WWhen Toa, the orphaned baby orc, sees food arriving, he sticks his big pink tongue out of his wide gummy mouth in joyful anticipation. He gurgles and burps, eagerly pulling on the specially designed latex pacifier. Four volunteers in overalls and hats rock him and coo that he’s “a good boy” as he feeds. When he’s done, he turns around, revealing his creamy white skin, and pushes a volunteer for a belly massage. If they dare to stop, he pushes them again. When excited, it zooms in on its retention pool, playing with the volunteers, and when a large tentacle-shaped piece of kelp is lifted into the water, it snuggles under it, as if it were a blanket, or the protective weight of his missing mother.
The young calf, said to be between two and six months old, washed up in rocks near Plimmerton, north of Wellington 10 days ago with minor injuries.
Since then, hundreds of people, including the Department of Conservation (DOC), whale rescue teams and the local Ngāti Toa Rangatira iwi (tribe), along with a revolving door of volunteers, have taken care of the Toa, which means courageous or strong. in Maori, while national research for his group continues.
Plimmerton volunteer and local Brianna Norris, 21, is on her eighth day of volunteering. She and her 17-year-old brother Ben, who found Toa on the rocks, formed a special relationship with the calf.
“He’s really loving and really sweet. It’s super special, but we desperately want him to come back to his family. One day with him would have been enough.
The collective efforts have been considerable but strewn with difficulties. Last week, a single storm in ten years ravaged the Wellington area, causing winds of up to 140 km / h, four-meter swells and flooding. The teams were forced to move Toa from the marine enclosure they had created in the harbor, into a 32,000 liter seawater holding pool installed in the parking lot of the Plimmerton Yacht Club. Keeping it in the ocean could have caused injury to the whale and staff in the wild weather.
Toa still stays there. Flooding caused by the storm put pressure on the sewage pipes, causing sewage to spill into the port and endanger the health and safety of staff. With another storm forecast for the next few days, rescuers decided it was best to limit the number of times the Toa are moved between sites.
Her life may have shrunk to a small swimming pool while the search for her family continues, but the story of her plight has captured the nation’s imagination, with hundreds of volunteers scouring the shores in hope. to locate its missing capsule. There were a number of unverified and some credible sightings, but the storm prevented rescuers from further investigating.
For the most part, Toa’s health is good, aside from a few stomachaches, as vets try to find the right balance for her milk formula, DOC said.
So far, the rescue operation has cost the taxpayer NZ $ 10,000, but other expenses are paid by the Orca Research Trust and countless volunteer hours.
It’s an exercise in devotion, but some scientists question whether keeping a baby whale on some type of human life support for so long is ethical.
Dr Karen Stockin, a marine biologist, said the internationally recognized practice for cetaceans separated from this young is either lifelong human care or euthanasia.
“New Zealand does not have a captive or rehab facility that could support the Toa. Of course, we all yearn for a happy Disney ending, but what matters most here isn’t our understandable human feeling and emotions, but especially Toa’s viability and well-being.
Annie Potts, a professor of human-animal studies at the University of Canterbury, pointed out the incongruity between the way humans treat a calf versus, say, raising calves for the calf.
“We reserve our love, compassion and empathy for ‘extraordinary species’ like whales that we can celebrate by ‘saving’.”
Dr. Ingrid Visser has been on site, coordinating care for Toa from the start. She is sturdy in layers of warm clothing with a hot water bottle held close to her chest. Despite her intermittent sleep, she is constantly alert to what is going on in Toa’s pool, and kindly offers the volunteers instructions on what to do with him.
Visser is the only person in the country with a PhD in New Zealand Killer Whale and is frequently called upon to offer expert advice internationally. She uses her own network of international orc and stranding experts to assist her in the care of Toa.
She said that there is no doubt that DOC will take into account the views of other scientists, but that it is not focusing on “the naysayers, but on what is good for Toa.”
DOC’s head of marine species Ian Angus said that as the rescue operation enters a delicate phase, the focus remains on reuniting Toa with his group. The team still have at least a few days up their sleeves to attempt this, Angus said.
“We are optimistic about the possibility of finding the pod and the killer whale’s health is still stable, but we are also realistic in considering the continued welfare of this animal – this has to be our number one concern. “