Springer, March 7, 2002
Springer, March 7, 2002

"What do you think about Springer?"

by Susan Berta and Howard Garrett
June 15, 2002
"What do you think about Springer, or A73, the wayward orphaned orca that has made Puget Sound her home these past five months?" Seems like a simple enough question, but the answers range far and wide, depending on who you ask, and when you ask. After closely following Springer's travels and travails for the past five months, we still have a hard time answering that question, or knowing for sure how we feel.

One thing is for sure - anyone who has had the honor and pleasure of meeting Springer has most likely fallen for this spunky, courageous, cute little orca. She has captured the hearts of the people of Puget Sound, Canada, and the nation. She has amazed us all with her survivability when all odds were against her, and managed to somehow travel all by herself from Canadian waters down into south Puget Sound, where she found a fishing hole that could support her and keep her alive, hundreds of miles from her natal pod.

But now what? The fate of A73 has been hotly debated for months by whale researchers, government officials, marine parks, politicians and non-profit organizations on both sides of the border, who are all trying to figure out what is best and right for A73's future. Some would rather she be left alone to fend for herself in Puget Sound, where she's been doing quite nicely, under the circumstances, and to let nature take its course.

Maybe there is a reason she is here and away from her pod that we don't know or understand? Some would like to see her taken to a marine park, where she would be fed and cared for, and where people would pay lots of money to watch her perform tricks in a tank. Some would like to conduct medical tests and take this opportunity to learn from this little wild orca who is so approachable, a rare opportunity. Others would like to see her returned home to Canadian waters to be reintroduced to her pod and continue her life as a wild whale. And as always, with any situation where media, money and politics become involved, the complications, contradictions and posturing endlessly abound around plans for this little orca calf's future.

This is an unprecedented situation, so there are no historic lessons to go by. Whale researchers were shocked to discover that such a young, orphaned calf could make it on her own for so long, or that she could travel so far on her own (although there is a mirrored situation with L98, a young orca calf from the Southern Resident community that has been living alone off the west side of Vancouver Island for nearly a year now). There are many more questions than answers, and as many opinions on what should be done as there are people involved.

We first became aware of the possibility of a lone orca calf in early January, when reports of an orca calf swimming in Swinomish Channel near LaConner came through Orca Network's Whale Sighting Network. This seemed like a very unlikely situation, but there were several calls, and they all seemed very sure it was a young orca they had observed. Then came a call from a Foss tugboat captain, reporting a baby orca calf swimming back and forth alongside a tanker near Edmonds. This also seemed unlikely, but since a female Transient had just been found dead in the area, we thought possibly it could be her lost calf. Finally, in mid-January, the orca calf was again found and photographed near Vashon Island, where she ended up taking residence until her capture on Thursday.

It took researchers awhile to figure out just who she was, as logic and circumstances seemed to point to either a transient or Southern Resident Community orca, the two orca communities that frequent this area. But after months of matching photos, vocalizations, and finally confirmation with DNA tests, it was discovered she was from the Northern Resident Community of orcas, who never travel down into Puget Sound - until now!

Resident Orcas have immense brains and intelligence, and a closely-bonded, matrilineal social system wherein the offspring stay with their mothers for life. Unfortunately, A73's Mom is believed to be dead, and survivors of her immediate pod include only her Grandmother and an aunt. But A73 was seen last summer swimming with G pod, another pod in the Northern Resident Community, and A clan is made up of several additional pods or matrilines that are relatives of A73.

Most people who know and understand orca social systems and culture instinctively know that A73 is lonely for her family, and that her best chance of survival would be with her pod. However, there are instances of lone whales making a living for themselves and doing just fine. There has been a lone pseudorca or False Killer Whale living in this area since the 1980's, being friendly with boaters and swimming right up to tugs and docks. And we can't be certain of the events leading to A73's departure from her pod and community - could she just not keep up after her Mom died? Was she intentionally left behind? Did she run away from home? Or is there some sort of secret international exchange program going on, wherein the Canadian whales sent A73 down here in exchange for having L98 up north?!

There is always the dilemma humans face of whether or not to intervene in the intricacies of nature's way. Though our hearts are tugging at us to do something, to make things right, we can't always know what is right, or accomplish what we think is right without doing more harm than good. Watching Springer swim around freely the hours before her capture on Thursday, we felt sad and torn. We would love to see her rejoin her family somehow, but sorely hated to see her taken into captivity for any length of time, her power and freedom torn from her. In the hour before she was taken, we watched in glee as she breached or half-breached six times. Then we watched numbly as the boats closed in to take her, and held our breath as we saw the rope go around her flukes and hold her, as she briefly thrashed until calmed by the biologists she has come to know over the past months, and as her freedom came to an end.

The horrifying thought that we had just witnessed the first orca capture in Puget Sound in decades came over us, and we felt the pain of the captures and deaths of over 60 orcas captured from this region in the 1960's and '70's. The only survivors of these captures are Corky of the Northern Resident Community, at San Diego Sea World; and Lolita, of the Southern Resident community, who lives in the smallest tank in the country at the Miami Seaquarium where she has performed daily for nearly 32 years. We've hopelessly watched Lolita circle her tiny tank, living alone in an artificial world away from her family, her ocean home, and any kind of natural stimulation or life, and we fear for Springer's future.

The plan is to keep Springer in the Manchester net pen for two weeks, while medical tests are performed to make sure she is free of pathogens before relocation back to Canadian waters. Scientists are also concerned about her skin condition, or "whale pox", a ketone smell to her breath that may signal other problems, and her weight, which is a few hundred pounds low, but not bad considering she lost her mother at a very young age, traveled hundreds of miles to a strange place, and had to depend on her own skill and strength to dive and catch fish.

Further plans are to possibly move her to a larger net pen in Puget Sound if she requires medical treatment, or to move her to a net pen or enclosed bay in Canada. Members of the A pod have just begun to arrive in Johnstone Strait, and Springer's pod is expected to arrive within the next few weeks, so timing is critical if she is to be reintroduced before the pod leaves again next fall.

Our hope is that the medical tests will come back giving her a clean bill of health, and that she can be immediately transported to Johnstone Strait and reunited with her family with a minimum of medical intervention and time in captivity.

However, from the beginning, reports of A73's health, weight, and behavior have been contradictory at best, fabricated at worst. Many wild whale researchers don't believe A73's health or situation warranted capture and removal. But she's in a pen now, on the premise of some who believe she's gravely ill with some unspecified disease that could take weeks to evaluate and much longer to treat. Her family have now reappeared in Johnstone Strait, but they'll be gone in a few short months. Will Springer have to spend the winter in a pen? In the meantime, could the loss of exercise, and the loss of her free will, adversely affect Springer's health, justifying further confinement? Confinement itself justifies further confinement. In the seven years of the Lolita campaign we've learned that the policy of the marine park industry and its employees, including veterinarians, is "once in captivity, always in captivity."

There are no clear contingency plans on the part of NMFS or DFO as to what action will be taken if the veterinarians now in charge of determining her health status decide she is unfit to be a wild whale, or if Canada doesn't feel it's safe for her to be returned to Canadian waters, or if for some reason the reintroduction to her pod does not work. This scares us, because there are at least three marine parks who have already worked out plans to accept A73 if things don't work out, or if she would need a "long term rehab" (ie, life in captivity, which could result in a huge increase in revenues for any facility that can get this now famous orca calf).

We can only hope that somehow Springer will jump through all the remaining hurdles as well as she handled the capture; and that the well meaning folks involved who want to reunite her with her pod in Canada are given the opportunity to do that. We must remain watchful and let the governments and scientists involved on both sides of the border know that captivity should not ever be considered an option for this young calf. And we need to watch carefully and learn from what we do and how this story ends, for little L98 up in Canada is in a similar predicament, though his mother is still alive, and he is not quite as far away from his pod's travels as is A73.

Whatever we do or don't do to help these two lone orca calves, we must do all we can to keep them wild and free. And for our threatened orca populations, we need to do much more than try to save these wayward babes - we need to undo the damage done through decades of dumping toxic waste into our streams and oceans, decimating forests, watersheds and salmon runs, over-populating, over-consuming and over-developing the fragile ecosystems of this northwest watery world.

UPDATE: On July 2, NMFS announced that Springer has passed all her medical tests. She is responsive, bright and alert, and has been eating 40 - 50 pounds of fish a day. Weds. NMFS will have a conference call with officials from Canada's Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans to obtain the ok for her transport north to her home waters, and Canadian government veterinarians will decide by Friday whether Springer can come back to Canadian waters. A net pen is being readied off Hanson Island, near Paul Spong and Helena Symonds' Orcalab, and hopes are to move Springer back north in approximately one week. Her pod should be arriving in the area any time now, so hopefully she will soon be reunited with members of her extended family, a free whale once again.....go Springer, you've jumped another hurdle!!

Susan Berta and Howard Garrett
Orca Network

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