DOC's Orca care excedes budget by $17k

2:52 pm on 22 September 2021

The Department of Conservation spent $130,000 looking after Toa, the orphaned Orca.

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The orpahaned Orca, Toa. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

It was abandoned by its pod north of Wellington in July, and was cared for by the department and volunteers for 12 days before its death.

DOC has now released information on the operation including everything from expert advice from international experts, to health updates to texts between staff.


It detailed how the money was spent on the calf.

Of the $130k, more than half - $67,000 - was spent on operational costs; roughly $5600 per day.

About $17,000 went on flights for specialist staff, $15,000 for site security and nearly $4000 for the pool he was put in when the water was not safe.

The rest is split between food for the orca, helicopter hire, equipment and weather forecasting.

The other $60k was split between nearly 40 staff who recorded 1400 hours on the clock over the 12 days.

The overall spend was $17k more than the department budgeted for.

DOC also released a range of texts, the bulk of that is about media interviews and the messages they are wanting to get across.

In a briefing it said "People will want to have confidence that DOC and its partners have done everything they can possibly do for the orca calf. That every decision is made in the best interests of the calf.

"There will be disagreement about what the best thing is."

Messages also included correspondence with the Conservation Minister, Kiri Allan, about logistics and whether there was adequate consultation with mana whenua.

There were even requests from Film Director James Cameron on whether he could visit the orca.


Toa the Orca was subjected to daily health and vet checks which included blood tests, skin swabs, faecal samples and more...

The release includes 380 pages alone on the condition of the animal.

One of the Department's main concerns was the orca's interactions with humans.

"The biggest non-health concern is ongoing habituation of the calf to the presence of people, including some basic training of the calf (e.g. to recall the animal by hand commands) which Dr Visser has undertaken."

Texts between staff involved also said Toa was urinating on request, requiring immediate attention when feeding and nuzzling for sleep.

Another also labelled the number of people spending time in the water with him a "joke".

But overall the Department said he was in good health for the 12 days, aside from a sore tummy after eating and potential skin and eye irritation when the pool had to be chlorinated because of a sewerage spill in the harbour.

There were almost no details from the day of his death, other than some texts informing people he'd died and an email to ministers saying he went downhill fast and had trouble breathing.

A draft release about the death said "The condition of the juvenile orca that stranded 13 days ago began to deteriorate about 5pm, sinking and remaining on the seabed."

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Toa the Orca with a volunteer in a specialised sea pen. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone


It was decided four days after his stranding that euthanasia was the most likely option, international experts advising it be put down sooner rather than later.

Finding the pod was highly unlikely, but all other options were socially unpalatable.

"Releasing the orca in the sea by itself would have been inhumane, given it was a calf and could not feed or protect itself.

"At the other end of the spectrum, holding the orca calf in captivity for the rest of its life would not be legal in New Zealand."

Euthanasia was still being discussed on the day Toa died, but Mana Whenua and Ingrid Visser had not made a call.

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