A dozen killer whales trapped in the ice about 30 kilometres off the coast of Inukjuak, Que., could be in imminent danger, as a local Inuk who visited them late Wednesday afternoon said the small patch of open water which the whales are sharing is already shrinking.
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.
Tommy Palliser, who travelled from Inukjuak to visit the whales late Wednesday, said he observed that the hole is already markedly smaller, and he's concerned the wind appeared to be pushing the ice closer to the shore.
Bay froze just 2 days ago, mayor says
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.
"It's only been two days that the bay froze up," Inukpuk said. "It's not thick, thick as in previous years. I am sure an icebreaker could come up and open a route for them."
"We are not equipped to give assistance to those killer whales," said the mayor. "We would need outside help to get them to safety."
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."
Martha Asudluak, 21, hitched a ride on a snowmobile Wednesday morning to go out to see them.
"I saw the big head popping out of the waters ... I couldn't believe what I was seeing," she said, adding she got to about three metres away from the water's edge.
"They kind of looked like they needed help," she said. "They're sharing this small little hole. They were probably searching for a way to go out, but at the moment they have no other choice but to stay there because it's all ice — all over."
Asudluak says she feels blessed to have been able to see the whales, but she also wants them to be freed as soon as possible.
DFO evaluating the situation
A spokeswoman for the DFO, Nathalie Letendre, said it's not unusual for marine mammals to become trapped in ice.
"With the social media, it's just another tool to be aware of what happens in the northern part of Quebec," said Letendre.
Whale expert Christian Ramp, a researcher with the Quebec-based Mingan Island Cetacean Study, agreed.
"Ice entrapment is the main cause of mortality in many species," Ramp said.
He said what makes this case unique is that it could be the first sighting of killer whales in the Canadian Arctic in January.
Unlike narwhals, belugas and bowheads, orcas are not an ice-loving species, Ramp said, following their prey north during the summer months but retreating before the ice moves in.
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."
Ramp said from what he has observed on a video posted to YouTube, it does appear the whales are agitated.
"They seem to breathe very frequently — a sign they're under stress," he said. "They're definitely not chill."
Icebreakers expensive and far away
The DFO's Letendre said her department's team of experts is evaluating the situation, looking at the number and health of the whales, the state of the ice and the proximity of the whales to open water.
The team is expected to arrive in Inukjuak tomorrow, and Letendre said the experts will consult with the community before any course of action is undertaken.
Sending in icebreakers might be one option, Letendre said, but it's an expensive one that could prove logistically difficult.
"Presently, the icebreakers are really busy with the ice conditions that we have in other regions of our country," Letendre said. "In the Quebec region, the icebreakers are working on the Saint Lawrence River. Just this week, three commercial ships were stuck in the ice in the Matane area."
Sending in icebreakers would likely take a political decision, Ramp suggested, and in any case, they might arrive too late.
He said in a previous similar circumstance in the Japanese Arctic in 2005, the whales died within one day of their discovery, after their ice hole froze over.
"It's heartbreaking to witness these pictures," Ramp said, "but it's probably occurring more often than we think."
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Orcas In The Open Ocean
Life for killer whales in the ocean is infinitely different, and many would say far better, than a life of captivity in a concrete tank. In the wild, most orcas stay near or with their families for life, travel up to 100 miles a day, and display complex communal rituals that provide stability, cooperation and regular opportunities for the unbridled expression of sheer joy. Orcas are smart—among the most intelligent species in the world—making them particularly unsuitable to captivity, as I explain in my book <em>Death at SeaWorld</em>. Few people realize that killer whales are members of the family Delphinidae, making them the planet’s largest dolphins, giant cousins to the far more common bottlenose (think TV’s Flipper) and other species of seagoing dolphins. Orcas not only have the largest brain of any dolphin, but at 12 pounds it is also four times larger than the human brain, and second only to the sperm whale in heft and volume. Killer whales have been prowling the oceans for millions of years, and their large and complex brains continued to evolve over time. The ocean’s top predator and the most widely distributed animal on Earth after humans, they are found in all oceans, even in the tropics. Total population is estimated at 50,000-100,000, perhaps half of them around Antarctica. In today’s vernacular, the names “orca” and “killer whale” are interchangeable, though many animal-activists prefer the former, while scientists and the display industry tend to use the latter. Before orcas were held captive they were regarded as bloodthirsty monsters (debunking this was one of the greatest contributions of captivity). And although four people have died and many others were injured in killer whale tanks, there is no record in history of any serious attacks by wild orcas on humans. The following facts were adapted from <em>Death at SeaWorld</em> (St. Martin’s Press, 2012)
Residents And Transients Don't Mix
Two types of orcas share the coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest. <em>Residents</em>, comprised of Northern Residents, which range from mid-Vancouver Island north toward the Alaskan panhandle, and Southern Residents, which range from mid-Vancouver Island south to Puget Sound, in the summer and fall. Residents live in tightly knit families dominated by females. Each pod has its own signature collection of clicks, whistles, creaks and groans. <em>Transients</em> are distinguished primarily by what they eat: other marine mammals, including dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions and even larger whales. They travel in small groups and their range is greater than residents. Transients do not mix with residents, having split from their cousins, genetically speaking, tens of thousands of years ago. For Naomi Rose, (now senior scientist at Humane Society International) who studied these animals for years, transients were “kind of like the local trash family; people that nobody in town really gets along with,” she joked with friends. “If it comes down to a street fight, the transients are going to lose.” A few years later, Canadian scientist Graeme Ellis would witness something close to what she imagined. He came across a Southern Resident group, J-Pod, tearing southward toward the mouth of a bay. He spotted three other orcas swimming away quickly about 100 yards ahead and recognized them as members of the T-20 transient group. They made a run for it, trying to skirt away, but J-pod would have nothing of it. Graeme saw whitewater churning, fins and flukes flailing, the nipping of skin. The screeches reverberated through the boat’s hull. When the transients got away, Graeme followed, only to discover bloody teeth marks on their skin. “Whatever the reason,” he said, “the T-20s definitely got their butts kicked.”
Processing sound is essential for killer whales to eat, navigate and socialize. Orcas have no sense of smell, and though their eyesight is excellent, it’s not much help at night or in deep waters. That’s where echolocation, emitting a series of clicks and listening for their echo, comes in. The clicks, which sound like a finger running over a comb, last from one to five milliseconds. When each click pings off an object, part of the sound is sent back toward the animal, where it is received through fatty tissue in the lower jaw. There it transmits to the middle ear. Each click is exquisitely synchronized so that outgoing sounds do not interfere with incoming ones. Direction is determined by comparing the relative strength of the echo on each side. The visual and auditory regions of orca brains are set closely together and are extraordinarily integrated, producing a visual image based solely on the echoes. Orcas can even determine the species of fish they are tracking, not only by the prey’s size, but also the dimensions of its air bladder. All dolphins can differentiate between objects with less than 10 percent difference in size. They can do this in a noisy environment, even while vocalizing. And they can echolocate on near and distant targets simultaneously, something that boggles the imagination of human sonar experts.
“The outstanding feature” of resident orca society is that neither sex wanders from the natal family and its home range, Naomi Rose wrote in her PhD dissertation. But as young females begin having calves, they spend more time away from their mothers, eventually establishing their own matrilines within their particular pod, from which they never fully disperse. Male residents, however, are another story. They spend most of their time by their mothers’ side, from infancy through old age. They may swim off for a few hour or days to mate with females from other matrilines, but they always come back. Male resident orcas are the planet’s ultimate mommy’s boys. They are, unusually, the <em>philopatric</em> sex: they never emigrate away from their home territory. The lifelong bonds between resident mothers and sons run deep. Adult males spend a minimum of 40 percent of their time within one body length of their mother: at least nine and half hours every day. A male is so dependent on mom that, if he loses her, he may try to transfer that bond onto another close relative, usually a sister, grandmother, aunt, or even a younger niece. Older sons who survived their mother’s death often travel, forage and even rest up to a half-mile away from their sisters, implying that adult males without mothers “are most peripheral to and the least integrated into the matrilineal group,” Naomi wrote.
In many mammals, having grown males hang around the females and offspring is hugely disruptive: the mother does not tolerate it and pressures males to leave. Staying at home increases competition for food and other resources. That’s where the “repayment model” comes in: The philopatric sex must offer something valuable in return. Babysitting, it turns out, was evolution’s way of charging adult orca males room and board. “The philopatric sex pays back some of the cost of having it there by caring for its parent’s subsequent offspring,” Naomi wrote in her dissertation. Having older sons babysit allows a mother to be more reproductively successful. “It lets her concentrate on her newest born, and not worry about the five-year-old calf that’s potentially going to run off and do something stupid, because the older brother’s looking out for them,” Naomi told a colleague. “It even allows her to get some ‘me’ time, which no doubt recharges her batteries and improves her health, making her a better mom.” Another benefit: When matrilineal groups travel, they typically swim in “echelon formation,” where the youngest calf sticks next to the mother. The coveted spot allows for slip-streaming alongside the mother, and helps save energy. But it’s also a drag on the mother. If she has grown sons to share in burden, she can conserve precious energy.
Mom The Matchmaker
If mothers benefit from having sons babysit, then what’s in it for the males? Naomi thought she might have an answer. “For resident males, there’s an advantage to staying with mom. And that’s the fact that females are very gregarious,” she explained. “When multiple pods get together, the females gravitate toward each other and have their own sewing circles, or whatever.” That intensive socializing gave their sons “instant entrée to all those unrelated girls.” The son might hook up with the daughters of his mother’s friends, or even with his mothers’ friends themselves. Naomi had seen adolescent males who were sexually mature but not yet socially mature hanging with post-reproductive grandmas. “I think it’s literally a ‘Mrs. Robinson’ situation,” Naomi said. “That female may be past menopause but it doesn’t mean she doesn’t like to have sex. And this young guy, who’s got lots of get-up-and-go but no reproductive female that’s going to give him the time of day, she’ll hang out with him.”
Rare White Killer Whale Sighting
Scientists have made what they believe to be the first sighting of an adult white orca, or killer whale.