January 10, 2013
Killer Whales Trapped In Polar Ice Finally Make Their Escape
[Watch Video: Killer Whales Trapped In Sea Ice In Northern Canada]
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
After spotting the trapped whales in the freezing waters of Hudson Bay on Wednesday, concerned residents called for the government's help to free the whales.
Federal officials announced they were planning to send a team of experts on Thursday. However, two hunters who visited the hole in the ice where the whales were spotted early Thursday morning said they appear to have left. The government has yet to declare if their plans have been called off.
According to the mayor of nearby Inukjuak, Quebec, the eastern area of Hudson Bay froze quickly earlier in the week.
"It's only been two days that the bay froze up," Mayor Peter Inukpuk told CBC News on Wednesday. "It's not thick, thick as in previous years. I am sure an icebreaker could come up and open a route for them."
The mayor added that he had contacted the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to send out an icebreaker to free the whales.
According to Christian Ramp, a researcher with the Quebec-based Mingan Island Cetacean Study, this could be the first January sighting of a killer whale pod in the Canadian Arctic. He said the whales typically follow their prey north during the summer, but retreat to warmer waters as the ice moves in.
Ramp theorized that the orcas appear to be straying further north as the effects of climate change grip the region, endangering them in the process.
"It seems the ice dynamics are changing very quickly," said Ramp. "Suddenly a huge expanse of open water is clogged up, and they miss the chance to get to open water.”
"The risk is that the [breathing] hole freezes up, and they basically just drown,” he added.
Based on a cursory analysis of an online video showing the trapped Hudson Bay whales, Ramp said it appeared the whales were agitated.
"They seem to breathe very frequently – a sign they're under stress," he observed. "They're definitely not chill."
On Wednesday, a DFO spokeswoman said a team of experts was evaluating the situation and considering a variety of options. Nathalie Letendre noted that sending in icebreakers might be one possible option, but that could prove both logistically and financially difficult.
"Presently, the icebreakers are really busy with the ice conditions that we have in other regions of our country," Letendre said. "In the Quebec region, the icebreakers are working on the Saint Lawrence River. Just this week, three commercial ships were stuck in the ice in the Matane area."
Ramp suggested that political action may be necessary for major help to be sent to the whales, increasing the chances that any help might arrive too late. He referred to a similar circumstance in the Japanese Arctic in 2005, when the whales there died within one day of their discovery, after their hole in the ice froze over.
"It's heartbreaking to witness these pictures," Ramp said, "but it's probably occurring more often than we think."