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Trapped orca calf to be lifted out of B.C. lagoon by helicopter

Plans are now underway 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.

Fisheries Department and First Nations officials say the plans involve placing the two-year-old calf into a sling, lifting it out of the lagoon by helicopter and putting it in a holding net pen in the ocean while they wait for its family pod to be near for release. 

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

“Everybody’s worried about the whale up and down the coast,” Ehattesaht Chief Simon John said after the meeting. “This whole process has been to reunite it with its pod.”

Paul Cottrell, a marine mammal co-ordinator with the Fisheries Department, says the rescue could occur within days, but more likely within the next two weeks.

“We look at this option as the most viable option to helping this whale,” said Cottrell during the meeting at the First Nation office.

“Everybody is rooting for us. If we don’t attempt it, the calf’s life is a worry.”

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Rescuers have been unable to coax the young whale out of the area since its pregnant mother was stranded at low tide in the lagoon and died on March 23.

Cottrel said time is of the essence and they’ll be working quickly to put the plan in place and hopefully reunite the calf with its pod as it passes.

“With it being a tidal lagoon, an orphaned calf, a threatened species, I’ve never been involved in such a complex operation [that is] multivariable and really difficult,” he said.

How they’ll capture the calf is still being worked out. Officials say it will be placed in a sling and examined for its health before being put in a net pen similar to the ones used for fish farms along B.C.’s coast.

Whale will be fed, appears healthy

John says his people have deep cultural and spiritual connections to killer whales and the nation has been receiving calls of concern and support from around the world.

The orca calf has been named kwiisahi?is, or “Little Brave Hunter.”

Earlier Wednesday, Cottrell said the young orca appears healthy and appears to be seeking prey, but said officials are awaiting results of a deeper analysis of its condition.

In the meantime, rescue officials are planning to try to feed the whale in an attempt to keep it healthy.

The rescue team will see if the calf will eat harbour seal remains placed around the lagoon, Cottrell said in a shoreline interview near the village of Zeballos, located more than 450 kilometres northwest of Victoria.

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“We are looking at partially supplementing food for the animal going forward,” said Cottrell.

“We’ve got lots of contingencies, depending on the animal’s health. Just looking generally at the animal, it’s very active. It doesn’t look emaciated at all, no peanut head.” 

Whale researchers use the term “peanut head” to describe the condition of underfed killer whales that lose their fat reserves, giving their head a peanut-shaped profile at the surface.

Efforts by the Fisheries Department, the Ehattesaht First Nation and others to get the calf to open water where it might reconnect with its pod members have included using a flotilla of boats setting a series of directional lines leading out of the lagoon and playing recorded whale calls from its family. 

Cottrell said officials were on the water Tuesday launching their feeding plan, which involved placing prey and using a waterproof drone to observe the young killer whale.

He said the drone video footage and photos will give marine mammal experts a better sense of the calf’s health.

“There’s a lot of fish and there are birds and this animal was seen ingesting a bird recently. The animal’s actively looking for prey. That’s a great sign,” said Cottrell.

The narrow, shallow channel the orca calf must pass through is a “dynamic, high-current” stretch of water, made more complex by limited high tide opportunities, Cottrell said. 

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