Killer whale pod trapped in sea ice in Japan has escaped, local official says

The orca was first spotted by a local fisherman on Tuesday morning.

A pod of orcas that appeared to be trapped in drifting sea ice off Japan's main northern island of Hokkaido has escaped an icy enclosure, a local official said.

Ryoji Onuma told ABC News that authorities from the city of Rasu conducted a land-based search for the whales for about two hours Wednesday, but more than 10 orcas were nowhere to be found.

“It looks like they escaped, but we can't be sure,” said Onuma, who is leading the response to Rause. Their group got within a kilometer of the orcas' last known location, Onuma said, while press helicopters buzzed overhead and locals piloted drones, capturing the scene.

Onuma confirmed to ABC News that the ice is melting and no further rescue efforts are needed. “It's a wrap for us,” Onuma said.

“Although we can't confirm for sure, I'm sure these whales have found their way and are free from the ice. We believe they definitely are,” Onuma added.

Wildlife organizations from countries such as the United States and Russia have come forward to help, but Onuma said direct human intervention in the area would have put both man and animal at risk.

Tuesday night was a difficult situation, Onuma said.

“We were down before nightfall. They didn't have enough room. They couldn't come out,” Onuma said of the whales.

Onuma described the animals' concerted struggle as the sun went down, telling ABC News: “They seemed to be taking turns breathing, like the order they were going in.”

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The Japan Coast Guard was also on board to help, Onuma said.

“We discussed icebreakers coming in to free the creatures. There was a possibility that the icebreakers would push the ice in and keep them even more crowded,” Onuma said. Onuma said this approach may have inadvertently harmed the orcas by covering their breathing hole.

“We really appreciate all the ideas and support that have come in,” Onuma added, acknowledging the widespread concern.

Onuma, clarifying his non-expert status, told ABC News: “Each of these animals has distinct characteristics and natural, recognizable markings. They're long distances. Someone might have been on a sightseeing boat somewhere down the road. […] Finding and identifying one of these animals from the images circulated is proof that they escaped alive.”

On Tuesday, Wildlife Pro LLC shared on Facebook drone footage shot by Seiichiro Tsuchiya of the then-trapped orcas, where viewers could see the orcas bobbing their heads in and out of the icy water. Tsuchiya said the orcas were struggling to breathe and could not swim freely.

“I saw about 13 killer whales sticking their heads out of a hole in the ice,” Tsuchiya said. Japanese public broadcaster NHK. “They looked like they were struggling to breathe, and it looked like they were covering three or four calves.”

According to NHK, a similar incident occurred in Rausu in 2005, where nine orcas reportedly died after being trapped in drifting ice.

ABC News' Anthony Trotter contributed to this report.

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