When Toa, the orphaned baby orca, sees food coming he sticks his large pink tongue out of his wide gummy mouth in happy anticipation. He gurgles and belches as he hungrily tugs at the specially designed latex teat. Four volunteers in wetsuits and beanies cradle him and coo that he is “a good boy” as he feeds. When he is done, he rolls over, revealing his cream white skin, and nudges a volunteer for a belly rub. If they dare stop, he nudges them again. When he is excited he zooms about his holding pool, playing with the volunteers, and when a large tentacle-like piece of kelp is heaved into the water, he snuggles under it, as though it were a blanket, or the protective weight of his missing mother.

The young calf, thought to be between two and six months old, became stranded in the rocks near Plimmerton, north of Wellington 10 days ago with minor injuries.

Toa the baby orca plays with kelp in his makeshift pen at Plimmerton near Wellington, New Zealand. Photograph: Eva Corlett/The Guardian

Since then, a cast of hundreds, including the Department of Conservation (DOC), whale rescue teams and the local iwi (tribe) Ngāti Toa Rangatira, along with a revolving door of volunteers, have been caring for Toa, which means brave or strong in Maori, while the nationwide search for his pod continues.

Volunteer and Plimmerton local, Brianna Norris, 21, is into her eighth day volunteering. She, and her 17-year-old brother Ben, who found Toa on the rocks, have formed a special relationship with the calf.

“He is really affectionate and really gentle. It’s super special, but we are just desperate for him to get back to his family. One day with him would have been plenty.”

The collective efforts have been considerable but fraught with difficulties. Last week, a once-in-a-decade storm ripped through the Wellington region, bringing winds up to 140km/h, four-metre swells and flooding. The teams were forced to move Toa out of the sea-pen they had created in the harbour, into a 32,000-litre seawater holding pool set-up in the carpark of the Plimmerton boating club. Keeping him in the ocean could have caused injury to both whale and staff during the wild weather.

Toa remains there still. Flooding from the storm put pressure on the wastewater pipes, causing sewage to spill out into the harbour and rendering it a health and safety hazard for staff. With another storm forecast in the coming days, rescuers have decided it is better to limit the number of times Toa is moved between sites.

Crowds have gathered to watch Toa in its makeshift pen in Plimmerton.
Crowds have gathered to watch Toa in its makeshift pen in Plimmerton. Photograph: Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images

His life may have become reduced to a small pool while the search for his family endures, but the story of his plight has captured the nation’s imagination, with hundreds of volunteers scouring the shorelines hoping to spot his missing pod. There have been a number of unverified sightings and some that are credible, but the storm prevented rescuers from investigating further.

For the most part, Toa’s health is good, aside from some stomach upsets, while the vets try to find the right balance for his milk formula, DOC said.

So far, the rescue operation has cost the taxpayer NZ$10,000 but other expenses are being paid for by the Orca Research Trust, and countless hours of volunteer time.

It is an exercise in devotion, but some scientists are questioning whether keeping an infant whale on a type of human life-support for this long is ethical.

Dr Karen Stockin, a marine biologist, said internationally recognised practice for separated cetaceans this young is either lifelong human care or euthanasia.

“New Zealand has no captive or rehabilitation facility that could support Toa. Of course, we all crave a Disney happy ending, but what matters most here is not our understandable human sentiment and emotion, but notably the viability and welfare of Toa.”

Annie Potts, a professor in human-animal studies at the University of Canterbury, highlighted the incongruence between how humans treat a whale calf compared with, say, the farming of bobby calves for veal.

“We reserve our love, compassion and empathy for ‘extraordinary species’ like whales which we can celebrate ‘saving’.”

Dr Ingrid Visser has been at the site, coordinating care for Toa, since the beginning. She is rugged up in layers of warm clothing with a hot water bottle held close to her chest. Despite her intermittent sleep, she is constantly alert to what is happening in Toa’s pool, and gently offers volunteers directions over what to do with him.

Dr Ingrid Visser, an expert on orcas, at Plimmerton in New Zealand where rescuers are working to keep baby killer whale Toa alive.
Dr Ingrid Visser, an expert on orcas, at Plimmerton in New Zealand where rescuers are working to keep baby killer whale Toa alive. Photograph: Eva Corlett/The Guardian

Visser is the only person in the country with a Phd in New Zealand Orca and is frequently called upon to offer expert advice internationally. She is using her own network of international orca and stranding experts to assist her in Toa’s care.

She said there is no doubt that DOC will take into account perspectives from other scientists, but that her focus is not on “the naysayers, but doing what is right for Toa”.

DOC’s marine species manager Ian Angus said while the rescue operation is entering into a delicate stage, the focus remains on reuniting Toa with his pod. The team has at least a few more days up their sleeves to attempt this, Angus said.

“We are optimistic that we may find the pod, and the orca’s health is still stable, but we are also being realistic as we consider the ongoing welfare of this animal – that has to be our number one concern.”

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