A baby orca named Toa has captured the hearts of New Zealanders and sparked a frantic nationwide search for his family after he was found stranded on rocks nearly two weeks ago.
The calf, thought to be 3 to 6 months old, has been receiving round-the-clock care from a massive cast that includes whale rescue groups, volunteers, the local Māori tribe Ngāti Toa Rangatira and the country’s Department of Conservation (DOC).
Orcas don’t typically wean until 1 to 2 years of age, meaning he requires constant monitoring.
Toa, which means fighter or hero in Māori, was found near Plimmerton, just north of the New Zealand capital of Wellington, on July 11. Since then, the difficult mission to keep Toa safe and healthy has been marred by bad weather. Last week, a violent storm tore through the region, bringing massive swells, flooding and a sewage spill into the harbour.
Toa had been staying in a sea-pen in the harbour but was moved to a 8,400-gallon seawater pool in the carpark of a local boating club for several days to protect him and his carers during the rough weather.
He was successfully transferred back into his sea-pen Thursday night in an effort to help with injuries to his fins and an inflamed eye. He had also become more lethargic and stopped vocalising as much as he had.
“As soon as the calf was back in the sea, he started calling and zooming around the pen,” said Ian Angus, marine species manager for the DOC.
“We remain focused on trying to find the orca calf’s pod. Our efforts will be focused on the lower half of the North Island and upper half of the South Island.”
Toa’s primary caregiver is Ingrid Visser, the only person in the country with a doctorate in New Zealand orcas. She’s been with Toa since the start and has been monitoring him on site day and night while directing volunteers on how to help him, according to The Guardian.
The DOC has opened up a tip line for people to report orca sightings anywhere in the country, given orcas can travel up to 100 miles a day.
In a Wellington whale watch Facebook group, updates from locals, volunteers and tipsters appear almost hourly as people share images and videos of the little orca and desperately try to locate his family.
However, as time drags on, experts have raised concern about his welfare.
Karen Stockin, a marine biologist, told the NZ Herald that if Toa’s pod can’t be found, there are only two options: euthanasia or putting him into a purpose-built rehabilitation facility, which New Zealand does not have. Other experts have also raised concerns about his ability to reintegrate with his pod the more time he spends in human care.