I couldn’t imagine going out on the boat with some of my buddies on the lake in my hometown, and seeing two massive killer whales casually swimming right next to our boat.
Sounds insane, right?
Yes it does, but this wild scenario became a reality for those in Coffman Cove, a small community on Prince of Whales Island in Southeast Alaska.
According to NOAA,residents observed what appeared to be two jet skis moving across Barnes Lake back in mid-August. However, they quickly discovered that they were two killer whales.
Several calls came into NOAA’s Alaska 24-hour stranding hotline. Marine mammal experts hoped that the two whales would leave the lake on their own and make their way back out into the ocean, as the lake has two natural channels that connect to the ocean. But, the whales didn’t find their way out, and they had to create a plan to remove the creatures.
This marked the second time killer whales made their way into Barnes Lake, as it happened back in 1994 as well. As for the current scenario, Jared Towers with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Bay Cetology identified the whales as Bigg’s killer whales via pictures from the community, meaning they eat marine mammals.
NOAA Fisheries Alaska Region hatched a plan to get them out and the team arrived on Prince of Whales Island September 24th and 25th. The team included two biologists with past experience in killer whale entrapments, a grad student studying Bigg’s killer whales, and NOAA’s Alaska Regional Standing Coordinator.
On September 27th, the team collected drone images showing both whales were in good health. They had three primary tactics, which including playing playbacks, or acoustic recordings of whales that are known to travel with the whales in Barnes Lake, Hukilau, an ancient Hawaiian fishing method using lines and floats, or Oikomi pipes.
“Barnes Lake was a really challenging area to mount a response. The tides dictated which day and how long we could work to encourage the whales out of the lake.
Human safety is always the top priority in any stranding response and the local knowledge, boating skills, and dedication of the Coffman Cove community is what made this response possible.”
The team set out on September 28th, but failed to remove the whales while using all three tactics.
They returned on September 29th with two parallel approaches. One ream removed some of the kelp from the north entrance to create a spot for the whales to swim through. Then, a second team focused on moving the whales through the south entrance.
David Bain of Orca Conservancy weighed in on their tactics to remove the whales:
“We started from the approach that worked in 1994, and adapted it to succeed with these two whales.
Barnes Lake is difficult to get in and out of, as the exits are narrow and shallow, whitewater forms when the current is strong, and much of both channels dry out and waterfalls form at low tide.
Driving through the north channel as we did in 1994 didn’t work this year, perhaps because the kelp was thicker and stronger, the tide wasn’t quite as high, and the whales were larger.
So, we decided to try to take advantage of these whales’ greater willingness to move through shallow water and narrow passages and try the south channel.”
Using the playbacks of known whales, the team was able to get both killer whales into the south channel. They then practiced hukilau and had several oikomi pipes on standby. This time, the killer whales swam right through the channel without hesitation, and were able to make their way back into the ocean.
Jared Towers weighed in:
“Using a series of brief recordings of females these two whales are known to enjoy traveling with, we managed to coax them into and through the exit channel.
It sounds simple but in fact required a huge effort from dozens of people to successfully pull it off. It’s good to know that after more than 6 weeks in a small lake that they have their freedom back.”
“Their responsiveness to the playbacks allowed us to get them to the channel entrance at the right time (high slack); the hukilau was redesigned overnight by commercial fishers to allow it to be deployed quickly enough to discourage them from returning to the lake; and a last playback encouraged them to head for open water.
Then they just followed the boat out. They traveled more than 10 miles in the first 2 1/2 hours at sea, which gives us hope that we got them out while their condition was still good enough for them to survive.”
Needless to say, it’s awesome to see the two whales were able to exit the lake without injury.