Baby orphan orca escapes Canadian lagoon after month of attempts

  • By Nadine Yousif
  • BBC News, Toronto

26 April 2024

Updated 27 April 2024

Image source, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Image caption, The orca, nicknamed Kwee-sa-hay-is, meaning Brave Little Hunter, spent over a month in the inlet

An orphan orca calf that has been trapped in a lagoon for more than a month off the coast of British Columbia is finally free.

The orca had been stuck since 23 March after its mother died, sparking a huge rescue effort off Vancouver Island’s west coast.

Repeated efforts to coax or carry her out a narrow path to open water were unsuccessful.

But on Friday, the calf managed to swim out on its own thanks to high tide.

The escape marks a happy ending for the Ehattesaht First Nation, who led the rescue efforts and affectionately named the whale Kwee-sa-hay-is, meaning Brave Little Hunter.

The two-year-old female calf had been stuck in the tidal lagoon after her pregnant mother was stranded and later died on a sandbar. The lagoon is near the coastal village of Zeballos, located on a narrow inlet on Vancouver Island that flows out to the Pacific Ocean.

“Today the community of Zeballos and people everywhere are waking up to some incredible news and what can only be described as pride for the strength this little orca has shown,” said Chief Simon John in a statement on Friday.

Chief John said the orca swam away at 02:30 local time (8:30 BST), “during high tide on a clear and glass-calm, star-filled night”.

The 15-year-old mother’s death was captured on video in March, and repeated attempts to save her at the time were unsuccessful.

For weeks after her mother’s death, the young calf had been unwilling to swim through the narrow channel and under a bridge into open water, prompting a team of First Nations community members and federal marine mammal experts to come together to work on freeing her.

This led to several fruitless rescue missions. In one attempt, rescuers tried to catch the orca and move her using a sling. In another, they tried to communicate with her using recorded whale sounds to convince her to move.

At one point, a violinist from Nanaimo, BC tried to serenade the calf in a bid to entice her to swim away.

Chief John said protective measures are now being put in place to shield the calf from boats or humans in the area.

The focus now, he said, is on reuniting her with her family.

“Every opportunity needs to be afforded to have her back with her family with as little human interaction as possible,” Chief John said.

In a briefing, with fishery officials and First Nations representatives, they said she was recorded emitting excited sounds after leaving the lagoon.

“It was incredible how vocal she was when she hit that deep open water,” one said.

Officials say the young orca has a proven track record of successful hunting. She has been observed eating herring and birds while trapped in the lagoon.

The hope now is that she will be reunited with her pod, or find a pod containing relatives who might adopt her.

A statement from the First Nations community said her successful escape will resonate for years to come and that it reinforces understanding of the connections between humans, animals and the Earth.

“Events like these have a deeper meaning and the timing of her departure will be thought about, talked about and felt for generations to come,” the statement said.

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