May 26, 2024


An orca calf, trapped for weeks in a remote lagoon in western Canada, has freed herself and is travelling towards open waters, hailed as “incredible news” by a growing body of human supporters.

The move puts her one step closer to reuniting with her family one month after a tragic accident left her stranded.

The two-year-old calf, known as kʷiisaḥiʔis (pronounced kwee-sahay-is) – a name that roughly translates to Brave Little Hunter – became trapped with her mother in shallow waters of the Little Espinosa inlet in the north-western reaches of Vancouver Island in late March.

The 14-year-old mother died on 23 March, and all efforts to free the calf have been unsuccessful. Even the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, weighed in on the saga, calling the plight of the young whale “heartbreaking”.

But in the early hours of 26 April, “during the high tide on a clear and glass calm, star-filled night”, a small group of rescuers watched as she swam under the bridge that had long stood as a barrier to her freedom – an outcome the team had long held as the best-possible result, given the logistical challenges of capturing and transporting an orca.

In the hours before she left, federal fisheries officers and members of the Ehattesaht First Nation fed her chunks of seal meat, gradually luring her towards a bottleneck in the lagoon.

“Today, the community of Zeballos and people everywhere are waking up to some incredible news and what can only be described as pride for strength this little orca has shown,” said a release from ʔiiḥatis/ č iinaxịnt chief and council.

The successful escape comes weeks after the young calf outwitted a 50-strong rescue team and forced experts to rethink how they might coax the orca out of the area.

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Her departure marked a bittersweet ending to a lengthy communal effort to save the calf, after previous efforts to lure her out, including the use of vocalisations from family members, banging metal pipes and laying ropes with floats attached, all failed.

The saga began on 23 March when residents of a coastal community along the north-western reaches of Vancouver Island spotted the mother, named Spong, trapped in a trough-like depression on the shore. Kʷiisaḥiʔis circled in the shallow waters nearby as her mother struggled, and cries of distress were heard from hydrophones placed in the water.

Those calls have been a reminder of the stakes of the rescue, the Ehattesaht nation said. “They are sorrowful and, as they go unanswered, your heart sinks.”

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While the fresh water of the lagoon had turned patches of her skin a lighter colour, in recent days she began eating seal meat tossed by the rescue team, alleviating concerns she would soon become malnourished and a development that halted a second rescue attempt.

“With this part of the challenge solved by kwiisaḥiʔis herself, every opportunity needs to be afforded to have her back with her family with as little human interaction as possible,” said the Ehattesaht nation.

kʷiisaḥiʔis is a Bigg’s killer whale, an ecotype of the species that has different social structures than the endangered southern resident killer whales. With movement of Bigg’s whales to different pods, experts say the calf has a high likelihood of being accepted by extended family.

Ever since the start of the stranding, the Ehattesaht have emphasized a deeply spiritual element to the rescue.

The origin stories of the Nuu-chah-nulth people tell of a killer whale coming on to land and transforming into a wolf, which itself transforms into a human.



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