Boaters in Alaska came upon a peculiar sight on Thursday: A 20-foot-long killer whale was on the shore, stuck in a crevice of rocks.
Someone on a boat had spotted the orca on Prince of Wales Island near the coast of British Columbia, Julie Fair, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in an email.
The first call to the U.S. Coast Guard came around 9 a.m. about the whale, which was stranded on the rugged shores at least four feet above the tide line.
Soon, Chance Strickland, the captain of a private yacht in Alaska, and his crew anchored and came ashore to spray the whale with seawater. The mist kept the whale cool and scared away birds that had gathered nearby in the trees, waiting for a chance to eat the orca alive.
Mr. Strickland and his crew hoped that when the tide rose that afternoon, the 13-year-old whale would float and make its way back to the sea. Mr. Strickland could hear the orca calling out to killer whales swimming in the area.
“I don’t speak a lot of whale, but it didn’t seem real stoked,” he said.
People on other boats stopped with water and buckets to douse the orca. Mr. Strickland and his crew gave the whale a wide berth in case it started flopping around, he said.
“There were tears coming out of its eyes,” he said. “It was pretty sad.”
Mr. Strickland left the island after wildlife officials came to relieve him and his crew, he said.
The tide finally came in around 2 p.m. local time, NOAA said, and the seawater eventually rose high enough that the whale, known as T146D, was floating again.
“It moved a bit slowly at first, and meandered around a little before swimming away,” Ms. Fair said.
It was a happy ending for the whale, which returned to sea about six hours after it was spotted on the shore. The Canadian authorities confirmed the orca was a Bigg’s killer whale of the “West Coast transient” population.
The beaching came just a day after a powerful 8.2-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of southwestern Alaska. However, the quake, which was the country’s largest in 50 years, did not cause the whale to be stranded, NOAA said.
Toa, an orphaned baby killer whale, suffered a different fate than T146D after it washed ashore in New Zealand this month. Even though conservationists fed the whale in a makeshift pool and volunteers spent days scouring the coast to find Toa’s family, the orca ultimately died.
In one of the largest cases of whale beaching ever recorded globally, Australian rescuers last year saved 108 of the 470 whales that landed on a wide, remote sandbank in the rugged Macquarie Harbour of Tasmania.
Live whale strandings are unusual but do happen from time to time, experts said.
Five whales, including T146D, have been recorded as stranded on the West Coast in the past two decades, said Jared Towers, a researcher at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, a government department, and Bay Cetology, a killer whale research organization.
“These whales were hunting seals or sea lions and just made a mistake and basically got stuck and then the tide went out,” he said.
Every whale except one survived the strandings, he said. While a beached orca is on the shore, it is in danger of overheating, being crushed by gravity or getting attacked by birds or bears.
Mr. Towers said it was difficult to say how long the whale would have survived if the tide had not come in. He said he had heard of a whale that lived after waiting 11 hours for the waters to rise. Because T146D was still a juvenile, its body was small enough that it would not be crushed by gravity, he said, adding that it survived the beaching with only superficial cuts and abrasions.
He said the whale might have been waiting for the tide to rise after it got stuck in the rocks. However, the tide fell instead, so the orca was separated for a few hours from other whales in the area.
“There’s a pretty good chance it’s met up with them now, and it’s just carrying on a normal life after spending some time out of the water,” he said.