Cindy Lowry is an American environmental activist and the former executive director of Greenpeace in Alaska who has dedicated more than 25 years to protect marine wildlife and the marine environment. She is also the founder of Oceans Public Trust Initiative, developed out of a concern over the rapid expansion of offshore renewable energy development, as well as oil and gas.
Back in September 1988, she played the lead role in the rescue of Gray Whales trapped in the ice off the coast of Barrow, Alaska, and is the inspiration behind Drew Barrymore’s Greenpeace activist character, Rachel Kramer, in the new family film Big Miracle.
We spoke to her about meeting and bonding with Barrymore, as well as events leading up to the dramatic global rescue, as well as what issue she finds most pressing.
What were your first thoughts when you were told the events of September 1988 were going to be made into a feature film?
Cindy Lowry: I was really excited. They seemed very interested in my perspective of the event. Knowing they had picked Drew Barrymore to play me was great – I just couldn’t think of a better person, such a great actor and also just really down-to-earth as I am. She is also passionate about the issues she cares about. So I thought this was like a great opportunity.
Even thought Drew’s character is very much based on you, why is she called Rachel in this?
Cindy Lowry: I guess it’s just part of the creative licence that the movie companies take because it’s not a documentary. I know they could have used my name – I gave them the rights to do that.
Can you describe what it was like first meeting Drew, and how you helped her get into the part?
Cindy Lowry: We first met in New York and for whatever reason we just had this instant bonding. We just started talking immediately; at first I think she wanted to get my voice down and just talk about experiences – she had her iPhone and she was recording my voice for a while. It was over several hours as we were just walking New York together, and we just connected in a great way. She and I are both dog people so we talked about our dogs, and not just about the whale rescue – I spent ten years in Alaska with Greenpeace and so many other years with other projects. We talked about how I approach issues and my internal playbook that I use when I approach issues, and how I take some of these things on. She wanted me to come out to California later that summer and spend time with her at her home. We got along so well – she set aside the tape recorder thing. We just spent time together.
Then we went up to Alaska together – I was there for about three weeks. The first few days we really spent a lot of time together walking around where I used to live then I took her to some of my favourite places out in the wilds of Alaska to hike – she had one of her dogs with her at the time. It was fun. I think it really helped that we connected on such a deep level and just talked about life issues as well, childhood and things like that. We had a lot of similarities.
Cindy Lowry: We didn’t up in Alaska; I did take her out to Turnagain Arm that feeds into Cook Inlet [south of Anchorage, Alaska]. Usually Beluga whales are in, and we did go out there a couple of times but we didn’t see any Belguas. We did see the typical things like moose. One of the places I wanted to take her hiking, I didn’t, just because I knew the bears were coming down and getting ready to den – I didn’t want Drew to have too much of an up close and personal experience [laughs]. Of course, there were tonnes of migratory birds because it was in the fall – we saw eagles, but no whales.
Casting your mind back to events in September 1988, what were your very first thoughts on seeing the three California Gray whales trapped under the ice?
Cindy Lowry: I spent a couple of days making a million calls to get things going – I talked to the Governor’s office; they weren’t interested in helping at the time with the US Coastguard. I knew we had a Moscow office so that’s how I first started talking with folks about getting the Soviets involved – I knew we had an agreement between the Soviets and the US, even though it was during the Cold War: If a ship was in trouble we would help each other. That kind of got rolling, and I went up to Barrow a day and a half later, and flew out in a helicopter with an NBC crew.
It was just so heartbreaking because there were two holes, one was a little larger than the other, but even in the larger hole only two of the three whales could come up and breathe at the same time. My immediate reaction was this was definitely one of those moments you wished you were Superman and you could just go in and swoop them out of there. All bets were off; whatever it took to get them out of there, we’ll do it.
Did the real-life rescue differ from the film version?
Cindy Lowry: We definitely had our ups and downs over a two-and-a-half, three-week period. Looking back on it, it’s interesting to me how everything happened at the right time, at the right moment. We’d go a day or two, and we’d be thinking the barge was coming to help and find out that it wasn’t. Then the brothers from Minnesota came up in the eleventh hour with their de-icer, which we called the ‘Whale Jacuzzi’. I mean we were out on the ice thinking the whales might not survive that night as it was like 30-40 degrees below zero and we were getting really slushy ice in the holes, and the whales were having a hard time coming up through the slush. We were thinking, I don’t know how we’re going to keep these things open. We tried out the de-icers, and amazingly enough they worked. Some seemed to come in at the last moment all the time, like the Inuits being able to chainsaw all the holes and then me getting word from my Washington D.C. office that the Soviets would come.
We weren’t inundated with the news crews just, but maybe later on. They did not want to be up there in the middle of the night. At lot of the time I was out there during the night, which were really my favourite moments when it was quiet. One of the moments that was really lovely between me and the whales was the night or two before the Soviets finally came in – they were making their first try coming in, and were supposed to stay out a mile or so and actually came in much closer. When you’re out 12 miles on the ice it’s pitch-black. We had a little spotlight at the last hole so the whales knew where to come, and a few other lights. We had to keep filling up the generators every few hours or they would run out of oil, so at that time we had five or six holes that were still open that the whales were using.
I think the whales could sense that there was open water close by because they started getting really frisky, and started swimming back and forth really fast between the last four or five holes. They would come up to the last one, and a wave of water would go over the last part of the hole. Folks were worried that some of the ice might start splitting because the icebreaker was coming in too soon, so they were asking us to get off and move back. So I thought I want to say goodbye, and I just knelt down by that last hole, and they were just so frisky and were becoming more like their true selves, and one of them came up and just blew water out of its blowhole all over me. As it was 30 or 40 below, my hair just frosted and I had this entire frozen whale breathe on my Parka. He just came up and rested his head or his chin on the ice in front of me. I didn’t pet him as they had been through enough, but I did have the most amazing eye contact with him and thought, oh gosh, you guys are going home. That was just an incredible moment for the whale and me to have by ourselves.
What was the moment like when they were finally free and swam off?
Cindy Lowry: I didn’t actually see them leave in that moment. Once the icebreaker came through, I think it shows in the film that the whales turned around and went in the wrong direction because there was so much commotion going on. They actually ordered everybody off the ice to give them a chance to move out. It was getting dark and some of the whale biologists who were good friends of mine, they told me they would stay with the whales that night because I was really worried about them surviving until the icebreaker could come through. The next morning we went out and they were gone.
What is the most pressing environmental issue that the public should know about that isn’t getting due attention?
Cindy Lowry: I continue to work on ocean issues and different marine manual issues like sea otters and the whales. But the one I’ve been working on here for the last eight years is the offshore wind development in Nantucket South. It’s the first project they’ve wanted to do in the US, and unfortunately, it’s in one of the worst places you can think of, as far as harming whales and other marine life. So I’ve been trying to get folks to start looking at marine spatial planning and ecosystem planning, and look at the global aspect of it. There are Right whales there and there are only 300 left in the world and they are in that area. Therefore we have been pushing for these things to be developed in other places, and also come up with an offshore wind development national policy on how you look at sites and where you put them. We all want green energy but it has an impact like every other energy does. I do have a website, oceanmiracle.org, were people can find out more.
I think folks can look more at their own communities and find issues that they’re interested in and want to help with – I think you can do it both locally and nationally.
Big Miracle is in cinemas from 10 February.