Climate Change Disaster: Twelve Killer Whales Trapped In Rapidly Closing Ice (VIDEO)

Orca family trapped in closing ice @ CBC News

Orca family trapped in closing ice @ CBC News

UPDATE ON THIS STORY: As of this morning, a shift in the winds and an opening in the ice created a passageway for the trapped whales. As of 8:00 AM Quebec time, they were well on their way.

Two scouts sent to check on the killer whales around 8 a.m. local time found a passage of water had been created in Hudson Bay all of the way to the open sea – nearly 25 miles away — and the ice hole that the animals had been trapped in was empty, said Petah Inukpuk, mayor of Inukjuak, an Inuit village home to 1,800, in Quebec.

“They are free. They are no longer here. 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,” he told NBC News, adding that they probably freed themselves overnight. “It was mother nature that helped them. … They are no longer icelocked.” [Source]


The famed orca, commonly known as the killer whale, has long captured the imagination of animal lovers the world over. From the whimsy of Free Willyto the outrage of Japan’s brutal capture of orca pods, and certainly the horror of a trainer’s accidental death by an orca at Florida’s Sea World, this majestic beast (in truth, a dolphin, though the largest of the species) has inspired both terror and fascination.

Still on the endangered list in some parts of the world (a status currently being argued in Washington State’s Puget Sound), the survival and well-being of the killer whale is important to many from the perspective of wildlife and marine preservation. Which is why the news of a family pod of twelve killer whales (some stories say the number is eleven) trapped in the rapidly closing ice of the eastern top of the Hudson Bay in Quebec, a death sentence for the group, has created such an outpouring of concern.

CBC News covered the story:

Twelve orcas were spotted at the breathing hole at the eastern top of Hudson Bay by an Inukjuak hunter Tuesday. The federal government is sending a team of experts tomorrow to evaluate whether they can be saved.

Earlier Wednesday, Peter Inukpuk, mayor of the small Inuit village, called on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to send out an icebreaker to help the whales.

He conjectured that the pod, consisting of two adults and a number of younger whales, could be a single family. He said it’s clear that the whales are in trouble.

“It appears from time to time that they panic,” said Inukpuk. “Other times they are gone for a long time, probably looking for another open space, which they are not able to find.”

It is believed that should the icebreakers get there in time, they would be capable of opening up a route for the jeopardized orca family. But getting them there is expensive, and their assignments are encumbered by logistics: there are currently three commercial ships stuck in ice on Quebec’s Saint Lawrence River and it’s likely they will be considered the priority, dooming the pod to imminent death.

However, there are other methods of rescue that bear consideration. According to an article at WorldNews, sometimes the low-tech methods even work better:

Geoff Carroll, a wildlife biologist with the  who helped release two California gray whales in a similar situation that made international headlines in 1988, said his experience in the effort known as “Operation Breakthrough” also showed the power of other methods.

“Our experience up here was that it seemed like the local knowledge and the low-tech approaches to working with the whales were the ones that worked best,” Carroll said. “It seemed like there were lots of high-tech efforts made to get those whales out and they kind of failed one after the other. What really worked was when we got local guys with chainsaws cutting one hole after another and we could kind of walk the whales out that way.”

While this event is tragic in its own right, the disturbing fact is that it’s not as rare as we’d like to think. The reason? Yep…global warming. Whale expert Christian Ramp, a researcher with the Mingan Island Cetacean Study of Quebec, says orcas are not an “ice-loving species,” more typically moving north in pursuit of prey during the summer months but retreating from colder waters long before the ice moves in. In this circumstance?

He said with climate change, it appears the animals are straying further and further north — and perhaps, staying too long.

“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 hole freezes up, and they basically just drown.” […]

“Ice entrapment is the main cause of mortality in many species,” Ramp said.

Deborah Giles, a graduate student researcher at the University of California — Davis, agrees. She says clearly the biggest obstacle to the whales’ survival is if the hole ultimately closes; if they can keep it open, they have a fighting chance:

Giles said food would likely not yet be a problem because the larger orcas should be able to survive on their fat stores for several weeks. But survival is less certain for the smaller mammals, including one that appeared to be nursing.

While Mayor Peter Inukpuk believes the whales’ behavior indicates stress and panic, Giles thinks their leaping out of the water may also have other purposes:

She noted that the animals may not be in distress, as the adult males could be seen engaging in the normal behavior of “spyhopping” — or shooting straight out of the water. “It’s possible that they are doing that not necessarily to get a bigger breath as somebody had indicated but rather to look around,” Giles said, adding that killer whales can see equally well above water as below.

“It’s also possible that they coming up as often as there is (is) a way to keep that ice open,” she said. “They certainly, I would say, are smart enough to recognize that this is their breathing hole and they … don’t want to have that close up.” [Source]

The awe-inspiring orca; photo by Gerard Lacz @ National Geographic

The awe-inspiring orca; photo by Gerard Lacz @ National Geographic

While the number of whales in this trapped group may be in dispute and the reasons for their actions a matter of interpretation, what cannot be argued is why this event occurred and why the unfolding story is of global importance: simply put, climate change affects us all – animal, vegetable, mineral. As scientists and politicians continue to debate its solution, as Republicans here in this country dismiss and dispute even the reality of climate change despite the abundant proof of its inexorable expansion, it seems important to pay close attention to real-life examples of its impact. To watch, with our own eyes, how this phenomenon is affecting our environment and the living things in it. It’s one thing to sit in a comfortable office and deny climate change, it’s another to stand on the edge of a rapidly diminishing ice opening and watch a family of glorious orca whales panic in the face of their death. If that doesn’t inspire an urge to get up and do something to help change the trajectory of this environmental crisis…you might just be a Republican.

Watch the video below and if you’re so moved, click to The Nature Conservancy to find out how you can contribute to the preservation of our global oceans and their wildlife:




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