April 20, 2024


As a two-year-old orca calf circled a lagoon off the west coast of Canada on Monday, she heard a comforting sound resonating through the unfamiliar place in which she found herself: the clicks and chirps of her great-aunt.

But the calf, named kʷiisaḥiʔis (pronounced kwee-sahay-is, which roughly translates as Brave Little Hunter) by local First Nations people, could not locate another whale in the shallow waters. The calls, broadcast from speakers placed underwater, were part of a complex and desperate operation still under way to try to save the stranded calf.

Last weekend, residents of a coastal community along the north-western reaches of Vancouver Island spotted an orca trapped on shore. They worked for hours, unsuccessfully, to keep her alive. But they realised that with considerable luck, her orphaned calf might be saved. With each passing day, as kʷiisaḥiʔis grows more tired, the community is working alongside federal fisheries staff and conservation groups in a unified hope: that an unlikely rescue is possible and a broken family may be reunited.

The drama began shortly after sunrise on Saturday. Glen McCall of Totem Excavating received a call over the radio from a member of his road maintenance team, who had spotted a beached whale. McCall, a longtime resident of Zeballos, a village on the island, rushed down a forest service road to the lagoon.

After navigating rocks slick with seaweed and mussels, he was the first to approach the whale, an adult female. “The moment I got close, she started thrashing that tail and so I moved right back,” he said. “She’s not used to people being that close – or even [used] to humans – so I gave her space.”

It is unclear why the orcas entered the lagoon, but the remains of a harbour seal nearby suggest to experts the stranding may have been the result of a hunt gone wrong. When transient killer whales hunt in the shallows, they strike with thousands of pounds of muscle, bone and fat, propelling them forward. They can often then use the force of their bodies to wriggle back into deeper water.

But on Saturday, it seems an aggressive attack by the 14-year-old mother, named Spong, was mistimed. Often when whales are stranded they can wait out a tide. But Spong was trapped in a trough-like depression on the shore, and as the tide lowered she remained wedged on her side. Kʷiisaḥiʔis watched helplessly as her mother struggled.

Drone footage showing the calf swimming in shallow water near the body of her mother

“It was absolutely horrible, especially because we knew the tide was against us from the start,” said McCall. Water levels inched upwards as the tide rose. “We didn’t have enough manpower,” he said. “It just wasn’t enough.”

Spong died at 10.45am, nearly two hours after she was first spotted in the lagoon.

Members of Ehattesaht First Nation gently draped her black and white body with cedar boughs and after consultation with elders, performed a ceremony to release her spirit. Stories of the Nuu-chah-nulth people describe a killer whale coming on to land and transforming into a wolf, which itself transforms into a human.

“It is really important to remember that we are connected to these animals,” the Ehattesaht First Nation chief, Simon John, said in a statement. “Being so close and touching her, seeing her calf and being so helpless is hard to describe.”

It was only after a necropsy was performed a further blow was dealt – the community learned Spong had been pregnant.

As kʷiisaḥiʔis circled in the water, her cries heard from hydrophones in the water, human grief was set aside. The young whale appears healthy and the hope is to reunite her with her family: a pod of Bigg’s orca whales known as the Runaways.

The rescue team, a joint effort between the Ehattesaht and Nuchatlaht First Nations and federal marine officials, are trying to lure kʷiisaḥiʔis out of the lagoon and into the Little Espinosa inlet.

But the calf will have to pass through a shallow gap between a gravel bar and a bridge, only possible when the tide is at its highest and the current is weakest. “When the tides are right, we’ve only got, at best, 30 minutes to work with,” said McCall. “Half an hour in the whole day to get it right. It’s hard, but all you can really do is hope for the little calf.”

The feelings of hope may not be misguided: in 2013 a lone orca calf, Sam, was discovered in a narrow bay off the coast of Aristazabal Island – nearly 200 miles north of where kʷiisaḥiʔis is trapped. He was eventually coaxed into open water and was later taken in by a pod. He has been spotted numerous times since.

The leadership of the Ehattesaht First Nation have closed the road that passes by the lagoon in a bid to keep the area free of onlookers, and have halted forestry operations in the area in an effort to remove any possible distractions. In addition to vocalisations, the teams are using oikomi pipes, often used to push orcas away from oil spills, as well as stringing ropes along the surface of the water.

Spong, a 14-year-old orca, was pregnant when she died. Photograph: Bay Cetology.

“Whales are connected for a lifetime with their family. And I just can’t stop thinking about what that calf is going through because the calf doesn’t understand why its mother is not any longer there for her,” said Janie Wray, CEO and lead researcher for BC Whales. “If that happened to one of us, you can just imagine what we would be going through. I really do believe that little calf is going through something very, very similar right now.”

On Wednesday the team said they were considering “all contingencies” in the event that kʷiisaḥiʔis cannot be coaxed out of the lagoon, and did not rule out the possibility of moving the whale or feeding her.

Looming over the operation is a fear that the wrong actions carried out for the right reasons could harm kʷiisaḥiʔis. Just south of the area, a young whale – Tsux’iit, or Luna – was habituated to human contact and quickly became a popular fixture of Nootka Sound. Efforts to reunite him with his pod were opposed by members of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nations, some of whom believed he was the spirit of a recently passed chief. Tsux’iit was killed in 2009 after he was struck by a tugboat propeller.

“It is on our mind, and the reality is, that helping the whale feed could result a relationship with humans that would be hard to break,” John told reporters on Wednesday. “But my real concern is the whale gets out of the lagoon safely and reaches its pod.”

In order to locate possible family members, teams are drawing on a network of coastal First Nations and whale watching companies to scour the waters of the Pacific.

On Thursday, the two First Nations will put canoes in the water with the hopes of guiding kʷiisaḥiʔis with the beating of their drums. That evening, a community feast is planned.

“There really are two things going on at once. We are mourning the loss of the mother and we are trying to help the young one to find her family,” the Ehattesaht council said in a statement. “It really is something that rings home for Native people: this loss and this struggle for the next generation.”



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