Bad news for whales out of the Russian Far East: over 100 belugas are reportedly trapped in water between ice floes in the Chukotka region, cut off from the sea. Fishermen in the area—one of the poorest in Russia, bordering the Bering Sea—report that the white whales have been essentially boxed in by approaching ice floes, sealing them off from the open sea. The whales are concentrated near two small holes in the ice, which give them room to breathe—belugas can hold their breath for perhaps 20 minutes—but with the ice floes expanding with the coming of winter, and little food remaining, their time is limited. If they can’t escape to the sea, the whales risk death by starvation or simple exhaustion.
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Right now the Chukotka Autonomous Region government has asked Moscow to send an icebreaker to the region, with the hopes of cutting a path to free the belugas. They’ll need to move fast—the nearest icebreaker, the Rubin, is two days sail away.
Of course, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has a lot on his hands right now, what with the accusations of election-rigging, unprecedented public protests against his rule and a presidential campaign to plan. But Putin likes to portray himself as a muscular conservationist—sort of like a Russian Teddy Roosevelt—and he loves being getting his hands dirty in the Russian wild. In fact, in July 2009 Putin actually donned a wetsuit during a meeting with scientists on Russia’s Pacific coast and attached a radio transmitter to a beluga whale as part of an experiment, and the belugas have a page of their own on Putin’s website. Belugas are a protected species in Russia, though one of the biggest threats to their existence is the oil industry—not something Putin has much interest in curtailing.
Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.