"The Russians have conquered America!" shouted Delbert Rexford, 33, an Eskimo whaler, as townspeople on snowmobiles waved a red Soviet flag and watched the icebreaker's progress. "Bon voyage to the whales."
But then, apparently reluctant to leave the sliver of ice where they have been surrounded daily by solicitous humans, the whales stopped moving toward a large opening the ships had cut in an ice ridge and open water on the far side.
At nightfall, the battered animals were swimming in the ice-filled trench
cut by the icebreaker only about half a mile beyond the last hole dug for them by the Eskimo crews with chainsaws but about two miles from the ice wall.
"It would have been nice to see them swim off into the sunset, but they have made a quantum jump," said rescue coordinator Ron Morris. "I think the job's done. I think we'll wake up in the morning and the whales will be gone. But conceivably, they could hang around for a few days before heading out to open sea."
The Soviet icebreakers continued last night to work to clear ice rubble
from the path it had cut.
Earlier in the day, the Eskimos who had worked with chainsaws and wooden poles to open a long succession of air holes for the whales watched from the snow-covered shore as the icebreaker cut its way very slowly to within about 300 yards of where the whales were bobbing impatiently in the last of a long line of holes cut by Eskimos.
As the icebreaker began to back away from its newly cut pathway, the whales dove beneath the ice and surfaced in the newly opened channel.
"They're on their way," said biologist Jim Harvey of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
U.S. scientists who had organized the rescue effort, only to be upstaged by the business-like crew of the Soviet icebreaker, followed the whales in a helicopter overhead.
"This is such a relief - it's great," sighed Marie Adams, an Inupiat Eskimo who had been one of the first people to aid the whales after they were found trapped in the ice on Oct. 8.
She and her husband, Geoff Carroll, a wildlife specialist with the North Slope Borough, had helped keep the original airhole open before the whales' plight attracted worldwide attention.
"We've been going without lunch for quite a while; it will be nice for our lives to get back to normal again," she said.
But before normalcy, an unprecedented party was planned for tonight. The residents of Barrow invited the Soviets to a celebration in the shadow of the Distant Early Warning station here, built when the only Russians expected here were military invaders.
President Reagan sent a congratulatory message to the North Slope Borough Mayor George Ahmaogak.
The icebreaker, with its larger companion vessel, the Admiral Makarov, had worked through the night to break through a "pressure ridge" of ice that blocked the whales' path about four miles from where they waited in an Eskimo- cut air hole.
Yesterday, the shallower-draft Arsenev twice plowed channels into the ice shelf that held the whales captive. The second time, the ship came close enough to cut a path that proved irrestibile to the mammals.
The whales followed the icebreaker out through the imposing pressure ridge, a wall of ice about 35 feet high. After passing through the ridge, the whales are expected to swim through wide, clear channels in an ice-covered sea before reaching open seas 220 miles away. Then they resume their long-delayed migration to warm waters off Baja California, Mexico. The whales normally travel about 80 miles a day.
The biologists here predicted the whales would be able to complete the trip without again becoming stuck in the rapidly freezing waters of the Arctic Ocean.
"The only thing we could guarantee was to save them from an icy grave here, and we did that," said Alaska National Guard Col. Tom Carroll.
"Not only did this catch the imagination of the world, but it focused all that attention on people working together to do something that was positive. You can't help but people totally happy with how this has worked out."
As they waited for the Arsenev to make its last assault on the ice, the Eskimos of Barrow rode out to the ship on snowmobiles to engage in some impromptu bartering.
The Soviet crewmen aboard the ship, about 30 feet above the ice, tossed Lenin pins and Soviet coins to the townspeople, who tossed mittens containing U.S. coins back up to the crewmen.
"I threw my hat up to them," laughed Alfred Brower, one of the town's whalers. "I wanted to trade it for one of theirs. One of them caught it, looked it over and threw it back."
"I'm sort of sorry to see the whales go," said whaler Rexford. "I hadn't been working and I could use the money (local residents were being paid $15.72 an hour by the local government to cut the air holes). But we wish them good luck."