The clouds parted and the black surface of the Arctic Ocean came into view.
Before the plane stretched the long corridor of water opened by the vessels, flanked on either side by fractured pieces of floating ice.
"What the hell is
that?"one of the flight engineers suddenly said. He pointed toward the sea roughly half the distance to the horizon.
Then the others saw it: a distortion in the surface. Seconds later, the sea itself rose up, flicking along its
-- fromMeltdownMay 6
66 degrees 36' N. Lat.; 81 degrees 30' W. Long.
Foxe Basin, Arctic Ocean
Below her, the ice was breathing.
Carol Harmon pulled her snow goggles down around her throat, adjusted the hood of her jacket, and tried to hold the syringe steady against the bite of the wind. Her fingers trembled not from cold, fear, or the ungainly size of the syringe, but from the awe of her magnificent trespass. The forty-gauge needle in her hand was as thick as a pencil and the plunger could draw nearly a pint of blood.
Carol shut her eyes for a moment, balancing, relaxing. She could hear the thin rasp of her own breath sliding through her throat in a shallow, steady rhythm, then see the vapor whisked away in air that was not quite twenty degrees Fahrenheit. In, out. In, out. A moment later, as if performing a gigantic mimic of this gesture, the ice moved with the gentle respiration of the whale beneath her.
She felt like a flea on the back of some immense dog, which she very nearly was. The trapped whale had been discovered only hours earlier during an acoustical survey conducted by the U.S. research vesselPhoenix
a stone's throw inside the Arctic Circle. The ice, a floe the size of two football fields, obscured the exact size of this whale, its species, or even its sex. So far, the crew had exposed only four square feet of the animal's thick, blubbery hide.
Chipping down through more than three feet of solid ice, Carol and one of her technicians eventually managed to extend the opening forward, clearing a larger area around the whale's blowhole. Then, moving back and following some trial-and-error searching, other members of the research team opened another hole to expose the smallish dorsal fin at the base of the tail. An elongated ridge along the animal's spine gave the first indication that it might be aBalaenoptera musculus,
a blue whale, the largest animal the earth has ever known. The prospect made Carol's heart race. From the distance between the two openings, Carol could estimate that the magnificent animal was also among the largest ever viewed in such suspended animation.
The impromptu landing party had been so preoccupied by the discovery that they had not even thought to look more closely at their surroundings. Then a radio call from thePhoenix
--moored to the edge of the ice and nearly eighty feet above it at bridge level--reported more animals trapped by the same floe. Four more whales were discovered over the next hour, all of themBalaenoptera.
Unbelievable for many species, but especially so for the non-gregariousBalaenoptera,
a pod of five animals had been assembled here, all adhered to the same piece of drifting ice. Individually or frozen together to form enormous accretions, such floating ice masses provided ephemeral islands and bridges for polar bear more >>