A young killer whale is trapped in a fisherman's net. A pod of distressed whales cries out frantically as the youngster struggles to get free. Sightseers aboard a whale-watching boat that arrives to help are stunned at what they see.
"It's a very rare thing," said Nicole Mackay, co-owner of Port McNeill-based Mackay Whale Watching. "I never want to see it again."
While she was out on on the water with customers near Port Hardy Thursday morning, a fisherman radioed Comox coast guard asking for help because a whale had become entangled in his net.
'Watching all this happen was really quite terrifying ...' - Nicole Mackay
The captain of Mackay's boat realized they were very close to the fisherman's location, and they went to assist. They didn't know what to expect, but something they had heard just minutes earlier gave a clue.
"We had the hydrophone underwater and they were sounding very frantic — their calls weren't their typical calls," Mackay said.
The fisherman, whom Mackay described as elderly, knew his nets and was working as quickly as he could to free the young whale.When they arrived a few minutes later, they saw that a young orca had become caught up in a fisherman's net off the side of his boat, and the pod was in a panic. Several members huddled nearby and a number were "spyhopping," bobbing their heads out of the water, which orcas sometimes do to get a better look at boats.
"Watching all this happen was really quite terrifying, especially when the young one went under for about 12 minutes, because typically they hold their breath for about five." she said.
At that point, the watchers weren't sure the orca, which Mackay identified as seven-year-old I103, was still alive. What made matters worse was that the other family members, which Mackay had pinpointed as pod I15, went underwater to stay with the young orca.
It was still breathing.The fisherman, who had let out his net, deftly reeled it back in to draw the young killer whale back up to the surface, Mackay said.
"It was a huge relief," Mackay said.
In the end, the fisherman cut through part of his net and freed the whale.
Researchers who were in the area arrived and kept an eye on on the whale for several hours to make sure it was OK.
Mackay said during her family's 30 years in the whale-watching businesses they had never seen an orca in a situation like this.
"We were very happy to witness it," she said.
The one thing she says she will remember most is how the pod — the mother, two siblings, an aunt and two cousins — stuck with the young whale.
"That family bond that those orcas have is so strong that they would not leave that whale," she said. "When it went down, they went down with it.
"It was really quite moving and terrifying at the same time."