Four orcas, including one small calf, have been successfully rescued after becoming trapped by ice in the shallow waters off the Russian island of Sakhalin. 

Exactly how the pod got stuck remains unclear, but it appears to have happened overnight, when a cold snap froze the animals' chosen route back to the open ocean. A rescue team led by the Russian Emergencies Ministry (EMERCOM) worked tirelessly to free the whales, a process that took eight hours and included an after-dark stint on the ice. During the ordeal, the largest of the whales – a seven-metre male – was nicknamed (what else?) "Willy".

I repeat: Russia has freed Willy.

It became clear from the get-go that this unique operation called for teamwork on a large scale. Though the whales were found just 100 metres from the coastline, the shallow waters around the island are extremely rocky, and the additional ice floes made ship access to the animals impossible.

"The rescue unit got to the mammals using a large rowboat which was provided by the local fishing enterprise," EMERCOM explained in a statement. Local fire rescue officials, as well as search and rescue specialists, were called in to join the efforts. 

The team initially attempted to widen the spaces between the blocks of ice using long poles, hoping the animals would manage to leave the shallows on their own. But after the largest whale began to show signs of extreme fatigue, rescuers adopted a more drastic approach, tying ropes to the animal's fluke in order to drag him to safety. 

"[Willy's] blowhole was underwater and he was unable to surface without extreme effort," explained ministry head Denis Ilyinov [translated from Russian]. "The three rescuers in the water moved the animal to the deep area so they cold turn him. We did it as carefully as possible, as additional trauma for the weakened killer whale could have killed it."

Scientists have observed that when orcas become "locked" in ice like this, they expend a huge amount of energy searching for an escape route. As they begin to tire, they return to their intial spot and wait. Essentially, they go into "panic mode". It's likely that this pod opted to stay where it had access to oxygen, and the ice simply closed in. 

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Some deep-diving cetaceans (like sperm whales) can hold their breath for an impressive 90 minutes, but orcas need to surface much more frequently. They typically take several brief and shallow dives, followed by a deeper dive where they stay submerged for three to five minutes. They can hold their breath for up to 15 minutes, but risking such a manoeuvre to navigate the ice could have proven fatal in this case – especially for the young calf.

With Willy stabilised, the team returned to carving out a path for the three remaining whales. The poles proved to be no match for the widest chunks of ice, so onshore vehicles were called in to tow the heavy slabs inland using a winch system.

Several hours later, the pod was safe – with the exception of Willy. Refusing to give up, the team decided that the only option was to remain with the male overnight, in the hope that the incoming tide would lift him off the rocks and give him enough of a push to send him swimming in the right direction. Their decision paid off. 

"The rescuers and volunteers who stayed near the animal at night covered it with tarpaulin to reduce heat loss and pushed away the ice floes that could hurt it," EMERCOM said. "At around 6am local time, the rescue operation successfully ended. Willy reached the open sea."