NBCNEWS.COM - Eleven killer whales are "locked in" by ice in a Canadian bay, with only a small area of open water for them to surface, the mayor of a nearby village said as he appealed for help to save the marine mammals.
A hunter found the killer whales, also known as orcas, on Wednesday morning in Hudson Bay, in northeastern Canada. Two of the orcas appear to be adults; the remaining nine are smaller in size, said Petah Inukpuk, mayor of Inukjuak, an Inuit village home to 1,800, in Quebec. Other reports said there were 12 orcas in the pod.
A video taken by villager Clement Rousseau showed the opening to be just large enough for a few of the orcas to surface at a time. A team from Canada's fisheries department is expected to arrive at the ice hole on Thursday, according to Canada's CBC.ca.
"They are in a confined area," Inukpuk told NBC News on Wednesday, noting that "there is 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."
Killer whales are highly social and typically travel in groups 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.
Inukpuk said killer whales were not spotted in the area every summer, but every second or third one. But this is "the first time that they are locked in," he said.
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, the mayor said.
There was open water after Christmas but "about three days ago it got really cold and there is no more open water presently," he said.
Deborah Giles, a graduate student researcher at the University of California, Davis, who has studied killer whales for eight years, said the main issue facing the orcas would be if the air hole remained open.
"It is absolutely tragic to think about this, you know, if that does close up," she said. "That's really what their biggest problem is right now."
Among the ideas discussed to save the animals was using an icebreaker, she said, although Inukpuk said such equipment was in Antarctica at this time of year. 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 two California gray whales in a similar situation that made international headlines in 1988, said his experience in the effort known as "Operation Breakthrough" also showed the power of other 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."
Operation Breakthrough, which was chronicled in a 2012 movie "Big Miracle," was a success because Eskimo whalers cut more than a half mile of holes for the whales to travel through on their way to open sea in Alaska. Two Soviet icebreakers helped by crushing a critical thick wall of ice that blocked their path, according to a story on the rescue by the Los Angeles Times. Oil workers and environmentalists also assisted in the rescue effort.
The two gray whales were released after 20 days, although a third, smaller whale drowned near one of the air holes. There have been reports of other whales getting stuck beneath the ice, Giles said, but she said it was an anomaly for killer whales – technically in the oceanic dolphin family – which tend to hunt around the ice.
However, one pod of orcas died in 2005 in the Japanese Arctic after an ice hole closed, according to CBC.ca. There have been some other cases, too, said Paul Wade, a research fisheries biologist at NOAA's National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle.
Giles said food would likely not yet be a problem because the larger orcas should be able to survive on their fat stores for several weeks. But survival is less certain for the smaller mammals, including one that appeared to be nursing. She noted that the animals may not be in distress, as the adult males could be seen engaging in the normal behavior of "spyhopping" -- or shooting straight out of the water.
"It's possible that they are doing that not necessarily to get a bigger breath as somebody had indicated but rather to look around," Giles said, adding that killer whales can see equally well above water as below.
"It's also possible that they coming up as often as there is (is) a way to keep that ice open," she said. "They certainly, I would say, are smart enough to recognize that this is their breathing hole and they … don't want to have that close up."
Wade, the fisheries biologist, said he watched videos of the killer whales and thought some were engaging in normal behavior while other appeared agitated. He said it looks like the pod includes two adult males, several juveniles and female adults or younger adult males.
"There are cases where whales have been able to keep holes open just by the continually coming up every minute or so," he said. "It seemed like they could probably keep that open although it's not something killer whales do a lot of."
Wade also questioned how they got caught in the area.
"Why these whales hung around so long is a mystery," he 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."
Mayor Inukpuk said they would like to create an opening for the animals to move out. He said he would be on a conference call Thursday with other parties to discuss the possibilities. Canada's fisheries department said in an email that it was working closely with its partners and other experts to assess the situation.
Although the killer whales compete with human hunters for seal meat in an area where there are no supermarkets or grocery stores, Inukpuk said the villagers' main concern was the orcas' survival. Many residents have visited the area, which is 20 miles from the village and one mile from the coastline.
"They have a right to survive and hopefully someone will help us to get that (to) happen," he said. "The weather today is not so cold, so they (the killer whales) may keep the open area as it is by their movements.
"But tomorrow could be a different story."