WHEN TO HELP: Helping An Orca Return to Sea

Passerby’s attempt to return a beached juvenile orca to the sea.

When I arrived home following the completion of two photography workshops in Alaska, I remembered the shooting as having been great throughout–with eagle flight shots in Dutch Harbor, bears in Lake Clark, sea otters in Seward, and some great landscapes north of Seward. One image kept coming back, though–a beached orca we came across in Dutch Harbor. While it’s great to encounter a magnificent animal such as an orca, the sight of a young one (about 16′ long) lying near death can tear at you.

After a day of shooting and then dinner, our photography group had returned to the hotel where a telephone message from someone in town told me of a young orca that had beached itself. Although it was late at night (nearly 10 p.m.), I contacted my group members to see if they were interested in heading out again to see the animal and possibly get some shots. Everyone was on board. In spite of the late hour, there was plenty of light available, as this was Alaska during the summer months.

Upon reaching the site, we saw the young orca by itself, not far off the beach, lying on its side on the rocks. About 40 people had assembled to look at a sea mammal very few humans have a chance to approach. We each started taking photos. It might seem strange to photograph a tragic event like a beached orca, but such situations provide photographers with opportunities to gather information for researchers. In fact, documenting events such as this can be useful for lots of reasons you might never expect. In 1993, I was one of a couple of photographers allowed to take photos of park rangers investigating an elk-poaching in Yellowstone National Park. My photographs of the investigation as well as shots I had taken of the elk before it was killed were helpful in the arrest of the person responsible for the killing and during his trial.

Our group had been photographing the orca for only a short time when a couple locals went out to see what they could do to assist the young mammal back into deeper water. Calling on others who had ventured out to see the beaching, the locals gathered a small group of people in the chilly water to do whatever they could–in their minds—to help. After nearly an hour of struggling, they were able to get the animal directed back into deeper water where it finally swam slowly away. Many people applauded their efforts–not knowing they were in vain. One person involved in the rescue said this was the third sea mammal he had helped back to sea in various parts of the globe.

Was helping the orca return to the sea a good thing to do or not? We later discovered that the orca had been spotted first at about 2:30 a.m. that morning by a boat captain who was bringing his fishing boat into the harbor. By the time the well-meaning people had moved the orca back into the water (11:30 that night), the orca had been lying helpless for 21 hours or longer–depending on when it had originally beached itself. While it might seem like trying to save the life of a large marine mammal was the right thing to do, there were several signs to the contrary.

First, after such a long time of being beached, the young orca was probably too weak to be able to take care of itself in the open waters–especially since it no longer had its mother around to help. Its frailty was evident in the fact that it didn’t fight back against the people who were out in the water trying to relocate it. If it had still had a lot of energy, it would have been thrashing at them with its head and tail, sending people flying off in different directions.

The second major sign was that the pod of orcas it was traveling with–including its mother–had abandoned it on the beach. If the juvenile had accidentally beached itself, the pod would have stayed in the area, calling out to it and trying to prevent its moving so far away from the water. However, animals sense when there is something wrong with one of the group, so they knew there was something wrong with the youngster. That’s why they swam off and left it to die.

During this same time frame, quite a few marine specialists were present on the island dealing with an oil spill that had occurred several months earlier. They heard about the beaching but didn’t act, because they were told the orca was a young one, probably a teenager, and its pod had deserted it. They knew nothing could be done. The next day, when they heard people had worked for more than 30 minutes to “rescue” the animal, they were disappointed. All the work the people did in trying to help meant the young orca was going to have to find another place to beach itself–to go through the same process again. With so many islands in the area, this young orca was unfortunate to have chosen one that was inhabited on which to let nature take its course.

A sad footnote to the story was that during the day, many people stood or sat on the beached orca to have their pictures taken. In a region where marine animals such as orcas, Dall’s porpoises, sea otters, whales, and more are common, it’s disheartening to learn that adults act with so little respect around such wonderful creatures.

What should we, as photographers, do when we encounter injured wildlife? Rehabilitation centers can offer an avenue of hope for many small animals. Timing is important in transporting a wild patient to one of these facilities. The earlier an injured animal is found, the better its chance for survival. In the case of larger wounded animals, for the animal’s safety as well as your own, contact local authorities to let them handle the capture and delivery. Every major city has numerous wildlife rehab centers that can be located in the telephone book. A call to their staff members will provide the information you need about what to do to help initially and to transport the injured animal. For larger animals, a call to the sheriff’s department, state fish and game, or division of wildlife would be the best alternative.

When you discover beached marine animals, you should leave them alone. More often than not, they have beached themselves for a reason, a truth made especially evident if they travel in groups and the group is nowhere around. If the group is still in the area, then the beached animal has a better chance of surviving. In that situation, an effort to get it back into deeper waters is warranted. Even so, a call to a local wildlife agent would be a wise step to take before proceeding with a rescue attempt. Whatever the case, try to use good judgment in dealing with a wild animal to protect both the animal and yourself.

By Andy Long

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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