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Officials consider lifting B.C. orca calf to reunite it with its pod

Rescue efforts continue after mother beaches herself and dies near Zeballos on Vancouver Island

A rescue team working to coax a stranded killer whale calf from a lagoon off northern Vancouver Island is prepared to change tactics to save its life, including the possibility of lifting the orca out to the open ocean, says a Fisheries Department marine mammal co-ordinator.

Paul Cottrell said Wednesday that all contingencies will be considered over the coming days after efforts by a team of experts and First Nations members failed to get the two-year-old to leave the lagoon.

He said they won’t rule out placing the orca in a sling-type device and hoisting it to the open ocean.

“We are thinking beyond if we have to change tactics, depending on the calf’s health going forward,” said Cottrell at a news conference with Ehattesaht First Nation Chief Simon John in Zeballos, located more than 450 kilometres north of Victoria.

Several attempts have been made to get the calf to leave the area after its pregnant mother died in the lagoon Saturday when she was stranded by the low tide.

Attempts to use recorded killer whale vocalizations to convince the calf to leave the lagoon have not been successful.

“We’re looking at all contingencies and contingencies later on,” said Cottrell. “As you can imagine, this is a very short time window we have, so we’re having to look at all those options and think ahead in case we have to look at those later options, which is in progress for sure.”

John said he expects rescue team members will resume their efforts Thursday to help the calf into the open ocean, where it’s hoped it will reunite with family members.

“My real concern is that the whale gets out of the lagoon safely and reaches its pod,” he said. “That’s kind of where the real collaborative effort is at. We’re really trying to get to that point of actually getting it out of there.”

John said the area of the lagoon is known locally as Little Espinosa and is considered prime seal hunting waters for killer whales.

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.

Cottrell said the pregnancy may have contributed to the mother’s death as it could not manoeuvre itself off the beach when it became stranded despite the help of local residents.

“The effort was incredible, and just an unlucky situation,” said Cottrell, adding the mother orca could have weighed between eight and 10 tonnes.

The lagoon poses access challenges, especially for an orca calf left alone without its mother acting as a guide in and out of the area, he said.

“It’s almost like threading the needle,” said Cottrell about the entrance and exit to the lagoon, which includes short optimum tidal times and tricky currents.

John said nation members have been out looking for the calf’s family in open water and have given the young calf a name: kwiisahi?is, meaning Brave Little Hunter.

He said First Nations members conducted a ceremony to honour the mother killer whale.

“We tried to release the whale’s spirit with a ceremony.”

John said earlier that killer whales have an important connection to the Ehattesaht First Nation’s culture, where its stories say “the killer whale came onto land and transformed into the wolf and then the wolf transformed into man.”

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