Tourists witness rescue of young orca near Port Hardy

A boatload of tourists on a Mackay’s Whale Watching boat off Port Hardy have an amazing story to tell after they witnessed a juvenile orca being ensnared and then released from a fisherman’s net.

Bill Mackay was operating his 17-metre boat with 47 passengers aboard off Port Hardy Thursday morning, looking for northern resident orcas in A, G and R pods in Gordon Channel with the assistance of a hydrophone, an underwater microphone.

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“We listened and yup, we knew who was there but in the background we were hearing some very strange calls,” Mackay said Sunday afternoon.

“They were almost like little distress calls.”

Then the coast guard radio crackled out an emergency call asking for nearby boaters to help an elderly fisherman who had an orca in his net.

“I looked around and there were about nine gill-netters fishing,” he said.

He took a guess and headed to the first boat, which, luckily, was the one that needed help. An orca, about half the length of the fishboat, was in distress.

“The orca was completely wrapped in the net,” he said.

“The fisherman was trying to pull the whale out of the water, or at least its tail,” he said.

“This animal had wound itself up real hard.”

The fisherman acknowledged the other boat approaching but he had his hands full, said Mackay.

“He dropped the net and the orca [still ensnared] took straight off to the bottom,” he said.

“All the other family of whales went down with it. There was no way this animal was going to get out of that net without some assistance.”

The fisherman then ran down his boat to get the other end of his net onto the hydraulic winch and wind it in. The orca had been underwater for a long time and it was close to drowning.

“We were counting the minutes — all the passengers haven’t said a peep,” Mackay said.

The other whales stayed with the juvenile throughout its dive and its winching back to the surface.

He said they didn’t see the whale for 14 minutes.

The orca finally came up tail first but many on the boat thought it was dead.

“Then its little head popped up and it took a breath. All the other orcas came up with it and were spy hopping. (holding their heads out of the water to view along the water line). All [the fisherman] had to do was take his knife, which was taped to the end of a pike pole, and make two little cuts, and it was free.”

A Vancouver Aquarium whale biologist arrived and told Mackay it was remarkable the young whale survived the ordeal. Many marine mammals, once caught in something, dive and often die as a result.

Mackay has monitored the whale in the days since and says it appears to be recovering from minor cuts and abrasions.

In 32 years of running whale-watching excursions, Mackay said he’s never seen an orca caught in a gill net. The young calf appears to be underweight and may have been tempted by fish caught in the net, he said.

He credits the commercial fisherman with making the right decisions and saving the orca’s life.

The passengers on that particular outing were stunned by the experience and many even forgot to take pictures, he said.

smcculloch@timescolonist.com

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