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Researcher moved by drama of killer whale rescue in B.C.

An orca whale is beached on some rocks outside Hartley Bay on British Columbia's Central coast in a handout photo. A killer whale stranded on a tiny island off British Columbia's Central coast was protected for hours while rescuers waited for high tied to wash her off the rocks.

Cam Hill/THE CANADIAN PRESS

For hours this week, whale researcher Hermann Meuter huddled with a female orca trapped among the rocks of British Columbia's jagged northern coastline, speaking soothingly to the creature as rescuers kept her cool and wet until the high tide returned.

Mr. Meuter says the whale cried out, stirring the emotions of those gathered to watch the drama.

"But because it was just me and the whale for the first couple of hours, it just felt good to talk to her a little bit and give her some comfort I was able to give her," he said.

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He recalled it all Thursday, a day after the eight-hour incident drew about 15 First Nations Gitga'at residents of Hartley Bay and others after word spread the whale was stranded – because, Mr. Meuter suspects, it made an error as it went after a seal.

There was no way to physically move the four- to five-tonne whale. So the volunteers consulted experts by phone, and used common sense. They reduced the number of people close to the whale to avoid distressing it. And they poured sea water onto blankets on the whale to keep it cool.

"Whenever she was crying out to her family, I would tell her that everything was going to be okay. I was just trying to comfort her," said Mr. Meuter, who has spent about 15 years in the area studying whales with his partner, Janie Wray, as co-founders of the Cetacealab.

Bettina Saier, oceans vice-president for the World Wildlife Fund-Canada, happened to be in the area.

"We were watching from a boat close to the stranded orca. It was heartbreaking to hear the vocalizations – the whale was vocalizing distress calls, and it was a very emotional experience," she recalled in an e-mail.

Marven Robinson, a councillor with the Hartley Bay Band, heard about the situation on a marine radio and came with about six other community members in one boat. The 47-year-old said he has come close to orcas in his boat, but never as close as in this week's incident. But he said he could only look on from the rocks above the orca and videotape the rescue effort.

He said the orca seemed literally to be sighing with relief as wet blankets were placed over it. "You know, when you're really thirsty and you take that first drink of water and you kind of go, 'Ahhh.' That's the way this whale sighed in relief."

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Meanwhile, dozens of seals in the area around the distressed predator were making a sound that almost seemed, to Mr. Robinson, like laughter. "I've never, ever heard a seal vocalize until yesterday," he said.

Mr. Meuter, speaking from his home on Gil Island, recalled the struggle to carry water up from low tide. "It was eight hours of carrying water and pouring it over the whale," he said. For most of the time, the whale's eyes were closed. When they were open, Mr. Meuter looked into them. "You see depth. You see intelligence. You see emotions," he said.

He was not worried about his safety. For one thing, the whale could not move without hurting itself. And he added: "I think it only took the whale a few minutes to realize we were there to help her."

Asked what he learned from the experience, Mr. Meuter referred to its conclusion when the whale was floating and ready to move away. "She was not trying to rush herself off the rock," he said. "She was really negotiating which way she would go. She would go backward a little bit. Forward a little bit. Then she would try to go sideways. All very calmly, very slow."

After about 45 minutes, the whale was on her way, leaving Mr. Meuter, who once helped get a stranded dolphin off a beach, to hope he never goes through a similar experience again – too distressing for the animal, he said.

He believes the whale was part of a group seen annually in the region, one tracked by researchers. "What we hope for," he said, "is if we see her whole family again, she is alive and well and she can live a normal life from now on."

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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