By Kristin Westdal
News spread fast about a pod of killer whales trapped in ice in Hudson Bay near the Nunavik community of Inukjuak in early January. As soon as I got word, I headed for the airport in Winnipeg. I’d only heard of orcas being stuck in ice in the eastern Arctic once before during my research as a marine biologist and hoped to gather information that would shed light on this unusual occurrence.
The incident began on the morning of January 8 when a hunter from Inukjuak, Nunavik was traveling across the ice and came across 11 trapped whales. Local residents rarely see killer whales, and certainly not in the winter, when orcas are normally in open water. A video of the whales surfacing repeatedly for air in a small breathing hole was posted on Facebook and went viral. Soon the world was watching and hoping the whales would survive.
No one could tell how long the pod of whales had been trapped -- perhaps only a few days. But when they were discovered, the whales were breathing out of a hole that was only 30 feet by 30 feet in diameter and there seemed to be little chance of survival. The good news was that the weather was mild for January in the area (-10 to -15 celsius) so the whales’ breathing hole had shrunk more slowly than it might have in previous years. By the night of January 9, concerned community members made plans for a team to head out the next morning to enlarge the original breathing hole and create additional holes to provide more space for the whales.
As luck would have it, the exact weather that the whales needed to escape the ice came that night. Strong east winds pushed the ice offshore, opening a lead along the coast and cracks out into the bay. By morning, the whales were gone. Later that day, after a two-day journey to Inukjuak, I arrived with technicians from Fisheries and Oceans Canada. As part of a larger project on killer whales in the Arctic, we had hoped to take biopsy samples and gather photos and video footage for use in identification, genetic analysis, and a better understanding of why orcas are becoming more common in the eastern Arctic.
Satellite images of ice obtained over the next few days confirmed limited open water in all directions, making it impossible to locate and determine the safety of the whales. Killer whales can swim at speeds of up to 45 kilometers per hour and can cover great distances in 24 hours. While in the community, I gathered photos and video from residents who had been out to see the whales. These photos will be compared to other pictures of killer whales in the region to assist in understanding their movements and possible population size. We may even be able to use the Inukjuak photos to eventually verify that the whales escaped and are thriving elsewhere in the Arctic.
The size of the killer whale population in Hudson Bay and where they spend their time directly affects the belugas we are studying in the region. Killer whales are one of the belugas’ main predators, in addition to humans and polar bears. Yet we know very little about killer whales in the north and are unsure how their presence will affect other marine mammals.
A year ago, I co-authored a research paper with Steven Ferguson of Fisheries and Oceans Canada that documented Inuit knowledge about what killer whales prey on in the Arctic. Further research in eastern Hudson Bay may lead to an understanding of why these killer whales were in this area late in the year. Later this year, we’ll be publishing more research about killer whales in the journal Arctic.
Kristin Westdal is a marine biologist working for Pew Environment Group’s Oceans North Canada and is based in Winnipeg.