A pod of orcas that seemed ensnared by drifting sea ice near Japan’s primary northern island of Hokkaido has apparently broken free from the icy confinement, as stated by a local official.

The team from the town of Rausu embarked on a land-based quest for the whales on Wednesday, lasting approximately two hours. However, the 10-plus orcas were nowhere in sight, as shared by Ryoji Onuma, who heads the response efforts for Rausu. Onuma noted that their team reached within a kilometer of the last known location of the orcas, amidst press helicopters circling above and locals operating drones to document the situation.

Onuma affirmed that with the ice thawing and the situation improving, further rescue operations are unnecessary. “Our involvement is concluded,” Onuma confirmed.

“While we can’t confirm with certainty, I’m optimistic that these whales have found their way out, breaking free from the ice. We sincerely hope so,” Onuma expressed. Despite offers of assistance from wildlife organizations as far as the United States and Russia, Onuma highlighted the risks posed by direct human intervention in the area to both humans and animals.

Describing the challenging conditions on Tuesday night, Onuma recounted, “We were there before nightfall. They simply didn’t have enough space to maneuver. They were unable to escape,” referring to the plight of the whales.

Onuma narrated the coordinated efforts of the animals as dusk approached, stating, “It appeared as though they were taking turns to breathe, as if they had a specific order.”

Trapped Orcas in Japan

The Japan Coast Guard also contributed to the efforts, revealed Onuma. “We deliberated on dispatching icebreakers to free the creatures. However, there was a risk that the icebreakers could inadvertently worsen the situation by crowding the orcas further,” Onuma cautioned.

“We are grateful for the outpouring of ideas and support,” Onuma acknowledged, recognizing the widespread concern.

Though emphasizing his nonexpert status, Onuma speculated, “These creatures each possess unique features and identifiable natural markings. They have a wide range. It’s plausible that someone aboard a sightseeing vessel in the future may spot and recognize one of these animals from the circulated images, evidence of their successful escape.” On Tuesday, Wildlife Pro LLC shared drone footage, captured by Seiichiro Tsuchiya, showcasing the then-trapped orcas on Facebook. Viewers witnessed the orcas struggling to breathe, with their heads emerging from the icy water. Tsuchiya recounted seeing approximately 13 killer whales with their heads protruding from an opening in the ice, some appearing to be calves. A similar incident occurred in Rausu in 2005, according to NHK, where nine orcas reportedly perished after becoming trapped in drift ice.