The killer whales trapped under ice near a remote Quebec village reached safety today after the floes shifted on Hudson Bay, according to the mayor's office in Inukjuak.
Water opened up around the area where the orcas had been coming up for air and the winds seemed to have shifted overnight, creating a passageway to the open water six miles away.
"Two men were sent to check on the whales around 8 a.m., and they found that a passage of water had been created, all of the way to the open sea," Johnny Williams, the town manager, told ABCNews.com. "The wind from the north shifted yesterday.
"This is great news," Williams said.
He said the local residents are rejoicing now that they've learned the news.
"They're all really happy and really celebrating," Williams said. "They have smiles, and are saying thank you -- everything!"
Williams said he was unsure how far the whales have moved, but that they were definitely not under the ice hole. The mayor, Peter Inukpuk, and others will be flying over the area as soon as a plane arrives from Montreal to see if the whales can be found, Williams said.
Residents in the remote village of Inukjuak had been watching helplessly as at least 12 whales struggled to breathe out of a hole slightly bigger than a pickup truck in a desperate bid to survive.
The community had asked the Canadian government for help in freeing the killer whales, believed to be an entire family. The government denied a request to bring icebreakers Wednesday, saying they were too far away to help. Inukjuak, about 900 miles north of Montreal, was ill-equipped to jump into action.
Joe Gaydos, director and chief scientist at the SeaDoc Society in Eastsound, Wash., said that although the whales can go a long time without food, the length of time they can hold their breath, which they must do underwater, was the question.
"The challenge [was] to figure out where the next hole is," he told ABCNews.com before the whales found freedom. "If that lake freezes over, it's an unfortunate situation. It's a very limited chance. It's a matter of luck."
Inukjuak residents posted a video online to show the whales' struggles. In the clip, the whales are seen taking turns breathing. They can't bend their necks so they do a "spy-hopping" maneuver, Gaydos said, in order to look for another hole in the ice.
A hunter first spotted the pod of trapped whales Tuesday. It is believed that the whales swam into the waters north of Quebec during recent warm weather.
ABC News' Bethany Owings contributed to this report
- Nature & Environment