Russian authorities have launched a massive rescue to save more than 100 Beluga whales that are trapped by giant pieces of floating ice in the Bering Sea. Fear is rising that they will soon die of exhaustion or starvation.
Local hunters discovered the whales on Wednesday in the Sinyavinsky channel, in the Chukotka region. They are trapped by a “wide belt of 10- to 15- centimeter- thick ice,” (33 feet to 50 feet).
Fishermen say the whales have two areas where they can surface for air, but have little access to food and are so boxed in, they cannot swim to open waters.
Local residents reported the crisis to Russia’s Transport Minister and Emergencies Minister asking them to send an icebreaker as soon as possible. Advancing ice and extreme frigid waters are increasing the size of the icebergs, which will eventually reduce the amount of space the whales have to swim.
A rescue tug called the Ruby was dispatched to the area. It was in the Bering Sea helping a Korean cargo ship that ran aground, but it is being hampered by a “high wind and a heavy swell.” It cannot break through the ice until the weather gets better.
Beluga whales are listed as “near-threatened” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list. Unfortunately it is a relatively common phenomenon for them to get trapped by icebergs in the Bering Sea, but most of the time people are not nearby to notice the tragedy or call for help.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is a fan of Beluga whales, and heads Russia’s program to protect them.
Updates to this story will be posted as new details are reported.
Photo from mikejsolutions via flickr.