They say music is the language of the soul, which is fitting given a pivotal soundtrack of classical music once saved the souls of roughly 2,000 beluga whales in the Chukchi Peninsula, the easternmost peninsula of Asia. Here, in 1985, an enormous herd of beluga whales was spotted by local residents, which was no doubt a pleasing sight at first given these animals were a rich source of nutrition for the community. However, it soon became apparent that all was not well as a turn in the weather had forged a 4-kilometer (2.5 miles) lump of thick ice that stood between the whales' air holes and the open ocean. They couldn’t swim this distance without running out of oxygen, and with few air holes for so many animals, it was clear action needed to be taken if they were to survive.
While the residents waited for a miracle, they kept the animals fed with frozen fish and maintained air holes by digging in the ice. However, with winter looming and conditions worsening this option would soon be taken away, sealing the whales’ fate under a thick layer of ice.
As luck would have it, Russia had just treated itself to a Finnish icebreaker, the largest and most powerful of its kind at the time. These ships do exactly as it says on the tin, carving through thick ice at high altitudes where normal boats cannot venture. One of its showiest onboard features was a diesel-electric power plant that was one of the most powerful of any ship in use at that time.
Russia enlisted the Moskva in the rescue mission to save the belugas, but it needed to act swiftly if they were to free them in time. When they arrived, the situation was worse than they had realized and the mission was called off by the ship’s captain. It seemed all was lost until, moved by the sight of so many perishing whales, the crew decided they had to act. As they began plowing into the ice, helicopters were dropping fish to try and sustain the whales still left alive.
Carving a route to the animals took several days but the Moskva eventually made it. Unfortunately, tired and traumatized by the ship the whales wouldn’t budge and couldn't be persuaded to follow the ship back out into open water. A crew member made the unusual suggestion that music could turn the rescue mission around, as they remembered hearing that whales react to music. Short on options, the Moskva temporarily became a speaker as it blared all kinds of music into the icy landscape. It was classical that proved to be the most effective beluga lure, causing them to approach the boat to investigate the melody, and so the Moskva steadily began herding the pod out of their icy prison.
“Our tactic is this: We back up, then advance again into the ice, make a passage, and wait,” Captain Kovalenko is reported to have said in radio transmission. “We repeat this several times. The belugas start to ‘understand’ our intentions and follow the icebreaker. Thus we move kilometer by kilometer.”
Like the Pied Piper and his rats, the Moskva’s melody was followed as it carved its way out of the ice by the discerning belugas. Around 2,000 animals are believed to have finally made it back to the open ocean by the end of February that same year. The lengthy mission is said to have cost Russia somewhere in the region of $200,000 all in all, but what's $100 for a beluga whale's life?