Breaking Free

Eleven orca whales trapped under sea ice after a sudden freeze in northern Canada’s Hudson Bay were freed after shifting winds pushed the ice away, officials in the nearby remote Inukjuak village said Thursday. International concern for the whales surged last week after a disturbing video of the threatened whale pod went viral.

“It’s certainly good news,” said Tommy Palliser, a business adviser with the Inukjuak village’s regional government, adding that he and others in the community “had our prayers with them.”

First spotted last Tuesday by a Quebec seal hunter, a possible family of two adults and nine younger whales desperately attempted to breathe within a truck-sized hole in the ice at least six miles from open water. Though the whales appeared to have less energy by late Wednesday, government icebreaker vessels were unable to come to the rescue as they were at least a day and a half away helping to clear a commercially important area of the Saint Lawrence River, reported Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Locals decided to take rescue efforts into their own hands, holding a town meeting last Wednesday night, where around 60 people brainstormed strategies to break the ice with chainsaws and drills.

“We have decided to give aid as much as possible so that those killer whales have a better chance of surviving,” Inukpuk said. “The local people will be taking out the blocks of ice around the whales (on Thursday). They will also be cutting the ice into blocks to enlarge the water.”

Inukpuk was also in touch with Kasco Marine, a Wisconsin company that helped save three gray whales trapped near Barrow, Alaska in 1988. The incident later became the inspiration for the 2012 film Big Miracle. Kasco Marine’s president, Ray Lee, had two employees and several de-icers on standby.

“They are packed and ready to go,” Lee said. “They can keep the water open or melt the ice.”

Fortunately, on Wednesday night, warmer winds arrived and melted enough of the ice to allow the whales to swim free. When locals went to check on the whales early Thursday morning, the whales were gone. Villagers “feel pretty good as people around the world feel, too,” local resident and volunteer Peter Qumaluk told The Globe and Mail. The orcas’ breathing hole was now about 500 meters wide and up to five kilometers long, Palliser reported in an email Thursday. Though an aerial search was unable locate the orcas, large swaths of ice-free water were seen in the area, said Mark O’Connor, the director of wildlife management for the regional marine wildlife board.

“So as far as I can tell, the emergency, for sure, is averted,” O’Connor said.

While the entrapment thankfully ended well, it sheds light on worrisome, abnormal migratory behavior, noted Pete Ewins of World Wildlife Fund Canada. Though the stranded whale pod “clearly are the minority of the killer-whale population that didn’t quite get it right and get out in time,” reduced sea-ice cover in Hudson Bay is opening the door for orcas to spend more time there feeding.