We went out on our scheduled whale watching trip from Port McNeill at 10 am [August 21, 2014] where we had reports of orcas near Port Hardy. When we arrived to where the orcas were they were all very spread out so we put our hydrophone in the water to listen for calls hoping to identify which clans were in the area. Under water we heard many calls some sounding like dolphins (even though it was orcas) which were quick and almost frantic sounding.At this time there was no mention of an orca stuck in a net but about 15 minutes after we heard this a fisherman reported to Comox Coastguard that there was an orca stuck in his gill net and he was in need of assistance. As it turns out we were very close to the fisherman and this entangled orca so we were able to respond and be there within 5 minutes. It is a mariners duty to respond to any coast guard station for a broadcast for assistance.What we saw when we arrived was one orca entangled in fishing net wrapped from head to tail. The fisherman who was an elderly gentleman was doing all he could to release the orca from his net.
I grabbed my camera and started to photograph the incident as my dad (the captain) positioned our vessel close by in case the fisherman needed our immediate assistance. I was able to identify which family the orca belonged to as they were surrounding the fisherman’s vessel as well as spy hopping and taking long dives to locate their entangled family member.
The young orca belongs to the family pod called the I 15’s, the orca that was entangled is I 103 its mother, two siblings and her aunt and two cousins were looking distressed waiting for the young orca to be released.
I 103 then began to sink to the bottom of the net under water and as it sank the family took a deep dive where they were under for approximately 12 minutes. We were all very stressed during this time as orcas typically hold their breath for up to 5 minutes only. We weren’t sure at this point whether I 103 was alive or not and were fearing the worst.It was truly terrifying and awful to watch.
The fisherman realized the situation was getting worse and quickly began to reel his net back in allowing the orca to come back to the surface. Most of the net had been taken off the orca except for a knot around its fluke. With help from the fisherman the young orca was able to be released. As soon as I 103 was released it swam straight to its family where they re-joined the other members of their group and swam away. I 103 looks OK and researchers were able to monitor the group until 5:30 pm seeing that it was doing alright.
It is extraordinarily important that people call 1-800-465-4336 in BC to report any incidents of concern regarding marine animals e.g. vessel strike and entanglement. The fisherman in this instance did the right thing by calling for help, he also was an expert in how his net was constructed and how best to release the animal. It is crucial that people do not try to release entangled animals on their own as they can do more damage than good.
“Our company is Mackay Whale Watching, my family has been operating a whale watching company for over 30 years in the area. Our vessel the Naiad Explorer was specifically designed for whale watching, we can travel at high speeds and be completely silent under water as we make no noise below the ocean.
We are a family operated small business who truly love what we do and watching that young whale entangled in a net was terrifying and awful. We are all thankful that it turned out OK and that the fisherman was not harmed nor the orca.” Nicole Mackay
This story, in some small measure, is a counterpoint to the tragic time in history when orcas were captured for captivity (Corky, SeaWorld San Diego, was taken from the Northern Resident Clan). It is well told by Nicole Mackay, whose family runs a responsible whale watching company, and is testimony to the value of having those extra eyes and ears on the water to witness the remarkable behavior that these whales exhibit.
We will probably never know what was going on under water for that length of time, but it is a good guess that the young whale’s family was keeping her calm, and probably trying to free her – yet apparently they somehow understood that the fisherman was trying to help.
Here, in her own words: