‘Very smart’ B.C. orca calf evades rescuers, forcing switch in tactics

Crews practice using a sling that will be used on a stranded orca calf on northern Vancouver Island. April 11, 2024

The team trying to rescue an orphaned killer whale trapped in a British Columbia lagoon says they will have to change tactics after being “truly humbled at the intelligence, adaptability and resilience” of the calf that managed to evade capture Friday.

A statement issued by the Ehattesaht First Nation chief and council and the rescue team said they made the decision to stand down after the young orca “simply decided she was not ready to be moved.”

It said experts and veterinary staff from the Vancouver Aquarium were able to get a good look at the young female during the capture attempt and say she still appears to be in good health, that her breathing is solid and she is swimming well.

The statement said the team would regroup after this initial attempt and start planning next steps.

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An orphaned two-year-old female orca calf continues to live and swim in a lagoon near Zeballos, B.C., on Thursday, April 11, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Rescuers had been trying to corral her into a shallow part of the three-kilometre lagoon, using boats, divers and a net, so she could be placed in a large fabric sling and hoisted onto a transport vehicle and taken to the open ocean.

The two-year-old calf has been alone in Little Espinosa Inlet, 450 kilometres northwest of Victoria, for about three weeks after its pregnant mother was beached at low tide and died on March 23.

Paul Cottrell, Fisheries Department marine mammal co-ordinator, said at the rescue site that the outcome was disappointing after a “huge effort.”

He said the rescue attempt had been promising but the whale was “definitely catching on to our tried and true (strategy).”

He said rescuers had attempted to isolate the calf from deep water using a long seine net and rescuers came very close to success.

“We’re kind of looking at other options now going forward, realizing that this animal is very smart,” Cottrell said. “It’s adapting to our tactics and we’re gonna try a different tactic going forward.”

He said the team remained optimistic, and “the team’s not giving up.”

The Ehattesaht First Nation has named the whale kwiisahi?is, meaning Brave Little Hunter, and Chief Simon John has said the nation considers the rescue a pivotal moment in its modern history.

John said at the site Friday that rescuers would “give it a rest” before trying again in a couple of days.

The rescue attempt started at 5 a.m. on Friday, triggered by weather that dawned cool and clear after days of heavy rain.

Indigenous paddlers in a traditional wood war canoe were part of the rescue effort. The paddlers were heard singing as one person in the canoe kept time with a steady drum beat.

A large truck with a flat bed and a wooden structure that appears to be designed to carry the whale to open water was parked at the rescue site, alongside an excavator with a long arm.

The department previously discussed initially holding the young orca in an ocean net pen until freeing her when members of the mother’s family were nearby, but now it says she will be released directly into open water where it’s thought she is most likely to encounter her family pod.

Security was tight Friday with First Nation members supervising a barrier across the road to the lagoon.

The First Nation has been listening to the calf’s cries through a hydrophone.

A statement by the nation earlier this week said her calls “make you almost weep, they seem so filled with longing.”

The two whales entered the lagoon last month by swimming through a narrow and fast-moving channel connecting it to the ocean.

Efforts to persuade the calf to swim back through the shallow channel proved futile.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 12, 2024.


The Canadian Press

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