Volunteers Lose Battle to Save Lost Baby Killer Whale

Despite efforts by a team of scientists and community members, a young orca dies in New Zealand after being separated from his family.
The killer whale calf known as Bob was found separated from his family in July. (Photo: Orca Research Trust/Facebook)
Aug 6, 2016· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

An infant killer whale that was found lost and starving on New Zealand’s North Island has died following a concerted effort to rehabilitate him and reunite him with his family.

“Sadly the calf lost its battle overnight despite the best efforts of a team of rescuers,” New Zealand Conservation Minister Maggie Barry said in a statement on Saturday.

“I send my sympathies and commiserations to the many people who have worked exhaustively over the last week to try to save the young whale,” Barry said. “It was an effort made in the best spirit of cooperation and conservation of the natural world.”

The orca, which was between six months and a year old, was first spotted in Tauranga Harbour in the Bay of Plenty about three weeks ago, ailing and struggling against the bay’s strong currents.

The Department of Conservation, which has authority over New Zealand orcas, had initially refused to intervene on the killer whale’s behalf but had a change of heart after nearly 7,800 people signed a petition urging action to save him.

“I’m grateful the government made a compassionate choice to allow the team to go in,” said Haze Sommer of the group Tilikum & Co., which issued the petition. “I’ve never had a petition just work like that before.”

A tactical team of government officials, killer whale researchers, Maori tribe members, and others struggled to save the whale. On Wednesday, he was transferred to a small pool onshore to conserve his strength, improve his health, and try to get him to eat.

The baby killer whale—variously called Bob, Tama, Ongare, and Tiger—was given electrolytes and water through a tube and fed a slurry made of fish.

Ingrid Visser, a killer whale scientist and the founder of Orca Research Trust, who worked on the rehabilitation effort, said the whale had made considerable progress since being found emaciated and dehydrated.

“As his heart slowed and his breathing became fainter he was comforted and supported by us all,” the group said on its Facebook page.

“A few hours after his death a Maori karakia [blessing] was performed followed by the Lord’s Prayer in Maori,” it said. “He was then gathered into the folds of the Iwi [Maori tribe] and taken for a private ceremony to be buried with respect and dignity on an island overlooking the ocean and where wild orca frequent.”

No one knows why the whale became separated from his family, and Visser declined to speculate on the reason. She said there are no known cases of wild orcas deliberately abandoning their young.

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(Photo: Orca Research Trust/Facebook)

Orcas were spotted in the Bay of Plenty on Tuesday, Visser said, but they were too far away for vocal communications with the lost infant.

Even as it worked to save the orca, the team tried to locate his pod. DNA samples were taken, which could have helped identify his family. There is a small database of individual New Zealand orcas that have been profiled by their DNA.

An estimated 150 to 200 orcas live in New Zealand waters. The exact number of distinct pods is not known.

Even if reunification with his family had not been possible, the plan was still to release the orca back into the sea.

“We have examples of stranded orca who have been accepted into nonfamily groups,” Visser said.

It wasn’t the first time that a young orca had been separated from a family. In 2001, a killer whale named Luna was found alone off Vancouver Island. For the next five years, U.S. and Canadian scientists tried to figure out a way to return Luna to his pod. Before they could, however, Luna was struck and killed by a tugboat in 2006.

In 2002, a young female orca named Springer was found alone in Puget Sound. After spending five months in rehab, she was sent to British Columbia, where she successfully rejoined her family.