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Killer whales trapped in ice off Japan


Killer whales trapped in the ice (NHK)
Orcas trapped in the ice in Japan (NHK)

Large numbers of killer whales, including babies, are reported to have become trapped in thick drift-ice off the town Rausu on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. 

The news broadcaster NHK shared footage on 6 February in which at least 10 orcas could be seen at the surface in a small gap in the ice of about 10sq m. The location was about 1km off the Shiretoko Peninsula, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its abundant wildlife.

A local fisherman had contacted Rausu Coast Guard Station in the morning to report on the orcas’ plight, but the Coast Guard considered the ice too thick for its crews to be able to reach and attempt to free them. “We have no choice but to wait for the ice to break,” commented the Rausu authorities.

Drone footage from a marine-life survey company later that morning showed the orcas, reckoned by then to number around 13 including three or four babies, continuing to struggle. By 4pm as many as 17 were reported to be trapped, but about 2km north-east of the morning sightings.

In a similar incident that occurred off Rausu in 2005, most of the killer whales were later reported to have died.

“Orcas are mammals, so they need to take a breather on the sea-ice,” Prof Mari Kobayashi of Tokyo University told NHK. “The drift-ice has spread out more than expected, and they haven’t been able to find a place to take a breather.” Freezing sea-spray is thought to have contributed to the ice build-up. 

Regarding the reports of young orcas being present, Prof Kobayashi commented: “Killer whales are highly social creatures that value their families, so they do not leave their young, who have poor swimming ability, behind. Maybe their parents are still with them.”

Also read: Amazing orca encounter at Sipadan, Young orca rescued by BDMLR in the Orkney Islands, Photographer captures shot of orcas frolicking off County Durham coast, Orcas join RNLI on training exercise

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