In 2002, an orphaned killer whale, Springer (A73), brought together scientists, government officials and concerned citizens in the first orca recovery effort of its kind. Seventeen years after Springer’s rescue and release, she continues to roam freely with her northern resident pod of killer whales and has two calves of her own. Now that Springer’s second calf (officially known as A116) has survived the first two years – the most challenging period in the whale’s life – it can now be given a common name.
The birth of Springer’s two calves continues to be a cause for celebration given Springer’s condition when she was first 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. Springer belongs 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.
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, an area in British Columbia that they knew her family frequented. The following morning, her pod was spotted nearby and Springer called out to them – loudly and urgently. She was then released as members of her pod passed near her pen.
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.
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.