Willy freed! DFO uses innovative audio technique to draw orca from Vancouver Island harbour

T073B’s nearly two-week-long stay at Comox Harbour has come to an end

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) personnel used an innovative underwater audio playback technique to successfully draw orca T073B away from the Comox Harbour Thursday afternoon.

The technique involved playing a recording of whales T073B was familiar with – whales from the T75 and T77 groups.

Paul Cottrell and Jared Towers from DFO, and Dr. John Ford of the UBC Marine Mammal Research Unit led the exercise.

“There were a few options and one of them was to use playback calls, that in this case [Dr. John Ford] came up with, that we used, to see if there was a response,” said Cottrell. “There was an immediate reaction when we did the playback. We had to do it carefully and in short pulses and basically we were able to stickhandle the whale out of the estuary, over a very shallow area out near Cape Lazo into deep water. The response from the animal was very strong.

“The last time we saw it, it was moving north-east, and out of the area. We are hoping the animal continues [in that direction] but we will be monitoring, because, of course, the animal could come back. Right now we are quite … happy and hoping the animal has moved on.”

Towers described the whale’s response to the sonic exercise as “quite visible.

“The animal actually started porpoising very quickly towards the other vessels. So [those boats] … moved further out, and in a couple of miles we dropped the playback equipment again, with another burst, and the whale just kept on going. He was physically excited by those sounds, and that’s what got him out of there.”

Towers said prior to disappearing, T073B put on one last “circus performance” for the people on the shore at Point Holmes.

“Then he made a run to the north and we never saw him again.”

SEE VIDEO: T073B plays with sailboat

Cottrell emphasized the exercise they performed was done under licence and should not be attempted by amateurs.

“We do all that under DFO licence,” he said. “This playback … can be very dangerous if not done appropriately, because the animals can act aggressively as well. So that’s one thing we want to make sure that folks don’t think they can just do playback sounds under water.”

Personnel recognized that the urgency for a resolution to the situation was increased with the Comox Nautical Days activities slated for the long weekend, including a dragon boat festival, and a fireworks display.

“In the last couple of days we realized that we have this animal hanging around, displaying atypical behaviour and it is something that we have to look at options, given the number of people in the estuary, and the potential issues that we could have with the complex of paddleboarders, swimmers, and especially this weekend,” said Cottrell.

He said the DFO vessel will be in the area until at least Friday afternoon to see if T073B returns.

When asked about the subsequent cancelling of any of the Comox Nautical Days activities should the whale return, Cottrell said that would be a municipal decision.

Leri Davies of DFO said considerations would have to be made.

“It does become a public safety issue at that point,” she said. “These are large animals – these are wild animals, and you can’t really take the chance of… it has to be very carefully weighed.”

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