An orphaned orca brought a community together — and still inspires 20 years after her rescue
Twenty years ago this month, a baby orca was discovered near Seattle. She was lost and alone, unhealthy and lingering dangerously close to the Vashon Island ferry dock. Six months later, a community effort successfully returned her to her family off Vancouver Island, Canada.
This is the story of the orphaned orca we now know as Springer. She’s still thriving today and her rescue remains the only successful orca rehabilitation in history.
It began when local orca researcher Mark Sears got a call from a quartermaster on the ferry. Sears was the caretaker at the Coleman pool in West Seattle and well known for his careful tracking of all the orcas – mainly southern residents – that would swim past Lincoln Park.
“So, he gave me a call about midday one time and told me there was a baby killer whale over here, off Vashon," Sears says.
The quartermaster said the whale was alone, which isn’t normal. So Sears went to check it out. When the whale rolled over, he could see she was female. Her size indicated she was about two years old. And she was scrawny.
“She definitely was underweight. You could just kind of see that across — right behind the blow hole, slightly depressed, which is an indication of weight loss,” he says.
Sears began monitoring her condition and behavior. He checked on her every day that he could, braving the winter weather in a small boat. She was feeding on steelhead. But her skin was dull and blotchy, obscuring her markings and preventing easy identification. And she kept rubbing up against driftwood. Sears says it looked like her skin really itched.
“And the more she scratched it, the more it itched. But she was also in need of tactile stimulation. ... Without her fellow family and pod around, she wasn't getting that,” Sears says.
One day, he saw her rubbing on a huge stick. When she was done, he grabbed it.
“And we used that stick when we wanted to get a good close look at her. When I took other researchers or scientists out, we’d put the stick out,” he says.
She responded to it almost like a puppy would. She also seemed drawn to the activity of the ferries and would rest dangerously close to the dock, hardly leaving the area. And she was calling out underwater, like she was trying to find someone. Sears and other researchers wanted to somehow reunite her with her family and get her home.
“But we really didn't know for – gosh — about six weeks, who she was. So, that was the big thing. We didn't quite know what to do at that point,” Sears says. “But once we knew who she was, the ball started rolling.”
They found out by analyzing those underwater calls.
She did a lot of random vocalizing, kind of like orca baby talk. But experts started hearing some clues.
David Bain specializes in the northern resident killer whales of British Columbia. He says there’s one call that’s shared by all the whales in the A-clan.
“And Springer was making a lot of that,” says Bain.
So they were pretty sure she was a northern resident, not a transient or southern resident killer whale. But the A-clan includes numerous pods. He headed out to record her — using her stick to draw her near. It involved a lot of waiting.
“And I'm thinking, ‘OK, come on, do something that's pod specific!’ And then finally, I think it was like my fourth time out with her, she did the N4 call,” Bain says.
That call is made only by the A4 pod of northern residents. And there was a catalog of all the whales in that family.
“So we finally had all the puzzle pieces fitting together. And since there was only one whale her size in A4 pod, it had to be Springer,” he says.
Now that they knew who she was, they could make a plan to return her to her family. But federal authorities would have to be convinced – in the U.S. and Canada. And the clock was ticking.
“Every day the whale was here, attention was growing. I mean, here she is, right in front of Seattle, basically,” says Donna Sandstrom, who was with a nonprofit called Orca Alliance at the time. Today, she’s executive director of The Whale Trail. And she’s the author of a new book about Springer, targeting middle-grade readers.
“There's nothing that tugs at a heart like a lost animal, but especially a little baby orca,” she says.
Sandstrom remembers a packed public hearing in which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) asked for input on what to do, ranging from nothing – letting nature take its course – to different kinds of rescue.
”People wanted NOAA to do something — you know, ‘Take care of this. We don't want to see this whale die in front of us,’ ” Sandstrom recalls.
But Springer’s health was a concern. If she had anything contagious, returning her to her family could be dangerous. And there was heated debate about whether to treat her in an aquarium. Sandstrom and others argued that could quickly become a one-way ticket. They wanted to keep the baby whale as wild as possible, and rehabilitate her in a net pen, in Puget Sound.
“It was by far the most expensive option for them, and it was risky because no one had ever done this before,” Sandstrom says.
Seven nonprofits came together to form the Orphaned Orca Fund and pledged to support NOAA if it chose that option. It did. The nonprofits quickly got to work on a huge list of all that was needed — everything from a scale and a foam pad for the whale to port-a-potties and scuba tanks for her human caretakers.
“You know, I called Home Depot for buckets and duct tape,” she says. “PCC donated groceries for the team. The Woodland Park Zoo donated the scale, and we all reached out to our contacts. And within a few weeks we had everything they needed,” she says.
Springer was to be taken to a net pen in Manchester, north of Vashon, for a full medical evaluation. But before the transport, NOAA wanted to screen her for the top five diseases they were worried about. They used Springer’s stick to lure her near enough to take a blood sample – the first time ever from a free swimming whale.
The tests came back clean. It turned out her worst problem was a bad case of parasitic worms. Once that was treated, she went from eating two salmon a day to 15 — and started gaining weight.
“She was so active and engaging. It was amazing to observe her,” recalls Lynn Barre, who is now NOAA’s recovery coordinator for southern resident orcas. Twenty years ago, she got her start on the West Coast helping out with Springer’s rehabilitation.
She says even during the capture, using a sling and crane to move her, they were trying to keep Springer as wild as possible. In the net pen, they created a salmon waterslide, to keep her food separate from any people.
“But she quickly learned like, ‘Oh, if I sit at the end of the water slide, that's where the fish is going to come out,’ " Barre says.
Barre remembers watching Springer catch live fish and seeing her breach in the pen or play with the hoses around her and her stick, which scientists brought along for her.
“She investigated the crabs or the other fish that happened to be in that net pen with her. So she was really curious, active, engaged and just an amazing little whale.”
After about 30 days in Manchester, all her medical tests were done, and it was time to move her home. They loaded Springer into a specially constructed transport box on the deck of a borrowed catamaran and kept her cool on the 10-hour trip, 250 miles north, to Canada.
When she arrived, people in pleasure boats and canoes welcomed her with banners, songs and dances. And a team of scientists awaited her in Dong Chong Bay.
“We had two net pens, side by side: one full of fish, one ready for Springer,” says Lance Barrett-Lennard, who was with Vancouver Aquarium at the time and charged with overseeing Springer’s recovery and re-adjustment to the wild.
“And then she arrived on this on this catamaran, and (we) popped her into the pen!”
Within hours, the team heard the beginnings of a family reunion. Springer’s relatives arrived and started communicating with her. The scientists had set up hydrophones all around the net pen.
“And we could hear them calling and her calling and them calling — and sort of answering back and forth,” Barrett-Lennard says. “It seemed they could clearly hear each other."
It went on for hours. Then the calls got fainter. Springer finally settled down around three or four in the morning.
“And then the release happened much more quickly than any of us had dared to hope,” he says.
”The next day around midday, very early afternoon, they came by again. And that's when the release happened. So, it kind of took the press and all of us by surprise a bit.”
They decided she was ready and opened the pen. Springer swam straight out to her family, who had lined up, facing her.
There was some uncertainty at first. Barrett-Lennard says Springer seemed nervous, stopping at one point to get her stick. She lagged behind them for about 10 days, but by the end of the summer she had reintegrated with her pod.
Today she’s a thriving mother, with two calves: 8-year-old Spirit and 4-year-old Storm. And Barrett-Lennard says during a drone survey this summer, they discovered that Springer is pregnant again.
“I mean, two calves that we know are in good shape. Hopefully the third one will be OK," he says. "It's kind of a lesson that, you know, one or two individuals can make a hell of a difference down the track.”
Twenty years after her rescue, Springer’s story remains a rare and inspiring success among conservationists – of a risk taken and nature rebounding, with incredible rewards.