A harrowing story of orcas trapped in an icy prison off the coast of Japan has come to a happy ending. The dozen or so whales were spotted earlier this week near the island of Hokkaido, appearing to be enclosed by ice with no available way to help them. On Wednesday, however, officials reported that the orcas managed to successfully escape their predicament on their own.
The tale began Tuesday morning, when a fisherman from the town of Raisu first reported seeing the pod of killer whales (Orcinus orca) to the Rausu Coast Guard Station, according to CNN. Subsequent video footage captured by drone from local wildlife organization Wildlife Pro LLC showed the animals’ precarious situation: drift ice (layers of sea ice not attached to anything that are carried by wind and sea currents) had forced them into a densely packed space. And a lack of wind in the area prevented the ice from moving enough for the whales to leave easily.
“I saw about 13 killer whales with their heads sticking out of a hole in the ice,” Seiichiro Tsuchiya, a Wildlife Pro LLC employee who filmed the video, told Japanese news outlet NHK. “They seemed to be struggling to breathe, and it looked like they included three or four calves.”
Wildlife advocates soon called for the local government to intervene using icebreaker ships, but officials said there would be no way to safely reach them in time. And since orcas cannot breathe underwater as long as other whales—they need to resurface every few minutes—they seemed destined to meet the same fate as a pod of nine whales back in 2005, which died after being trapped by drift ice near Hokkaido.
By Wednesday morning, however, officials sent to monitor the situation reported that the whales had somehow made it out of the icy trap by themselves, possibly by finding just enough room to maneuver through gaps in the ice. The feat didn’t likely come easy, though, with earlier footage appearing to show signs of bleeding from some of the orcas.
“We believe they were able to escape safely,” a local official in the seaside town of Rausu said, according to the BBC.