A killer whale stranded on a rocky shore in Alaska was saved in an hours-long rescue effort by boaters, locals and wildlife officials.
The 20-ft (6 metres) orca was spotted washed up on Prince of Wales island last Thursday, apparently stuck in a crevice of rocks 4ft above the tide line.
Boaters who first saw the stranded whale alerted the US coastguard and came ashore to keep it cool with seawater and to scare away sea birds hovering for a feast.
Images posted to social media show good samaritans pouring buckets of water onto the orca to keep it hydrated.
Eventually officials from the national oceanic and atmospheric administration (NOAA) arrived to relieve the volunteers. By about 2pm, almost six hours after the whale was first spotted, the tide had risen sufficiently to allow it to refloat itself and return to the ocean.
“It moved a bit slowly at first, and meandered around a little before swimming away,” NOAA spokesperson Julie Fair said in a statement.
The agency said it was awaiting confirmation that the orca, which officials say is a juvenile from the west coast’s transient population of Bigg’s killer whales, and named T146D for classification and tracking purposes, had rejoined its pod.
At least five other killer whales from the waters around Prince of Wales island had stranded over the last 20 years, and all survived, according to researcher Jared Towers of Canada’s department of fisheries and oceans, which monitors whale movements.
“They’ve all rejoined their families after stranding, and they’ve all gone on to survive and live normal, healthy lives,” he told Alaska Public Media.
“There’s a 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. I don’t think anyone knows exactly when this whale stranded, or what the circumstances were, but I would make a wager that there was harbor seal hunting as the motivating factor.”
Whales are known to chase seals and sea lions towards the shore and can become stranded in shallow waters.
Chance Strickland, a boat captain who anchored to allow his crew to come ashore and help the whale, told the New York Times he could hear it crying out to other pod members swimming nearby.
“I don’t speak a lot of whale, but it didn’t seem real stoked,” he said. “There were tears coming out of its eyes. It was pretty sad.”
The whale’s beaching came one day after an 8.2 magnitude earthquake struck off the Alaskan coast, briefly triggering a tsunami warning, but Fair said the event was not a factor.