Orca’s ocean escape from B.C. lagoon will be talked about for generations, says First Nation

An orphaned killer whale calf’s escape from a remote Vancouver Island tidal lagoon, where it had been trapped for more than a month, is likely to reverberate for First Nations in Canada, according to those involved in the rescue.

The orca has been the focus of intense rescue efforts since March 23, when her pregnant mother became stranded on a rocky beach and died near the bridge in the small inlet next to the community of Zeballos, B.C., more than 450 kilometres northwest of Victoria. 

The calf, named kʷiisaḥiʔis or Brave Little Hunter by First Nations, chose a “clear and glass-calm, star-filled night” at about 2:30 a.m. PT to swim under a bridge and down the inlet, according to a joint statement from the Ehattesaht and Nuchatlaht First Nations. 

“It’s been a joyful day, a really joyful day,” Ehattesaht First Nation Chief Simon John said at a news conference. “I’m very ecstatic how things happened today. There was a lot of anticipation for this moment for the past five weeks.”

An Indigenous man smiles while talking in front of a white building.
Ehattesaht Chief Simon John says there were only a few people around when the orca swam to the ocean in the middle of the night. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

The young orca’s behaviour changed almost at the moment she passed under the bridge and headed for the open ocean, said Paul Cottrell, a marine mammal co-ordinator with the Fisheries Department.

“We were just amazed at how quickly … the behaviour of this animal changed when it went from the shallow inlets, where it was restricted, to these wide-open inlets that are very deep,” he said.

“Her behaviour, her acoustics changed. She actually sped away from the boat and moved into Esperanza Inlet and really took off from the group.”

WATCH | CBC reporter Joel Ballard breaks down the month-long orca rescue: 

Orca calf swims out of lagoon after being trapped for a month

1 day ago

Duration 4:18

The Ehattesaht First Nation says the killer whale calf known as kʷiisaḥiʔis, or Brave Little Hunter, swam over the sandbar and out into open water on its own after weeks of being trapped.

Cottrell, who has been in Zeballos since last month working with area First Nations on a rescue plan, said he’s confident the young orca will survive and find family.

“It was just a great feeling knowing we’ve given her a great chance,” he said. “Now it’s up to her and we’re very confident that she will meet up with her pod.”

Cottrell, who has worked on numerous whale rescues off B.C.’s coast, described Friday’s events as “one of the best experiences” of his life.

A white man wearing a blue jacket speaks to a pair of mics.
Fisheries Department Pacific region marine mammal co-ordinator Paul Cottrell says the month-long rescue effort was one of the best experiences of his life. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

The orca calf, estimated to be about two years old, was seen breaching and playing near the bridge end of the lagoon for much of Thursday evening, but only a few people were there to witness her escape as she swam under the bridge, John said in an interview.

“My daughter Ashley was there,” said John. “She was really happy. It was like 3 [a.m.] in the morning by the time she had actually gone to the other side and they went to meet her on the other side in the Zodiac.”

WATCH | The full story of the orca that was stuck in a B.C. lagoon: 

Baby orca swims free after weeks trapped in B.C. lagoon

22 hours ago

Duration 2:52

After weeks of rescue attempts, the Ehattesaht First Nation says the orca calf known as Brave Little Hunter has finally freed herself from a remote Vancouver Island tidal lagoon and is now in open water.

Four members of the Ehattesaht and the neighbouring Nuchatlaht First Nation — Rob John, Judea Smith, Victoria Wells and Ashley John — were in a small inflatable vessel Thursday night and early Friday and managed to entice the killer whale calf to exit the lagoon by tossing her sea lion meat.

Cottrell said there were concerns that the young whale could strand itself on the same rocky beach where her mother died during low tide, but the orca swam toward the bridge and left the lagoon.

“We watched her all night,” he said. “We were worried last night that she may live strand. What an amazing adventure this has been. There’s been lot of ups and downs and twists and turns, given the death of mom and the orphaned calf and figuring out the best way to approach the situation.”

The Fisheries Department will work with First Nations, whale watchers, researchers and boaters to monitor the location of the orca calf’s extended Bigg’s killer whale family, Cottrell said.

WATCH | CBC News gets up close with the orca rescue team: 

Up close with orca rescue team in B.C.

13 days ago

Duration 2:26

As plans develop for a daring rescue of a stranded orca calf on northern Vancouver Island, CBC News got an up-close look at the efforts. The whale has been stuck in a lagoon and orphaned, since its pregnant mother became trapped by a low tide and died weeks ago.

The last reported sighting of Bigg’s killer whales was more than two weeks ago in the Barkley Sound area, southwest of Zeballos, near Ucluelet, about 290 kilometres northwest of Victoria.

The rescue team will continue to monitor the young orca’s whereabouts, her condition and if she has a chance to reunite with family, Cottrell said.

Marine mammal experts and independent whale scientists have said the young orca’s chances of survival in the open ocean and reuniting with extended family members are good.

An orca is pictured beyond some shrubbery.
The orca became stuck in the lagoon near Zeballos, more than 450 kilometres northwest of Victoria, after swimming to the area with its mother during a low tide. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

The Ehattesaht said the orca’s journey will become part of the fabric of Indigenous people across Canada, reinforcing their deep connections between the spirit world, the animal world and the people who have remained on the land and waters.

“Events like these have a deeper meaning and the timing of her departure will be thought about, talked about and felt for generations to come,” said the Ehattesaht. 

John said the orca’s departure from the lagoon is bittersweet for him as it comes on the anniversary of his daughter Kayla’s violent death 20 years ago.

“Really, for me, today is the anniversary of my daughter’s death, so I’m just trying to maintain myself currently,” he said. “It’s been a tough process for me certainly with the whale thing coming after 20 years today. It’s kind of significant to me. Nobody has to own it but me.”


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