“This is Campbell Plowden, Whale Campaign Coordinator for Greenpeace. I’d like to let you know that the Soviet Union is going to send two icebreakers to help clear a path for the whales trapped in Alaska.”
24 years ago Greenpeace found itself caught up in the midst of a Cold War drama, as the American and Soviet governments came together to rescue three gray whales trapped in the sea ice off the Alaskan coast. The amazing story has been transformed into the feature film ‘Big Miracle’ by Universal Studios, starring Drew Barrymore as a Greenpeace activist.
To get the inside story on what really happened we got in touch with Campbell Plowden, who, in 1988 was head of the Greenpeace USA Whales Campaign. In a fascinating extended account, Campbell, now working to protect the Amazon with Amazon Ecology describes one of the craziest weeks in his 14 years with Greenpeace, and puts the Alaskan drama in the context of a wider campaign to end Icelandic whaling.
“I realized on the spot that we had no choice about whether or not we wanted to accept this incident as a natural event or ignore it as a distraction. Dealing with it had just become our mandate; I had to give it my best shot and try to use the opportunity to also save a lot more whales around Iceland.”
While the movie focuses on Barrow Alaska, Campbell's account takes us behind the scenes. He describes how Greenpeace engaged the Soviet Union, and how we pressured the Reagan Administration to put the health of the whales ahead of national politics.
“President Reagan was not known for his love for the Soviet Union, and the idea of asking this Communist giant to send one or more of their ships into U.S. waters to help save whales seemed absurd. ” ... “Greenpeace, however, had its own channel into the Evil Empire”
The rescue ended up requiring the combined efforts of the Alaskan National Guard and Coast Guard, the Inuit community in Barrow Alaska, Greenpeace, oil company Veeco, the Reagan Administration and the Soviet Union.
If you’re planning to see the film - and don't want to know what happens in the story, be warned, Campbell's account contains plenty of spoilers.
Also: here's a video report from James, our man at the movie premiere: