The movie Big Miracle and what I witnessed in real life, part 13: harpooner Malik walks with the whales, then says goodbye
The next morning, the icebreakers waited just beyond the pressure ridges that blocked the way to the open lead. The whalers went out to cut one last, big, extra long hole about four miles from shore where the whales could wait as the breakers cut a gap through the ridges. There were now 250 media people in Barrow and many of them found their way to the holes. Many sightseers had also come out and there was a great deal of whale patting going on.
Perhaps because I had been averaging about 21 hour days, my mind went into overload phase out and I lost my desire to photograph all that action. There was too much of it - but there was one man I wanted to get connecting with the whales - Malik, the Little Big Man, perhaps the most successful Iñupiat harpooner of modern times. Malik, the man who had so often stopped to speak to the whales as he had helped lead them from their original hole to this point. I had a gut feeling that something exceptional was going to happen out here between Malik and the whales.
Ron Morris ordered everyone but the chainsaw crew to leave the ice and go to shore as the whalers worked on the final hole. Soon, the whalers would have to leave as well - once the icebreakers began to cut into the ridge, the ice would become too dangerous to be on. For as long as the whalers remained, I had to stay. I had to be there when Malik said goodbye to the whales.
So, as everyone else but the whalers began to leave the ice, I stayed put. The crowd left, but most members of the media lingered for as long as they could. Then the order became specific - media, leave the ice! The media all began to leave, but I stayed put. They hadn't gone far before one of them looked back and spotted me standing there with my cameras and bag. He turned around. Then they all turned around and started back,
The order for media to leave came again. Again they left, again I stayed, again I was spotted and again they came back. "Bill," Arnold Brower Jr. told me. "I'm afraid you're going to have to leave, too. Everytime those other guys start to leave, they see you and come back." So I made like I was going to leave, but shortly after all the media had turned shoreward, I stashed my camera bag behind a snow machine where they could not see it. I had been wearing a beaver hat throughout the rescue and had seldom pulled up the hood to my parka. Now I pulled the hood up, I picked up a chainsaw and, keeping my back to the media, I walked towards the whale hole. If any turned around and spotted me now, I hoped they would think I was a member of the crew.
It worked. The media vanished. I stayed with the crew. Soon, the job was done. Most of the crew then left, but Malik and a few others lingered. Soon, a whale rose - Malik reached out to pat it, even as it blew. The man standing closest to Malik and the whale is Mayor George Ahmaogak; behind him, Johnny Brower and Alfred Brower. I am unsure who the man at the end is.
Ron Morris was now far away, of no worry to me.
Mayor Ahmaogak carried a hand-held radio and was communicating with all parties and staying informed about the status of the icebreakers. "The Russians are coming. We've all got to go now," he finally said. So he and all the hunters, save one, turned and left. It was Malik who stayed. I knew I would be safe on the ice as long as I was with Malik. The picture I knew was coming had not yet happened. So I stayed with him. When Crossbeak rose, he was there to greet it.
Malik walks alongside the whale, talks to the whale.
Together, they move farther along. Malik never ceases his conversation. He speaks Iñupiaq. His voice is calm, quiet.
Malik and whale reach the end of the hole.
Malik and whale.
They turn, and start to come back. Now Malik walks and talks with both whales.
Malik says goodbye.
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