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Belugas trapped under Hudson Bay ice attract a crowd

Nunatsiaq NewsNunatsiaq Online
Sanikiluaq hunters look down Feb. 14 at one of the breathing holes where about 20 belugas are trapped.
Courtesy Nunatsiaq News
This beluga, photographed Feb. 14, is one of about 20 milling around in two small breathing holes near Sanikiluaq. The beluga shows injuries from attacks from polar bears.
Courtesy Nunatsiaq News
Belugas trapped between two small breathing holes near Sanikiluaq, with blood from recent attacks by polar bears.
Courtesy Nunatsiaq News

About 20 beluga whales have spent this past week trapped in sea ice, around two breathing holes about 60 miles south of Sanikiluaq.

Many of the belugas have been killed or wounded after repeated attacks by polar bears, who have been hanging around two six-foot-wide breathing holes, said Lucassie Arragutainaq, who works with the Hunters and Trappers Association in the Hudson Bay community.

Hunters first discovered the trapped belugas a few days ago. 

On Feb. 13, hunters finally managed to land six of the belugas, which were delivered to the community to be used for food.

At that point, there were still about 20 belugas spotted in the two openings, Arragutainaq said. That’s after polar bears had already killed about 19 belugas.

“The polar bears have calmed down now after landing 19 whales themselves,” Arragutainaq said Feb. 14.

Hunters had counted 19 beluga carcasses on the ice that had been hauled out and eaten by the polar bears.

So far, the polar bears have killed mostly “calves from last spring.”

“All I know is we had to get them before the polar bears get them, because a lot of them are wounded by the polar bears,” Arragutainaq said.  “We have to get them before the polar bears.”

Some hunters planned to go out again on the morning of Feb. 14 where the belugas remained trapped, he said.

“It’s quite a ways from here, [so] I’m not exactly sure how it’s going to turn out today,” he told Nunatsiaq News.

Recent reports from the community say hunters harvested another nine belugas that day.

Due to changing ice conditions, it’s not unusual that belugas end up trapped in ice where they are at risk of predation or death from exhaustion, starvation or suffocation.

In December 2011, about 100 belugas were trapped in the northeastern Russian region of Chuktotka — an icebreaker was sent into the free the whales, but finally had to call off the rescue mission.

In Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories belugas were trapped in the narrows leading into the southern Husky Lakes in 2006 and 2007.

“Situations where marine mammals are trapped by the ice are not unusual in the North,” Nathalie Letendre, a communications officer for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, told Nunatsiaq News last month when a group of killer whales were trapped near Inukjuak, but managed to escape when the wind moved the ice.

The preceding report first appeared in Nunatsiaq News, headquartered in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, and is republished here with permission.