MONTREAL - A northern Quebec town cautiously celebrated Thursday after a dozen killer whales appeared to have freed themselves from the shifting floes of Hudson Bay.
But while some in the village of Inukjuak expressed relief, others feared the orcas might not have escaped danger.
Many locals believe the water currents and ever-moving ice in the massive, frigid bay may eventually box the mammals in somewhere else.
One expert in Arctic wildlife said they have good reason to be concerned, because the thicker winter ice has yet to form on the bay. The orcas, meanwhile, were still 1,000 kilometres from where they should be at this time of year, said Pete Ewins of World Wildlife Fund Canada.
"They got stuck (in Hudson Bay) and they're unlikely to get out," said Ewins, adding that killer whales are not accustomed to ice.
"These guys are on the edge and they might not make it through."
The animals' predicament made international headlines and the stunning images of the orcas circulated via media around the world.
For at least two days, the mammals were trapped around a single, pickup-truck-sized breathing hole in the sea ice, about 30 kilometres from Inukjuak.
Locals captured images of the orcas frantically bobbing for air from the opening, which allowed only a couple of the animals to surge for oxygen at a time.
The killer whales were first spotted Tuesday and were last seen at the hole late Wednesday. On Thursday, two Inukjuak hunters reported that the waters had opened up in the area and the orcas were gone.
Some villagers were skeptical the killer whales had escaped harm, so the community hired an airplane to scan the region Thursday for signs of the pod.
Mark O'Connor of the regional marine wildlife board said the aerial search did not locate the orcas, but he noted that large swaths of ice-free water were seen in the area.
"So as far as I could tell, the emergency, for sure, is averted," said O'Connor, the board's director of wildlife management.
"Whether the whales have found a passage all the way to the Hudson Strait, we probably will never know."
Inukjuak's town manager believes the orcas escaped the ice when the winds shifted overnight and blew back into the bay. Johnny Williams said the direction change seemed to have pushed the floating ice further away from the shore, loosening its coverage on the water.
He also credited the new moon for changing the conditions.
Tommy Palliser, a local government official, said in an email Thursday that the orcas' once-inadequate breathing hole was about 500 metres wide and up to five kilometres long.
He also expressed concern about the varying conditions.
"The problem is the wind is coming in again from the sea ice," wrote Palliser, a business adviser for northern Quebec's regional government.
Locals in Inukjuak, about 1,500 kilometres north of Montreal, believe the orcas were initially pinned under a vast expanse of ice after a sudden drop in temperature caught them off guard.
Ewins said that in recent years climate change has reduced sea-ice cover in Hudson Bay, opening the door to predators like orcas to spend more time there feeding in summer.
But sometimes they don't make it out, he said.
Ewins pointed to three ways to respond to the situation: rescue operations, such as helicopter lifts and icebreaker-dug channels; destroying the orcas if they start to suffer; and allowing nature to take its course.
"These clearly are the minority of the killer-whale population that didn't quite get it right and get out in time," Ewins said.
To survive the winter in the bay, he said the killer whales would have the challenge of moving from one ice-free area to another until the floes recede from the bay in May.
Experts say sea ice is known as a natural cause of death for marine mammals like orcas.
Palliser, who saw the animals up close several times, said they appeared to have less energy late Wednesday, the last time he saw them.
Many thought time was running out for the killer whales on Wednesday, as their breathing hole seemed to have shrunk in the freezing temperatures.
Inukjuak Mayor Peter Inukpuk asked the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on Wednesday to send an icebreaker to smash the ice to free the orcas, but he said he was told the site was too far away and that the ships were unavailable.
The federal department said Thursday that two DFO scientists were headed to the village to collect information.
Villagers, nonetheless, were ready to take action. They had made plans to launch a daring rescue operation Thursday in an effort to buy more time for the gasping killer whales.
Locals had agreed to attempt to enlarge the existing breathing hole — and cut a second opening using chainsaws and drills.
Williams hopes the villagers' prayers have been answered.
"These mammals are the same thing as humans, they deserve to live like everybody else," he said. "They don't need to suffer."
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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.