MONTREAL -- A northern Quebec town is cautiously celebrating after a dozen killer whales trapped by sea ice appear to have reached safety amid the shifting floes of Hudson Bay.

Locals in Inukjuak say two hunters reported Thursday that the waters had opened up around a single breathing hole in the ice where the orcas had frantically bobbed for air over at least two days.

The mammals had been trapped around the single, pickup-truck-sized opening -- allowing only a couple of them to surge for oxygen from the hole at a time.

Their predicament made international headlines and images of the orcas circulated via media around the world.

But while people in the remote community expressed relief, fears remained that the orcas might not have escaped danger. Some say the water currents and ever-moving ice in the massive, frigid bay may have boxed the animals in somewhere else.

Inukjuak, about 1,500 kilometres north of Montreal, responded Thursday by hiring an airplane to scan the region later in the day for signs of the pod, the town manager said.

"We're quite concerned, that's why we're chartering the plane to find out if we can find them," said Johnny Williams, adding the village of 1,800 people will likely foot the bill for the aerial search.

"Even though they're a nuisance, even though they're a killer (of) our (beluga) whales and seals. They're like humans, they're mammals -- alive. They don't need to suffer."

Williams believes the orcas escaped when the winds shifted overnight and blew back into the bay. He said the direction change seemed to have pushed the floating ice further away from the shore, loosening its coverage on the water.

Williams also credited the new moon for changing the conditions.

Tommy Palliser, a local government official, said in an email Thursday that the orcas' once-inadequate breathing hole was about 500 metres wide and up to five kilometres long.

He also expressed concern about the varying conditions.

"The problem is the wind is coming in again from the sea ice," wrote Palliser, a business adviser for northern Quebec's regional government.

Locals believe the orcas were initially pinned under a vast expanse of ice after a sudden drop in temperature caught them off guard. They were first spotted Tuesday by a hunter about an hour's snowmobile ride from Inukjuak.

Palliser, who visited the cornered killer whales several times, said the animals appeared to have less energy by late Wednesday

Many thought time was running out for the massive animals Wednesday, as the hole seemed to have shrunk in the freezing temperatures.

Inukjuak Mayor Peter Inukpuk asked the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on Wednesday to send an icebreaker to smash the ice to free the orcas, but he said he was told the site was too far away and that the ships were unavailable.

The federal department said Thursday that two DFO scientists were headed to the village to collect information.

DFO said incidents where marine mammals are trapped by ice are not unusual in the North.

A veterinarian affiliated with Quebec's marine mammal emergency network says sea ice is known as a natural cause of death for animals like orcas.

Villagers, nonetheless, decided to take action. They had made plans to launch a daring rescue operation Thursday in an effort to buy more time for the gasping killer whales.

Palliser said locals had agreed to attempt to enlarge the existing breathing hole -- and cut a second opening using chainsaws and drills.

"It's certainly good news -- that's good news for the whales," he said of their apparent escape.

"We certainly had our prayers with them last night during our meeting."

Williams hopes the villagers' prayers have been answered.

"These mammals are the same thing as humans, they deserve to live like everybody else," he said.