Springer (killer whale)

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Two-year-old Springer in Puget Sound, 2002
Other name(s)A73
SpeciesOrcinus orca (Northern Resident)
Bornc. 1999-2000
Parent(s)Sutlej A45 (1983-2001)
Offspring2: Spirit A104 (b. 2013), 2017 calf

Springer (born late 1999 or early 2000), officially named A73, is a wild orca (also known as 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, Springer, then a calf developmentally equivalent to a human toddler, was discovered alone and emaciated some 250 miles from her family's (called a pod) territory. Experts identified Springer by her vocal calls that are specific to her pod and by examining photographs of her eye patch. They were also able determine where Springer's pod was currently located.

Months of heated public debate ensued until the United States National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) made the decision to capture the young orca and try to reintegrate her into her pod. On June 12, 2002, Springer was captured and moved to a seapen in Manchester, Washington. On July 13, after medical treatment and rehabilitation, Springer was transported to Johnstone Strait, BC and held in a seapen at Dongchong Bay, Hanson Island and released the next day.[1] In October, Springer was seen traveling with her pod to the open ocean. The following July, she returned to Johnstone Strait with the same orca pod.[2]

As of 2013, Springer has been observed with her pod in Johnstone Strait, becoming the only cetacean in history to be successfully reintegrated into a wild population after human intervention.[3] In July 2013, 11 years after her rescue, Springer was seen off the central British Columbia coast with a new calf and is considered to be a contributing member of that population.[4] In 2017 Springer was seen with another calf, who was confirmed to be her second offspring.[5]

Appearance in Puget Sound[edit]

Springer's family was traced through analysis of her vocal dialect. Her mother was "Sutlej", who probably died in 2001.

After sporadic sightings in early January 2002 near the Vashon Island ferry dock in Puget Sound and near La Conner and Edmonds, WA, Springer's identity was confirmed by The Center for Whale Research. At that time, she was 11 feet long and estimated to be between 18 and 36 months old, which is developmentally equivalent to a human toddler. Orcas are rarely observed alone, and mothers never leave young offspring unattended.[6] The local and later national media news began regularly reporting on Springer.


To identify the young orca, experts pored over high-resolution photographs and searched for clues in Springer's calls that are distinctive to her orca pod.

The orcas 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 orcas which frequent these waters is named, and experienced observers recognize individuals by their unique body markings and the shape of each orca's dorsal fin. Birth records of each orca have created detailed family trees. They are 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. The different orca pods have developed their own unique vocalizations, using distinctive sets of calls, known as "dialects." Closely related groups have more similar dialects than more distant relatives.

Seattle marine acoustics specialist Joe Olson from the Puget Sound Chapter of the American Cetacean Society recorded Springer's calls. From these recordings and photographs, Helena Symonds of OrcaLab and Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Canada biologist John Ford determined that the orca belonged to a pod of around 215 orcas known as the Northern Resident Community, ranging some 250 miles north, a group rarely seen in the Puget Sound area. Resident orcas leave the coast each fall; their migration routes are still relatively unknown.

It was known that A45, a female orca from this community, and her calf A73 had not returned to Johnstone Strait the previous summer and were both thought dead. Assessment of Springer's dialect confirmed she was A73. A45, also known as "Sutlej," was Springer's mother.[7] Her body was never found, and because male orcas play no role in rearing young, Springer was 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.[6] A73 had been given the nickname "Springer" shortly after her birth. Like many regional orcas, she is named after a geographical feature – Springer Point in southern Johnstone Strait.

Springer nuzzles up to a floating log in Puget Sound

Health and welfare concerns[edit]

Springer had developed a pattern of approaching and rubbing against boats, creating a high risk of being hit by a vessel in the busy area or capsizing a small boat. One local Seattle-based group, Project SeaWolf Coastal Protection, led by whale advocate Michael Kundu, Seattle media personality Bob McLaughlin, and Robert Wood of the American Cetacean Society, began regularly observing and tracking the calf on the water, and documented a number of orca-boat interactions, including potentially dangerous interactions with private boats and a Washington State ferry. Her attraction to boats and floating logs was attributed to needing social interaction and touch.[8] 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."[9]

Although Springer had been weaned from her mother and was able to forage on her own, she was underweight and in poor health, being malnourished, having ketoacidosis, worms, and an itchy skin condition. Orcas are highly social and form extremely strong family bonds. Resident orcas remain with their mothers and maternal relatives their entire lives.

Springer hanging out at the Fauntleroy Ferry, Seattle. Washington State Ferry workers were the first to see and report the young orca to researchers, and kept a watchful eye on her throughout her stay in the big city.

Public debate[edit]

The orphaned orca's fate was a hotly debated public issue. Some feared 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 legally prohibited marine parks from capturing wild orcas in Puget Sound. Some argued that federal authorities should not intervene and rescue the young orca, even if the animal was 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 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.".[10] Other activists like Howard Garrett of the Whidbey Island, Washington-based Orca Network also argued against rescuing Springer, and favored the federal government authorizing 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.[11]

The Oregon Coast Aquarium (OCA) in Newport, Oregon where the orca Keiko was kept prior to his translocation to Iceland, offered its facilities to rehabilitate Springer for a one-year period, after which a scientific panel would determine whether or not she was fit to return to Johnstone Strait, BC. Media reports soon revealed that OCA was deep in debt and bound by an agreement with the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation (FWKF) that Keiko's former tank, built by FWKF, could never again house a wild orca. Furthermore, growing scientific opinion was that rehabilitating Springer in a concrete tank would further acclimate the orca to humans and likely result in permanent captivity. OCA withdrew its offer.

In time, various non-profit groups emerged to call upon authorities to immediately rescue Springer and return her to the A24 pod in Johnstone Strait. As reported on KING 5 News (NBC Seattle), the groups 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.[12]

Another option presented to the National Marine Fisheries Service was to transport the orca aboard a high-speed hovercraft the Canadian Consulate believed it could source from its Coast Guard.[13] The overriding component of all these rescue options was to minimize human contact and keep the orca 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 pod 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 was possible. No cetacean had ever been re-integrated into a wild pod after human intervention.[3] Another orca, 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 orcas had never been known to do this). Springer's pod might respond to her reappearance by a physical attack. Also, the increasing habituation with humans and vessels could jeopardize a successful return to the wild and humans could be endangered by Springer's close contacts with small boats.

Springer's uncertain health was also a concern; Canadian officials refused to accept an orca with any communicable diseases. Returning Springer to her home waters would require the political, scientific, logistical and financial cooperation of federal agencies and multiple organizations in two countries, as well as the consent of the First Nations.[14] Capturing and moving an orca risked further stress and injury. Local media continued covering the situation, with advocates demanding immediate government action to save the orca. Public sentiment strongly favored rescue as Springer's health deteriorated and her attraction to boats and people increased.

Monitoring program[edit]

As the debate continued, NMFS urged the public to keep away from Springer, and officially authorized a volunteer, on-the-water monitoring project involving Washington-based non-profit organizations possessing the marine vessel resources to keep track of the calf — 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 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 at a safe distance 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 noted 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 monitoring Springer and keeping the public away, but the growing number of onlookers were making the effort unsustainable.

As the orca's prognosis worsened, the idea of returning her to her pod in Canada was gaining strong public support. On March 13, KOMO 4 News (ABC Seattle) reported a "ground-breaking coalition," announcing that groups involve in the 'Keiko' project, and the 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.[13] 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. NMFS announced it supported 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[edit]

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. Project SeaWolf continued providing technical and fundraising expertise, 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.

Under contract from the Orphaned Orca Fund and a special out-of-season permit from DFO Canada, Namgis First Nation fishermen load 73 wild-caught Pacific salmon into Springer's seapen in Dongchong Bay, Hanson Island, BC.

Namgis First Nation enlisted to catch wild salmon for Springer[edit]

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.

The NMFS suggested it would agree to the Namgis contract if the OOF provided a metal detector to screen the wild salmon for fish hooks which could pose a danger to Springer. After OOF members pledged they would inspect the mouth of each fish for hooks prior to their placement into the seapen, the motion passed and the Namgis were contracted.[15]

Capture and rehabilitation[edit]

Springer is lowered into her seapen at Manchester, WA.

The team to capture Springer was led by Jeff Foster, who had helped prepare Keiko for release. On June 13, Foster's team placed a rope around her tail, moved her into a sling and hoisted her into the boat.

"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 witnessing the event.[16]

Springer was moved to a seapen at a government research station in Manchester, Washington. For four weeks, she was fed live salmon and medically evaluated. Human contact was kept to a minimum in order to avoid the orca developing a dependency on humans. Her food, sometimes laced with medication, was delivered at random times via a chute to prevent Springer from seeing the person providing it. As her health improved, her appetite increased to approach 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.

A means to transport the orca 250-miles was needed. Trucks and airplanes were ruled out. 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.[17]

Springer's move to her home waters needed to be well timed to maximize her chances of re-integrating into a wild pod. To minimize her habituation to humans, she needed to be moved as soon as possible and had to be released during the time her pod was usually present in Johnstone Strait between May 6 and July 25, usually in mid-July. On July 9, OrcaLab detected orca calls closely related to Springer's, moving towards Johnstone Strait.[18]

Return to Johnstone Strait[edit]

Springer prepared for 13-hour journey

On July 12, 2002, Springer was lifted by crane from the holding pen and placed in a specially constructed shallow pool aboard the catamaran. The boat departed Manchester but then broke down. The team headed back to the dock and returned Springer to the seapen.

The operation got underway the next day 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 help keep the orca cool. To keep her skin from drying out or becoming sunburned during the 13-hour journey, Springer was draped with wet cloths and treated with ointment. The catamaran traveled through the Inside Passage to Johnstone Strait, then to Dongchong Bay, and Hanson Island, not far from OrcaLab. The previous day, high-tech hydrophones were installed in Dongchong Bay. A net pen was in place, filled with wild Pacific salmon caught by local First Nations fishermen under a specially granted fishing permit.[17][19]

When released into the net pen, Springer immediately began feeding on the salmon, spyhopped (raising her head out of the water), pushed at the net, and called loudly to her relative orcas swimming nearby. "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."[17]

Life in community[edit]

Namgis First Nations canoes welcome Springer home.

At 3:30 p.m. on July 14, the net pen gates were opened as other orcas went by. Springer swam straight towards the other orcas. The pod's reaction to a strange orca's sudden appearance resulted in them bunching together in a panic. Springer and the others swam off in opposite directions.[20][21]

Temporary Transmitter devices had been attached to Springer's back with suction cups, but were designed to fall off after a few days.[20] Thereafter, scientists and volunteers observed Springer visually. In the first days, she trailed the pod, keeping a distance of about half to three quarters of a mile.[22]

Springer's tendency to interact with boats remained a problem. On July 16 she positioned herself near a small boat leaving it unable to move without hitting her. Boaters were instructed to stay away from her.[22][21] 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. Springer began traveling consistently with the A4 pod (her mother's closest relatives), and distant cousins in the A5 pod.[6] 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."[23] 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.[24] Dr. John Nightingale, Director of the Vancouver Aquarium, stated 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."[25]

Springer has been sighted each year with her pod.[8] "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."


On July 4, 2013 Springer was seen with her first calf.

In July 2013, Springer was sighted with a calf, named A104,[26] measuring about 2.5 metres long.[4] "That leaves no doubt the young whale was accepted by and is thriving with her pod," said environmental reporter Gary Chittim of KING 5 News (NBC Seattle).[27] The history of Springer's story, and her successful reintroduction into a wild pod, has set the precedent for the rescue and repatriation of other possible captive orca worldwide.[27] This calf was later nicknamed Spirit.[28]

Springer was first seen with her second calf on June 6, 2017. It was estimated to have been born about six months earlier. Said Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard: "Her rescue, relocation, reunification with relatives and transition to motherhood is an incredible story. I see it as testimony to both the resiliency of killer whales as a species and to the wonderful things we humans can do when we work together on behalf of — rather than against — nature."[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "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.
  2. ^ ""We Are So Happy"". KOMO 4 News (ABC Seattle). July 9, 2003.
  3. ^ a b "Orphaned orca's reunion with family celebrated". Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. July 13, 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-06.
  4. ^ a b Drews, Kevin (July 8, 2013). "Springer the orphaned killer whale spotted with calf off B.C.'s North Coast". The Canadian Press. Macleans.
  5. ^ a b Huffman, Alexa (14 July 2017). "Springer the orphaned orca seen off B.C. coast with second calf". CHEK News.
  6. ^ a b c "Springer continues to thrive". Blackfish Sounder. 13. 2005. Retrieved 2007-11-04.
  7. ^ Francis and Hewlett, pp. 27 - 29
  8. ^ a b Mapes, Lynda V. (June 14, 2007). "Young whale's tale is story of success". Seattle Times. Archived from the original on June 16, 2007.
  9. ^ "Orphaned whale still 'prefers boats'". BBC News World Edition. July 18, 2002. Retrieved 2007-07-15.
  10. ^ "Tug of War Over Orphaned Orca". KING 5 News (NBC Seattle). March 9, 2002.
  11. ^ "Readers Soapbox: Try Social Approach With Orphaned Orca". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. March 9, 2002. Retrieved 2002-09-02.
  12. ^ "Group May Try to Move Baby Whale". KING 5 News (NBC Seattle). March 6, 2002.
  13. ^ a b "Dramatic New Rescue Plans for Whale". KOMO News. March 13, 2002. Retrieved 2016-07-21.
  14. ^ Lavoie, Judith (July 13, 2007). "Springer's back so you better get this party started". Victoria Times Columnist. Archived from the original on November 7, 2012. Retrieved January 26, 2010.
  15. ^ "Waiting on Springer". KOMO 4 News (ABC Seattle). July 12, 2002.
  16. ^ "Orca may teach us vital lessons". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. June 20, 2002.
  17. ^ a b c "Springer swims free". Seattle Post Intelligencer. July 15, 2002. Retrieved 2007-07-15.[dead link]
  18. ^ McClure, Robert (July 10, 2002). "Friday is moving day for orca". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Retrieved 2007-11-06.
  19. ^ "Springer's ride develops problem, delays departure". Bremerton Sun. July 13, 2002. Archived from the original on July 10, 2013. Retrieved 2002-07-13.
  20. ^ a b "Returned To The Wild". KOMO News. July 14, 2002. Archived from the original on April 26, 2012.
  21. ^ a b 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.
  22. ^ a b Stiffler, Lisa (July 15, 2002). "Orca 'doing amazingly well' in pod". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Archived from the original on January 16, 2013.
  23. ^ Andersen, Peggy (August 2, 2002). "Springer sticking close to new mom". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Archived from the original on October 21, 2012.
  24. ^ Francis, Daniel; Hewlett, Gil (2007). Operation Orca: Springer, Luna and the Struggle to Save West Coast Killer Whales. Harbour Publishing. pp. 173–174. ISBN 1-55017-426-6.
  25. ^ "Family Found". ABC World News Tonight With Peter Jennings. August 21, 2002.
  26. ^ Morton, Brian (June 18, 2014). "Killer whale Springer and calf spotted in Inside Passage". Vancouver Sun.
  27. ^ a b "Environment Northwest: Springer the once-orphaned orca is a mom". KING 5 News (NBC Seattle). July 9, 2013.
  28. ^ "Meet the Whales: A24 Matriline". Vancouver Aquarium. Vancouver Aquarium.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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.


External links[edit]