Early that afternoon I was bringing my sister to the airport to catch a flight home after her New Years visit to the Arctic and while we were checking her in there was even debate over whether they could convince the pilot to make a small detour over the area where the whales were stuck so that the passengers could catch a glimpse before winging their way south. As I drove back to town after seeing Kat off, there were a number of skidoos and snow machines heading out of town across the ice as the afternoon light was beginning to fade. A number of people from town were heading out to get a look at the trapped whales and the rest wanting to do the same. The difficulty lay in the route. The breathing hole where the whales were trapped was out on the edge of Hudson Bay, following a track of ice and snow covered bumps. Without a guide or a good knowledge of the right way to go, a person could very easily get lost on the ice. These are what had stopped many of the teachers from venturing out after school; that and the fact that the sun was already setting by the time classes got out. But the thought of "wouldn't it be incredible to be able to see the whales" still remained in our thoughts.
That evening, photos and videos started circulating online and interest to go out on the ice began to rise. At dinner that night, the whales were a large part of our discussion, specifically how we could get ourselves out to see them before it was too late. We had a skidoo, a hamutiq (sled), and warm clothes but we needed a guide and a way to get the day off from school. As dinner progressed we began to rationalize how this experience would be a once in a lifetime and wound up staging a kind of rebellion involving a flurry of phone calls, chats, and email conversation. After contacting our centre director and a number of other teachers we decided that we had to try and get out there no matter what. Our centre director agreed to find a guide that could take us out there and we decided that we would take a sick day in order to make it happen. The next morning we arrived at the school, ready to go if there was a guide to take us, the principal was not happy with the majority of his staff taking the morning off but there was little he could do. The group of us took the morning without pay and headed out on the ice. The weather was not great but we had a good guide and travelled out in convoy style for about an hour to get where the pack ice floes had trapped the whales. After arriving at the site, the guide reminded us to follow his directions and to watch our step on the ice. We climbed over jagged ridges of blue ice to the breathing hole that was being kept open by the movement of the whales. There was a fair size crowd being directed by several elder hunters who were checking the ice and looking for weak spots. It was a surreal experience standing on the edge of an ice floe, maybe 3 meters from these giant, sleek creatures. It was saddening to see how much the area of open water had diminished over night as the temperature had dropped. The tide and the wind were working against the whales, pushing the ice in, keeping the whales prisoner, and until mother nature changed her mind the situation was unlikely to change. It was a beautiful experience but sad at the same time.
I was struck by the situation or even debate of what to do about the whales. With youtube and other Internet media sources sending the situation viral, it was interesting to see people’s reactions. Many believed that the government should send in a icebreaker to set them free, or that the community should take out chain saw and cut a path free like had been done in the movie “Miracle”. It was interesting because it begs the question “What if”. What if the polar bear hunter had take a different route home and had not found the trapped whales, what if the videos had never been posted? The whales might have gotten free or they might have died depending on the weather and nature herself and we would never have known. People were complaining about the injustice of a pod of killer whales being trapped and that the village had not gone out to cut them free, but knowing nothing about the reality of the safety for the people involved. Floating ice floes or unstable ice trapped the whales. It would not possible to cut a path with chainsaws ‘like the Americans’ without endangering the live of the people. As for the idea of sending in an ice breaker, should the government ‘waste’ the money to fee a few whales when there are social problems in the North that are in dire need of aid.
In the end, the village decided to send out volunteers to break up enough ice to keep the breathing hole free until the weather shifted, Mother Nature decided the matter for us. During the night, the wind and tide shifted allowing the whales to find enough channels and free water to escape their temporary prison. As quickly as the excitement has begun it was over and village life went back to normal. I will never forget the feeling of standing on an ice on Hudson’s Bay no more than 3 meters away from a killer whale.