An entire pod of orca whales may be hopelessly trapped under arctic sea ice [UPDATED]

A dozen orca whales have become enclosed and trapped in arctic sea ice in Hudson's Bay about 30 kilometers (19 miles) off the coast of Inukjuak, Quebec. The whales are currently sharing a small hole in the ice in order to breathe — but it's starting to rapidly shrink. Locals are calling on the Canadian government to come in and help, preferably with icebreakers. But time may be running out.

Update 1: The CBC issued an alert at 09:15 EST this morning, stating that the orcas appear to have left; they have not been seen at the hole since late last night, and their current status is not known, or if they will return.


Update 2: io9 reader lil4alot alerts us to the news that the orcas now appear to be free.

It's very rare to see orcas in the arctic this late into the winter. And in fact, it may be the first confirmed sighting of these whales so far into the Bay in January. Not surprisingly, some experts are saying that climate change is to blame, and that the orcas were taking advantage of the open waters — unaware that the sea would quickly freeze over.

And indeed, it didn't take long. The Bay froze just three days ago, trapping the orcas in the ice. Unlike narwhales, belugas, and bowheads, these whales are not accustomed to swimming in icy conditions, who typically retreat to warmer waters as winter approaches.


According to Peter Inukpuk, mayor of the small Inuit village, the whales are starting to get stressed. "It appears from time to time that they panic," he told the CBC. "Other times they are gone for a long time, probably looking for another open space, which they are not able to find." The hole is about the size of a large pickup truck.

The whales, fully aware of their predicament, are feverishly searching for an escape route, often sending scouts to scour the area for possibile openings. Marine biologists say they can use powerful echo location to search for holes, but there are none within range.


The pod consists of two adults and a number of younger whales — what is quite possibly an entire family. Observers have counted as many as 12 orcas, and the fear is that the small hole will soon freeze over.


Consequently, the Canadian government is sending a team of experts to evaluate the situation and determine a possible course of action. One possible solution could be to bring in an icebreaker. Early on Wednesday January 9, Inukpuk requested that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) send out a ship to carve a path for the whales.

The worry, however, is that there might not be enough time. The fleet is currently working on ice conditions in other regions of the country. Moreover, some are concerned about the logistical challenges and tremendous costs of the operation.


Members of the DFO are expected to arrive later today to the region.

If nothing is done, and assuming the hole doesn't completely freeze over, the whales will have to wait about three to four months until the ice thaws. It's difficult to say whether any of them will be able to survive that long.


Sources: CBC and Guardian.

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