An orphaned baby orca that captured the hearts of people across New Zealand has been farewelled at a special ceremony and taken away for burial, ending a desperate mission to reunite it with its pod.
The young calf, named Toa – which means brave or strong in Māori – was thought to be between two and six months old, and became stranded on rocks north of Wellington two weeks ago with minor injuries.
Since then, countless volunteers braved winter storms and cold water to keep it alive – bottle feeding it a special formula in a hastily built pool – while others searched for its family group.
However, Toa’s condition worsened quickly on Friday night and it died within an hour. Greg Norris, the father of teenager Ben Norris, who was first person to find Toa, told Stuff it was a “really emotional” night.
Ian Angus, marine species manager at the Department of Conservation (DoC), which has been leading the rescue attempts, said: “Toa passed quickly, surrounded by love with his last days made as comfortable as possible.
He added: “It was not going to be easy to return Toa to his pod which could be anywhere around Aotearoa. It was our goal to return him to his natal pod, but sadly we were unsuccessful in achieving that objective. Nonetheless we can reflect on this and know this huge team of people gave it their best.”
On Saturday, dozens attended a dawn ceremony at Plimmerton Boating Club before Toa’s body was taken away for burial by the local iwi (tribe) Ngāti Toa Rangatira. Authorities decided that Toa’s body would be treated with dignity, opting against an autopsy to understand the exact cause of death.
Angus thanked the volunteers and staff, saying: “It’s been a long two weeks, sometimes working in cold water, very windy and wet weather. People out here at the site have been fantastic, people supporting the effort to find the pod behind the scenes all round New Zealand have been fantastic.
“The department can do nothing but thank everyone for the support and effort they’ve made. People here are very saddened, we all wanted a positive outcome.”
Toa became stranded after he strayed from his pod and too close the beach when a wave flipped him on his back and then onto the rocks, according to 17-year-old Ben Norris, one of the first to raise the alarm.
He told Stuff: “He was on his back, and then he was on the beach, wiggling his tail which was driving him further and further up. The rocks were cutting him up and the sound was like nothing you can imagine. His screams were hurting my ears.”
Since then, a cast of hundreds, including the DoC, dozens of whale experts and the local iwi, have been caring for Toa while the nationwide search for his pod continued.
Plimmerton resident Brianna Norris, 21, Ben’s sister, formed a special relationship with the calf. She said last week: “He is really affectionate and really gentle … One day with him would have been plenty.”