Islanders initiate orca rescue

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Salt Spring Islanders past and present teamed up for a timely emergency response that led to a transient killer whale’s rescue on Thursday.

Local residents Suzanne Ambers and Keith Simpson were at the heart of the action after witnessing a large male orca in considerable distress about a mile out from Vesuvius. Their call to the Canadian Coast Guard put them in touch with the B.C. Marine Mammal Response Network and its lead disentanglement officer Paul Cottrell, who grew up on Salt Spring before going to work for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).

Ambers told the Driftwood that she and her partner are often on the water. They had gone out at about 7:30 a.m. for a fishing trip and were just a few minutes away from the dock when they spotted the orca.

“I thought there had to be something wrong by the way he was moving, because they don’t usually stay in one spot,” Ambers said.

Simpson, who is a wildlife biologist, confirmed there was something “desperately wrong.” They realized the whale must be tangled in the lines from a commercial crab float.

Their immediate response was to want to step in and help, but the couple knew they needed expert assistance. Ambers and Simpson connected to Cottrell and coworker Taylor Lehnhart at their Vancouver office through the B.C. Marine Mammal Response Network hotline. Cottrell said calling for help was exactly the right thing to do. Well-meaning members of the public have frequently tried to help in such situations by cutting a line themselves, and in doing so ensuring the whale’s doom by removing the disentanglement team’s only guideline. Cottrell is in fact the only person who is trained and authorized for whale disentanglement in the Canadian Pacific region.

The two DFO agents immediately jumped into a boat with their tools to cross the Strait of Georgia. Though they made good time and arrived in around two hours, it was a long wait for Ambers and Simpson, who stayed on hand to observe the orca and offer their updates. Cottrell and Lehnhart made contact every 10 minutes or so to keep apprised and offer advice.

Because they were so close to the ferry crossing, Ambers was concerned the distressed whale would pull the gear into the ferry’s path. Other boaters were another potential concern.

Cottrell said this particular whale — a large bull transient identified as T0778 — has been known to play with ropes and then get stuck before. It’s a dangerous habit because though huge, orcas are not strong enough to deal with too much weight and they don’t have the stamina of larger whale species.

“It’s just strange behaviour that’s been documented over the past four years. In the past, he’s been able to free himself from a commercial crab float,” Cottrell said, noting the whale seems to like playing with things on the water’s surface. “We’re hoping this teaches him a lesson.”

Cottrell and his teammate took an easy approach to the whale when they arrived to observe the situation safely and get in close without spooking him. They found his tail had been wrapped by one of the lines. They were able to free him by applying pressure to the attached buoy.

“Once we just put a little tension on the buoy he was able to roll out,” Cottrell said. “When we did that he shot off and it was just incredible the aerials he did, plus some tail flaps.”

Anyone who sees a whale or other marine mammal that is entangled, injured, distressed or dead should call the 24-hour BCMMRN hotline at 1-800-465-4336.

For more on this story, see the June 6, 2018 issue of the Gulf Islands Driftwood newspaper, or subscribe online.

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