MONTREAL – A community in Quebec’s Far North wants Ottawa to quickly deploy an icebreaker to free about a dozen killer whales cornered under a vast stretch of sea ice.
Locals in Inukjuak say the mammals have gathered around one hole in the ice — slightly bigger than a pickup truck — amid their desperate bid to get oxygen.
Mayor Peter Inukpuk urged the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on Wednesday to send an icebreaker as soon as possible to make additional holes in the ice to help the animals find open water.
“I would strongly advise DFO to bring the icebreaker up,” said Inukpuk, adding the federal department is usually quick to tell his community about the importance of protecting wildlife.
“If the icebreaker is not brought up here in attempt to save them, then DFO is full of words and without action.”
DFO did not immediately respond to messages left Wednesday by The Canadian Press.
Inukpuk said a hunter from his village first spotted the pod of about a dozen trapped whales Monday at the hole, which is about 30 kilometres from town on the eastern shore of the Hudson Bay. Inukjuak is about 1,500 kilometres north of Montreal.
Dozens of villagers made the one-hour snowmobile ride Monday to see the unusual spectacle.
They snapped photos and shot video footage of the killer whales surfacing in the opening — and even thrusting themselves skyward while gasping for air.
One woman who made the journey to the gap in the ice said even a curious polar bear approached the hole amid the commotion. Siasie Kasudluak said it was shot by a local hunter for its meat.
The trapped orcas appeared to be in distress, but locals were ill-equipped to help out.
Kasudluak said the hole appeared to be shrinking in the -30 C temperature.
“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.”
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 not often seen near Inukjuak, but hunters have returned home with tales over the years of having their canoes followed by the animals.
Inukpuk believes the sudden drop in temperature recently caught the orcas off guard, leaving them boxed in under the ice.
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,” she said.