A trapped juvenile transient (Bigg’s) killer whale, named Sam (T046C2), was rescued on Thursday by Vancouver Aquarium and Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) scientists after having been stranded in remote Weeteeam Bay on Aristazabal Island, located on the central coast of British Columbia. The isolated area in which Sam was stranded – and his discovery through a happenstance visit by a DFO Cetacean Research team – makes this a very rare and fortuitous successful marine mammal rescue effort.
“The juvenile transient killer whale, which we’ve named Sam, was discovered three weeks ago alone in a small bay with a very narrow entrance. When first discovered by a research team anchored in the bay for the night, it was calling for its mother,” said Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Research Program Director and scientist Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard. “Working collaboratively with DFO, Vancouver Aquarium staff had been monitoring it closely in hopes that it would overcome its reluctance or fear and pass through the bay’s shallow entrance on his own. After a few weeks, we noticed that its health began to deteriorate so we kept a close eye on it while we considered rescue options. On August 15, our dual Vancouver Aquarium-DFO rescue effort was successful and Sam was last seen swimming to sea, calling out for its family.”
DFO Cetacean Program researchers Dr. John Ford and Graeme Ellis first spotted the whale on July 23 while passing through the area after a whale survey; they had pulled into the bay to anchor for the night. The whale did not approach their boat and remained in the small, natural bay which had a shallow entrance. They heard it plaintively calling through the night and asked Vancouver Aquarium’s research scientist, Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, to check on it during his next research trip to the area. The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Research Program monitors populations of killer whales and other species on the central coast of B.C. each summer in a collaborative program with DFO.
On July 31, Dr. Barrett-Lennard visited Weeteeam Bay and noted that Sam was still present. It appeared to be in good condition, but was still calling loudly and repeatedly and seemed unwilling to pass through the bay’s shallow entrance. Dr. Barrett-Lennard monitored the whale every day for the next five days, noting little change in its behaviour. Sam appeared to chase salmon on several occasions, but was not seen to eat any, and also chased, and occasionally caught, seabirds. Transient killer whales do not normally eat fish as they prefer seals, sea lions, porpoises and other marine mammals.
Over the course of the week, Dr. Barrett-Lennard made several attempts to entice the whale to leave the harbour by playing transient whale calls with an underwater speaker. Sam was clearly interested in the calls but appeared to be afraid to pass through the harbour entrance.
On August 10, Dr. Barrett-Lennard returned to the bay and noted that Sam’s condition had deteriorated. It had a slight depression behind the blowhole, which is often an indicator of poor nutrition and weight loss.
On August 14, Dr. Barrett-Lennard and Dr. Ford returned to Weeteeam Bay to find Sam still present. On August 15, Vancouver Aquarium and DFO research teams used a dual approach to rescue Sam and help him make his exit. They slowly towed a floating line across the harbour towards the entrance while simultaneously playing transient killer whale calls outside the harbour. The operation was carried out just before high tide and was successful on the first attempt. Sam “shot” through the entrance “like a cork” and porpoised next to the Aquarium’s research boat, Skana, before continuing on his way. It proceeded to accompany Skana to the mouth of Weeteeam Bay.
Over the next few days, Dr. Barrett-Lennard will remain in the area to watch over Sam in hopes that it is reunited with his family. It was last seen heading to sea, continuing to call for his family.
Sam (T046C2) was born in 2009 and is a member of a transient killer whale family that is seen relatively infrequently – the family’s last sighting was two years ago. The identification of Sam was based on its uniquely-shaped white eye patches, shape of its dorsal fin and scratches and scars on its white saddle patch.
Boaters in local waters are asked to keep a lookout for Sam. If spotted, please keep your distance and report your sighting to the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network at 1 866 I SAW ONE or firstname.lastname@example.org.