Skip to content

Efforts to save orphaned 'Brave Little Hunter' orca bring a community together

“These are events that reawaken our people and our connection to the land, the water and the animals. I am not sure, but sometimes in the sad events, we gather strength. I think that is important.” — Chief Simon John

The Ehattesaht/Chinehkint First Nation is pulling together amid the death of a stranded orca and efforts to save its orphaned calf.

Chief Simon John said Tuesday the community continues to work with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, scientists, its own members and neighbouring First Nations to rescue the two-year-old orca from a shallow inlet near Zeballos. The whale’s 15-year-old mother drowned on Saturday after becoming beached on a gravel bar on Little Esperenza Inlet.

The young orca still hasn’t left the area and appeared traumatized as a rescue team tried to coax it out of the shallow lagoon to open water, according to marine scientist Jared Towers of Bay Cetology.

Towers said they have tried to entice the orca out using acoustic whale calls and other methods, but the calf has stayed at the other side, retreating instead to the deepest part of the lagoon.

The First Nation has given the young orca a name: kʷiisaḥiʔis (kwee-sahay-is), which means Brave Little Hunter.

“These are events that reawaken our people and our connection to the land, the water and the animals. I am not sure, but sometimes in the sad events, we gather strength. I think that is important,” John said.

“We are connected to these animals and I believe these events are really difficult, but really important. … In our stories the killer whale came onto land and transformed into the wolf and then the wolf transformed into man.”

Towers said the rescue team only has about 30 minutes daily when the tide rises to the point where the orca calf can safely navigate itself out of the lagoon.

“We tried to move that little whale out over the shallows and back out into the inlet,” Towers said, but it swam to the other end of the lagoon istead.

Scientists are using recordings of a relative aunt’s calls in the T-109 matriline to try to lure the calf out to deeper water, where it’s hoped it will rejoin its family pod.

The method that has had some success in the past, but it wasn’t successful on the first try on Monday.

Narrow window for reaching open ocean

The DFO said tides over the next few days may not allow for on-water efforts.

Towers said the lagoon is a difficult area to navigate and getting out depends largely on the timing of the high tide.

“What separates the deep water in the lagoon and the deep water of the inlet is a tidal narrows,” he said. “There’s only half an hour every day that the whale can pass through that area as the tide goes slack, because other than that there’s a lot of current, some rapids and for the most part very, very shallow water.”

The First Nation said the lagoon on Little Esperenza Inlet has a narrow entrance, about 120 feet wide, and the water rushes in and out. “It has always been a hunting ground for the killer whales looking for seals. … I guess [the mother orca] went too far up the beach at the exactly wrong time. It is something we will want fixed.”

The Ehattesaht Nation suspended its forestry operations on Tuesday and provided a support helicopter to see if any of the T-109 orca pods could be spotted along the coast. The T-109 group contains about 20 members in five pods.

The road along the inlet is being closed with access only for locals to limit human interaction with the orca calf.

“I know people will want to visit and help, but really DFO and ourselves need some time to formulate a plan and we need to think about the little one,” John said.

The DFO said the neighbouring Nuchatlaht First Nation has also provided support to the rescue efforts, noting it has been an emotional time for the Nations, community and response workers involved.

On Monday, a necropsy led by Dr. Stephen Raverty, a veterinary pathologist with the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture, found the drowned orca was carrying a female fetus. The DFO said it remains unclear whether it was hunting and became stranded as the tide receded or had an underlying health condition.

A harbour seal was found in the orca’s mouth.

‘No good choices’

The Ehattesaht First Nation conducted ceremonies for the unborn animal and made heroic efforts to keep the whale cool and try to shepherd her out of the lagoon before she died at about 10:45 a.m. Saturday.

John said the community responded and despite efforts to move the whale onto her belly and protect the blow hole, they weren’t able to move her enough to save her as the tide rolled in.

“Certainly it is heartbreaking being there and being helpless,” the chief’s statement said. “They are such magnificent animals and I have been with them on the water almost my whole life. But they are always at a bit of distance. Being so close and touching her, seeing her calf and being so helpless is hard to describe.”

The chief said the effort now is getting the calf back to her pod.

“There really are really no good choices … this is new to everyone,” John said. “Its so hard and we have to think carefully and try to plan.”

He referenced Luna, a young southern resident killer whale separated from its pod who showed by up alone in 2001 in Nootka Sound, where it spent five years. Luna had extensive human contact and an affinity for approaching boats, but the orca’s habits posed dangers to itself and boaters.

The DFO authorized an effort in 2004 to return the orca to its pod, but the plan was opposed by the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nations, who believed Luna was the reincarnation of a former chief.

Remaining alone in Nootka Sound, Luna was killed accidentally by a tugboat propeller in March 2006.

“[Luna’s] story was not that long ago and we certainly want learn from that experience,” John said.

Rescuers find hope in previous case

Towers said a rescue of a young orca trapped in shallow water then reunited with its family is not without precedent in B.C.

In 2013, a three-year-old orca calf became trapped off the Central Coast but managed to get out to the ocean and found its family, Towers said.

“We didn’t know what to expect and amazingly that little whale went out into the open water of Hecate Strait and ended up over time meeting up with some extended family members and today it’s a healthy adult female,” he said.

Towers said the Zeballos orca calf appears healthy.

“It’s got a great voice on it and it’s using that voice, making a lot of loud calls,” he said. “These killer whales can hear each other for many miles. It’s just a matter of getting it out into the open water and letting it do the rest.”

John said the First Nations are planning a community dinner and gathering to share culture and teachings.

”You know we work on big things all the time … our people, the toxic drugs, UNDRIP and reconciliation, jobs … but then something like this happens and you are forced to reconnect. I think there is something here telling us to reconnect,” he said.

“Take this time and focus on one thing and try to do it to the best of our teachings and what the experts have to offer.”

[email protected]