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In January 2002, a two-year old killer whale was discovered, emaciated and alone, in Puget Sound near Seattle. Killer whales almost never travel alone, so a young female swimming by herself in a high-traffic area was cause for concern. The whale turned out to be Springer, who belonged to one of three clans that make up the Northern Resident community of killer whales off northern Vancouver Island. How had she ended up 450 kilometres north of her home water?

Springer was last seen travelling with her mum, Sutlej, in September, 2000, but by the following summer they had disappeared. Both were presumed dead. Not long after, a female calf was spotted with another clan in the Northern Resident community and misidentified as a new member. When marine mammal researcher Graeme M. Ellis was examining photographs of the new calf, he realized that this whale was actually the long-lost Springer. Five months later, Springer arrived near the Seattle waterfront — orphaned again. Dr. David Huff, the veterinarian at Ocean Wise’s Vancouver Aquarium, determined that Springer was sick and starving with dismal odds of surviving on her own. Human intervention was needed.

Springer building up her strength before being released back to the wild.

The rescue team had to earn Springer’s trust before they could rescue her. They spent several weeks “courting” her, by rubbing her belly and acclimatizing her to humans. Only then were divers able to slip ropes over her tail and fins and ease her into a whale-sized sling that lifted her out of the water. She was rehabilitated in Manchester, Washington, where she made a dramatic recovery and returned to a healthy body weight.  One month later, the team transported her by boat to Johnstone Strait, in British Columbia. The following morning, she was released from her ocean pen where she joined up with her family as they passed through.

Her successful reintroduction was a relief for both scientists and the public. Over the course of her recovery, the young orphan had gained an adoring audience. Since her reintroduction, Springer has been monitored closely to ensure that she is in good health and properly integrated with her pod. In 2013, Springer was spotted around Spirit Island near Bella Bella with her first calf, appropriately named Spirit. A new killer whale calf is always cause for celebration, but the appearance of Spirit was especially exciting since it proved that Springer was healthy and thriving, 11 years after her release. More good news followed in June, 2017 when Springer was spotted with a second calf, estimated to be about six months old.

Happier times: Springer with her calf almost 10 years after her spectacular rescue story.

Springer’s success story provides hope and encouragement for future rescue attempts. It also demonstrates the power of collaboration and determination in saving the Pacific Northwest’s icon, the killer whale. Springer’s rescue and rehabilitation was a joint effort between scientists, advocacy groups and government agencies from both Canada and the United States.

Discover the full story behind killer whale traditions and threats in the wild on Ocean.org this week: https://ocean.org/stories/killer-whale-christmas/#cove

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