Chance of successful reunion for Toa and his pod diminishing, marine biologist says

The Department of Conservation and a marine biologist say the risk to Toa the orca’s welfare is increasing as time goes on and the chance of a successful reunion with his pod is diminishing by the day.

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Volunteers are continuing to care for Toa round the clock in this pool north of Wellington as the search for his family continues. Source: 1 NEWS

The orca, now believed to be two to six months old rather than four to six months old as previously suspected, became stranded between rocks near Plimmerton on Sunday July 11 and has received 24/7 care since then from Whale Rescue volunteers, Plimmerton locals and the Department of Conservation.

There has also been ongoing input from national and international vets and animal organisations, at the Plimmerton boating club.

“The age of the orca calf naturally determines how long the calf needs care and feeding,” DOC said in an update this evening.

Massey University marine biologist Professor Karen Stockin told 1 NEWS DOC has done everything possible to prioritise the survival of the calf but there’s an ethical obligation to consider all aspects of his lifespan.

“That prognosis of whether or not there’s likely to be an end survival point will need to be taken into consideration when we consider all the contingencies that are unfortunately available to us,” she said.

The marine biologist is one of the experts that has provided advice to DOC on welfare considerations since the orca was rescued.

“In an international context, an animal of this youth, so young, would really only face two outlooks… life-long in captivity or unfortunately euthanasia and understandably both of those options are neither palatable to us in New Zealand who are doing everything in our power to try and obviously have a happy ending here, but we are running out of time.”

“If we have any chance of survival, that has to be considered but likewise does the detrimental welfare concerns that are obviously increasing as time goes on with him being in captivity,” Stockin said.

Locating the orca’s pod, or a pod with another lactating mother, would only be the first step in the journey to a successful return to the wild for the calf, Stockin said.

She said the stress implications to the orca of “an incredibly small enclosure” and “an incredible amount of human contact” are unknown.

“We can only infer what we think some of the potential consequences of that may be.”

Stockin said the New Zealand public’s support and in particular, the support from locals has been “absolutely outstanding.”

“What I would ask everybody, everybody in New Zealand is that at this point in time as hard as it is, allow ourselves to step back and think about Toa as the individual,” she said.

“None of these things are easy to say, none of these things are palatable to hear but the reality of it is individual welfare… has to be balanced alongside the potential of a successful end prognosis and at the moment, that prognosis in terms of how long it’s taking to potentially find even orca in the area, let alone the right orca, is proving extremely difficult.”

SPCA chief scientific officer Dr Arnja Dale stated the charity has extreme concerns about the welfare of the orca.

“While reuniting Toa with his pod would be the best outcome and one we all hope for, if this does not happen very soon, challenging ethical decisions using a robust ethical framework will need to be made by the Department of Conservation, and it is critical that the best welfare outcome for Toa is at the core of all decisions,” she told the Science Media Centre.

DOC marine species manager Ian Angus said the health and welfare of the orca is being constantly monitored and the calf is currently in a stable condition.

“The risk will increase the longer we've got the orca in the situation here and we'll have to make that assessment of when the risks are too extreme that we might want to do something different and as I say all the scenarios are on the ground at the moment,” he said.

“Our preference is we find the orca pod soon and we make that relocation soon.”

Angus said there is no timeline to the day-by-day situation.

“We look to see how the orca calf is doing, we look to see if we have a sighting of the orca pod and we look to see if we have the weather window to make a safe relocation.”

Conservation Minister Kiritapu Allan said she’s pleased with the open communication over the situation between DOC, local iwi Ngāti Toa and other stakeholders. She wants this to continue.

“All parties on the ground are looking at all viable outcomes and are preparing for any type of event whatever comes next.

“The primary thing for me is really the welfare of that baby calf, we have an obligation to make sure what we are doing doesn't run contrary to what that orca needs,” she told 1 NEWS.

Orca sightings in the Wellington coast area were followed up with boat and plane searches today but were unsuccessful in confirming the sightings.

DOC is urging anyone who sights orca pods off the west coast of the lower North Island, particularly between Wellington and Taranaki, to get in touch via 0800 DOC HOT with as much information as possible including location of the animals, their direction of travel and photos or videos which clearly show their dorsal fins and saddle/back area.