Race to save an orca calf off Vancouver Island

SEATTLE — Researchers say a sandbar stands between the calf and its freedom.

It’s been an around-the-clock effort for more than a week to help rescue a two-and-a-half-year-old orca calf.

They were first alerted to the calf when its mother became trapped on a sandbar. She died on Saturday, March 23rd. Her young calf has been stranded ever since.

The orca goes by the name kʷiisaḥiʔis, which translates to ‘Brave Little Hunter’.

Researchers rushed help with the rescue mission, including whale researcher, Gary Sutton.

“The mother that unfortunately passed away, we’ve been tracking this animal since the day she was born 14 years ago,” says Sutton.

“So you feel this bond towards the animals. And you see her two-year-old by itself and you just think ‘you’ve got to do something’” he said.

But efforts to coax the orca to safety have failed.

A sandbar sits between the lagoon and the open water. But that sandbar is where the whale’s mother lost her life, so the young orca is hesitant to approach.

“To get back out of that lagoon, it has to go out through that specific channel at the right tide. So the tides got to be high. And then it has to go through that deep water underneath a little causeway,” says Sutton. “So there’s really a small window to try to get that animal out.”

He says that window of opportunity is less than an hour each day for crews to steer the whale to safe passage.

As each day passes, concerns grow about its health. Sutton says orcas can’t thrive in isolation.

“They spend their whole lives in close proximity to their family and heavily rely on them, especially a whale of this animal’s age at just over two years old. Still very reliant on its mother, sisters, cousins, grandma, all to help provide food and also maintain a social bonds interaction,” says Sutton. “The best way to ensure the survival of the animal is to get it out of that lagoon.”

There is still the option of lifting the whale out of the lagoon, but the rescue team tells KIRO 7 this is difficult logistically, could be dangerous, and is viewed as a last resort.