The movie takes place in 1988. It begins with several men from the local Inupiat tribe, as they row after a whale that they are hunting. The grandfather is trying to instruct the young boy about the ways of the tribe, but he does not understand. The whale surfaces and the grandfather stands, holding a handheld harpoon. He throws it at the whale, but we do not see it land.
Next we are standing on a winter's street in Barrow, Alaska, as Adam Carlson (John Krasinski), a local news reporter, gives his piece about the avocado. It takes four flights to travel to Barrow, where the avocado is the main ingredient in guacamole in the northernmost Mexican food restaurant in the arctic circle. Adam hopes to use the news pieces that he records to get a gig at a news station in the lower 48. The people in the restaurant watch Adam's piece on the news and they applaud his work. He thanks them all for being some of the best people that he has had the pleasure of knowing.
We see that Adam has befriended a local boy, the same boy whose grandfather was trying to teach him. His name is Nathan. Nathan wants to know all about the outside world and can't wait to leave Barrow. Nathan pleads with Adam to do a piece on his cousin who does tricks on a snowmobile and Adam reluctantly agrees. They go out on the ice the next day, but Nathan's cousin is less than spectacular. While filming, Adam sees a plume of what appears to be smoke out in the middle of the ice. They go out to investigate, and they discover three whales, a male, female, and a young whale trapped in the sudden winter that has set in, and they are trapped five miles away from the open ocean. A local man knowledgeable in the wildlife tells Adam that they will likely die in the next few days. Adam records a story about the whales and submits it to the Alaska main news station.
Meanwhile, we go to a meeting at which they are going to be hearing the answer to the recent bids to drill in certain areas of Alaska. J. W. McGraw (Ted Danson) is the winner of the bid, and from the back of the room a woman, Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore) has a bullhorn and hollers out that she wants them to read all of the bids. She is from Greenpeace, and she is determined to see that land be preserved. She is not heard and is thrown out of the meeting.
When she returns home she and many others watching the news suddenly see Adam's piece on the trapped whales in Barrow. She immediately calls Adam and tells him that she is coming up there to rescue those whales. They have a history and dated previously which Adam tells Nathan ended badly because she drives him crazy.
Adam's video reel is picked up by several major news networks and becomes a very popular story. Overnight planes of reporters including a young blonde reporter from LA that Adam has a crush on, and Rachel from Greenpeace arrive to see the whales. Adam has named the whales Fred, Wilma, and Bam Bam. When Rachel arrives he tells her that the local Inupiat tribe wants to harvest the whales as keeping with their traditions. Rachel says that she won't let that happen. Rachel also gets a mysterious call from a woman who tells her that J. W. McGraw has a hover barge that can break through the ice not 200 miles from Barrow. She turns out to be McGraw's wife who has taken an interest in Adam's story. She convinces her husband that doing this to free the whales will help him with his oil company's bad publicity.
Meanwhile, Adam talks to Nathan's grandfather who is one of the tribe's captains about how his tribe will be perceived if they harvest the whales. The grandfather believes that they must preserve their way of life, and Rachel vows to make sure that the media makes the tribe seem like villains. The town holds a meeting while Greenpeace and the tribe argues over the best way to handle the whales. The grandfather comes in and tells his people that they must help Greenpeace free the whales, if they don't all the people will see is blood of the whales. His people finally agree, and they head out to make the hole that the whales are using to breathe larger while they await the arrival of the barge.
McGraw has gone to get help from the local reserves to tow his barge out to Barrow, and the helicopter pilot, Colonel Scott Boyer reluctantly agrees to do so. The news story has also caught the attention of Kelly Meyers who works at the White House. She wants to get the government to aid the whales as a good press situation for president Reagan and the upcoming election. She calls Colonel Boyer trying to impress upon him the importance of the mission and even patches through the President to wish him well on his mission as they all work to help the whales.
Back in Barrow, the townspeople have opened up the hole, and are trying to do whatever they can for the whales. There are tons of news reporters who are surrounding the area all sending in similar stories of the whales' fight for survival. It has become one of the biggest stories of the nation. Rachel notices that the youngest whale Bam Bam is having trouble coming up so she puts on scuba gear and goes into the water against the advice of her friends. She is touched by the whales, and notices that the youngest has a net covering his fluke, and she frees it with her knife.
The barge is having a lot of trouble getting to Barrow, and more and more problems keep happening. There is a huge dam of ice that has formed at the edge of the ocean, and it's going to take a lot to break through it in order to free the whales. The temperature drops and they are having a huge problem keeping the hole from closing over. Their generators literally freeze after minutes on the ice. As they are getting ready to admit defeat, two men from Minnesota arrive we their homemade de-icers that save the same and keep the hole open. Reporters from all over the world are now arriving, and they are fighting each other to get the best story. The reporter that Adam has a crush on wants to get the story and tells Adam that she will do whatever she can to get it.
The barge gets stuck and will not be able to make it and they are now forced to come up with an alternate plan that none of them likes, call in the Russian navy to send in a nearby ship that can break the ice. With the cold war still in effect, they are hesitant to do so, but Meyers finally recommends to the White House that they ask for help and the president makes the call and the Russian navy is on the way, but now they must get the whales to travel the five miles to the open ocean by hand cutting holes every 60 feet in order to get them to move.
The whales are reluctant, and Bam Bam is still having trouble surfacing. As the humans all work together, Greenpeace, locals tribe, oil companies, and reporters to save them, Bam Bam succumbs to his illness and dies. They all take the death really hard, but none more so than Rachel who is convinced its her fault. Adam who was reporting the story stops being a reporter in order to comfort her. The young reporter from L.A. tells him that it's their job to report the story and not become emotionally involved but Adams admits that he is involved, and he works as a local instead of a reporter to free the whales.
McGraw and Rachel come to a short truce as they agree that they are grieving for Bam Bam and each agrees that it's harder to hate the other than they thought.
They all work through the night to hand cut the holes, 5 miles in less than 24 hours and the whales are following them to the ocean. They arrive at the same time as the Soviet vessel, who has also heard about the young whale and gone so far as to drink a toast in honor of his death. They raise an American flag along side the soviet flag and ram the ice flow trying to break the ice. They are unsuccessful in the first attempt and try again, but the second try is also unsuccessful. The vibrations are also spooking the whales, and they swim away from the noise but they are now in danger because the holes have frozen over. The ship warns those on the ice that it's going to try again, even though the crew warns the captain that it's too dangerous, but he is determined. He rams the ice, and it finally breaks. They all rush to the edge and finally after a long moment see the whales surface out in the open ocean, finally safe.
They all return to their lives, each touched by the whales. Colonel Boyers and Meyers get married and spend their honeymoon watching the whales in the Caribbean. Adam finally admits that he loves Rachel and they get back together and he stays in Alaska as a reporter. McGraw gets a big contract cleaning up the oil spill that was caused by the Exxon Valdez. And the young boy and his grandfather become closer after their experience with the whales as the boy has a better understanding of his tribe.
The movie credits play real videos along side of movie clips showing the real people portrayed by the movie. Watch one of the last reporting clips for a quick glimpse at future governor of Alaska Sarah Palin.
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