Clement Rousseau via NBC News
The trapped whales, photographed by an Inukjuak resident on January 8, 2013.

Miraculous Opening Saves Orcas Trapped in Ice Off Quebec

January 16, 2013


A dozen-strong pod of orcas that had gotten stuck in ice off northern Quebec seem to have been freed thanks to a miraculous miles-long opening that allowed them to swim to open water, and safety.

The drama unfolded last week, when an Inuk hunter found them taking turns leaping up into a swimming-pool-sized opening in the thick winter ice of Hudson Bay, near the village of Inukjuak, to breathe.

About 50 people gathered to watch the trapped whales gasp for air, but the onlookers were helpless to assist without an icebreaker. Canada’s icebreakers were too far away to get there in time. Experts from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans were scheduled to arrive at the remote spot last Thursday to help troubleshoot.

Things looked grim for the whales, as Inukjuak Mayor Peter Inukpuk described them acting agitated and panicked, according to the National Post. Without assistance, the whales were in danger of drowning. The plight was reminiscent of the 1988 rescue of three grey whales off the Alaskan coast, which inspired the 2012 movie starring Drew Barrymore, Big Miracle.

Experts said that warming seas probably enticed the whales to extend their summer stay beyond their usual departure time of October. When the water suddenly froze during a cold snap, they were stuck.

But on January 10, it appeared to all be over. A passage had opened up overnight under a new moon, and the whales were nowhere to be seen. 

"Two men were sent to check on the whales around 8 a.m., and they found that a passage of water had been created, all of the way to the open sea," Inukjuak town manager Johnny Williams told "The wind from the north shifted yesterday.”

The villagers celebrated the whales’ escape, relieved that the moon’s influence had worked in their favor instead of against them, as it could easily have done.

“They are free. They are no longer here,” Inukpuk told NBC News. “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 ice-locked.”

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