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The young killer whale was circling her beached mother before swimming out into the lagoon near Zeballos, B.C., on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island on March 23.

The Globe and Mail

Water taxis, fishing boats and whale-watching vessels are criss-crossing Tofino’s harbour on their various missions on a sunny afternoon. Whatever their official purpose, they are united in watching the water off British Columbia for one particular family.

Jennifer Steven and John Forde own the Whale Centre, and even as they send boatloads of whale watchers out on tours to see whatever whales they can find – usually grey whales – the guides, pilots and captains are eager to spot a particular branch of Bigg’s killer whales, the T109s. That’s the family of the orphan calf that has been stranded in a lagoon further up the west coast of Vancouver Island.

“Everyone knows the situation with that calf and the hope to reunite the family,” Ms. Steven said. The superstitious among them are dressing for good luck: “Some of the guys are wearing their killer whale T-shirts, their killer whale socks.”

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Deckhands from the Homalco First Nations ready a seine boat out front of the Ehattesaht First Nation's band office in Zeballos, B.C.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

On one of the tours, a large, aged grey whale, known to locals as Pattern, surfaced close enough to the Boston Whaler vessel Goolka that his breath was audible, before he dove with a flash of his broad fluke, delighting the tourists.

But the Bigg’s, and specifically the T109s, are, for now, elusive while the orphan remains trapped in a lagoon up the coast near Zeballos.

The two-year-old’s large family can be traced back to a whale known affectionately to researchers as Big Mama, and the family has grown up under the eyes of Tofino’s leading whale-watching household.

“They are the exception to the rule when it comes to killer whales, they are very prolific,” said Mr. Forde, a whale researcher who has spent countless hours over the past 40 years documenting the T109 family in these waters.

Big Mama has been visiting the nautical nooks and crannies around Tofino’s complex coastline since the 1970s, and Mr. Forde and his spouse, Ms. Steven, have snapped thousands of photographs of her and her growing family, which currently numbers 24 living whales, to help the Department of Fisheries and Oceans catalogue the population.

Mothers are the anchor of family structure among Bigg’s killer whales. This particular matriarch has been an exceptionally good mother, and is helping rebuild a population that is listed as threatened under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

Big Mama’s first-born, T109A, split off and formed her own clan, so she earned the name the Runaway. The Runaway produced at least seven calves of her own, including T109A3, the mother of the orphan calf.

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Two-year-old female orca calf named kwiisahi?is, or Brave Little Hunter, by the Ehattesaht First Nation, is spotted at the Little Espinosa Inlet near Zeballos, B.C. Friday.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

Ms. Steven photographed members of the Runaway clan near Tofino on March 31, so they were tantalizingly close to the trapped orphan. But they haven’t been spotted since.

“They could be anywhere now. They could be around Haida Gwaii, or they could be around here and nobody has seen them,” she said. “They can travel 100 kilometres a day. They could be in California.”

Roughly 90 per cent of T109′s generations of offspring have been females and because these transient killer whales are open to outsiders, the family has been strengthened by the inclusion of unrelated males.

The population of this species of whale is on the rebound, thanks to efforts by Canada and the U.S. to protect the marine mammals that make up their diet. Mr. Forde has witnessed the T109s’ formidable hunting skills many times, taking down seals, sea lions and even grey whales many times their size.

“We’re all naturalist guides, but our true bloodthirsty nature comes out when we see them hunt,” he said in an interview. He’s excited not to witness the death of an animal, but because of what follows. “After they’re successful, they tend to celebrate and that’s when you get the breaching, and tail slapping, and sometimes when you’ll get the curious behaviour where they will swim around underneath your boat.”

Jared Towers is a whale researcher who has been involved in the rescue efforts to reunite the calf with her extended family. Mr. Towers is the director Bay Cetology, a conservation team of marine biologists and research technicians that have been trying to track the family of the orphan, named kwiisahi?is by the Ehattesaht First Nation. Roughly translated, the name means Brave Little Hunter.

Mr. Towers arrived in Zeballos with his drone to see how he could help when he learned that the orphan’s mother had died on a sandbar as she hunted a seal. Most killer whales will survive a beaching, but rescuers could not get the pregnant mother on her belly, and she drowned as the tide came in and her blowhole was submerged.

On March 23, he watched helplessly from the drone’s vantage point as her calf swam through the shallow water into a lagoon. The narrow channel to the lagoon has effectively locked her in, because she refuses to be enticed back through the shallow waters back out into open water where she might reunite with her family.

Brave Little Hunter was born in the spring of 2022, and the rescue team that has assembled in Zeballos worry that she is too young to survive on her own.

But Mr. Towers has faith in the orphan’s family strength: He believes T109, the orphan’s great grandmother, has been successful in raising her offspring because of her superior hunting skills. Those are skills that the mothers in these family units pass on to their offspring.

“Her surviving progeny are more numerous than any other in this population. She’s done a great job of raising healthy offspring so it’s quite a large family at this point.”

Mr. Towers’s work mostly includes studies of the movements, abundance and ecology of cetacean populations using photo-identification and telemetry.

He co-authored a study published by the Royal Society in June 2023 on the social structure of Bigg’s killer whales, showing that the bond between a mother and her daughter weakens when the daughter reaches reproductive age.

Brave Little Hunter was not ready to leave her mother’s side, but eventually she might become a runaway herself.

Still, the social structure of the Bigg’s killer whales – also known as the transients – favours the calf’s survival if she can reach open waters.

“It’s a very dynamic social structure, it’s kind of like ‘anything goes’ with Bigg’s social structure,” Mr. Towers said. “If she was one or two years older, it would not be unheard of for her to be off on her own making a living.”

Unlike the tight-knit social structure of the southern resident killer whales, this whale could be accepted into any passing clan of transients.

Ms. Steven last saw the orphan calf and her mother, T109A3, six days before the mother beached and died. At that time, they were with their family clan led by Runaway. While the family line is relatively strong, T109A3′s death is a loss for a population that is slowly recovering, but still threatened.

“It’s devastating,” she said. “This calf is just staying where mom was – that would be the instinct of a human child.”

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