When a hunter found eleven killer whales (orcas) trapped in Hudson’s Bay in northeastern Canada, there was little hope for their survival. With only one small hole for the pod of whales to surface, breathing room was scarce. If locals didn’t do something to create more space, it was very likely that some (or all) of the whales would die.
“They are in a confined area,” Petah Inukpuk, mayor of the nearby town, Inukjuak, told NBC on Wednesday. “From time to time, they are in a panic state and other times they are gone for a long period of time, probably looking for another open water (space) which they are unable to find. They keep going back to the same spot.
“These whales can only stay underwater for a certain amount of time, and they know from their echolocation sonar that there just aren’t any open water areas within the range of where they are now,” Pete Ewins, an Arctic species expert with WWF Canada told The Star earlier this week.
Orcas are normally found further south, but according to Andrew Trites, director of marine mammal research unit at the University of British Columbia, they have made their way into the area over the last few decades.
“The reason they can now access the Arctic is because there is a lot less ice because of global warming,” Trites told The Star earlier this week.
But even with the global warming issue, the water does freeze over eventually. While usually, it happens around Halloween, the ice didn’t freeze over until after Christmas. Mayor Inukpuk says that the temperature dropped rapidly and the water froze over very quickly, which led to the whales getting trapped.
To try and help the whales survive until the ice melted, which normally happens in March or April, Mayor Inukpuk had urged the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to send an ice breaker as soon as possible. At the very least, villagers had hoped to use the equipment to make additional holes, giving the whales more breathing room and hopefully saving their lives. Sadly, the ministry informed the mayor that the icebreakers were “out of reach.”
“That is the only solution for any chance of survival for those killer whales, but there is none nearby at the moment,” Mayor Inukpuk told The Star.
With no icebreakers close by, Inkjuak villagers met to try and craft a plan to free the whales. They considered a rescue plan similar to one performed in 1988 after two California gray whales and become stuck in the ice in Alaska. Eskimo whalers had cut more than a half a mile of holes for the whales, giving them a way to travel back to the open Alaskan sea. In total, it took 20 days to complete the rescue. Deemed as “Operation Breakthrough,” the initiative had made international headlines and even inspired the film, “Big Miracle.”
But even “Operation Breakthrough” had the help of icebreakers. Two Soviet icebreakers had crushed a thick wall of ice that would have continued to block the whales’ path. It was a critical cut, and without the machinery, the rescue might not have been a success. The orcas trapped near the Inkjuak village didn’t have that much time. The hole they were using to breathe was becoming increasingly smaller. It seemed the only option was to remove broken ice around the area with chainsaws. They hoped that this would at least enlarge the hole, giving the whales more room to breathe.
It seemed that the trapped whales had really brought people from all over the world together. Offers to help had come from England and Germany. A large chainsaw from a neighboring Inuit village had been loaned to the Inkjuak villagers. And the Inkjuak villagers were ready to start the rescue.
“We were prepared to endure it, make their breathing hole bigger and create another breathing hole nearby. Enlarge it, going step by step,” Mayor Inukpuk told NBC. “We were prepared to do that method because the closest icebreaker was ten days away…without assistance they would not have made it.”
But when the Mayor sent two scouts to check on the whales early this morning, they found the bay empty. According to Canada’s fisheries and oceans department, “winds and tides shifted overnight, opening the ice that had trapped the whales.” A passage of water had been created in the Hudson Bay all the way to the open sea – nearly 25 miles away.
“They are free. They are no longer here,” Mayor Inukpuk told NBC this morning. “When there is a new moon, the water current is activated. It could have helped…completely trap them, but in this case it caused an open passage out to the open water. It was Mother Nature that helped them…They are no longer icelocked.”
Fears remained that the orcas might not have escaped danger. Locals say the water currents and ever-moving ice in the massive, frigid bay may box in the animals elsewhere.
The town responded by hiring an airplane to scan the region later in the day for signs of the pod.
“We’re quite concerned, that’s why we’re chartering the plane to find out if we can find them,” said Johnny Williams, adding the village of 1,800 people will likely foot the bill for the search.