ZEBALLOS, B.C. - An orphan killer whale calf escaped from a remote Vancouver Island tidal lagoon Friday where it had been trapped for more than a month, immediately swimming towards the open ocean and making calls for its extended family members, say overjoyed rescue officials.

The young orca's bid for freedom occurred at a high tide early Friday and involved swimming through a swift-moving, narrow channel and underneath a bridge, with Esperanza Inlet in the near distance.

"It's been a joyful day, a really joyful day," said Ehattesaht First Nation Chief Simon John at a news conference. "I'm very ecstatic how things happened today. There was a lot of anticipation for this moment for the past five weeks."

The orca has been the focus of intense rescue efforts since March 23, when her pregnant mother became stranded on a rocky beach and died near the bridge in the small inlet next to the community of Zeballos, B.C., more than 450 kilometres northwest of Victoria. 

The calf chose a "clear and glass-calm, star-filled night" at about 2:30 a.m. to swim under the bridge and down the inlet, said a joint statement from the Ehattesaht and Nuchatlaht First Nations. 

The young orca's behaviour changed almost at the moment she passed under the bridge and headed for the open ocean, said Paul Cottrell, a marine mammal co-ordinator with the Fisheries Department.

"We were just amazed at how quickly, and how the behaviour of this animal changed when it went from the shallow inlets, where it was restricted, to these wide-open inlets that are very deep," he said. "Her behaviour, her acoustics changed. She actually sped away from the boat and moved into Esperanza Inlet and really took off from the group."

Cottrell, who has been in Zeballos since last month working with area First Nations on a rescue plan, said he's confident the young orca will survive and find family.

"It was just a great feeling knowing we've given her a great chance," he said. "Now it's up to her and we're very confident that she will meet up with her pod."

Cottrell, who has worked on numerous whale rescues off B.C.'s coast, described Friday's events as "one of the best experiences" of his life.

The orca calf, estimated to be about two years old, was seen breaching and playing near the bridge end of the lagoon for much of Thursday evening, but only a few people were there to witness her escape as she swam under the bridge, John said in an interview.

"My daughter Ashley was there," said John. "She was really happy. It was like 3 in the morning by the time she had actually gone to the other side and they went to meet her on the other side in the Zodiac."

The calf the First Nations named kwiisahi?is, or Brave Little Hunter, started eating seal meat provided by the nations last week, giving rescuers hope they could entice her to follow a food trail out of the lagoon.

Baby whale

A large rescue team made up of Indigenous leaders, Fisheries Department marine mammal experts, Vancouver Aquarium veterinarians, commercial fishermen, divers and drone operators abruptly stopped a planned capture last week when the orca began eating seal meat thrown to her. She was also seen catching herring in the lagoon.

Four members of the Ehattesaht and the neighbouring Nuchatlaht First Nation — Rob John, Judea Smith, Victoria Wells and Ashley John — were in a small inflatable vessel Thursday night and early Friday and managed to entice the killer whale calf to exit the lagoon by tossing her sea lion meat.

Cottrell said there were concerns that the young whale could strand itself on the same rocky beach where her mother died during low tide, but the orca swam toward the bridge and left the lagoon.

"We watched her all night," he said. "We were worried last night that she may live strand. What an amazing adventure this has been. There's been lot of ups and downs and twists and turns, given the death of mom and the orphaned calf and figuring out the best way to approach the situation."

The team was planning last week to launch its second attempt to capture the calf with a large net, then place her in a sling for transport in a specially outfitted vehicle to the ocean where she could be released and potentially reunited with her extended family.

Earlier this month, an initial capture attempt was stopped when team members said the "very smart" orca was eluding their efforts.

The Fisheries Department will work with First Nations, whale watchers, researchers and boaters to monitor the location of the orca calf's extended Bigg's killer whale family, Cottrell said.

The last reported sighting of Bigg's killer whales was more than two weeks ago in the Barkley Sound area, southwest of Zeballos, near Ucluelet.

The rescue team will continue to monitor the young orca's whereabouts, her condition and if she has a chance to reunite with family, Cottrell said.

John said the rescue has now entered a new phase and patrol and protective measures will be taken in the area to ensure the young orca has no contact with boats or people.

Marine mammal experts and independent whale scientists have said the young orca's chances of survival in the open ocean and reuniting with extended family members are good. 

The Ehattesaht said the orca's journey will become part of the fabric Indigenous people across Canada are telling and living in modern times, reinforcing their deep connections between the spirit world, the animal world and the people who have remained on the land and waters.

"Events like these have a deeper meaning and the timing of her departure will be thought about, talked about and felt for generations to come," said the Ehattesaht. 

John said the orca's departure from the lagoon is bittersweet for him as it comes on the anniversary of his daughter Kayla's violent death 20 years ago.

"Really, for me, today is the anniversary of my daughter's death, so I'm just trying to maintain myself currently," he said. "It's been a tough process for me certainly with the whale thing coming after 20 years today. It's kind of significant to me. Nobody has to own it but me."

- By Dirk Meissner in Victoria

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 26, 2024.