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Beached orca in B.C. dies despite life-saving efforts

People try to push a beached orca back to the water while a calf swims nearby on the left. (Tracy Smith/Facebook - image credit)
People try to push a beached orca back to the water while a calf swims nearby on the left. (Tracy Smith/Facebook - image credit)

A female killer whale that beached on northern Vancouver Island died on Saturday despite efforts by the community to push the mammal back into the water.

Video of the incident, which occurred near the village of Zeballos on the island's northwest coast, shows dozens of people trying to save the stranded orca.

The female orca was stranded on shore in the Little Espinosa Inlet, about six kilometres southwest of the village, at low tide while a calf swam nearby, said Florence Bruce of the Ehattesaht First Nation.

Bruce and her fiancée, Kyle Harry, were among a dozen or so people present for the rescue effort.

"The whale was giving a really big fight before it passed away," Bruce told CBC News.

Tracy Smith/Facebook
Tracy Smith/Facebook

The group tried to roll the mammal onto its belly and provide it with as much water as they could for about two hours before it breathed its last, Bruce said.

"I am so sad inside. It's kind of like I lost a relative," she said.

Harry sang a prayer song for the departed orca.

"Other nations are also coming together on Facebook Live and singing their songs for [the orca] too," he said.

While the circumstances around the stranding remain unclear, Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) — a conservation charity based in Port McNeill — speculates the orca may have ventured ashore during a high tide, possibly for hunting purposes.

Submitted by Jared Towers
Submitted by Jared Towers

In a social media post, the society said the area where the incident took place "is highly influenced by changes in tides."

"When the tide ebbs in this particular spot, it happens very quickly," the society wrote.

The calf, which remained near its deceased mother, faces an uncertain future.

In its post, MERS said its survival depends on various factors including its age and "the family structure of these whales."

Search continues to reunite baby orca with pod

Rescuers on site say they are scouring nearby waters to bring the baby back to its pod.

A Facebook post from Judae Smith, who oversees operations and maintenance in the Nuchatlaht First Nation's fisheries department, says they are also looking for the pod of killer whales.

"We have six [boats] going out to look to bring the baby to the pod," Smith posted on Facebook Saturday.

Submitted by Jared Towers
Submitted by Jared Towers

Paul Cottrell, a marine mammal co-ordinator with Department of Fisheries and Oceans, confirmed to CBC News that he is on the scene responding to the orca death but declined an interview, citing network issues.

Jared Towers, the executive director of non-profit Bay Cetology, said the dead orca was a 14 year old Bigg's killer whale, a transient orca which was likely pursuing a harbour seal when it rolled over on its side.

He said its calf remains swimming nearby as of Sunday morning.

"We'll be working on a plan to to try and coax that calf out of the lagoon," he told CBC News.

"Fortunately, it's making a lot of loud calls and if it can swim out on its own at high tide ... it can continue to call and hopefully find its extended family and be adopted."