Killer whale pod trapped by sea ice near Inukjuak
Incident follows years of increased killer whale sightings in the eastern Arctic
A group of killer whales appears to be trapped, encircled by sea ice about 30 kilometres off Inukjuak.
Inukjuak’s mayor, Petah Inukpuk, said a local hunter discovered the whales yesterday. Local observers say there are about a dozen whales in the group.
They notified the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the department is currently “working with various partners” to figure out what to do.
“Situations where marine mammals are trapped by the ice are not unusual in the North,” said Nathalie Letendre, a communications officer for the DFO.
In 2008, a large group of narwhal got stuck in sea ice near Bylot Island. DFO authorized a “human harvest” by hunters from Pond Inlet.
In Russia in 2005, six killer whales got stuck off a small island. Local people reportedly hacked at the ice with chainsaws, trying to enlarge the breathing area, but couldn’t save them. The whales died from exhaustion.
In Inukjuak, local radio hosts are asking residents to pray for a strong eastern wind, to blow the ice floes away.
Many people have gone out to see the whales, taking photos and videos and posting them to Facebook. (See video embedded below.)
Online footage shows a flurry of whales rhythmically breaking the surface to breathe. Occasionally, they surge up out of the water headfirst.
“That’s called spy-hopping,” said Dr. Stephen Turnbull, a marine biologist at the University of New Brunswick.
“They’re checking out what’s going on around them. If there’s a lot of activity around there, the whales could be curious.”
Killer whales have become increasingly common in the Eastern Arctic according to studies led by Steve Ferguson, a Winnipeg-based research scientist with the DFO. Those studies incorporated Inuit traditional knowledge.
Two years ago he estimated there were anywhere from 500 to 2,000 killer whales in the region.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for the United States says it’s hard to say how many killer whales there are “because of their general scarcity as well as their widespread and often unpredictable movement patterns.”
Inukpuk says killer whales are occasionally spotted around Inukjuak, but it’s not clear whether this pod is resident or transient.
He figures the recent change in weather — from unseasonably warm to a cold spell — may explain how the whales became trapped.
“Normally way before Christmas (the bay) freezes up and it did not freeze up as natural as in other seasons,” he said.
Turnbull says that if these whales are in fact a resident pod, they mayor might be right.
“If the whales are frequent in that area, they would probably anticipate that it would be frozen over much earlier.”
Inukpuk is hoping the DFO will send an icebreaker to clear a path for the whales to open sea.