Brave Little Hunter is free: Orca calf swims out of lagoon where she had been trapped for a month

The Ehattesaht First Nation says a killer whale calf that had been trapped in a remote Vancouver Island lagoon for more than a month is now free after she swam out on her own early Friday morning.

The nation said kʷiisaḥiʔis, or Brave Little Hunter, swam over the sandbar and out into open water during high tide around 2:30 a.m. PT.

After a long night of feeding kʷiisaḥiʔis and watching the calf play in the lagoon, the nation said, a small group “stood as witnesses to watch her swim under the bridge and down the inlet.”

“Today the community of Zeballos and people everywhere are waking up to some incredible news and what can only be described as pride for the strength this little orca has shown,” said Chief Simon John in a release.

The two-year-old female transient killer whale had been stuck in the tidal lagoon near the village of Zeballos, B.C., since March 23, when her pregnant mother became trapped at low tide and died on a rocky beach.

For weeks, First Nation members, DFO marine mammal experts, whale scientists and boat and machine operators gathered in the small community of about 200 people to plan how to free the calf.

Those discussions resulted in multiple rescue missions — all of them unsuccessful. Rescuers attempted to catch the orca and transport her by sling; they used recorded killer whale vocalizations to coax her out of the lagoon; around 10 boats attempted to herd the orca by using oikomi pipes to create a loud noise underwater; and a violinist even tried to serenade the calf to freedom.

But in the end, kʷiisaḥiʔis was her own saviour.

A young orca swims near its parent in a lagoon, with a shoreline forest in the background.
A killer whale and its calf are shown in a lagoon near Zeballos, B.C. in a handout photo. (Jared Towers/Bay Cetology/The Canadian Press)

Connecting calf with family

After kʷiisaḥiʔis swam free, John says the calf was later seen in Espinosa Inlet and a team followed her as she moved toward Esperanza Inlet and the open ocean.

The team, which includes members of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Marine Mammal Response and Bay Cetology, is hopeful that once the calf is in the ocean, her calls will be heard by her family.

Martin Haulena, director of mammal health at the Vancouver Aquarium, says the calf has overcome some significant hurdles, but she still has a few challenges ahead.

Primarily, she needs to be reunited with her pod.

“She’s a two-year old calf. Normally she would still be very dependent on mom and the family group,” he said.

If she is able to find her pod, Haulena says he’s “very sure” she will be adopted by her family members.

However, he says rescuers are also trying to limit their contact with the calf, including feedings, so she doesn’t become habituated and dependent on their support.

John says officials and nation members are now putting protective measures in place to ensure there is no contact between kʷiisaḥiʔis and other people or boats.

They have asked the public to stay away from the area.

“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,” he said.

Calf’s mother couldn’t be saved

While this chapter of kʷiisaḥiʔis’ life has ended on a high note, it began with a tragedy.

Back in March, her 15-year-old mother became beached in the lagoon.

Video of the incident shows dozens of people trying to save the stranded orca, but she died.

A whale on its side in shallow water.
A Bigg’s killer whale that died after being beached off north Vancouver Island was pregnant, according to a necropsy. (Submitted by Florence Bruce)

A necropsy later confirmed the mother was pregnant with another calf.

As the weeks continued and the rescues failed, there were concerns over the wellbeing of kʷiisaḥiʔis and whether the calf was getting enough food and fresh water. 

The orca was examined by experts and veterinarian staff from the Vancouver Aquarium who said in mid-April that she appeared to be in good health and was swimming well. 

Last week, the calf also ate seal meat for what was believed to be the first time, after members of the neighbouring Nuchatlaht First Nation tossed about 18 kilograms of seal meat into the water.


Posted in CBC