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Surrey rescuer says ‘very short window’ to return orphan whale to its family

Marine mammal expert Paul Cottrell working in the field near Zeballos to help stranded calf
South Surrey’s Paul Cottrell, who works with the DFO, tows a grey whale out of Semiahmoo Bay in April 2021. (Contributed photo)

A South Surrey marine mammal expert is among a team that’s been hard at work for more than a week now to save an orca calf trapped in a lagoon on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island.

Paul Cottrell, as of Monday (April 1), remained in the field near the village of Zeballos, as efforts to coax a two-year-old Bigg’s killer whale back out into the open ocean and reunite it with its pod continued.

Thick fog covers the mountainside as heavy, pounding rain pelts a remote lagoon Tuesday, where the real-life drama involving a stranded killer whale calf is unfolding.

Named kwiisahi?is (Brave Little Hunter) by members of the area’s Ehattesaht First Nation, the calf has been on its own since March 23, after its mother became trapped by the low tide and, despite valiant efforts to save her, died on the rocky beach – on the same sand bar that the calf needs to clear in order to return to the open water.

READ MORE: Rising tides bring hope for stranded orca calf Brave Little Hunter

READ MORE: Brave Little Hunter active as push to return orca calf to family continues

A necropsy of the 15-year-old mother showed she was pregnant with a female fetus when she died.

Low tide in the remote location – more than 450 km north of Victoria – forced rescuers to pause their efforts over the weekend, but they resumed in earnest on Monday (April 1).

Cottrell – who was not available to provide an update ahead of this post Tuesday – said last week that “all contingencies” for rescuing the calf would be considered, including using a sling to hoist the orca out of the lagoon.

But the window to help is closing fast, he noted.

“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,” he said.

Officials said Tuesday that the calf remained active, breaching every seven to 10 minutes, but it is continuing to steer clear of the narrow exit that leads to the open ocean.

Methods to coax it out have so far included recorded whale calls, specialized directional guide lines and Indigenous drum beats.

“It’s pretty sad. She’s alone,” said Vancouver resident Ivisa Simunovic, who scaled a steep slope to get to a beach where she could see the young killer whale.

“And it’s a baby, so she’s going to have a hard time trying to be in nature,” she said. “I don’t know if she will be able to survive. She will have to be rescued. It’s sad.”

Simunovic said she and her friend, Francisca Barros, were travelling on northern Vancouver Island when they heard about the stranded killer whale calf and the death of its mother.

“It’s sad, because how is she going to return? Mammals like orcas are to be with their families, all the time together, and now she’s going to be alone,” she said of the calf.

Barros said the situation with the orca is tragic, but the experience of seeing a killer whale in the wild was something she will not forget.

“It’s our first time. It’s a dream,” she said.

Two of the calf’s family pods have been identified, and B.C.-based whale research group Bay Cetology has offered access to its online AI-assisted photo database to local photographers and tour operators as part of efforts to track the whale’s relatives.

Executive director Jared Towers said the technology scans photos of killer whales submitted by those on the water and can quickly identify individual animals based on their dorsal fins and other markings.

Images from Sunday morning (March 31) show the calf’s relatives in Barkley Sound off Ucluelet – about 150 km south of Zeballos – and heading north, Towers said.

The orca calf was photographed last week with a bird in its mouth, which has been taken as a sign that it may be feeding itself, but it is not known if it is eating regularly.

Cottrell said it is believed the calf could still have been depending on its mother for milk and food. He estimated an orca calf at two years old could survive for up to two weeks without food.

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

The effort is far from Cottrell’s first whale rescue; that took place in 2009. As Pacific marine mammal co-ordinator for B.C., he’s guided such operations for more than a decade, many of which are sparked when the massive creatures become entangled in fishing gear.

As one of two Canadians on the International Whaling Commission’s expert advisory panel on entanglement response, Cottrell is among few worldwide trained in the highly specialized – and incredibly dangerous – task.

READ MORE: A whale of a rescue tale for South Surrey expert

READ MORE: Simulated whale rescue on White Rock beach

Cottrell also trains others to help in rescues, leading simulations involving real-world equipment to better-prepare DFO officers for actual live-stranding events.

Anyone who spots a marine mammal in distress is asked to report it to the hotline, at 1-800-465-4336.

- Canadian Press, Tyson Whitney & Tracy Holmes