A pod of around a dozen killer whales trapped by drift ice in waters off Japan’s northern island appear to have successfully escaped, officials say.
The stranded orcas were spotted by a fisherman earlier this week, almost one kilometre off Hokkaido.
Drone footage showed the animals packed closely together and sticking their heads out of the water to breathe.
That sparked an official response – with officials travelling to the seaside town to monitor the whales.
The footage was also shown on Japanese TV, prompting a wave of concern for the animals from the public this week and calls for environmental groups for government assistance for their release.
One group even petitioned the Japanese government to deploy an ice breaker to help free the trapped animals.
But on Wednesday, officials reported back saying their latest monitoring trip appeared to show the whales had moved away from the space.
“We believe they were able to escape safely,” a local official in the seaside town of Rausu said.
They speculated that the whales may have made their way out between gaps in the ice.
The footage of the trapped orcas – which included younger members of the pod – had appeared to show some bleeding at their jaws – a potential impact of the attempts the animals had made to escape.
According to Japanese media reports, orcas, unlike other large whales, can’t remain underwater for too long and need to resurface every few minutes.