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Join the rescue: How the public can help orca calf stranded in B.C. lagoon

Photographers are needed to help reunite a stranded killer whale with her pod.

As days turn into weeks, marine mammal scientists are trying new ways to help a stranded killer whale out of a shallow lagoon in British Columbia. 

Jared Towers, executive director of the whale research group Bay Cetology, says previous attempts to get her out of the lagoon near the northern Vancouver Island village of Zeballos have not been successful. 

The calf's mother, a 15-year-old Bigg's killer whale, died on March 23 when she became beached at the lagoon and could not free herself despite rescue efforts of local First Nations residents and others.

Ehattesaht First Nation Chief Simon John says the nation has been out looking for the calf's family in open water and has given the young calf a name: kwiisahi?is, meaning Brave Little Hunter.

Towers has been at the lagoon every day since the young orca got stuck. 

“She seems to be doing OK right now, but it's only a matter of time until that starts to change,” he says. “There's a bit of urgency around getting that calf back out into open water.”

What are the stranded orca calf's chances of survival? 

Killer whales will swim in shallow water when they're hunting; this calf did swim through shallow water to get where it is. 

“Once they're on the other side of the shallows like that, they can often be very hesitant to go back,” says Towers. 

Towers says the rescue team has only 30 minutes daily when the tide rises to the point where the two-year-old orca calf can safely navigate itself out of the lagoon.

“It really is only at high slack [when the tide reaches its maximum height], which lasts for about 30 minutes, twice a day, and it also involves [the orca] going over a very shallow gravel bar,” he says.

He has dealt with similar situations up and down the West Coast. 

"I've been successful with other folks on the teams that I've worked on,” Towers tells Glacier Media. “In this case, this little calf is proving a little bit more slippery than the rest of them.”

Towers says once she is out in open water, she does have a great chance of survival. 

“We know that this is a likelihood given that this whale is making calls relatively frequently,” he says. “This little calf's got a great voice on it, and it's making all the right noises [to be reunited accoustically with other whales].”

Killer whales are used to eating pinnipeds (also known as seals) and other small cetaceans like harbour porpoises. 

“She really needs that high-fat content and the high-fat content diet to to be healthy,” he says. 

Kwiisahi?is might be eating birds, but Towers says it’s not enough to keep her healthy. 

“We see these killer whales attack birds a lot, but most of the time they spit them out again. It's more of a toy for young killer whales,” he says. “Birds don’t have a lot of fat on them.”

How can AI help her? 

Bay Cetology, a team of marine biologists based out of Alert Bay, is hoping to use photo identification to reunite the calf with family members and quickly find the pod's location. 

“Thankfully, people have been doing photo ID research on Bigg's killer whales for over 50 years now in B.C., and because of that we know who her great-grandmother is,” says Towers.

Bay Cetology developed Finwave, an online photo-identification database that uses artificial intelligence to expedite the process of identifying Bigg's killer whales.

“Our push is to encourage more people operating off the west coast of Vancouver Island to use this technology to help us track kwiisahi?is extended family,” says Towers. 

Once the calf is out, Towers explains how the whale's family might be nearby or could be nowhere close. 

If the family is not nearby, they’ll concentrate on the health of the mammal rather than trying to move it. 

“We're really relying on the voices of the family and the voices of Kwiisahi?is to help them reunite,” he says. “Just knowing exactly where they are, and also where other Bigg's killer whales in the population are, as well, can really help assist our efforts in the release when it does happen.”

With Finwave, they know her family loves to travel up and down the west coast of Vancouver Island. 

“We can make predictions of when they show up next,” he says. 

Who can help find the orca calf's pod? 

In a social media post this week, Bay Cetology called on fIshery officers, First Nation guardians, whale tour operators, naturalists and photographers to send images to Finwave.

Finwave is not open to the public and people need to request access.

“We don’t have a lot of contributors up the northwest side of Vancouver Island,” says Towers. “The key factor is that they’re working off the west coast of Vancouver Island."

People interested in supplying photographs can send an email to info@baycetology.org and Towers will send an invitation to people who fit the requirements.

With files from Canadian Press