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B.C. rescuers face 'high likelihood' of failure to reunite orphaned orca with pod

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The race to reunite an orphaned orca calf that’s stuck in a shallow lagoon with a neighbouring pod has entered its fifth day, and a marine scientist says the clock is ticking.

The baby Bigg’s killer whale’s mother suffocated on Saturday morning after getting stranded on a gravel bar in low tide in Little Espinosa Inlet, near the village of Zeballos on northern Vancouver Island.

A heroic community effort to save the mother’s life has now turned to helping the approximately two-year-old calf out to open ocean, where it will hopefully connect with its relatives.

The local Ehattesaht First Nation named the baby kʷiisaḥiʔis, or “Brave Little Hunter.”

“This is a very difficult situation with a high likelihood of not being successful, but that's not going to stop us,” said Paul Cottrell, marine mammal response team member with Fisheries and Oceans Canada at a media briefing Wednesday.

The rescue effort has been complicated by weather, currents and tides, Cottrell explained to CTV News on-scene in Zeballos. He said there’s only a 15- to 20-minute window daily when the tide is slack, which is when the whale could safely make its way out of the lagoon, and the water is very shallow at the exit.

“We are dealing with uncharted territory,” he said, adding the tides haven’t been working in their favour.

“This is one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult rescue-type operations that I’ve ever been involved with—it’s really, really challenging,” Cottrell said.

On Tuesday, crews were able to get the orca to move within the lagoon, but still couldn’t get it out. “It's a very narrow passage. It's almost like threading the needle,” Ehattesaht Chief Simon John said at the news conference.

Several methods have been deployed, including using underwater speakers that play the calf’s family calls—which actually repelled the animal—acoustic pipes that manipulate the whale’s direction, and loose rope strung between boats to create a physical barrier.

Members of the Ehattesaht and Nuchatlaht First Nations have been scouting on boats for killer whale pods nearby, and Nuchatlaht fisheries employee Judae Smith told CTV News Tuesday seven family members have been spotted in two locations.

The team took a break on Wednesday, and are working on a number of contingency plans in the event the orca doesn’t leave the lagoon.

Officials didn’t go into specifics on what the contingency plans entailed, but when reporters asked if manually lifting the animal out of the lagoon was on the table, they said “we're having to look at all those options.”

Another factor adding more urgency to the situation is the calf’s ability to eat. John said it’s unclear if the animal has had any food since Saturday. And Cottrell revealed that the 15-year-old mother orca was lactating, so the baby was at least partially dependant on her for nutrition.

He estimates the baby can survive for a couple weeks without food.

John said the team is considering feeding the whale a seal, but pointed out there’s concern it will become used to getting food from humans and “the relationship might not be able to be broken.”

In all, Cottrell said they’re going to exhaust every option to get the calf to safety, and they won’t give up. “We’re in for the long haul,” he told CTV News. “We’ve got a tough road ahead, but we’re all hopeful."

The past few days have been very emotional for the whole community, but John said the Ehattesaht First Nation is “pretty resilient” and everyone is invested in saving the orca’s life. He told CTV News a team of 10-12 people were planning on approaching the baby in a white canoe on Wednesday to try and coax it toward the lagoon’s entrance, with elders standing at the shore to chant and drum it home.

“This is a very small place in the world but there’s very big things here,” he said. 

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