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Killer whales' plight in ice an example of climate change impact, researcher says

Killer whales trapped in the ice near Inukjuak on Tuesday. The pod apparently escaped Wednesday or Thursday when a path broke open.
Killer whales trapped in the ice near Inukjuak on Tuesday. The pod apparently escaped Wednesday or Thursday when a path broke open.Clement Rousseau

The plight of a pod of killer whales that got trapped by ice in a mostly frozen Canadian bay this week was a “good example of what climate change can do” in the Arctic, a researcher said Friday.

The 11 killer whales apparently escaped the ice in Hudson Bay late Wednesday or early Thursday morning, when shifting currents helped break open a path to the sea, according to Petah Inukpuk, mayor of Inukjuak, a remote Inuit village in Quebec where locals had crafted a plan to help the animals, also known as orcas. Other reports said there were 12 orcas in the pod.

The killer whales were hundreds of miles from where they should be at this time of year, such as in the Hudson Strait or the North Atlantic, said Lyne Morissette, a mariner researcher with the Quebec-based St. Lawrence Global Observatory.

The bay, which normally freezes over in late November or early December only froze over earlier this week.

“It’s definitely a direct effect, a good example of what climate change can do,” she told NBC News on Friday of the orcas’ plight. “All the dynamics of how the ice is going to move and where the ice is going to be -- it’s not only about ice melting in the Arctic, you know -- it’s the whole dynamics and currents that could change because of climate changes.

“ … we will see that kind of unusual situation (like with the killer whales) or unusual features of the ice more and more because it’s changing quite a lot in the Arctic right now.”

A wide search by Inukjuak villagers in a small plane later Thursday revealed a number of openings in the bay, plus some ducks and a polar bear with its cubs. But there was no sign of the whales, he said Friday.

Though animals can get lost and the pod was in a better position than earlier this week, the animals “definitely, definitely shouldn’t be in the Hudson Bay,” Morissette said.

“They are entrapped in the whole Hudson Bay right now. They are in an area where at least they can breathe and they … have the space to breathe, but the whole Hudson Bay is covered with ice,” she said. “Will they be able to go from one opening to the other and just find their way out of the Hudson Bay? Or will they just stay there for the whole winter until the ice goes out? We have no idea right now.”

Eleven killer whales free after being "locked in" ice, mayor says

The migration of animals relies upon indicators, such as sensors based on food resources or temperature.

“If food changes and temperatures are changing in the Arctic, they don’t have the same kind of sensors or indicators that it’s time for them to leave,” Morissette said. “In this case, with climate change, we know that the whole environment is changing quite a lot, so it might be because their sensors or the things that indicate to them that it is time to do a certain part of their life cycle is not tuned to their biology right now because everything is changing so fast.”

Inukpuk said killer whales were not spotted in the area every summer, but every second or third one. However, this was the first time that they were "locked in,” he said.

One pod of orcas died in 2005 when they were trapped in thick ice. There have been some other cases, too, said Paul Wade, a research fisheries biologist at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle.

Killer whales, technically in the oceanic dolphin family, are highly social and typically travel in pods numbering from two to 15, though there can be larger groups, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They are most numerous in colder waters, such as Antarctica, Alaska and Norway, although they can also be found in temperate and tropical waters.

Their numbers are not known in the area where the pod was trapped, and the video caught of the group provided some invaluable information, Morissette said.

“Compared to other species, they are really social animals,” she said. It was “really interesting for us to see how they could organize their time and their energy for sharing that little hole to breath instead of” the strongest in the pod trying to survive.

“Apparently they were trying to find a strategy for the survival of the whole group,” she added.