Orca calf stranding response July 2021
Archived content: This media release was accurate on the date of publication.
IntroductionA young, unweaned orca calf stranded itself on a rocky beach at Plimmerton, north of Wellington, on Sunday 11 July 2021 while foraging with its pod.
It sparked DOC’s longest stranding response for a single animal, with input and advice from experts from around the world. On this page we document what happened.
Date: 22 September 2021
We were constantly monitoring the health of the animal and making decisions about next steps against backdrops of winter weather and a very high level of media, public and scientific interest.
The calf was gifted the name ‘Toa’ by manawhenua Ngāti Toa Rangatira. Sadly, it died on Friday 23 July, 12 days after it stranded and before its pod could be found.
Orca are listed as Nationally Critical, the highest threat classification in New Zealand. Fewer than 200 orca are present in New Zealand waters.
Under the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978, DOC is the Government agency responsible for managing marine mammals. DOC set up an Incident Management Team and worked with Ngāti Toa Rangatira, volunteers from Whale Rescue/Orca Research Trust and the community in a complex operation to keep the calf healthy and stable.
Our priorities were to:
- care for the immediate welfare of the calf
- find the calf’s natal pod (believed to be offshore and potentially locatable, in an area between the Marlborough Sounds and Taranaki)
- formulate a plan to safely reunite the calf with its pod
- plan to euthanise the calf safely and humanely if necessary.
See our full list of media statements for a record of events as they unfolded.
DOC was alerted to the stranding of the orca calf on the afternoon of Sunday 11 July 2021. Our duty staff were working on Kapiti Island that day. When they arrived on the scene in the DOC boat, the calf had already been assisted by Whale Rescue who had local volunteers living nearby. The calf’s pod was nowhere to be seen.
As daylight faded, with concerns about releasing an injured unweaned calf into the sea on its own, Whale Rescue decided to take the injured calf back to Plimmerton Boating Club. DOC’s standard operating procedure with marine mammals is not to work when it’s dark due to the safety risk to humans, so we agreed with the approach.
Timing of key decisions
- Sunday 11 July – orca calf picked up from beach by Whale Rescue, cared for on trailer overnight.
- Monday 12 July – orca calf moved to boat ramp, which was fenced off to become a sea pen.
- Monday 12 July – began tube feeding of fluids.
- Wednesday 14 July – began tube feeding with formula/nutrients on vet advice.
- Thursday 15 July – orca calf moved to a temporary pool on-site. Decision made because of deteriorating weather and rough sea conditions posing a danger to the orca and to humans caring for it.
- Thursday 22 July – orca calf returned to boat ramp sea pen. Decision made in interests of calf health and welfare, and upon advice from veterinarians and orca expert on-site.
- Friday 23 July – orca calf died.
- Saturday 24 July – burial following protocols agreed with Ngāti Toa Rangatira.
- initial meeting notes from the Incident Management Team
- updates to senior staff
- daily Incident Action Plans
- incident management structure (includes draft notes from meeting)
- health and safety
- reunification plan
- security situation report.
Health of the orca calf
Veterinarians on-site (DOC vet/Wellington Zoo/HUHA) performed regular health assessments of the calf during the stranding. Volunteers also assisted by monitoring the animal’s breathing and behaviour.
Holding the orca in a sea pen or in a temporary pool was not an ideal situation and couldn’t be sustained in the long term. Vet reports showed the calf had sustained injuries in the initial stranding and there were questions about whether it was getting the correct nutrients or exercise. DOC considered a reunion difficult but feasible, while the animal was stable.
The calf was not thriving in this situation, but every effort was made to stabilise it in preparation to relocate the calf if its natal pod could be found. DOC was concerned an endless recovery effort was simply not viable, nor in the interests of the calf. We shared our growing concerns with those supporting us on the recovery effort.
DOC decided early in the response that, should the calf die, there would not be a necropsy. This was at the request of local iwi Ngāti Toa. Orca are a taonga species for iwi who view them as their ancestors. We respected their wishes, and Ngāti Toa took the orca away for burial early on the Saturday morning.
We took a small amount of loose skin to study as part of wider research underway to understand the genetic connections between marine mammals, including orca. We also took measurements prior to the burial. The veterinary reports and data gathered throughout the incident will inform future responses.
- full email trails of the daily vet reports from Wellington Zoo
- advice on water quality from Wellington Zoo
- some advice from international vets.
Advice and scenarios
This stranding was a unique and testing situation which constantly evolved. This was the first time we’d tried to reunite a young, unweaned calf with its pod. An orca calf in distress in Tauranga in 2016 was under different circumstances.
DOC has technical and scientific advisors on staff who have carried out cetacean research for many years as well as operational staff with significant experience in marine mammal strandings. DOC also sought and received additional support from international and national marine mammal and ethics experts, which took time to compile and analyse.
We set up a Technical Advisory Group (TAG) to examine all the advice and recommend a plan of action. The TAG included:
- 12 national and international vets and experts on stranding response including DOC staff and Dr Ingrid Visser from the Orca Research Trust
- experts in animal ethics and orca husbandry and care, including from Sea World (USA), who have had a range of experience in raising neonatal orca.
Our goal was to do our best to reunite the orca calf with its pod. We had two important factors in our favour, which made it worthwhile continuing:
- we knew which pod the calf belonged to, and
- we had a great team caring for the calf right from the start.
We had to consider a range of different possible scenarios for the future of the calf, and be clear on what the operational, legal, ethical, and welfare implications were for each one. For example, 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. We were also prepared to euthanise the animal, if necessary.
The longer the calf was without its mother, the lower the chance of successful reunification. The calf’s health rapidly deteriorated on Friday 23 July and it died later that evening.
Technical advice we received during the operation from national and international experts:
- suggestions of external experts to contact
- initial contact by DOC
- advice received.
- TAG terms of reference
- TAG meeting notes.
- panel members advice and comments on the scenarios paper (legally privileged information has been redacted)
- final consolidated advice.
It became clear during the operation, particularly once the orca was in a temporary pool, that having hundreds of spectators on-site was not in the best interests of the orca, nor for the health and safety of volunteers and DOC staff.
To minimise stress on the calf, DOC put up barriers to control the site and restrict the number of people and dogs present. The site was also the private property of Plimmerton Boating Club, so security guards helped track who was on the site.
Cost of operation
This was a 24-hour operation over 12 days that involved at least 50 people on-site each day, including volunteers.
Specialist equipment was required to care for the orca, prepare its food and medicine, and provide a safe environment (pool and sea pen) for both the orca and the people caring for it.
The incident cost DOC $67,720 (approximately $5,600 per day) in operating expenses for logistics, specialist equipment, travel, accommodation and food.
Volunteer time and effort donated by other agencies (for example, Dr Ingrid Visser, Whale Rescue, FENZ, Plimmerton Boating Club) is not included in this total. Neither are the salaries of the 40 DOC staff who assisted either on-site or off-site in various phases of the operation.
Although orca are widespread globally, the New Zealand population is small. Orca are classified as Nationally Critical in New Zealand, the highest threat classification, and that was a factor in DOC committing to this level of effort.
- operational costs
- staff costs
DOC received hundreds of requests for information during the 12-day response. Our spokesperson carried out more than 40 media interviews on top of the twice-daily media statements.
There have been numerous requests for copies of emails and communications between groups on-site, managers off-site and the Minister of Conservation’s office.
We have captured significant communications here.
- requests from external media and information provided in response
- media releases
- frequently asked questions
- communications strategy.
- media updates
- run sheet for Minister’s visit
- orca scenarios paper (legally privileged information has been redacted)
- correspondence to the Minister from the public (includes email trail from Minister/Prime Minister/Leader of the Opposition).
- Incident Management Team
- technical advice.