Video footage taken by people in the Quebec village of Inukjuak showed the massive animals thrusting themselves skyward through an opening in the ice as they gasped for air from their blowholes.
Locals say about a dozen orcas gathered around the hole — which was slightly bigger than a pickup truck — amid their desperate bid to take in oxygen.
Mayor Peter Inukpuk urged the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on Wednesday to send an icebreaker as soon as possible to smash nearby floes to help the mammals reach open water.
But Inukpuk told The Canadian Press later in the day that the DFO informed him the icebreakers were too far from the area for such a mission.
Now, he's hoping a strong wind will come out of the east to push the floating ice far away enough from shore to free the killer whales.
"But that is (an) act of God and not in our control," Inukpuk said.
"For me, anything that can help. I'm trying to look left and right and finally I went upstairs."
The cornered animals, first seen Tuesday, appeared to have less energy by late Wednesday, said Tommy Palliser, who visited the orcas on both days. He also said the hole seemed to be a little bit smaller after some shifting ice moved in.
Locals planned to gather Wednesday night to discuss the next steps, while the mayor expected to talk with the DFO on Thursday.
In a brief statement Wednesday, the federal department said it was assessing the situation with partners and experts in the region. It's unclear if any DFO action will be taken.
"Situations where marine mammals are trapped by the ice are not unusual in the North," DFO spokeswoman Nathalie Letendre wrote in an email.
Inukpuk said it was on Tuesday that a hunter from his village first spotted the pod of trapped orcas at the hole, which is some 30 kilometres from town. Inukjuak, on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay, is about 1,500 kilometres north of Montreal.
Word of the unusual spectacle spread quickly though the village, prompting dozens of locals to make the one-hour snowmobile ride Tuesday to the scene.
They snapped photos and shot video footage of the killer whales bobbing to the surface in the opening — and sometimes rocketing half their bodies straight up out of the hole as they took in oxygen.
Curious locals who didn't make Tuesday's trip gathered at a community centre that night to watch videos of the scene.
"Our people asked for a prayer for these killer whales," said Inukpuk, whose village is home to 1,800 people. "Our local people are very much concerned."
One woman who made the journey to the gap in the ice said even a curious polar bear approached the hole amid the orcas' commotion. Siasie Kasudluak said the bear was eventually shot by a hunter and the meat was shared among locals.
The trapped orcas, meanwhile, appeared to be in distress and the people were ill-equipped to help out. Time also appeared to be running out, as the hole seemed to be shrinking in the -30 C temperature, Kasudluak said.
"It was amazing, but they needed air and it's very touching," said Kasudluak, who stood on the ice with close to 50 other people from Inukjuak.
"I don't know what's going to happen, but we would love to see them free."
Another woman who saw the animals up close said the orcas appeared to cycle around the opening in an attempt to keep it from freezing over.
Marina Lacasse, who estimated the hole was slightly larger than a pickup truck, also said the creatures would pop up for breaths and then disappear under the ice for several minutes, probably in a frenzied search for open water.
"It was kind of hard to see whether the whales would find the open water because I think it's frozen all the way now," said Lacasse, who noted that one of the killer whales appeared to be bleeding.
Locals returned to the site Wednesday to see if they could remove some of the ice from the edge of the hole — or carve a new opening — with chainsaws, chisels and snowmobiles, the mayor said.
But Inukpuk fears such an undertaking so close to the stressed beasts could be dangerous.
"At times they are in a panicked state where the ice around them is moving," said Inukpuk, who hadn't yet visited the site himself.
"But one thing we know is that any species that we encounter here — especially large species like a polar bear — if we agitate them, then they get ferocious."
He said killer whales are rarely spotted near Inukjuak, but hunters have returned home with tales over the years of having their canoes followed by the animals.
Inukpuk believes the recent sudden drop in temperature caught the orcas off guard, leaving them boxed in under the ice.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) says the Northwest Atlantic/Eastern Arctic population of killer whales was designated as a species of "special concern," according to its website. The special concern tag means the species may become threatened or endangered due to biological characteristics and other threats.
COSEWIC estimates the population has fewer than 1,000 mature adults and says it's likely the actual number is smaller than 250.
The region's limited orca population could be one reason why killer whale is not part of the diet in Inukjuak, where people hunt wildlife like beluga and polar bear for food.
Another reason could be the taste, the mayor said.
"We hear they're not good to eat and their blubber and skin are not good to eat," said Inukpuk, adding that it's not in the community's interest to kill the orcas.
"We just want to make sure that they're safe and hopefully we can find means to get them safe."