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Orphan orca calf rescue attempt underway near Zeballos

Access to area blocked, officials say attempt got underway near dawn, should take much of the day
An orphaned two-year-old female orca calf continues to live and swim in a lagoon near Zeballos, B.C., on Thursday, April 11, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

A rescue attempt to save a killer whale calf stranded in a remote tidal lagoon near Zeballos, B.C., is underway.

Road access to the lagoon is blocked by members of the Ehattesaht First Nation, but an official at the scene said an attempt to get the female orca calf out of the lagoon and transferred into the open ocean began before dawn.

A First Nation official who declined to provide his name said the attempt was launched because of favourable weather conditions.

A statement from the First Nation said work was expected to take “much of the day” and the federal Fisheries Department, the Vancouver Aquarium, and the nation will brief the media when the operation has concluded.

The two-year-old calf has been alone in the lagoon for more than two weeks after its pregnant mother was beached at low tide and died.

Earlier this week, federal officials said a team of about two dozen people had assembled to prepare the planned landing area for the complex rescue

“The operation to move kwiisahi?is to open water and her family is underway this morning,” the Ehattesaht statement said referring to the whale by a name bestowed on her by the nation that means Brave Little Hunter.

Chief Simon John and staff and members of the First Nation were “playing key roles on the water today,” it said.

“The team assembled at 5 a.m. and were set off with good hearts and intention for the day’s work,” it added.

Equipment had been arriving daily in the community of about 200 people, located more than 450 kilometres northwest of Victoria.

The rescue involves veterinarians, First Nations members and whale response and logistics experts.

The effort involves corralling the female calf into a shallow part of the three-kilometre lagoon, using boats and a net more than 270 metres long.

She must then be placed into a large fabric sling and hoisted onto a transport vehicle.

A large truck with a flat bed and a wooden structure to carry the whale the short distance to open water was seen in the area on Thursday.

The department previously discussed initially holding the young orca in an ocean net pen until freeing her when members of the mother’s family were nearby, but now it says she will be released directly into open water where it’s thought she is most likely to encounter her family pod.

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