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Whale experts are confident the orca calf will survive, look for family if rescue plan succeeds

ZEBALLOS, B.C

ZEBALLOS, BC – The chances of a two-year-old orca calf surviving on its own in the open ocean and eventually reuniting with family members remain high if a rescue team manages to free the orca from the Vancouver Island lagoon where she is trapped. almost a month, whale experts say.

A second attempt to save the orca was put on hold Friday when the young whale ate an 18-kilogram portion of the provided seal meat for what is believed to be the first time since it became stranded in the tidal lagoon in Little Espinosa Inlet near Zeballos, B.C. The large-scale rescue operation is expected to involve boats, nets, divers and drones. The focus is on a plan to capture the female calf in a large net, place her in a sling, transport her to the nearby ocean and release her.

The video confirmation of the orca calf eating the seal meat gave the rescue team, made up of indigenous leaders, specialists from the Federal Ministry of Fisheries and fisheries experts, more time to consider their options.

“I think there’s a very good chance she’ll make it,” said marine scientist Jared Towers, who has been working with the rescue team since March 23, when the calf became trapped alone after the death of its pregnant mother.

“She’s been very resilient here in the three and a half weeks we’ve known she was stuck in the cove,” he said. “She’s pretty healthy considering she hasn’t eaten much in that time. She acts like an orca. She calls. She broadcasts that she’s nearby and that’s really what she needs to connect with other whales.”

Towers, who studies the movements, behavior and abundance of whales on B.C.’s west coast with Bay Cetology, said he spotted gray whales Friday in ocean waters near Zeballos, more than 450 kilometers northwest of Victoria. But no signs of killer whales possibly linked to the captured calf have been found recently.

The last confirmed sighting of members of the pod of young killer whales was more than two weeks ago in the Barkley Sound area south of Zeballos and near Port Alberni, he said.

The calf, about three meters long and estimated to weigh about 700 kilograms, was named kwiisahi?is, or Brave Little Hunter, by the local Ehattesaht First Nation.

“This population is called Bigg’s killer whales. They are transient killer whales and there are several families and the T109 lineage now includes 24 living members, including kwiisahi?is,” Towers said. “Many of them spend much of their time on the west coast of Vancouver Island, wandering between here and Haida Gwaii, occasionally even in the Salish Sea.”

He said it is not uncommon for the younger orcas to break away from their family group for long periods of time and return later, a characteristic that gives the rescue team hope that the young orca will eventually reunite with her family if she is able to return to her family. the ocean.

Paul Cottrell, marine mammal coordinator for the federal Department of Fisheries, said the orca calf’s willingness to eat seal meat, supplied by a local indigenous fisheries manager, boosted the rescue team’s confidence.

The rescue team could now explore a “carrot option” to lure the orca to shallower water by using seal meat to attract her, he said.

Cottrell said if the team is successful in releasing the young orca into the open ocean, members hope to observe her movements and hopefully report a family reunion at sea.

“In terms of attaching a satellite tag to this young calf, we had considered that, but it also adds additional stress to the animal and there are possibilities of infection,” he said. “How we would go about it is to continue to monitor the area if the animal is released. We should know within a relatively short time whether the animal is reunited with a group.”

Cottrell said the west coast of Vancouver Island is home to many First Nations, whale researchers and boaters “who keep us informed of where the whales are.”

Towers said he is also optimistic about the calf’s chances, noting that similar rescue efforts and subsequent reunions have been successful in the past.

“We also rescued a four-year-old female Bigg killer whale in a similar situation to this just over a decade ago,” he said. “That whale was in much poorer health than kwiisahi?is and it took a few weeks, but that whale eventually reappeared, and only after that sighting did it appear with other whales for a few months.”

That whale is now a healthy adult female, he added.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 21, 2024.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press