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Orca calf that was trapped in B.C. lagoon for weeks swims free


An orca calf that was stranded in a remote B.C. lagoon for weeks after her pregnant mother died swam out to freedom early Friday morning.

On Thursday, members of the Ehattesaht First Nation used seal meat to guide the two-year-old calf – who was given the name kʷiisaḥiʔis, or Brave Little Hunter – towards the bridge she and her mother swam under when they first became trapped in late March.

Ehattesaht Chief Simon John said the calf stalled there for hours overnight, but eventually swam out at around 2:30 a.m. during high tide.

"It's been a joyful day," John said. "There was a lot of anticipation for this moment for the last five weeks, and I think, you know, what happened today is something our communities can rejoice in."

The calf's release followed multiple collaborative rescue attempts involving the First Nation, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Vancouver Aquarium's Marine Mammal Rescue Society and others.

Several of the people involved remained on the water with kʷiisaḥiʔis to monitor her overnight – and watched her disappear from view early Friday before re-emerging on the other side of the bridge.

Paul Cottrell, marine mammal co-ordinator with the DFO, said the calf's behaviour changed almost instantly after she escaped the shallow lagoon and made it into the much-deeper Espinosa Inlet.

"Her acoustics changed," Cottrell said. "She actually sped away from the boat."

"We've given her a chance, and now it's up to her – and we're very confident she will meet up with her pod," he added.

Officials noted the calf – a Bigg's killer whale that normally eats marine mammals – has already demonstrated an impressive adaptability when it comes to feeding.

"We've seen her foraging on herring," Cottrell said. "We've seen her eat birds as well. So we know she's a very capable, smart animal." 

Rescue efforts began last month in the Vancouver Island town of Zeballos, about 450 kilometres northwest of Victoria. The young whale swam into the area with her mother, who became stranded on a sandbar while hunting and died

One attempt to free the calf from the lagoon included using a net to corral her into a large fabric sling in shallow waters. But the whale managed to dodge a 50-strong rescue team who were using boats, divers and sophisticated underwater detection equipment. 

Other approaches were even more creative: one Nanaimo woman tried to coax the whale out of the lagoon by playing her violin during high tide

Fisheries and Oceans Canada said it will continue monitoring kʷiisaḥiʔis, but Cottrell said the team decided against attaching a satellite tag to the calf.

"There is a risk of infection, and this calf has gone through a lot of stress over the last five weeks already," he said.

Officials said there will be increased patrols to make sure the calf doesn't come in contact with boats or people. They are also asking the public to stay away from the area. Top Stories

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