Springer (killer whale)
||This article reads more like a story than an encyclopedia entry. (July 2013)|
Springer (born late 1999 or early 2000), officially named A73, is a wild killer whale from the Northern Resident Community of orcas which every summer frequent the waters off the northern part of Vancouver Island, British Columbia (BC). In 2002, a year after her mother had died, Springer was discovered alone and emaciated by researcher Mark Sears from The Center for Whale Research off the waters of Seattle, Washington, some 250 miles from home. Because the killer whales of the region have been studied extensively, experts were able to identify Springer by listening to her distinctive vocal calls and examining photographs of her eye patch. They were also able to quickly determine the location of Springer's remaining family.
After months of heated public debate, a decision was finally made by the United States National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to capture the killer whale and attempt to reunite her with her family. On June 12, 2002, Springer was captured and brought to a seapen in Manchester, Washington. On July 13, after being treated for medical conditions and given extra food, Springer was transported to Johnstone Strait, BC and put into her seapen at Dongchong Bay, Hanson Island. The next morning, Springer was released near her close relatives. In October, Springer headed out with her family to the open ocean. The following July, she returned to Johnstone Strait with the same group of whales she followed out to sea.
As of 2013, Springer has been seen with her relatives each year in Johnstone Strait, becoming the only whale in history to be successfully re-integrated into a wild pod after human intervention. In July 2013, 11 years after her rescue, Springer was spotted off the central British Columbia coast with a new calf. Not only is she back with her family, she now is unquestionably a contributing member of the population.
- 1 Appearance in Puget Sound
- 2 Identification
- 3 Health and welfare concerns
- 4 Public debate
- 5 Monitoring program
- 6 Prescott Grant and Orphaned Orca Fund
- 7 Namgis First Nation enlisted to catch wild salmon for Springer
- 8 Capture and rehabilitation
- 9 Return to Johnstone Strait
- 10 Life in community
- 11 See also
- 12 References
- 13 Further reading
- 14 External links
Appearance in Puget Sound
Although there were sporadic sightings in early January 2002 of either a juvenile orca or false killer whale near La Conner and Edmonds, WA, Springer was first confirmed by The Center for Whale Research and reported to news media on January 14 when she was spotted swimming alone near the Vashon Island ferry dock in Puget Sound. She was 11 feet long and estimated to be between 18 and 36 months old at the time, a toddler by killer whale standards. Springer's presence was immediately regarded as a mystery, as orcas are rarely seen alone, and mothers never leave their young offspring unattended. Springer became an instant celebrity, appearing regularly on the evening news in the United States and Canada over the subsequent months.
Killer whale experts tried to solve the mystery of this faraway whale, initially known to locals and ferry workers as "Baby Orphan Orca" ("Boo") or "Little Orcan Annie." They pored over high-resolution photographs of the young orca, images provided by concerned advocates like Seattle photographer and marine scientist Fred Felleman. They also hoped to find clues in the orca's calls.
The killer whales of Washington State and British Columbia coasts have been extensively studied since the pioneering work of Michael Bigg in the early 1970s. Each of the approximately 500 killer whales which frequent these waters is named, and experienced watchers of these animals can recognize individuals by their unique markings and the shape of each killer whale's dorsal fin. Birth records of each killer whale have enabled the compilation of detailed family trees. They are considered the most-intensively studied and best-known marine mammal population in the world.
Orcas in the region's inner coastal waters take two forms, "resident" and "transient," which have different diets and social structures and do not interbreed. Different groups of orcas vocalize using different sets of calls, known as "dialects." Closely related groups have more similar dialects than more distant relatives.
In February, Seattle marine acoustics specialist Joe Olson from the Puget Sound Chapter of the American Cetacean Society recorded Springer's calls in Puget Sound. From those recordings and the Felleman photographs, Helena Symonds of OrcaLab and Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Canada biologist John Ford determined that the killer whale belonged to a group of around 215 killer whales known as the Northern Resident Community, ranging some 250 miles north, a group rarely seen in the Puget Sound area. Resident killer whales leave the coast each fall; their migration routes are still relatively unknown.
It was known that A45, a female killer whale from this community, and her calf A73 had not returned to Johnstone Strait the previous summer and were both feared to be dead. Through assessment of Springer's dialect, she was confirmed to be A73. A45, also known as "Sutlej," was Springer's mother. Her body was never found. Orca fathers do not play a role in rearing their young, so Springer is considered an orphan. Her closest maternal relatives are other members of the matriline (subpod) known as A24, which is in the pod known as A4. A73 had been given the nickname "Springer" shortly after her birth. Like many of the region's killer whales, she is named after a geographical feature – Springer Point in southern Johnstone Strait.
Health and welfare concerns
Springer had developed a dangerous pattern of approaching boats and rubbing against them. There was a high risk she would be hit by a vessel in the busy area, and also concern that she would eventually become big enough to capsize a small boat. One local group, Project SeaWolf Coastal Protection, started regular observation of the calf and documented a number of whale-boat interactions while Springer foraged in Seattle-area waters. Her attraction to boats and floating logs was attributed to a need for social interaction and touch. Dr. John Ford observed later that "she didn't have whales to associate with down there, so boats sort of became a replacement for that for social reasons."
Springer was no longer dependent on her mother for milk. However, killer whales are highly social and form extremely strong family bonds. Resident orcas stay with their mothers and their maternal relatives for their entire lives. Springer was also thin and in poor health. She had ketoacidosis, worms, and an itchy skin condition.
The question of what to do about this wayward whale was hotly debated. Some feared that Springer might be removed to a captive-display facility—even though a Stipulation of Dismissal in the 1976 lawsuit of Washington v. Don Goldsberry, SeaWorld, et al made the removal of wild killer whales from Puget Sound by marine parks illegal. Some argued that federal authorities should not intervene to rescue the young orca, even if the animal were likely to die.
"It's going to be heart-breaking if we see the worst thing happen, which is to see her die," activist Donna Sandstrom of Orca Alliance Sandstrom explained on KING 5 News (NBC Seattle), "but we would rather bear that heartbreak than to know she's enduring it alone in a concrete tank.". Other activists like Howard Garrett of the Whidbey Island, Washington-based Orca Network also argued against a rescue of Springer, calling instead that the federal government authorize a "Social Approach," the introduction of regular human companionship for the orca, to put divers in the water with her to address the orca's social needs until she left Puget Sound.
Meanwhile, the Oregon Coast Aquarium (OCA) in Newport, Oregon, home of Keiko the orca prior to his translocation to Iceland, offered its facilities to rehabilitate Springer for a period of at least one year, after which a scientific panel would then recommend whether or not she was fit for a trip back to Johnstone Strait, BC. Media reports soon revealed that OCA was deep in debt and bound to an agreement made with the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation (FWKF) that Keiko's former tank, built by FWKF, could never again house a wild killer whale. Furthermore, gathering scientific opinion was that a rehabilitation of Springer in a concrete tank would further acclimate the orca to humans and likely result in permanent captivity. OCA withdrew its offer.
In the first weeks of the Springer debate, Seattle-based non-profit Orca Conservancy, which would later emerge as the lead U.S. non-government organization in a similar, highly publicized effort to rescue and repatriate another displaced resident killer whale, L98, or Luna, hit the local airwaves, repeatedly calling upon authorities to act immediately to rescue Springer and return her to her family in Johnstone Strait. As reported on KING 5 News (NBC Seattle), the group initially proposed a "Namu Shuttle," a scientifically peer-reviewed proposal to lure the orca into a hydrodynamic floating seapen and tow it north—a plan employed successfully in 1965 by Ted Griffin to translocate Namu the orca over 400 miles from British Columbia to Seattle.
Another option was presented to the National Marine Fisheries Service was to transport the orca home aboard a high-speed hovercraft the Canadian Consulate believed it could source from its Coast Guard. The overriding component of all these rescue options was to minimize human contact and keep the whale in the water as much as possible, provide medical treatment and draw blood samples in situ (in the water), expedite medical tests and clearances with Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and target a speedy translocation and reintroduction in Johnstone Strait in July, when Springer's family historically returns to its summer habitat.
NMFS officials chose not to intervene, stating it lacked the funds or the confidence that a rescue, translocation and reunion would be achievable, as it had never been tried before. No whale had ever previously been re-integrated into a wild pod after human intervention. Another killer whale, Keiko, had been released into the wild in 2002 after spending most of his life in captivity, but lived alone until his death in Norway in 2003. Scientists considered the possibility that Springer had been rejected by her pod (although resident killer whales had never been known to do this). If she was rejected, Springer's pod might respond to her reappearance by physically attacking her. Some felt she was too "urbanized," that her increasing habituation to people and boats could jeopardize her chances of returning to a truly wild life. In another scenario, Springer could endanger humans by getting too close to boats and have to be recaptured.
Springer's uncertain health also complicated matters; Canadian officials refused to accept a whale with any communicable diseases. Returning Springer to her home waters would require the political, scientific, logistical and financial cooperation of federally agencies and multiple organizations in two countries, as well as the consent of the First Nations. The process of capturing a whale, even for a brief move, carried the risk of further stress and injury.
Local media continued to cover the crisis intensively, with advocates demanding immediate government action to save the whale. Public sentiment in the region and around the country began turning strongly in favor of the rescue, as Springer's health deteriorated, even as her dangerous attraction to boats and people (and people to Springer) increased. The prospect of federally protected young orca washing up dead on one of Seattle's most-visited beaches grew every day.
As the debate continued, NMFS reached out to the public to keep away from Springer, and officially authorized a volunteer, on-the-water monitoring project involving three Washington-based non-profit organizations—Orca Conservancy, the Whale Museum, and Project SeaWolf. Project SeaWolf, a Marysville, Washington-based marine advocacy group spearheaded by A. Michael Kundu (previously the PNW Director for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society), Seattle media personality Bob Mclaughlin, and Robert Wood, had at that point had logged more time on the water with Springer than any government or non-government group, tracking her movements, alerting ferry captains of her presence, keeping curious boaters away, as well as shooting and distributing to the media footage of the orca rubbing against boats. The highly experienced monitoring team included photographer and marine advocate Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, son of famed orca researcher Ken Balcomb of The Center for Whale Research, and members of the Friday Harbor-based boater education program, Soundwatch. The monitors took shifts watching over Springer and did their best to keep onlookers away, but the gathering crowds began to make the effort appear unsustainable.
As time went on and the orca's prognosis worsened, the idea of directly intervening on behalf of Springer and returning her to her family in Canada was gaining strong public support. On March 13, KOMO 4 News (ABC Seatle) reported a "ground-breaking coalition," announcing that Orca Conservancy, the Keiko team and Vancouver Aquarium had tentatively agreed to combine their plans—the only ones submitted to NMFS that called for rehabilitation in a seapen and an expedited translocation and repatriation to her natal pod. The organizations reportedly had agreed to "pool their resources" on behalf of Springer, including a pledge the Keiko team secured from a private, anonymous donor to fund the entire project. Upon hearing this rare pledge of cooperation between anti-captivity organizations and a captive-display facility, NMFS announced its decision—it would intervene to save Springer, and would go with the combined seapen rehabilitation/translocation/reintroduction plan, with Vancouver Aquarium as the lead non-government organization on the Canadian side.
Shortly after the NMFS announcement and without explanation, Vancouver Aquarium backed out of the coalition, affecting the project's funding.
Prescott Grant and Orphaned Orca Fund
Conservationists presented an idea to NMFS—the Springer project could be funded by the newly established and little-known Prescott Marine Mammal Stranding grant, taking advantage of language inserted by Washington's Congressional delegation that provided "priority consideration for gray whale and orca strandings in the Pacific Northwest." Although not a stranded whale, if Springer were deemed by NMFS as a "pending stranding," the agency might be able to expedite the Prescott money. NMFS agreed to the plan.
Applications were made for two $100,000 USD grants, with a requirement that both be triggered by 1/3 matching contributions, or a total of $66,667 USD. NMFS invited five non-profit organizations to form the "Orphaned Orca Fund" (OOF) to raise the matching funds for the Prescott grants—Orca Alliance, Project SeaWolf, People for Puget Sound, The Whale Museum and Orca Conservancy. Free Willy-Keiko Foundation/Earth Island Institute and Friends of the San Juans would soon join OOF. The new coalition immediately passed a Motion that stated that "no funds raised by OOF can be used to remove A73 to a marine facility." The next day, Project SeaWolf, recognizing that continued cooperation with the Vancouver Aquarium, and the use of a temporary marine holding facility would be required to house the calf during the transition, formally resigned from OOF, but the group continued assisting the Springer project in many material and tactical ways, particularly when the time came to rescue and repatriate and move the orca calf back to her home waters in British Columbia.
The public response to helping Springer was overwhelming. In a matter of weeks, OOF successfully raised the matching funds triggering the Prescott grants. There was now approximately $266,666 USD in cash and in-kind services and equipment available to the project, by most accounts more than enough to get Springer home.
Namgis First Nation enlisted to catch wild salmon for Springer
During one OOF meeting in June, a Motion was made on behalf of Dr. Spong and OrcaLab to use OOF funds to contract commercial fishermen from the Namgis First Nation of Johnstone Strait, BC, to catch and provide wild salmon for Springer while she was in her seapen in Dongchong Bay, Hanson Island, the repatriation site and territory of the Namgis. If the money were approved, Dr. Spong would help arrange an out-of-season fishing permit from DFO, and Namgis Chief Bill Cranmer would put together a boat and crew. A member of OOF, together with a representative from NMFS present at the meeting, urged instead the use of farmed Atlantic salmon provided by a local aquaculture company, even though the First Nations in the region were adamantly opposed to fish farms in their waters. It was argued that the logistics of feeding Springer wild fish was too much to take on for the team, particularly this close to the capture date.
After much discussion, the NMFS representative suggested that the agency might agree to the Namgis contract, but only on the condition that OOF provide a metal detector at the seapen site to screen the wild salmon for fish hooks which could pose a danger to Springer. NMFS finally assented on a personal assurance from OOF members that they would be at the site when the salmon came in, physically inspecting the mouth of each fish for hooks prior to their placement into the seapen. The Motion passed and the Namgis were contracted.
Capture and rehabilitation
The team dedicated to capturing Springer was led by Jeff Foster, whose experience working with killer whales included recent work preparing Keiko for release. In early June, Foster's team began a series of exercises to make Springer comfortable ultimately for them to draw a sample of her blood for medical testing.
June 13 was scheduled to be the date of the capture. Swimmers in wetsuits spent about an hour in the ocean with Springer to calm her. With several news helicopters overhead to broadcast the event on live television, Foster's team placed a soft rope around her tail and the swimmers moved her into a sling so she could be hoisted into the boat. Springer did not show any sign of objection to the capture.
"There were so many things that could've gone wrong, and nothing went wrong," said Michael Harris, one of a multitude of orca advocates and scientists holding their breath that day.
Springer was then moved to a seapen at a government research station in Manchester, Washington. For four weeks, she was given live salmon and tested for medical conditions. To avoid creating a dependency on humans, staff kept their contact with her to a minimum and released food into her pen at random times of day. Her food, sometimes laced with medication, was delivered via a chute that was arranged so that Springer could not see the person putting the food into the chute. Her health improved and she began to eat more, approaching the 60–80 pounds of fish per day needed to increase her weight. After medical tests revealed no genetic disorders or communicable diseases, Springer was cleared for return to Canada.
Another hurdle was to secure a means of transport for the whale's 250-mile journey. A truck ride would have been long and bumpy, and an airplane prohibitively expensive. Project SeaWolf's directors Kundu, Mclaughlin, and Wood, persuaded a boat building company from Whidbey Island, Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, to donate use of the Catalina Jet, a 144-foot-long catamaran capable of traveling more than 40 mph. It was a timely and critical contribution to the Springer project.
Springer's move to her home waters needed to be timed well to maximize her chances of re-integrating into a wild pod. To minimize her habituation to humans, it was important to move her as soon as possible. It was also important to release her when her close relatives, the ones whose dialect was closest to Springer's own, were present. Due to the detailed records kept by observers in Johnstone Strait, it was known that Springer's pod appears each year between May 6 and July 25, usually in mid-July. On July 9, OrcaLab reported detecting the calls of killer whales closely related to Springer, moving towards Johnstone Strait.
Return to Johnstone Strait
Under the watch of news helicopters, Springer was lifted by crane from her holding pen on the morning of July 12, 2002. She was placed in a specially constructed shallow pool on the catamaran. The boat departed Manchester but then broke down. Plastic debris was sucked into one of the catamaran's intakes shortly after it began its journey north, hamstringing the high-speed vessel. The team decided to head back to the dock, put Springer back in the seapen, and wait for the next day.
The operation got underway the next morning, July 13, without incident. Springer was brought north through Puget Sound and Haro Strait, across the border and then to Campbell River, BC, where locals donated hundreds of bags of ice to keep Springer cool. The catamaran then traveled through the Inside Passage to Johnstone Strait, then to Dongchong Bay, Hanson Island, not far from OrcaLab. The previous day, high-tech hydrophones were installed in Dongchong Bay by OrcaLab researcher David Howitt. A net pen had been put in place, filled with 73 wild Pacific salmon that local First Nations fishermen had just caught that morning for her under a specially granted fishing permit.
When released into her net pen, Springer was immediately active, feeding on salmon all through the night, spyhopping (raising her head out of the water), pushing at the net, and calling loudly. Springer could hear the calls of killer whales swimming nearby, which included her grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins. "She was vigorous and vocalizing and obviously interacting with the other whales. We were listening practically with our mouths hanging open (Saturday) night," said Dr. Spong. Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, Senior Marine Mammal Scientist with the Vancouver Aquarium, said that it was clear Springer knew she was home, and that "her calls were so loud they practically blew our earphones off."
Life in community
At 3:30 p.m. on July 14, Springer's keepers opened the gate on her net pen as other killer whales went by, and Springer went "charging off."  She swam straight towards the other killer whales. However, their reaction to Springer's sudden appearance was initially to bunch together silently in confusion and alarm. After a few minutes, Springer and the others swam off in opposite directions.
Transmitter devices had been attached to Springer's back with suction cups, but were designed to fall off after a few days so that she would look like a normal whale. Thereafter, scientists and volunteers did their best to observe Springer visually. Project SeaWolf kept a vigilant watch on the water. In the first days, she was seen trailing her pod, keeping a distance of about half to three quarters of a mile.
However, Springer's old tendency to interact with boats remained a problem. On July 16 she positioned herself near a small boat so that it could not move without hitting her. The boat had to be towed away from Springer at high speed. Boaters were asked to stay away from her. It is also likely that Springer's early encounters with other killer whales were difficult—she was later seen with teeth-rake marks covering her body.
Soon, however, Springer began to travel consistently with members of the A4 pod (her mother's closest relatives), and her distant cousins in the A5 pod. It was hoped that Springer would form a bond with a mature female who would act as a surrogate mother. The killer whale known as A51 or "Nodales," a 16-year-old female from the A5 pod who had no calf of her own, appeared to take that role. In August, A51 was observed following Springer and guiding her away from boats, which Dr. Barrett-Leonard described as a sign of "reciprocalness in the relationship. It convinced me this is not just a case of A73 finding a placid female she's following around." The bond between Springer and Nodales turned out to not be as strong as a normal mother-offspring bond in killer whales, however. Springer has since often been seen with Nawitti, a 12-year-old female from the A4 pod, and with Springer's great-aunt Yakat.
"I've been more than amazed," said Dr. John Nightingale, Director of the Vancouver Aquarium, on ABC World News Tonight With Peter Jennings. "I've been a fascinated spectator, watching these whales get used to each other and her integration into her larger family group."
Springer has been sighted each year with A-clan killer whales in Johnstone Strait. "Springer is in excellent condition," reported Dr. Spong in an OrcaLab press release. "There can now be no question about the success of the return project as it is clear that Springer has resumed living a normal social life among her kin and community." "This is a great experiment that is a success. We are very happy," said Orca Conservancy's Michael Harris on KOMO 4 News (ABC Seattle). "What a test for small orca like that who's spent so much time in a ferry lane in urban Puget Sound, swimming about a mile a day, to keep up with her family traveling 75 miles a day in the big ocean. She's with her family now. She's fat, she's happy. We've been holding our breath for a long, long time and this is great news." KING 5 News (NBC Seattle) reported, "It was a daring, dangerous and highly publicized effort, and now it appears it worked."
In July 2013, Springer was sighted with a calf measuring about 2.5 metres long.
“Some activists wanted to leave her alone, hoping that somehow she’d find her way home," explained Harris on KING 5 News (NBC Seattle). "Marine parks took an interest in the young resident orca. But other groups, including OrcaLab, the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation and Orca Conservancy, successfully persuaded NOAA Fisheries to directly intervene, capture the orca and return her to her family in BC.”
"That leaves no doubt the young whale was accepted by and is thriving with her pod," environmental reporter Gary Chittim of KING 5 News continued. "It’s an unlikely outcome. Some of the groups cooperating on the rescue would not sit together in the same room much less share boats and resources. And capturing an orca without injuring is difficult; keeping it alive during a long journey and getting it back together with its pod, well, that’s unheard of. Does that sound skeptical? It should, I was. Now I’m just amazed.”
- "Orphaned Orca Released to Join Pod," Associated Press, July 14, 2002; "Waters of Home Welcome Springer," Bremerton Sun, July 14, 2002; "Springer Swims Free: Released Orphaned Orca Shows Interest in her Pod," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 15, 2002
- "We Are So Happy," KOMO 4 News (ABC Seattle), July 9, 2003
- "Orphaned orca's reunion with family celebrated". Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. July 13, 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-06.
- Drews, Kevin (July 8, 2013). "Springer the orphaned killer whale spotted with calf off B.C.’s North Coast". The Canadian Press (Macleans).
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- Francis and Hewlett, pp. 27 - 29
- *"Orphaned whale still 'prefers boats'". BBC News World Edition. July 18, 2002. Retrieved 2007-07-15.
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- Read, Nicholas (2002-07-22). "Hope swims with orphaned orca: Scientists have temporarily lost track of Springer, and they want to believe she has found a home". The Vancouver Sun.
- Stiffler, Lisa (July 15, 2002). "Orca 'doing amazingly well' in pod". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Archived from the original on January 16, 2013.
- Andersen, Peggy (August 2, 2002). "Springer sticking close to new mom". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Archived from the original on October 21, 2012.
- Francis, Daniel; Gil Hewlett (2007). Operation Orca: Springer, Luna and the Struggle to Save West Coast Killer Whales. Harbour Publishing. pp. 173–174. ISBN 1-55017-426-6.
- "Family Found," ABC World News Tonight With Peter Jennings, August 21, 2002
- "All's Fine With Springer," KING 5 News (NBC Seattle), July 10, 2003
- Environment Northwest: Springer the once-orphaned orca is a mom," KING 5 News (NBC Seattle), July 9, 2013
- Environment Northwest: Springer the once-orphaned orca is a mom," KING 5 News (NBC Seattle), July 9, 2013
- Francis, Daniel; Gil Hewlett (2007). Operation Orca: Springer, Luna and the Struggle to Save West Coast Killer Whales. Harbour Publishing. ISBN 1-55017-426-6.