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11 killer whales free after being 'locked' in ice, mayor says

It's believed that shifting winds may have broken up the ice that confined the killer whales, who survived by taking turns coming up for air in a hole the size of a pickup truck. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.

Eleven killer whales that were “locked in” by ice in a Canadian bay, with only a small area of open water for them to surface, are now apparently free, possibly due to a change in current that helped break open a path to the sea, the mayor of a nearby village said Thursday.

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 marine mammals had been trapped in was empty, said Petah Inukpuk, mayor of Inukjuak, a remote 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 were freed overnight. “It was mother nature that helped them. ... They are no longer icelocked.”

A hunter had found the killer whales, also known as orcas, on Tuesday morning in the bay in northeastern Canada about one mile from shore. Two of the orcas appeared to be adults; the remaining nine were smaller in size, said Inukpuk, 61. Other reports said there were 12 orcas in the pod.

Canada's fisheries and oceans department said it received confirmation from the community "that winds and tides shifted overnight, opening the ice that had trapped the whales." Two of its scientists were en route to Inukjuak to collect scientific information and work with the community.

A video taken by villager Clement Rousseau on Tuesday revealed a tough situation facing the killer whales: the water opening appeared to be just large enough for a few of them to surface at a time. 

“They are in a confined area,” Inukpuk told NBC News on Wednesday, noting then that there was “no more open water.”

“From time to time, they are in a panic state and other times they are gone for a long period of time, probably looking for another open water (space) which they are unable to find," Inukpuk said. "They keep going back to the same spot.”

The villagers held a meeting Wednesday night and crafted a plan similar to a rescue performed in 1988 of two California gray whales that got stuck in ice in Alaska. In Operation Breakthrough, which made international headlines and inspired the 2012 film "Big Miracle," Eskimo whalers cut more than a half mile of holes for the whales to travel through on their way to open sea. Two Soviet icebreakers helped by crushing a critical thick wall of ice that blocked their path and freed the animals after 20 days, according to a story on the rescue by the Los Angeles Times.

Twenty of the Inukjuak villagers were tasked with doing much the same: they were going to remove the broken ice around the area and use chainsaws to enlargen the hole, which was getting increasingly smaller. A neighboring Inuit village had also offered a large chainsaw capable of cutting the ice. The villagers even got offers of help from far afield, including Germany and England.

"We were prepared to endure it, make their breathing hole bigger and create another breathing hole nearby. Enlarge it, going step by step," he said. "We were prepared to do that method because the closest icebreaker was ten days away … without assistance they would not have made it."

Clement Rousseau

Killer whales that were trapped in the ice near Inukjuak, photographed on Jan. 8, 2013.

A Canadian fisheries official told CBC.ca that some icebreakers were being used in the Saint Lawrence River, where three commercial ships got stuck this week. 

Geoff Carroll, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who helped release the two California gray whales, said Operation Breakthrough showed the power of the simpler 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.”

There have been reports of other whales getting caught in ice, but it was an anomaly for killer whales -- technically in the oceanic dolphin family -- which tend to hunt around the ice, said Deborah Giles, a graduate student researcher at the University of California, Davis, who has studied killer whales for eight years.

Giles recalled that one pod of orcas died in 2005 when they were trapped in thick ice, and Paul Wade, a research fisheries biologist at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, noted there have been some other similar cases, too.

Wade said he watched videos of the pod near Inukjuak online and thought some were engaging in normal behavior -- such as "spyhopping," when adult males shoot straight up out of the water -- while others appeared agitated. He said it looked like the pod included two adult males, several juveniles and female adults or younger adult males. The group was most likely related, said Giles.

Photoblog: Images of whales that were stuck in ice

Killer whales are highly social and typically travel in pods numbering from two to 15, though there can be larger groups, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They are most numerous in colder waters, such as Antarctica, Alaska and Norway, although they can also be found in temperate and tropical waters. Different groupings have distinctive whistles and pulsed calls that are thought to be used by them to communicate.

Inukpuk said killer whales were not spotted in the area every summer, but every second or third one. However, this was the first time that they were "locked in,” he said.

“Why these whales hung around so long is a mystery,” Wade said. But he added: “Even the types of whales that live in the ice a lot or much closer to the ice more frequently than killer whales -- they make mistakes as well.”

The winter was unusual this year in that the bay did not freeze up as it normally does at the end of November or beginning of December. There was open water after Christmas but earlier this week it got "really cold," leaving just an area of water the size of a swimming pool open that was getting smaller, Inukpuk said.

"People here were very much ready to help and it is surprising because the killer whales are (our) competitors for the same species," such as seals, he said. "We were ready to give aid to make sure that they survived until help could come."

He said they were "very pleased" with the outcome and he had a wish for the pod, too: "I hope they find a good meal and they have a hearty feast because they are probably pretty hungry."

Eleven killer whales were trapped for days under thick arctic ice in a remote corner of Quebec, taking turns to breathe through a tiny hole.

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