April 24th, 2024

Killer whale rescue team puts boats back in lagoon in effort to entice calf to ocean

By The Canadian Press on March 28, 2024.

A killer whale and its calf are shown in a lagoon near Zeballos, B.C. in a handout photo. Experts are reconsidering their options on a rescue plan for the young killer whale trapped by the tide in a remote lagoon off Northern Vancouver Island. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Jared Towers, Bay Cetology **MANDATORY CREDIT**

ZEBALLOS, B.C. – The effort to coax a young orca back to the open ocean following the death of its mother on northern Vancouver Island has included the use of killer whale calls, trying special guide lines and sounding Indigenous drum beats, with no success.

The tidal window in Little Espinosa Inlet is brief, just 30 minutes, which would allow the calf to swim out safely.

But the calf won’t leave the inlet where its mother died last Saturday after being stranded as the tide went out.

“We are hoping to connect with her and see if she will follow the drum,” Ehattesaht First Nation Chief Simon John in a statement. “It has worked in the past.”

John and Fisheries Department officials could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday as they were out in boats on the lagoon where cellular contact is not available.

The lagoon is located near the remote village of Zeballos, more than 450 kilometres northwest of Victoria.

“It is really hard to wrap your mind around the work,” John said in an earlier interview. “It doesn’t happen very often so there isn’t a play book that covers this. But we know the waters here and we, the Fisheries Department staff, have been working around these mammals for years, so we will be bringing all that experience to each decision as we go.

“The goal is reuniting her with her family as gently as possible.”

The Ehattesaht First Nation has given the young calf a name: kwiisahi?is, meaning Brave Little Hunter.

The community was planning a ceremonial dinner Thursday evening where the calf will be formally given its name, John said.

The young orca is about two years old and was likely still depending on its mother for milk and food.

It faces difficult odds feeding itself and getting out of the lagoon without adult guidance, John said.

“We tried to gently move the young calf out of the lagoon and into Little Espinosa Inlet,” said John. “Unfortunately, the sandbar at the causeway seems to remain a barrier and she is still there. The water is shallow across the bar at the entrance of the lagoon even at the moderate high tides.”

The chief said the area is known as a prime seal hunting ground for killer whales, but it poses challenges, including 30-minute optimum tidal opportunities, to enter and exit the area.

The calf’s mother died in the lagoon while local residents rushed to help her.

It’s estimated she weighed up to 10 tonnes. A necropsy of the mother orca, a 15-year-old Bigg’s killer whale, showed she was pregnant with a female fetus when she died.

Paul Cottrell, the Fisheries Department’s Pacific region marine mammal co-ordinator, said the pregnancy may have contributed to the mother’s death as she could not manoeuvre off the beach.

The Fisheries Department and First Nations leaders are now reconsidering their options for a rescue plan for the young killer whale, Cottrell said at a news conference Wednesday.

The rescue team is thinking about other ways to get the young whale to the open ocean, depending on its health, Cottrell said.

When asked about rescue options during the news conferencee, he said they aren’t ruling out an attempt to put the calf in a sling and lift it back to the open ocean.

He said it’s possible the orca calf could survive up to two weeks in the lagoon without eating.

John said the rescuers are facing the difficult choice of feeding the calf to keep it alive, but then leaving it open to becoming habituated to being fed and not leaving the lagoon.

“We are mourning the loss of the mother and we are trying to help the young one to find her family,” he said. “It really is something that rings home for native people. This loss and this struggle for the next generation.”

– By Dirk Meissner in Victoria

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 28, 2024.

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