Last summer, massive pods of killer whales came to our shores to prey on a rare but precious prey – North Atlantic right whales.
The migration from their breeding and calving grounds in eastern Canada to their wintering grounds in the Beaufort Sea off northern Alaska, where the whales swim to cool down from the summer heat, sees the pods travel vast distances.
In some areas, the orcas can mistake right whales for other fish – including salmon – which they will take by the scores.
But as the orcas turned up more on remote beaches in the Haisla community of Rankin Inlet last summer, some locals were terrified their right whales had been injured or killed by killer whales.
They feared a repeat of the 1996 stranding in the same area when the sound of killer whales dominated residents’ conversations for weeks.
But when photos of the deaths started emerging, the community held a positive response with a small amount of money to help the sick or injured whales back into the Beaufort Sea.
Some orcas, which often navigate by instinct and may disregard any individual signs of danger, were spotted using fishing lines as a scent, or by rubbing their faces against things.
In Rankin Inlet, there was speculation that a nearby archipelago may have drawn the orcas in, after seal carcasses were found in human-run areas.
Many scientists believe these populations are witnessing one of the largest mass migrations in the Earth’s history, marking the demise of a highly endangered species.
Hundreds of the marine mammals had travelled down to Canadian waters near the North Pole, where in the early summer the temperature reached more than 40°C (104°F) before dropping to freezing in autumn.
The whales found a warming Arctic and melting Arctic ice to their favour.
As they circled Canada’s coastline for weeks, the population of killer whales was estimated to grow by hundreds to the current number of over 1,000.
The population had peaked about 70 years ago at around 50,000. Right whales had been so rare until the 1990s that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently put them on its Red List of Threatened Species.
They are listed as ‘vulnerable’ but fewer than 450 remain.
So far in the new year, sightings of the whales have been rare, with reports from north and south of Alaska.