Eric Keen, a whale researcher, was sailing the seas around British Columbia one seemingly ordinary morning when he heard a strange noise coming from the coast. Upon investigation, he discovered that the source of the sound was a young orca that had gotten itself wedged on a patch of sharp rocks. What followed was an intense whale rescue like no other.
Keen had been surveying the shoreline of British Columbia in Canada in July 2015 when he made the heartbreaking discovery. From his boat, he noticed that the incredible creature was stranded on the jagged rocks.
In fact, the whale was bellowing cries that were likely a mix of pain and fear. Keen knew, then, that he had to take immediate action. He therefore called the local environmental group Whale Point and the Gitga’at Guardians, who care for the coastline and the surrounding waters.
Though no one knows how the young whale got itself caught on the rocks at low tide, it was clear that there would be no lifting her off of the rocks anytime soon. Consequently, the rescuers would have to do their best to care for the stranded creature until the tide came back in and she could swim her way out to safety.
Orcas, perhaps more commonly known as killer whales, constitute the largest member of the dolphin family, and males can grow to up to 32 feet long. With no predators, they sit at the top of the ocean’s food chain and survive on a diet of fish, seals and even the occasional dolphin.
Unfortunately, though, many populations of orcas in this area are still under threat due to habitat loss, pollution and food depletion. In fact, in 2005 the whales in British Columbia’s waters were put on the U.S. Endangered Species list. It was vital, then, that the rescue team did everything they could to save this high-and-dry whale.
Their first task was to keep the young cow cool and wet. With the nearest big town, Prince Rupert, around 90 miles away, Keen didn’t have time to go and buy special equipment – so he fashioned a pump out of the materials he had at hand.
“What he rigged together was remarkable. He literally got a pump and a hose and we used Duct tape. It worked, and we used that while others soaked sheets,” volunteer Janie Wray later commented.
All the while, the terrified orca continued to call to her family out at sea. “It was so heartbreaking. She was calling out from land. A transient call is quite mellow and has a sad tone to it,” Wray added.
Eventually, the whale began to calm down and seemed to accept the love and care she was getting from the group of volunteers. “It was as if she realized we were there to help her,” Wray revealed.
But upon closer inspection, the rescuers noticed that the orca had some cuts from the sharp rocks. She was also bleeding from her tail and pectorals. Thankfully, her injuries were not considered too serious.
Eventually, after nine agonizingly long hours, the sea level had risen sufficiently to the point where the team could remove their damp rags and begin the process of setting the majestic beast free. As the water began to lap around her, the orca also seemed to realize that she’d survived her traumatic ordeal.
“She kept lifting her tail as though she was testing out the height of the water,” Wray explained. “It was very intelligent on her behalf. Her level of patience was shocking, because you know she just wanted to go.”
When the water was high enough, the young whale “took off like a bullet,” crying out as she did so. “There were many cheers as this whale was finally free,” Whale Point wrote on its Facebook page.
Amazingly, a pod of whales were not far from shore. The rescue team were confident that the whales there were the orca’s own family, waiting with high hopes that she would be reunited with them.
“It was a very stressful, emotional day,” Wray later admitted. “But such a fabulous ending when she was set free.”
Bettina Saier, oceans vice-president for the World Wildlife Fund in Canada, was watching from a nearby boat and agreed with Wray’s account of the experience. “It was heartbreaking to hear the vocalizations – the whale was vocalizing distress calls, and it was a very emotional experience,” she said.
Incidentally, researchers were able to identify the stranded whale by her signature tail fluke pattern. The whale is known as “T069A2,” and she is a nine-year-old female. Since she is known to them, then, the team are hoping to get an update on the lucky whale soon.
Indeed, the cow is part of a group of whales that return to the area each season. Whale researcher Hermann Meuter said, “What we hope for is if we see her whole family again, she is alive and well and she can live a normal life from now on.”
One thing is for certain, though: without the constant help from the volunteers who worked tirelessly to keep her skin wet, it is likely that the orca would have survived only a couple of hours. Certainly, the team’s quick response and rocky water brigade gave this lucky orca another chance at life.