If you love whales, you won’t want to miss Big Miracle (rated PG), in theaters February 3. It is a rescue adventure movie that tells the amazing true story of Adam, a small town news reporter (played by John Krasinski) and Rachel, a Greenpeace volunteer (played by Drew Barrymore) who work to save a family of majestic gray whales trapped by ice in the Arctic Circle. With time running out, Rachel and Adam must rally an unlikely coalition of Inuit natives, oil companies, and Russian and American military to free the whales.
We wanted to get the real story, so we interviewed Cindy Lowry, the REAL LIFE Greenpeace volunteer who was there and inspired Drew Barrymore’s character. She has a lot of amazing whale stories, plus insight into how we can protect animals today, so read on. . .
Q: Were you always interested in whales?
Cindy: One of the first times I saw whales was in California at Sea World. My first impression was, “Wow. This is like a really small pool for these large creatures to be in.” So there was something kind of unnatural about it for me. And then later when I was in Alaska, one of the issues I worked on was orcas, and at the time, Sea World was wanting to come up and capture orcas to take back to put in captivity. Alaskans really didn’t want that to happen, and I became involved with the state and some of the natives, and we made it so that didn’t happen. But yea, I’ve just always had the connection with whales. I was just always one of these little kids that my parents had a hard time getting out of the water. They said, “I think you’re half fish.” Maybe I was really half whale. [Laughter.]
Q: How close have you been to a whale?
Cindy: One of the issues I worked on was humpback whales in Glacier Bay, which is in southeast Alaska, and they come in the summer with their young where there’s also cruise ships and vessel traffic. So I used to go down there for like two weeks and set up a camp and watch the vessel-whale interaction. We worked with the National Park Service about setting up “whale waters.” It’s like a designated area of 5 or 10 miles where cruise ships have to reduce their speed going through, so they’re not disrupting the whales and their little ones that are around.
When I was in the kayak, humpbacks would be pretty close to us, and then on shore, orcas would also come in to that same area, and they came very close to the shore with their little youngsters. It was very, very funny to see them trying to corral the little ones to, you know, keep them in control because they were just kind of bouncing all over wanting to go different directions.
Q: Have you ever been splashed by a whale?
Cindy: The only time was during the rescue of the gray whales in Barrow. At that time, the Soviets were coming in with the icebreaker and they had come in a ways, so I think the whales could start smelling open water, and they were getting very excited. So I was kind of kneeling down on the ice, saying good-bye to them, and, you know, I just remember this one coming up and resting – I mean they’re so huge – I mean resting its head, and it came up and blew. I was totally like frosted from whale breath. [Laughter.] It was just so amazing, and I told them they were going home soon. It was this moment in time where I had the most amazing eye contact with that whale, and, in fact, I know they knew that they were going to be free soon. It was really an incredible experience.
My most favorite time of being with them was during the night because it was just two or three of us out there. All the media was back in Barrow. You know, they weren’t out there in the middle of the night usually, so it was the most peaceful time. It was just so quiet. The only thing that was making a sound was the generators keeping the holes open and the whales just using the different holes to swim back and forth. They’re such majestic creatures and they just touch my heart still, those whales. They went through so much to survive over that three-week period. I just saw the film yesterday . . . it just brings tears to my eyes seeing them.
Q: How much of the film is based on actual events and how much is embellished for Hollywood?
Cindy: Well yea, I mean it’s not a documentary, but the truth is definitely there and I think a lot of it is pretty representative of what happened. The thing that I came away with from the event and also the movie really conveys is how people of different viewpoints can set aside their agendas and work together, and amazing things can happen. It was just like once we were there and we saw the whales trapped, our whole focus was “we are getting them out of here,” you know? So it was just this really incredible period of time where people really just could set aside their differences and work for the greater good, getting these whales on their way home.
Q: Was that the best moment of your career so far?
Cindy: It really was. You know, I’ve had some really pretty amazing events in my life and that’s probably the top one. I mean I’ve also had some really wonderful experiences with wolves and keeping them safe for a few years. In Alaska now there is wolf control, which means the state does sanction people going out and shooting them from the air for predator control, and as we’ve said over the years, there’s absolutely no reason for predator control. I mean there’s plenty of moose and caribou for hunters and usually if there’s an issue with caribou and those numbers are down, it’s not because of wolves.
But they’re doing similar things with bears now as well. It’s not good, but I guess I’m the eternal optimist, so I’m always hopeful that we can turn things around. And I kind of go back to what my grandfather said. As a little girl, hunters would want to come through our farmland and hunt coyotes, and one time we just weren’t letting them come through. My grandfather said to me, “[Coyotes] have as much right to be here as we do.” You know, and that’s just in my heart and always has been and always will be.
Q: Have you ever been in a really dangerous situation?
Cindy: Yea, I’ve been kayaking across Glacier Bay and there have been some pretty hairy times with tidal rips and not knowing whether you were going to make it across.
During the whale rescue in Barrow there were some times with the helicopters going out. I mean it was so cold – it really was 30 below – and the helicopter, the propellers would start icing up. Something was going wrong and we had to turn around and come back and made, you know, some pretty hard landings.
The last night I was there that I was telling you about with the whales and the ice cutter was coming in and, you know, you’re like 12 miles out or whatever on the ice, so it’s pitch black except for this ice cutter coming, which looked like a sky scraper because it was all lit up, coming toward you. And I remember, we had walkie-talkies. Back then, there’s no cell phones. And I called in and he’s like, “Ok, I want you to get out of there because if they come in too close it will split the ice up.” But some reporter came from I don’t know where. We said, “Look, he should not go beyond this spotlight that we have set up because we’re really not sure where the water starts,” and he just ignored us and he went on out a ways and then all the sudden he turned back and he’s like, “I almost went in the water.”
Q: What are some of the issues affecting animals now?
Cindy: One of the whales that is still endangered is the North Atlantic right whale population. They’re in the Nantucket Sound area, and there’s only 300 left of that population. One of the issues I’ve worked on is the offshore wind power development in the Cape Cod and Nantucket Sound area. With any kind of offshore development, there’s so many things going on in the ocean with pollution and toxics and noise. Noise is a huge, huge factor right now with whale populations around the world. It can disrupt their migration. It can disrupt their vocalization between each other when they’re trying to get to places. We’ve had issues with the Navy over the years and with dolphins and their sonar. When the Navy does sonar tests, it has a huge, huge impact on marine mammals. I mean it’s affecting their hearing, and that’s a huge thing for them to use when they’re migrating.
We all want “green” development, but let’s make sure that these things are looked at. Let’s make sure they’re not in places that are going to harm migrations of mammals or birds or bats. Wind-power turbines are affecting bats. Well it’s the propellers that are used. That’s been an issue on the West Coast with land-based wind development with the Altamont Pass area with raptors and bats that are unfortunately running into those turbines. I think now some are shutting down for certain periods of time for migration. So, you know, they’re trying to reduce the effect of them.There’s a whole host of issues that folks need to look at. It’s not as simple as saying “green is always good,” you know?
Q: What do you think is the most pressing environmental issue today?
Cindy: I would definitely say it is loss of habitat whether that’s on land or in oceans, and it’s a little bit more tricky with oceans because it’s hard to see how they’re losing habitat, but it’s more of the toxins and things that are going into the oceans and like I was mentioning before the whole noise issue. And we know global warming is happening. In the early 80s when I was doing this work with Greenpeace, we were talking about climate change and global warming then, and now it’s really here. It’s at our back door, and I think even then I really didn’t think it would come this fast and it unfortunately has. So I think priority is really looking at those issues and coming up with really tried and true things that we can do to protect species while this is happening.
Q: What can kids do to prepare for a career in environmental advocacy?
Cindy: I think kids could get involved with different organizations, and whatever animal they’re interested in, you know, talk with folks about how to become involved. There are a lot of environmental groups. Earth Island Institute has been my home base for years and and I know they have volunteer opportunities. There are great organizations like Humane Society of the U.S. They have a whole marine mammal division as well. So they do really incredible work and I know that they can always use volunteers and I know that they have internships that they have up on the website.
As far as studying in college, you know, I think it would be Natural Resources Managament if they wanted like a broad type direction. If they wanted something more specific I think they could go into a Biology major or Oceanography.
Q: Do you have any advice for kids who want to become environmental advocates like you?
Cindy: Oh gosh, you know, the more we can have, the better because even more habitat is being lost. Whales and ocean marine mammals and land-based mammals, they’re just losing their homes and their habitats. The more kids that can grow up and be involved with things that I’ve been involved with and want to protect creatures and ecosystems, the better. We’re going to need a lot of folks out there. We need more planet Earth warriors out there. And it’s such a rewarding experience.
Are you inspired? How many of you want to grow up to help protect animals and their environments? Leave a Comment to let us know what you think.
Interview by Marie Morreale