(NEW YORK) — A pod of orcas that appeared to be trapped by drift sea ice off Japan’s main northern island of Hokkaido has seemingly escaped the icy enclosure, according to a local official.
Officials from the town of Rausu conducted a land-based search for the whales for about two hours on Wednesday, but the 10-plus orcas were nowhere to be found, Ryoji Onuma told ABC News.
“It seems they’ve escaped, but we can’t be certain,” said Onuma, who’s leading the response for Rausu. Their team got within a kilometer of the last known spot of the orcas, Onuma said, while press helicopters buzzed above and locals piloted drones, capturing the scene.
Onuma confirmed to ABC News that with the ice melting away and the situation looking up, there’s no need for further rescue efforts. “It’s a wrap for us,” Onuma said.
“Although we can’t confirm for sure, I’m confident these whales have found their way out, made their way free from the ice. We certainly hope they have,” Onuma added.
Wildlife organizations from as far as the United States and Russia had stepped forward to help, but Onuma said direct human intervention into the area would have put both man and beast in danger.
Tuesday night was a tough situation, Onuma said.
“We were down there before nightfall. They just didn’t have enough space. They couldn’t get out,” Onuma said of the whales.
Onuma described the animals’ coordinated struggle as the sun set, telling ABC News: “It seemed like they were taking turns breathing, like they had an order in which they were going in.”
The Japan Coast Guard was also on board to help, Onuma said.
“We discussed having ice breakers coming in to free the creatures. There was a possibility the ice breakers could’ve pushed the ice in, crowding them even more,” Onuma said. This approach could’ve inadvertently harmed the orcas, potentially covering their breathing hole, Onuma said.
“We really appreciate all of the ideas and support that came in,” Onuma added, acknowledging the widespread concern.
Onuma, while clarifying his nonexpert status, told ABC News: “These animals each have distinct characteristics and natural, identifiable marks. They have a long range. It is possible that someone somewhere down the road in a sightseeing boat […] will spot and recognize one of these animals from the images circulated, proof that they escaped with their lives.”
On Tuesday, Wildlife Pro LLC shared drone footage, filmed by Seiichiro Tsuchiya, of the then-trapped orcas on Facebook, where viewers could see the orcas bobbing their heads in and out of the icy water. Tsuchiya said the orcas appeared to be struggling to breathe and were unable to swim free.
“I saw about 13 killer whales with their heads sticking out of a hole in the ice,” Tsuchiya told Japanese public broadcaster NHK. “They seemed to be struggling to breathe, and it looked like they included three or four calves.”
A similar incident happened in Rausu in 2005, according to NHK, where nine orcas reportedly died after being trapped in drift ice.
ABC News’ Anthony Trotter contributed to this report.
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