14 Jul 2021

Community rallies around orca: 'There is some terrific support here'

8:20 pm on 14 July 2021

Efforts continue to reunite a stranded orca with its pod, while work is underway to strengthen its temporary pen as bad weather is forecast.

The juvenile orca - which has been given the name Toa - stranded on rocks at Plimmerton, north of Wellington, on Sunday afternoon.

The search for Toa's family has developed extensively outside the harbour, with two orca pod sightings reported through the day. Department of Conservation (DOC), local pilots and members of the Plimmerton Boat Club searched the area by air and boat today, with an additional helicopter being deployed after a report close by to Plimmerton.

Hundreds of volunteers have also got the binoculars out and are searching along the coastline trying to spot a pod.

Shane Coulson, a volunteer who organised the spotters, said they are all rotating in shifts.

"Anyone seeing any orca, anywhere, is going to be helpful to us," he said.

Helicopters were back in the sky today searching for Toa's family

Helicopters were back in the sky today searching for Toa's family Photo: SUPPLIED/ Whale Rescue

DOC said there had been two sightings off the Kāpiti Coast, including one this morning, and another off the coast of Taranaki, also reported today. However, DOC marine species manager Ian Angus said none of the sightings have been verified.

Meanwhile, the orca - believed to be between four and six months old - is in a temporary enclosure, using the boat ramp and donated fencing.

Whale Rescue/Orca Rescue Trust, DOC and local iwi Ngāti Toa Rangatira are caring for the mammal, with volunteers working in shifts to stay with it in its pen.

The volunteers operate on hourly rotations, and there is no shortage of people ready to get in. A large whiteboard on site shows the roster for the crew going into the water.

Emily Baubett from Whale Rescue was in the water with Toa today and said he had perked up a lot.

"I don't think he cries at all during the day. You can tell when he's wanting to calm down and sleep, he kinda nuzzles up to you if you're in the water, he comes up and he wants you to hold him" she said.

Angus said teams were working to improve the orca's pen as bad weather was forecast for the Wellington region in the coming days. Work was also underway to improve shelter for volunteers and professionals at the scene.

"There is some terrific support here being delivered by some incredibly passionate people - and we've got to look after them, too," Angus said.

"It's the middle of the New Zealand winter, and we need to ensure people are safe."

Orca rescue crew humbled by support

Angus thanked Plimmerton Boat Club, which had opened its doors to support the efforts.

Volunteers feed Toa

Volunteers are on a rotating roster, with at least one in the water with the orca at a time Photo: SUPPLIED/ Whale Rescue

The club has kept its doors unlocked and heaters and showers on so volunteers can have sheltered meetings and warm up throughout the night.

Some locals have also opened up their homes for crew who live further away to spend the night, which doesn't surprise club member Gayle Carmichael.

"The community's been fantastic, but Plimmerton community is, They're always like this," she said.

The crew caring for the whale say they have been blown away by support from the community, and have more cheese scones than volunteers.

"Every five minutes we have someone turn up with big crates of food, so many scones, towels, blankets, it's amazing. We've got a full trailer here," said Theo Sutorius today after his shift in the water with the orca.

The boating dock outside the boat club, where crews are set up, has been overtaken by campervans, gazebos, and industrial heaters. Almost all the gear has been donated by the local community.

The orca is currently in a temporary pen, using the boat ramp and fencing, and is being cared for around-the-clock by volunteers

The orca is currently in a temporary pen, using the boat ramp and fencing, and is being cared for around-the-clock by volunteers Photo: SUPPLIED/ Whale Rescue

Two campervans have been donated for crew to have a sheltered, warm and quiet place to sleep as they care for the orca through the night. Last night again the temperatures along the exposed coast went below freezing, but volunteers today said the extra supplies made a big difference.

DOC plans for 'range of scenarios'

Ian Angus said planning had shifted into a new phase, with discussions about the logistics of moving Toa and how that could be done in bad weather.

The calf received more veterinarian-assisted feeding this afternoon, and remains stable.

Those caring for it are receiving regular advice from international orca experts, which DOC said was "proving vital".

Anyone who spots orca pods between Wellington and Taranaki are asked to contact DOC via wellington@doc.govt.nz or by calling 0800 DOC HOT and provide as much information as possible, including the location, direction of travel and photographs and video of their back markings and dorsal fins.

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