Canadian authorities mount rescue of orcas trapped in ice (+Video)

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch

Update, Jan. 10 8 a.m.: The orcas appear to have freed themselves, according to Peter Inukpuk, the mayor of the nearby village of Inukjuak. 

On Thursday morning, two hunters went to check on the ice and discovere the whales were gone.

Inukpuk said elders in the community credit the new moon, and changing tides and currents for shifting the ice.

When three gray whales became stranded in the ice off the far northern coast of Alaska in the winter of 1988, it captured the imagination of millions and became fodder for Hollywood decades later. Now, echoes of that may be felt in Canada's Hudson Bay, where a pod of killer whales appears to be similarly stuck, circling around a small hole in the ice, emerging for air but remaining close to the small breathing space.

That's according to Twitter user Stephane Lacasse (Twitter handle: @SlashLaCash), who on Tuesday afternoon posted the following tweet with a photo:

Lacasse, a resident of  Inukjuak, Quebec, said that the whales are stuck in the ice about an hour from that community, on the east side of Hudson Bay. They've been there since Monday. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the Hudson Bay region is largely frozen solid this time of year.

According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, killer whales are native to that region of Hudson Bay. Alaskan populations of orcas tend to move south with the sea ice as winter sets in.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports a polar bear wandered near the killer whales' breathing hole and was killed, and that the whales are too far from open water to swim out on their own. That means a rescue by icebreaker -- like that 1988 incident near Barrow, Alaska -- may be in order.

A group of killer whales that also found themselves someplace they shouldn't have been -- swimming up Alaska's Nushagak River -- didn't fare too well in 2010; the three whales all died.