A baby orca fighting for its life now has a glimmer of hope.
The orca calf, separated from its mother and pod before becoming stranded in Bay of Plenty waters, has been transferred to a land-based pool and is being cared for by experts.
The land-based structure is a temporary holding area for the orca, whose health has been deteriorating after 20 days struggling in strong currents without his family pod.
The orca was first seen last month. Its exact age is unknown but it could be anywhere between 6 months and 1 year old.
Dr Ingrid Visser, the orca expert working with the baby whale, is cautiously optimistic he'll make a full recovery.
"One of the first things he did when we got him into the rescue map was just immediately stop swimming, and you could just see him sigh with relief, and now he really likes resting on our knees."
Visser said he's lapping up the attention, as orcas rely on tactile attention.
"Very relaxed, he's very alert, he's watching people, and the team are going to re-hydrate him and we want to wait for his system to start working again. We can't feed him immediately."
She said the Bay of Plenty community has rallied, delivering food to volunteers working with the whale, and that meant he's now able to be treated in intensive care.
Visser said when he's strong enough he can be transferred to a holding pen in the ocean, and then it's hoped he'll be reintegrated with wild orca.
Iwi representative Carlton Bidois said the rescue team was still focused on creating the sea pen.
Department of Conservation operations manager Jeff Milham said to reunite the calf with its family, it needed to be moved to a place for rest and assessment.
"Given the calf's current level of emaciation, it's unlikely to hydrate quickly even if we could unite it with a pod," he said.
"This is an unprecedented situation given the age of the calf. We are working with marine mammal experts and iwi to evaluate all the possible options."
The location of the seawater pool and future sea pen were being kept secret to avoid interactions with the whale, and an exclusion zone had been set up.
Aneta Mitai spotted a pod of orcas swimming back and forth along Papamoa beach on Tuesday and called the Orca Research Trust hotline.
"We have contacted DoC and let them know, they will hopefully be trying to reunite the whales," Mitai said.
The orcas seemed to be circling the area when she first arrived at the beach around midday with her 2-year-old son and two dogs.
"They were heading towards Maketu and then they reappeared approximately 45 minutes later heading back towards Mt Maunganui.
"They are very beautiful, majestic creatures," she said.
DoC did not comment or confirm that a pod of orcas had been spotted off Papamoa.