National Guard MSgt. Jimmie D. Basnight turned his back to the subzero Arctic wind and leaned toward the three whales straining to surface through a hole in the ice. "We're trying, guys," he shouted. "That's all I can tell you. We're really trying."

Were we ever. October's utterly unprecedented and incalculably expensive effort to rescue the trio of stranded whales of Point Barrow, Alaska, might sound like an outlandish fish story, except that it's about the ones that didn't get away, they're mammals, and it's true.

Eskimo whale hunter Roy Ahmaogak had no inkling of what he was setting in motion when he reported spotting three California gray whales trapped in frozen seas near Point Barrow back on Oct. 7. He merely mentioned his find to a borough employee, who reported it to a biologist, who reported it to a reporter. Local TV footage of the whales struggling against the encircling ice, bashing their bloodied heads again and again on the jagged edges and gasping for breath quickly found its way onto the network news. The pathetic scene pierced the human heart like a harpoon. Not since little Jessica McClure slid down a Texas well (see Cover story p. 146) had the world been so captivated by a struggle for life.

The trio of whales had apparently tarried too long before heading off on their species' winter migration from the Arctic Ocean to Mexican waters, and an early freeze had trapped them in an icebound lagoon four miles short of open water. Needing to surface every four minutes for air, they clustered beneath the only hole they could find.

Enter humanity. Inupiat Eskimos from Barrow, 18 miles to the southwest, snowmobiled to the scene. Using ice chisels and, later, chain saws, they worked night and day to keep the hole open. Meanwhile the environmental group Greenpeace beseeched Washington for government help and found unlikely allies in the private sector. One of them, Veco Inc., an Alaska oilfield service company, offered to provide its hover barge, an 80-foot, $3 million ice-breaking contraption. Veco asked the energy giant Arco for help, and Arco asked Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who asked the Pentagon. Everybody said yes, right up to President Reagan, who phoned National Guard Col. Tom Carroll to say, "Anything that we can say or do to help you along with the success of the operation, we'd be pleased to do it."

Anything. Two giant Sky-crane helicopters were pressed into service to try to drag the Veco barge 230 miles from Prudhoe Bay. When that failed—the ponderous icebreaker was stuck in ice and mud—one of the choppers began dropping a 10,000-pound concrete-and-steel battering ram to punch 24-foot holes through the ice, starting at the far end of the whales' four-mile path to freedom, so as not to alarm them. A C5-A transport, the Air Force's largest, airlifted in an Archimedean screw tractor—a 10.8-ton, $650,000 amphibious ice-chewing machine that grinds forward on rotating pontoons. And the State Department approved the Soviet Union's offer to send two icebreakers. They finally played the role of the cavalry charging to the rescue, clearing a path by which the whales might swim free.

But all this took time. "Those beautiful animals are trapped out there, and you just can't walk away," said Basnight earlier in the week. The holes in the ice were slushing over and starting to freeze as fast as the oil-field workers and Eskimo whalers could cut them. "If we don't do something now, we'll be out of business by tomorrow morning," lamented North Slope biologist Tom Albert. "A nighttime freeze-up, and we've got dead whales."

But Albert hadn't counted on Greg Ferrian, 32, and Rick Skluzacek, 28. No one had. The brothers-in-law flew up uninvited from Lake St. Croix, Minn., after Greg saw the whales on the news. "I knew what we had," says Greg, "and I knew that what we had was something they needed." What they had was their family firm's Kasco Marine bubbling deicers, $400 electric fan-like devices that, when lowered into the sea, churned warmer water up from below to prevent ice from forming. The Minnesotans got to work at 10:30 Wednesday night with just two of the machines. By early Thursday morning, the slush was gone.

By Friday afternoon, two dozen Eskimo laborers, being paid $15 an hour by the Barrow government, had cut a string of 24 rectangular holes stretching half a mile toward the open channel. They worked almost nonstop, pausing only to replenish their energy with a stew of bowhead whalemeat. (The local Eskimos legally harvested 11 bowheads this year. They seldom hunt the 21,000 California grays, whose skin and blubber are considered unappetizing.) At 6 p.m. Standard Oil whale biologist Mark Fraker, 43, was standing near the whales' primary breathing hole when he saw the animals disappear into the dark water. They emerged through a hole half way down the line, then sank from sight again. Finally they came up through the last hole. "We all started slapping each other on the back and cheering," says Fraker. "Man, oh, man, was it a high." The celebration was short-lived. The smallest of the whales, a yearling called Bone by the biologists and Kanik (Snowflake) by the Eskimos, had disappeared beneath the ice for good.

Rick Skluzacek didn't want to believe that Bone was dead. "We've been getting something accomplished," he said firmly. "And even if it is true, I'm not going to let it affect me, because we've got too much work to do."

As the work dragged past its second week, those who know whales best began to question its purpose. David With-row, a biologist who flew up from the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, suggested that the three young whales might have been trapped far from open water precisely because their species was flourishing and there was no room for them in their normal habitat. In that case, he said, "it would be appropriate for nature to remove these animals from the general population, if the environment can't support them." Biologists say dozens of California grays probably perish just this way every year; they simply do it farther offshore, where people don't see them.

In fact, some Alaskans pointed out, there is a lot of suffering that people don't see. An Anchorage newspaper columnist wondered why there had been no phone calls from President Reagan during last June's frantic search for seven hunters lost at sea. And Patsy Nusunginya Aamodt, a Barrow educator, lamented the absence of a comparable outpouring of compassion when three of her young cousins died in a house fire in Barrow on Oct. 20. "Our people are saying, 'What's so special about these whales?' " she said. " 'Why the big deal?' "

And yet even as he grieved for the children, her husband, Mike, kept cutting ice and shoveling slush, trying to rescue the whales. "It's kind of personal now," he said. "We can identify them, and we've become attached."

People are like that. It may be an instinct; it is what makes us human. And if there was anything to lament in the colossal effort to save the whales, it was not that we care too much for another species, but that too often we care too little for our own.

—James S. Kunen, and Maria Wilhelm in Barrow