The Return of Springer

Little Springer (A73) and her mother Sutlej (A45) did not return with their pod in the summer of 2001.  It was assumed that both had died.  Then, in January 2002, Springer was found swimming by herself off Vashon Island near Seattle, far from her home range.  The young calf’s identity was a mystery, but within Springer were acoustic traditions that forever mark her special place in the world.  Distinctive calls led us to her identity.  Here, in sound, is the story of Springer’s journey home.


1. The family.  A4 pod, July 16 1993

The A4 pod of the “northern resident community” is Springer’s family.

2.  Mother, Sutlej (A45), July 21, 1988

In 1998, Springer’s mother Sutlej was just five years when she repeated a single distinctive call in front of OrcaLab.

3.  Alone, Vashon Island, February 13, 2002

Springer made very few calls when she first arrived near Vashon Island, but the acoustic clues in this recording determined that the little whale belonged to the A4 pod.  Before long, photos taken in her first year confirmed her identity.

4.  Side by side, Mother and daughter

Acoustic traditions of orcas pass from mother to offspring.  Here is the same call made by Sutlej and Springer 14 years apart.

5.  Arrival, 7:30pm, Dong Chong Bay, Hanson Island, July13

As evening drew near, Springer was moved from the transport boat into Dong Chong Bay and gently lowered into the water.

6.  Alone, 11:30pm, Dong Chong Bay, July 13

When darkness descended on Dong Chong Bay, Springer settled into her new pen, chasing and feasting wild bioluminescent salmon caught by Namgis First Nation fishers Reg Cook and family.

7.  First contact, 1:30am, July 14

In the early hours of the 14th, the A12s and part of Springer’s pod (the A35s) passed Dong Chong Bay.  Springer became incredibly excited.  Gradually she calmed down and then exchanged calls with another whale who drew near.  In time, the whales left leaving Springer alone for a few more hours until they returned and quietly entered Dong Chong Bay.

8.  Freedom! 2:45pm, July 14

“Drop the net!” With a final wiggle, snatching two salmon, Springer was free!  Calling loudly, she porpoised towards the whales as they lay floating inside the entrance of Dong Chong Bay.  Then Springer hesitated and the other whales moved on.  Her first freed days were marked by unsettling interaction with boats, but gradually Springer moved closer to the other orcas.

9.  All together, 8:00pm, July 31

On July 17th, just three days after her release, Springer was finally amidst her own community.  A young female (A51) from a closely related pod took Springer under her protection, showing her the “rope”, curbing her flirtation with boats, and providing her with the support she needed… after her long, strange journey, Springer was home..

10.  Post script.  It’s her!  6:08pm, August 19

Springer’s unique voice is not entirely lost to us, even in a crowd of whales!


Thanks to Fred Felleman, Rob William & Ellen Hartlemeier for photos, David Bain for Vashon Island recordings, David Howitt for Dong Chong Bay recordings, Brigitte Weiss for sound engineering.  Production by OrcaLab © 2002

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