Eleven killer whales facing imminent danger of suffocation after being trapped by ice in Hudson Bay on Canada's Arctic shore managed to free themselves yesterday, after their plight created a worldwide sensation.
Residents from the nearby Inuit community of Inukjuak in northern Quebec, who had raised the alarm and appealed for authorities to send an ice-breaker, had planned to widen the hole. But the whales were gone when they arrived at the site yesterday morning, according to The Globe and Mail.
One resident, Johnny Williams, told the newspaper that shifting winds likely broke up the ice, allowing the creatures to swim to freedom.
But the community's mayor, Peter Inukpuk, who had asked the government for an ice breaker and other help, said "Mother Nature freed them."
Inukpuk said that the new moon overnight had shifted currents, sweeping the mammalsinto open waters.
Experts from Canada's fisheries and oceans department had been dispatched to the area.
Video posted on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's website showed the giant sea mammals taking turns to breathe by popping up through a small patch of open water amid fields of white ice.
Another Inukjuak villager, Tommy Palliser, had said the hole was shrinking, threatening the whales with suffocation.
The Canadian federal government had planned to send a team of experts to investigate whether and how the whales could be saved. But even if one was sent, it may not have arrived in time.
Inukpuk said it was unusual to see killer whales, also known as orcas, in the area in January but he noted that the waters were late to freeze this year.
A hunter first spotted the pod on Tuesday at the hole, on the eastern side of Hudson Bay. Inukjuak is about 1,500km north of Ottawa and is inaccessible by road all year round.
Dozens of villagers had made the one-hour snowmobile ride to see the unusual spectacle, about 30 kilometres from the village. They photographed the killer whales surfacing in the opening and thrusting skyward while gasping for air.
This latter behaviour, known as spy hopping, is used by orcas to spot prey on land, such as basking seals. In this case, it may have been a desperate attempt to look for open water.
One woman said a polar bear had approached the hole, attracted by the commotion, but was shot by a local hunter for its meat. Polar bears are known to attack and kill smaller whales such as belugas and narwhals if they become trapped in ice.
The situation mirrors that of a well-known rescue of three grey whales trapped by ice off the coast of Alaska in 1988.
They were eventually freed with the use of an ice breaker and breathing holes bored into the ice. The rescue by American and Russian authorities was depicted in the 2012 movie Big Miracle.
The residents of Inukjuak were yesterday able to witness a similar happy ending.
Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse