A pod of at least 10 killer whales, including a mother and her calf, have been spotted struggling to breathe after becoming trapped by sudden drift ice off the coast of Rausu in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan.
Discovery of Trapped Whales
The pod was first sighted on February 5th by local fishing crews. Drone footage captured the following day showed the orcas taking turns to come up for air inside a small opening in the ice. Experts believe the ice shifted quickly around the whales due to strong winds, encircling them before they could escape back to open water.
“They were unlucky to have been caught in such a bad spot,” said Professor Tetsuya Kakuda, a marine biologist from Hokkaido University. “The ice moved faster than they could swim, so they couldn’t outpace it to reach the sea. Now they are trapped in a very confined space and are struggling to breathe and stay alive.”
||Whale Pod Details||
|Number of Whales|10+|
|Types Present|Adults, juveniles, mother & calf|
|Location|1-2 miles off Rausu, Hokkaido|
|Date First Spotted|Feb 5th|
|Current Condition|Taking turns coming up for air through a small hole in the ice|
Professor Kakuda estimates from the drone footage that there are at least 10 orcas in total, including adults, juveniles and a mother with her young calf.
“They appear to be taking turns coming up for air, which shows intelligent coordinated behavior,” he said. “But with such a small breathing hole and so many whales, it will become harder and harder for them all to survive. The adults might starve themselves to death trying to save the younger ones.”
Rescue Efforts Face Major Obstacles
Rescuers are facing huge obstacles in trying to assist the trapped whales due to the remote, icy conditions.
Rausu is a small, isolated fishing town on the northwest Shiretoko Peninsula. The drift ice surrounding the whales is up to 56 square miles in area and 16-inches thick in parts. It would be extremely dangerous for rescuers to reach the whales by boat or on foot.
“This is a very challenging and risky operation,” explained coast guard official Takahiro Ishikawa. “We are discussing options but have to move carefully due to the remote location, weather and thickness of the ice.”
Attempts by the coast guard to break up the ice or create an escape path have so far been unsuccessful. Conservation groups like Life Investigation Agency have sent drones to drop food to the pod, but experts say this will only help extend their survival by days.
“The odds are against them,” said Professor Kakuda solemnly. “Their small breathing hole could freeze over completely, sealing them under the ice. Also, orcas are used to eating seal blubber and need lots of food due to their size. The little bit of fish being dropped by drones won’t sustain 10 large whales for very long.”
Race Against Time to Prevent Whale Starvation
Starvation poses the most immediate threat to the trapped killer whales. Orcas have very high metabolism and need to eat constantly to stay alive.
“They only have vital blubber reserves to last two weeks at most,” explained wildlife veterinarian Dr. Haruko Ono. “After that, their bodies will start shutting down one by one. The younger ones will perish first, probably within 10 days.”
It’s a race against the clock to find a way to feed the huge whales. One option being researched is sending feed lines with whale blubber through small holes drilled in the ice. But experts say this has never been attempted before in such extreme conditions.
“No one has ever tried to hand-feed a pod of trapped killer whales in the ice on this scale,” said Ishikawa. “We know their brains need fat to function in the cold climate, but getting enough calories to 10 whales spread apart is incredibly difficult.”
Bleak Outlook Without Rapid Rescue
If the orca pod can’t be freed or adequately fed within the next 7 to 10 days, the situation looks dire. Their small breathing hole is at high risk of freezing over completely. Also, the whales don’t have enough blubber or stamina to support their large brains for more than two weeks without starving.
Heartbreakingly, Professor Kakuda says the adult whales seem to be doing everything to keep the youngest calf alive, but it may not survive without its mother’s milk.
Some experts hold out hope that a change in wind or current could naturally break up the ice. But unless this happens soon, the odds of rescue in time appear very low.
“I want to have hope, but…,” Professor Kakuda paused somberly, “…based on the footage, the number of whales and thickness of the ice, realistically if they are not all dead already, most will start dying within the next 72 hours.”
Urgent Need for Innovative Solutions
Inventive ideas are immediately needed to save these highly intelligent and social mammals. Some concepts proposed by rescue teams include:
- Expanding the breathing hole: Using ice-breaking ships, submarines with heat tools, or under-ice line charges to carefully open up the hole. This allows more air but doesn’t solve starvation.
- Artificial feeding lines: Dropping up to 10 one-ton lines with whale blubber through holes drilled in the ice. Risky and untested method.
- Luring with food: Trying to lure part of the pod 1 mile to open water using blubber bait on ships on the ice edge. May separate mothers from calves so very risky.
Conservation groups around the world, from Alaska to Norway, are also being contacted to provide expert input on the rescue efforts from previous attempts.
“Killer whales are like wolves of the sea – highly familial, communicative and cooperative,” said marine conservationist Keiko Yoshida. “If we can show the same courageous commitment to teamwork and innovation, I still pray we can find a way to free them in time.”
Grim Outcome Without Fast Action
But without rapid innovative solutions, the last breaths of these magnificent orcas could soon fade away under the ice.
“This is another tragic sign of the growing impact climate change is having,” emphasized Professor Kakuda. “The Arctic ice pack is becoming more unstable and unpredictable, trapping whales that have passed through safely for centuries. We are likely witnessing the distressing extinction of an entire pod – and feeling completely helpless to prevent it.”
Let us all wish these rescuers Godspeed in finding an improbable miracle. For if they fail, the frigid Sea of Okhotsk could become the cold heartless tomb of an entire lineage of remarkably intelligent killer whales.
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