A pod of killer whales has been discovered trapped in arctic waters that are quickly freezing around them. (Watch a video above.) The dozen or so whales, which need to come up for air to survive, have seen their small hole in the Hudson Bay shrink since they were found earlier this week. If it closes, they will drown.
The mayor of the small Inuit town of Inukjuak has requested help from the Canadian government. Conceivably, icebreakers could help solve the problem, but the equipment may not get there in time — it's quite far away, and there are other missions the icebreakers are being used for. On Thursday, Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans said it was sending a team to assess the situation, but couldn't promise to find a solution.
In the meantime, Inukjuak residents have taken to social media for help, spreading a video of the orcas that shows them repeatedly coming up for air. Activists are using hashtags #SaveQuebecWhales and #BigMiracle to help get traction on Twitter. "It is absolutely tragic to think about this, you know, if that does close up," says Deborah Giles, a graduate student researcher at the University of California.
It's unclear how the whales came to the area, as they don't normally travel into icy waters. Some experts suspect warming oceans have encouraged the whales to swim further north than they usually would, leaving them trapped when those warm waters suddenly freeze.
Paul Wade, a research fisheries biologist at NOAA's National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, says it's possible the whales could keep the hole open themselves simply by "continually coming up every minute or so." But villagers say the pod often disappears, probably in search of another opening that will lead them into the open water — which is 12 miles from the hole.
Update: Local villagers report the sea ice surrounding the whales has shifted, allowing the pod to escape into open water. Hooray!