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Whale researcher says orphan orca 'likely' seen off Vancouver Island at Friendly Cove

"Just given the location and the behaviour, it seems quite likely."
A whale researcher says a lone young killer whale spotted surfacing Friday at Friendly Cove off the remote west coast of Vancouver Island is likely the orphan orca calf that was trapped in a Vancouver Island tidal lagoon more than two months ago. A two-year-old female orca calf, named kwiisahi?is, or Brave Little Hunter, by the Ehattesaht First Nation, is spotted at the Little Espinosa Inlet near Zeballos, B.C., Friday, April 19, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

A killer whale calf whose struggle for survival captured international headlines when she became trapped in a Vancouver Island tidal lagoon earlier this year only to escape on her own has likely been spotted swimming further south along British Columbia's coast.

Jared Towers, executive director of Alert Bay's Bay Cetology, said he can't be 100 per cent sure a video he received from a boater in Nootka Sound is indeed the formerly trapped whale, but said a number of circumstances make it highly likely.

"Just given the location and the behaviour, it seems quite likely, and the lady was approached by the whale and the whale just had a quick look at the boat and then carried on," he said. "She has been known to do that. She would come up to boats, not very often but if there was a boat around she'd often just swim by it very closely one time and then carry on."

A roughly five-second video Bay Cetology posted on social media shows a killer whale surfacing near a boat and then diving under the water and disappearing. Towers said the video was shot by Karina Halle, who was on a sailboat Friday at about 5 p.m. in Friendly Cove when the young orca appeared.

The apparent sighting comes about 24 hours after Bay Cetology issued a statement saying the young whale had not been seen since May 10 despite numerous documented glimpses of members of her family.

The statement included a reference that "she may be gone," suggesting some killer whales don't survive being alone.

"It's pretty funny timing, that's for sure," said Towers. "It was 24 hours later that I got notification about the lady who had just taken the video of the whale on the other end of Nootka Island."

Halle, a Canadian author of bestselling gothic and fantasy romance novels from Victoria, confirmed Saturday she took the video.

Halle is on a sailboat voyage circumnavigating Vancouver Island and said she and her husband were commemorating her late father's 85th birthday while docked at Friendly Cove when she heard a splash, which sounded like a seal.

"To my shock, I saw an eight-to-12-foot-long orca swimming alongside the boat, as if its pectoral flippers were hugging the side, the dorsal fin pointed away," Halle said in an email. "In other words, swimming sideways so that when I looked over I saw the white patches and made eye contact."

She said she thought it may be a porpoise because a killer whale would never get that close to a boat.

"But then I realized it was in fact a baby-juvenile orca," Halle said. "I yelled for my husband to come up and see as it swam under the stern. I got my phone out and started recording just as it surfaced, maybe 50 to 100 feet away."

The young killer whale — named kwiisahi?is or Brave Little Hunter by the area's Ehattesaht First Nation — became the subject of international attention in April amid efforts to free her from the lagoon where her mother had become stranded on a rocky beach at low tide and died.

After several unsuccessful attempts to capture and transport the young orca to the open ocean, she eventually followed a small boat to the lagoon entrance under the light of a full moon in late April before swimming to the ocean on her own.

Towers said Friendly Cove is about 50 kilometres south of the lagoon at Little Espinosa Inlet. He said it's difficult to confirm the orca's identity with the short video, but the surrounding evidence is pointing in that direction.

Friendly Cove, or Yuquot, is known as the first site of contact between Europeans and Indigenous people of British Columbia.

In March 1778, Capt. James Cook became the first European to set foot on B.C. ground when he visited Friendly Cove on Nootka Island.

Known for its rich sea life and natural resources, Friendly Cove has been part of the traditional territories of the Mowachaht-Muchalaht First Nations of the Gold River and Nootka Sound areas for generations.

The area is also the location of the Whaler's Shrine Site, designated a national historic site of Canada in 1983, as "the most significant monument associated with Nuu-chah-nulth whaling."

The Nuu-chah-nulth people, who have a long whaling tradition, comprise most of the First Nations on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Halle said she was aware of the resilience of kwiisahi?is and her escape from the lagoon, noting it was bittersweet to be commemorating her father's passing in the presence of a young whale who'd lost her mother.

"Of course, maybe it's not her, but I do know it's strange and unusual for a baby orca to be all alone," Halle said. "She also seemed to have no fear and was very curious. I believe she was looking up at the surface to look at me. So if it it's not Brave Little Hunter, I don't know what other orca baby it could be."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 6, 2024.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press