Young orca, crying for its mother, freed from bay

4-year-old male became trapped three weeks ago; researchers say he joined other killer whales after being coaxed out of the shallow waterway


The plaintive cries of a young killer whale that had become trapped in a remote Canadian bay have ceased, now that the cetacean has been freed and apparently is with other killer whales.

And for that marine mammal experts at the Vancouver Aquarium and Department of Fisheries and Oceans have reason to celebrate.

"Our little Sam was traveling close to them," aquarium scientist Barrett-Lennard told the Vancouver Sun. “That was good. The hope was he would join up with other killer whales and that wasn't going to happen in the little bay he was hanging out in.”

Sam, a transient (Bigg’s) killer whale who was born in 2009 and belongs to a pod that has not been seen in two years, entered British Columbia’s Weetam Bay easily enough.

But he could not find a narrow exit passageway, or was afraid to try to negotiate the passageway for fear of becoming stranded.

He was first spotted in the bay on July 23, by Fisheries and Oceans researchers John Ford and Graeme Ellis. They left Sam alone, figuring his family was nearby, but asked Barrett-Lennard to keep an eye out on their next research voyage to the central coast.


That trip was a week later. Sam was still in the bay, alone, and crying loudly for his mother (killer whale offspring maintain close lifetime bonds with their mothers).

“None of us knew why he got in there,” Barrett-Lennard said. “We didn't want to do anything at the time because we weren't sure if his family was going to come back for him or not. There was enough water for him to get out at high tide. But after spending a few days watching him, we decided he was afraid to go through the opening.”

Sam, who is easily identified because of the unique shape of his white eye patches, was seen chasing fish but not catching anything. (Transient killer whales feed almost predominantly on other marine mammals; Sam is young enough that he might still have been nursing.)

Over the next week, Barrett-Lennard tried coaxing Sam toward the deepest exit point by issuing recorded transient killer whale calls. By August 10, the scientist said, Sam had developed signs of poor nutrition-notably a small depression behind his blowhole.

It was time for a better plan, and on Thursday it was put to action.

A team led by Barrett-Lennard and Ford waited for high tide. It towed a floating line toward the exit point from inside the bay, coaxing Sam toward the outer bay, while playing transient killer whale calls outside the bay.

Sam reached the exit point and bolted through.

According to Barrett-Lennard, another pod was near enough that Sam had found traveling companions.

It remains unclear, however, whether Sam has found his family or other killer whales. And curiously, the accompanying Vancouver Aquarium video does not mention Sam hooking up with other killer whales.

Nonetheless, his chances of survival are clearly better now that he’s outside the bay.

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