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Killer whale calf stranded in a Canadian lagoon will be airlifted out, rescuers say

Apr 3, 2024, 2:56 PM | Updated: Apr 4, 2024, 12:13 am

The orphaned killer whale calf in a lagoon near Zeballos, B.C. (Jared Towers, Ehattesaht First Nati...

The orphaned killer whale calf in a lagoon near Zeballos, B.C. (Jared Towers, Ehattesaht First Nation/Canadian Press Handout Photo)

(Jared Towers, Ehattesaht First Nation/Canadian Press Handout Photo)

Plans are underway by to airlift a stranded killer whale calf out of a remote tidal lagoon off northern Vancouver Island in an effort to reunite the young orca with its extended family, Canadian authorities said Wednesday, according to The Associated Press (AP).

Canadian Fisheries Department and First Nations officials said the plan involves placing the 2-year-old calf into a sling, lifting it out of the lagoon by helicopter and putting it in a net pen in the ocean while they wait for its family pod to be near before release.

The whale had been stranded near the town of Zeballos, for more than a week.

The plan was agreed to during a meeting between members of the Ehattesaht First Nation council, Fisheries Department officials and marine technical experts, the AP reported Wednesday night.

Ehattesaht First Nation Chief Simon John said his people have deep cultural and spiritual connections to orcas and the nation has been receiving calls of concern and support from around the world.

Paul Cottrell, with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, says the whale had been traveling with its mother.

“The mom and calf actually entered a tidal lagoon — not this Saturday, but the Saturday before — and unfortunately, the mom ended up on a sand bar and died,” Cottrell told KIRO Newsradio.

He said it’s the same sandbar, and when the tide is high enough, the calf needs to swim over to get out of the lagoon.

Rescuers removed the mom’s remains, hoping the calf would follow it over the sandbar. The calf didn’t.

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The whale calf is feeding, but is in distress

They monitor the whale’s condition daily to determine how quickly they might need to move in to mount a rescue if it doesn’t leave the lagoon on its own.

Cottrell said the calf is feeding itself. “The animal was seen capturing and ingesting a bird, so it is actively looking for prey in this lagoon.”

Unlike endangered southern resident killer whales that subsist on salmon, Bigg’s whales eat a variety of prey, and Cottrell says there are seals in the lagoon.

But whales are social animals, and the calf has been calling out to its family, which likely can not hear him.

“The calls that it’s making, it’s distress calls. So it is missing its family,” Cottrell said.

Rescuers have tried making noises, including playing the call of one of the whale’s relatives, which prompted the calf to move around the lagoon but not over the sand bar.

He says a contingency plan is being developed to physically move the whale—perhaps with a net or a sling—if it doesn’t swim out of the lagoon on its own.

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“Yeah, there’s a lot of equipment, a lot of people that we’re contacting to do this right,” he said.

He explained that marine mammal experts work with local indigenous people.

“You know it’s been an amazing collaboration with the local First Nations, the Ehattesaht and Nuchatlaht First Nation,” Cottrell said. “We’re working collectively as a team in a very small town in an isolated area. We’re kind of all coming together to do the best we can under the circumstances to try and save this young whale.”

He added the Ehattesaht First Nation has named the calf “Brave Little One.”

Contributing: The Associated Press

Heather Bosch is an award-winning anchor and reporter on KIRO Newsradio. You can read more of her stories here. Follow Heather on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email her here.

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Killer whale calf stranded in a Canadian lagoon will be airlifted out, rescuers say