Archie Dundas pours water over a stranded orca that was kept alive for eight hours until it was able to swim back to the ocean. Photo courtesy of Cetacea Lab

Biologist and Cetacea Lab co-founder Janie Wray says the trip from Gil Island to a stranded young female orca was “probably the longest 40 minutes” of her life.

After receiving a 7:30 a.m. call from a research colleague, Wray and her co-director Hermann Meuter raced against time to reach the whale wedged between jagged rocks on B.C.'s northern coast. The orca would remain there another eight hours, until the tide rose again. 

Wray and Meuter teamed up with colleague Eric Keen, and with Nicole Robinson and Archie Dundas of the GitGa'at Guardians of Hartley Bay. The group contacted the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who advised them to keep the orca wet and cool, and to minimize stress until the tide rose again. It was the latter that proved most challenging.

“When we first arrived on the rock, she was stressed by our presence. You could tell by her breathing,” Wray recalled. “But over time her breathing slowed down and she finally closed her eyes. It was in that moment that she recognized that we were trying to help her.”

The situation was pretty stressful on the rescuers, too, who struggled to keep their worry in check. “She just wasn't where she belonged," said Wray. "I think we were all very emotional and we kept it inside.” 

Raw footage courtesy of Cetacea Lab. Video edited by Carlos Tello

Seeing the animal push free after several hours was overwhelming for the group. “We were holding our breath all day long and then we could finally breathe again,” said Wray.

One thing that caught the biologist's attention were the orca's vocalizations over the course of the day. 

It was the whales’ highly developed communication system that first ignited Wray's passion for cetacean research, and remains a key feature of the marine research she and Meuter conduct year-round at Cetacea Lab, located on a remote island on Hartley Bay in Northern B.C.

Origins of Cetacea Lab

CetaceaLab, Hermann Meuter, Janie Wray, Orca, Orcalab, whale

At Cetacea Lab, Janie and Hermann Meuter record whale calls throughout the year. Photo courtesy of Cetacea Lab