fifteen— to twenty—foot adult white whales and their light gray young were packed so closely together that they had to take turns at the air holes. In typical whale parent behavior the adults would support the young as they gasped for air.

It was not until February 6, 1985, that the icebreaker Moskva could be diverted from its regular duty of keeping shipping lanes open in the Bering Sea and come to the rescue of several thousand desperate whales. Twice the captain ordered the ship back when a huge wall of ice presented too much danger to the vessel. Finally, on February 22, the Moskva successfully plowed through the ice and opened a channel seventy feet wide to the unfrozen sea ten miles away. All the whales needed to do was follow the Moskva through the channel.

But they wouldn't go! In the memory of generations of belugas, freedom could not be achieved in the wake of a Soviet ship. Their confusion and alarm were intensified by the noise and vibration of the ship's engine and propellers. They refused to follow the Moskva into the opened channel, which, incidentally, was beginning to freeze over. The crew of the Moskva tried to accustom the whales to the ship by throttling back the engines, and in the meantime they worked at enlarging the pools for them to breathe. It was all to no avail, for the wary belugas hid and played around the ship but still would not follow.

It appeared that the whales were determined to reject uncertain rescue in favor of death when one of the scientists had a brainstorm. He knew that whales were musical creatures, that the beluga repertoire includes sounds that resemble bird calls, dull groans, pig grunts, soprano screams, bull bellows, teeth being gritted, and, more melodiously, the resonant sounds of a flute, along with warbling, chirping, whistles, squeals, and bell tones. All together they may sound like an orchestra tuning up. In fact hearing is the dominant sense among whales, useful for communication, maneuvering among obstacles, spotting food, and guiding themselves through water.

The crew of the Moskva piped music over the loudspeakers. At first there were several false starts, even though a few whales did begin to follow the ship as jazz and popular music were being played. When the music shifted to classical, more followed, and finally, with classical musical pouring from loudspeakers, the whales all joined the audience and followed the ship through the channel into the sea and freedom.

Unfortunately no one thought to make a note of which reassuring strains of classical music moved the beluga whales to rise and follow. Was it a romantic Rachmaninoff sonata, a barbaric suite of Porkofiev, an iridescent ballet of Stravinskey, some sweet, sparkling, or joyous music of Tchaikovsky? Or was it some non—Russian, nonchauvinist tune that precipitated the parade of thousands of happy whales? Or did they simply play follow—the—leader, and any tune would be good music to escape by?

Somewhere in the world of belugas, while reminiscing over their musical preferences, they swam transfixed by the memory of an unidentified melody. To the whales this is the incomparable Ice—breaker Suite!

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth