An aerial survey today from Inukjuak, Quebec, Canada, revealed no trace of the orca family that was trapped in one small breathing hole near the village of Inukjuak. Hopes that the whales were “free” have been given a boost among many, but at the risk of showing what a skeptic I am, I believe that our vigil has, in truth, just begun.
What this “vigil” will look like, what we can do, or how we can do it, is less certain. At a minimum, we must continue to, together, watch the weather and watch for the family, and be ready to move on a moment’s notice. Watching for the family involves someone continuing to do reconnaissance flights in the area. Or on-ground surveys for any sign of the family.
The need for this vigil is revealed by knowledge about the orcas and about Hudson Bay. If Hudson Bay is truly in ice lock-down with no path to open water available, as shown in this animated ice map, even accounting for scaling issues, there is no free path from the Inukjuak area or the grid flown today by the aerial survey to the open ocean, the orcas’ Winter habitat.
While more than several newspapers and news outlets picked up the story of the trapped whales, many reports leaned toward a hopeful outcome. And while hope may spring eternal, the facts on the ground after the aerial survey, however, revealed only: no sight of the whales in a 40- by 50-mile grid where patches of open water were seen, some as large as football fields.
The overflight told us nothing about the distance to truly open water, nor could it tell us about the weather that will descend upon the Hudson Bay. Will it see warmer than usual weather or will cold arrive, as it did this week, and as is more characteristic of the Hudson Bay area?
What we also know, with or without an overflight, there is no path of ice-free water for the whales to swim through between this area and the open ocean, with sign posts that the whales can read “This Way to the Open Ocean.” As David Kirby observed, the whales are usually not in this area at this time of year. “The whales, obviously, stayed too long, and when a cold snap arrived, they found themselves trapped in an ice-bound hell.” Without a road map. With no path through the Hudson Strait to the Atlantic Ocean, where they would normally be at this time of year.
As they did in the story underlying the movie, The Big Miracle, Kasco Marine was prepared to put boots and de-icers on the ground to keep the whales’ breathing hole open as a path was created to “open water.” But nowhere in the interior of Hudson Bay is it considered “open water” for this family of orcas. “Open water” is the Atlantic Ocean. So to reach “open water”, it may be necessary to follow the whales from breathing hole to breathing hole until the Spring thaw.
For now, with the family not being spotted, there is nothing to do but watch. Watch for the whales and for a change in ice conditions. Should the family reappear, however, a restart of a Herculean effort like the one coordinated on Facebook by Fins and Fluke may be necessary.
Many thanks to the groups and individuals who worked to establish contacts from the United States to Australia to Canada and back again and to make #SaveQuebecWhales trend on Twitter. While it may be a long Winter in Hudson Bay for this family of orcas, they will not endure this Winter alone. There are people all around the world standing at the ready if and when they are again sighted. Join us.