Beached baby orca sparks NZ whale hunt
A baby orca faces a race against time to find his lost pod after he was discovered beached and abandoned north of Wellington.
Hundreds of New Zealanders have joined the cause to both protect the youngster and find his pod and mother.
The orca - given the name Toa on Tuesday in a Maori ceremony - is too young to survive alone in the wild, and will die without a reunification.
"We have hope," Orca Research Trust founder Ingrid Visser told AAP.
"We put a man on the moon. Surely we can get a whale back to its family."
Dr Visser is coordinating the rescue effort from Plimmerton in Wellington's north, close to where the orca was found on Sunday.
"Two young teenagers discovered him in a rock pool and that set everything into motion," she said.
The whale, estimated at six months old, was taken to the nearby Plimmerton Boating Club where a makeshift pen was set up and a two-pronged strategy - to care for Toa and search for the pod - devised.
Hundreds of Kiwis - including devoted locals, the council, Wellington Zoo, the boating club and animal welfare organisations- are giving up their time to support the orca.
Volunteers are tracking of his vital signs, jumping in an out of the water on an hourly basis.
Orca fan Kate Godfree spent time in the water with Toa on Tuesday morning, comforting him by tapping and stroking his dorsal fin to simulate interactions with his lost mother.
"I have an orca tattoo. I grew up watching Free Willy. It's a sh***y situation but this is amazing," she said.
Dr Visser said she was blown away by the support.
"It's been a phenomenal effort. We've had donations of food and blankets. Heaters. So many volunteers," she said.
"We are making him as comfortable as possible."
Wellingtonians have responded en masse to the orca's plight, searching coastlines by foot, boat and plane in the hope of spotting the pointed dorsal fin of a relative.
"Orcas travel between 100 and 150 kilometres a day but they don't go in a straight line. They could turn around and come back here tomorrow. We just don't know," Dr Visser said.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Department of Conservation reported a possible sighting had been made from the Marlborough Sounds, across Cook Strait at the north of South Island.
The roaming nature of the animal means if a pod is found, it's likely to be Toa's, however any pod may do.
Orca pods have been known to adopt lost children, so long as the mother is lactating and can support the youngster.
Then will come the reunification.
Dr Visser said they would most likely put a boat with the pod and then take Toa to it by road or boat.
"It's difficult to transport by helicopter. You don't want a 200-pound animal thrashing around inside a chopper," she said.
Dr Visser appealed for public support to help find the family and avoid a tragedy.
"The only way we are going to find the family is if the public gets behind us," she said.
"We're asking everybody to put it on every social media platform they have. Even if they have a network of two."
Kiwis have been asked to call the Department of Conservation's hotline - 0800 DOC HOT - if they spot an orca pod.
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