Update From AFP: More than 100 Beluga whales remain trapped between ice floes in the Chukotka region of Russia's Far East as bad weather hampers the rescue operation, the emergencies ministry said Tuesday.
"The weather still prevents a vessel sent to the scene from approaching the zone where the Belugas are trapped," a spokesman of the ministry's Chukotka branch told AFP by telephone.
"We cannot say right now when the rescue operation could start," he added.
Thursday, Dec. 15: The Arctic can be an unforgiving realm, and even its most adept inhabitants at times struggle with the potentially fatal obstacles it places in front of them.
The beluga is a case in point. Like other toothed whales, it uses echolocation, or sonar, to help find its way around; the echolocation of a beluga, however, seems to be particularly finely tuned and adept at finding even the narrowest of cracks and leads in the ice that forms on the sea surface.
Sometimes, however, even that ability is outmatched by the challenges of an Arctic winter. On occasion, ice cover may be so extensive that all the belugas in the area are forced to use the nearest available patch of open water, known as a polynya; as a result, that patch of water can seem positively inundated with bobbing white heads and the exhalation of whale breath. In such cases, the best scenario for the belugas is that other leads open up and they can find their way to food and safety; the worst scenario is that even this oasis either freezes over or becomes a magnet for polar bears, which have been known to take advantage of such circumstances to engage in a kind of feeding frenzy, reaching in and hauling trapped belugas on to the ice.
It is uncertain how often this may happen, but given the extent and hostility of the Arctic, it can be assumed to be not infrequent; however, humans are rarely around to see it happen. There are some records: In Disko Bay, Greenland, at least 1,000 belugas were trapped in 1915, and up to 3,000 in 1955. In 1984, some 3,000 belugas were trapped in Senyavina Strait, off the Bering Sea in late December. A Russian icebreaker, the Moskva, was able to clear a channel through 12-foot thick ice to free the whales in late February. Roughly 2,000 whales escaped, and slightly more than 500 were taken by Native hunters.
In 2006, approximately 250 belugas were similarly threatened by encircling ice near Tuktoyaktuk in Canada's Northwest Territories; many found a way to freedom, but when it became clear that the remaining 50 or so almost certainly would not, local Inuvialuit killed them for food.
Right now, another 100 or so belugas are trapped in far eastern Russia, in the Sinyavinsky Strait off the Bering Sea near the village of Yanrakynnot. According to CNN: "Fishermen reported that the whales were concentrated in two relatively small ice holes, where, for now, they can breathe freely. But the belugas' chance of swimming back to water is slim due to the vast fields of ice over the strait. The whales have little food, and the ice flow is increasing … They are at risk of rapid exhaustion and, ultimately, death by starvation or suffocation."
The government of the Chukotka Autonomous Region has asked Moscow to send an icebreaker to the region, to cut a path through which the belugas can swim to liberty. But the nearest icebreaker, the Rubin, is two days' steaming away, having just rescued the crew of a Korean cargo ship that ran aground off Chukotka.
Will Russian authorities be able to save the whales? Or will the Arctic have the final say? For the belugas, time is running out.
Photograph of belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) in open water in Hudson Bay, Canada, by Ansgar Walk, via Wikimedia Commons.
Beluga whale adults in a breathing hole amidst the pack ice during Spring migration, Chukchi Sea, off shore from the Arctic coastal village of Barrow, Alaska, in 2009. (Steven Kazlowski, Corbis)