Oct 7, 1988 CE: Operation Breakthrough

Oct 7, 1988 CE: Operation Breakthrough

On October 7, 1988, a hunter reported three gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) trapped in pack ice near Point Barrow, Alaska, United States. The rescue effort that followed, nicknamed “Operation Breakthrough,” involved regional, national, and international cooperation.


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On October 7, 1988, a hunter reported three gray whales (Eschrichtius robustustrapped in pack ice near Point Barrow, Alaska, United States. He immediately used a chainsaw to enlarge holes in the ice so the whales (all juveniles) could breathe more easily. The ice was too thick for him to cut a path to the open sea of the Arctic Ocean, however.

The rescue operation to free the three whales—given the Inupiat names Putu, Siku, and Kanik—was called “Operation Breakthrough.” Operation Breakthrough was ultimately a million-dollar effort that involved cooperation between regional, national, and international organizations. Members of Operation Breakthrough included the indigenous Inupiat communities of northern Alaska, oil companies drilling in Alaska’s North Slope region, the Alaska National Guard, the U.S. government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Greenpeace, and even the Soviet Union.

Operation Breakthrough may have worked, although the smallest, weakest whale (Kanik) died before the Soviet icebreakers cleared a path to the ocean. Radio tags were not attached to Putu and Siku, and they were not seen entering the ocean. Many observers assume the whales swam there.

Scientists were skeptical of Operation Breakthrough. “Speaking strictly from a biological standpoint, (a rescue) doesn't make sense,” said one marine biologist. “That's natural mortality. The ones that make mistakes, the ones that are weaker, are the first that are going to die. And there is a reason for that. That's what keeps the population strong.”

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National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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