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Trapped killer whales gone, but are they safe?

CBC NewsEye on the Arctic
Dr. Steven Ferguson photo

The killer whales trapped in the ice in northern Quebec, Canada appear to have left the area, but they may not be out of harm's way yet.

Lyne Morissette, a marine researcher with the St. Lawrence Global Observatory, said the ice can move quickly, and while a split in the ice opened a pathway for the whales, the orcas are still inside the ice-covered Hudson Bay.

"This is not a victory yet," she said.

According to Morissette, the whales still have over 100 kilometres to travel before they are in the open waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.

She said they may be able to survive in Hudson Bay for the winter, but it won't be easy.

If the whale pod doesn't make it, she said it would be a significant loss for the northern whale population.

On Wednesday, residents of an Inuit village called for the government's help to save a dozen killer whales trapped in the ice about 30 kilometres off the coast of the community of Inukjuak, Que.

The orcas were spotted at a breathing hole at the eastern top of Hudson Bay.

When two hunters, Jobie Epoo and Jamisee Weetaluktuk, went to check the ice before 8 a.m. ET on Thursday, they discovered the whales were gone. They called the local radio station to let them know the orcas were out of sight.

A group of 22 local men had been getting ready to go out to the site and see what they could do to help the whales reach open water.

Epoo said the plan was to make that hole larger and create another hole about 45 metres away, by sawing and drilling in the ice.

"It was a very dangerous area," Epoo said. "We're talking about flowing ice, moving ice — continuously, constantly moving ice — and depending on the time of the month, you never know when the ice is going to decide to go."

Inuit elders credit new moon

Inukjuak Mayor Peter Inukpuk said elders in the community credit the new moon for current changes that split the ice and opened a pathway for the whales.

Two Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientists are still heading to the remote community to gather scientific information and consult with community members.

The mayor said the community has been overwhelmed with calls from people around the world wanting to help with donations of money and equipment.

He said people were willing to send ice augers and chainsaws to help make more breathing space for the whales that were trapped.

Inukpuk said he is thankful to all those who offered to assist his community and help free the killer whales.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.