Elena Passarello’s column is about famous animals from history. This week: Springer the Orca.
Shit, it’s A-73!
—The biologist Graeme Ellis
Her calls were so loud they practically blew our earphones off.
—Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, Vancouver Aquarium
And now, months later, after forming all these groups to help fund this—working with NMFS and DFO, which has not always been easy, and people on both sides of the border—it’s like delivering a baby, and we’re about ready to pass out cigars.
—Michael Harris, the Orca Conservancy
Species: Orcinus Orca
Years Active: 2000–present
Distinguishing Features: An “open” white saddle mark; several faint scratches, perhaps from propellers, on dorsal fin
Skills: Resilience, a northern accent, an ability to disarm various mammalian species
Habitat: Puget Sound, Washington; Telegraph Cove, British Columbia; the open water
The ferry worker called her Boo. Shortly before Christmas 2001, a Department of Transportation employee noticed a very young orca hanging around the docks of Vashon Island, a residential swath of land in Puget Sound between Tacoma and Seattle. Every day as the Evergreen State ferry floated in its slip, the orca would swim beside its bow, disappearing only when the engines started. While orcas in the waters of the Pacific Northwest aren’t unusual, a solo baby orphaned orca was a reason to call the authorities.
It turned out that Boo already had a name. Two, actually. Her official catalogue moniker was A73—“A” for the matrilineal pod with which she should be traveling, and “73” because she was the seventy-third birth in A-pod since humans started tracking them. Unlike the transient pods that swim up and down the Pacific coast all year, the orcas in A-pod are resident orcas, and they spend the summer-salmon runs near the shores of Washington and British Columbia. They have their own practices, bonds, and even dialects. A northern resident A-clan orca produces calls never made by, for instance, a southern resident from J-pod.
Marine scientists used these quirks of pod-speak to identify the little killer, dropping an underwater microphone into the Puget and capturing a series of calls, including one particular WEE AH WOOOOOH squeal. That squeal is incanted only by the A-pod sub-group that summers on the tip of Vancouver Island, nearly four hundred miles north of Vashon by boat. After reviewing photographs of A-pod calves her age, they knew this was A73, born in 2000 and given a nickname that would soon be on the lips of half the region: Springer.
This little whale, whose mother scientists presumed dead, had been running with the G-pod for awhile that fall, but somehow got left behind in southern waters, where no passing whale sounded like her. Springer’s human observers were amazed that she’d kept herself alive. A two-year-old orca is not unlike a human preschooler: weaned and able to feed herself, but still very much in need of social guidance and physical closeness.
This is probably why, when local scientists took a boat out to see her, she swam up immediately and rubbed against it, which worried them. Also troubling was Springer’s skin—mottled with whale pox—and an acrid odor in her blowhole breath—evidence of malnutrition. The Center for Whale Research sent a TV message asking the public to avoid further habituating Springer to humans or boats by keeping away from her. Most people complied, but now that they’d heard tell of the orphan baby, they wanted answers: What are we going to do about this lost whale?
As the Associated Press put it, “the answer, unlike Springer, was not black and white.” There was the problem of ownership—who makes the decisions about a Canadian whale lost in an American waterway? Further, Springer was sick, but seemed to be eating a little. Should they just let nature take its course and see if the young orca could figure things out by herself? What if her growing fondness for boats caused an accident that endangered human and whale alike? And if the orca were taken to an aquarium and rehabilitated, would she become too dependent to be rereleased, thus fueling the captive whale industry that local conservation groups despised?
Another option—to help Springer get strong enough to join her grandmother’s sub-pod up north—seemed ideal but was unprecedented. Some groups thought it might be impossible, noting the sad plight of Keiko, the Free Willy whale, rescued from decades of captivity. After three years of rehab, Keiko was still so dependent on his human captors that he kept swimming back from the ocean to his holding pen in Iceland.
Debates continued for months while Springer became more comfortable with the land mammals who loved her. Passengers on the Evergreen State had begun throwing the orca french fries, and one local woman admitted to tossing her a pig carcass. When spring came, water traffic increased. A family got stranded when Springer sidled up to their fishing boat and refused to move, nuzzling their vessel for an hour. Her wildness was further dissipating, her body was deteriorating, and the rescue effort was running out of time.
In April, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced their plan to try and return Springer to A-pod, launching over three months of careful collaboration and compromise involving two nations, a handful of native communities, conservation groups, and even corporations like Six Flags. Many of them sat on opposite sides of hot-button marine issues, but after months of debate, they finally agreed that the first step was to move Springer to a quiet facility where they could get her healthy and ready to travel.
In mid-June, a team of specialists in wet suits guided the young whale into a special sling with sheepskin-lined fin cutouts, loaned by a local zoo. Four TV news helicopters hovered overhead and at least two live feeds filmed from the shore as a crane lifted the sling out of the water, a squealing Springer inside it. On the ferry dock, onlookers cried as Springer was placed onto a donated crane barge, with the orca expert Jeff Foster standing on top of her airborne sling to add ballast. Members of the Kuteeya Tinglit dancers, a Native troupe, performed a farewell ceremony on the Evergreen State in their wooden dorsal-fin headpieces.
After a month in a pen in Clam Bay, eating medicine-laced salmon, rubbing against logs, and coming into contact with humans only when absolutely necessary, Springer had gained a hundred pounds and her breath and skin were healing. She received a clean bill of health just as A-pod headed for their July residency up in Telegraph Cove.
The trip to Canada required an even greater amount of teamwork than her skip across the Sound to Clam Bay did. A company from Whidbey Island donated a powerful catamaran to speed her twelve-hour journey. She spent the trip in a large tank donated by Six Flags Marine World, covered in wet towels and regularly doused in seawater. Thus outfitted, the team motored north to British Columbia’s Dong Chong Bay, a little inlet on First Nations–owned land. There, another crane lifted her from the catamaran to a transport barge and set her down on a pile of wet mattresses. While members of the ‘Namgis nation paddled cedar canoes around the boat, a chief welcomed Springer with a song that asked Creator to keep her safe. Her transition pen, which had been made with steel and nets donated by a nearby fish farm, was stocked with salmon live-caught by the ‘Namgis on a special Canadian emergency permit. There, the orca would wait until she felt ready to go.
It took less than eight hours in the pen for Springer to hear a familiar voice. When a group of A-pod orcas called to one another in her native dialogue—including that familiar WEE AH WOOOOOH—Springer screamed. She threw herself into the air and, for a few minutes, tried to form the shapes of her natal pod’s calls, but was too excited to articulate them. All the passing whales heard was the baby orca equivalent of errr uh homina homina homina.
The next afternoon, July 14, a few A-clan orcas peeked into the bay as Springer flipped and sprayed, all but tearing down the net that separated her from them. The rescue team suctioned three temporary yellow transmitters to her back and dropped the net. In video of the release, you see her rocket from the pen and then stop, comically, at a pile of kelp for a snack. Then she heads toward the open water.
But at the lip of Dong Chong Bay, the other orcas turned left, while Springer hung a cautious right. Then, for a couple days, she swam on the outskirts of pods—trailing them at a half-mile distance. She tried to join a large party gathered at a “rubbing beach”—a specifically northern resident orca ritual—but was bitten in the process; the orcas hadn’t figured out a way to get along with the baby yet. A day later, a boat spotted Springer alone, trying to bond with another watercraft, and it seemed these months of human collaboration had gotten her nowhere.
Orcas, like us, are socially cautious animals. The unique practices of each group, subgroup, and internal family can easily create impasses. Their cultures often require time, risk, and a few missteps before they embark on productive relationships. This is the case even when the mammals involved speak the same language and ultimately want the same things: a salmon run, a fresh start for a young one in peril, a humming body to swim beside us and keep us safe. But the saga of Springer is evidence of how fruitful difficult collaborations—hers and ours—can be.
On July 18, Springer finally made inroads with a pod. She turned up with a distant cousin (and fellow orphan) who had obviously taken Springer into her care. When the baby spotted an observation boat that day—her old pals!—she made a beeline to greet it, but the older orca sped in front of her and hurled Springer away from the humans and back to her kind.
When Springer returned to Telegraph Cove with her great-aunt the next summer, the pair were a living testament to the work of humans who, as the Orca Conservancy put it, typically “would not sit together in the same room, much less share boats and resources.” And for a decade, that testament has renewed itself each summer that Springer returns and all but ignores the people watching her. Perhaps the biggest reward came in July 2013, when a fully grown Springer showed up for the season, fat and vigorous and with a calf of her own.
Elena Passarello is a Whiting Award winner and the author of Let Me Clear My Throat and Animals Strike Curious Poses, which will be released by Sarabande Books in February. She is one of the Daily’s correspondents.