Springer is home again – July 18th 2002

Springer, A73, the orphan baby orca, finally made it back to her home waters last Saturday! The 350 mile journey from Seattle, inside a water filled box aboard a fast catamaran, took just 11 hours. Then, amidst a fleet of vessels that had gathered in Blackfish Sound to greet her, Springer was lifted high in a sling and lowered onto a bed of foam on a smaller vessel for the short trip to a sea pen in Dong Chong Bay on Hanson Island. Getting back into ocean water must have come as a great relief to Springer… she appeared fit and energetic immediately, within minutes she began vocalizing, and soon she was chasing wild salmon caught for her by fishermen from the Namgis Fist Nation. Later that night, when other orcas, including some from her immediate family, passed by, Springer became immensely excited, leaping out of the water time and again, butting her head against the net of the pen, and engaging in a vigorous exchange of calls with the other whales as they paused and then passed slowly by. Acoustically, the other orcas appeared as excited as Springer was! Hours later, in daylight, the orcas were back again. This time, they were totally silent and moved slowly past to a place not far off where they paused for two hours. When the tide changed to flood, the group moved slowly back out into Blackfish Sound and towards Dong Chong Bay. Again, they were totally silent. When they got to the mouth of the bay, the orcas paused, then turned and entered, approaching to within about 200m of Springer’s pen. The moment had come. Springer’s human handlers, who had already made the net shallow, surrounded her in the water, attached three suction cup devices to her (to collect position & other data) and gently walked Springer to the now open edge of the pen. Springer paused to grab two last fish that swam by, then emitted a loud cry as she plunged out of the pen and headed straight for the other orcas. Then she paused, as if hesitating. The group turned slowly and headed back out of the bay, still silent. When they emerged they turned east, floated at the surface for a time, then slowly disappeared into Blackney Pass, carried along by the flooding tide. Meanwhile, Springer emerged from Dong Chong Bay, but instead of following the other orcas, she swam back and forth for a short while, then, after rubbing up against a log and dislodging one of the 3 suction cup instrumentation tags, she casually headed in the opposite direction.

The days and nights since have taken on the quality of a roller coaster ride for observers as Springer’s behaviour, and that of the other orcas, alternately generated intense optimism and concern. To cut to the scene 4 days post release, the prevailing mood at present is one of optimism. Here are some of the highlights of these very interesting and emotional days:

Day 1 (July 14). Before dark, Springer had entered Johnstone Strait via Weynton Pass and headed east – in the same direction as the other orcas. However, she turned back west and ended up heading back north through Weynton Pass again into the “top” of Blackfish Sound. There, in the early morning hours, she encountered the other orcas again but did not seem to stay with them (she was being tracked acoustically through the night as well as via radio signal for part of it).

Day 2 (July 15). At the start of this day, Springer attached herself to a vessel operated by one of the researchers observing her, introducing “boat behaviour” as a big concern. Fortunately, Springer moved away after a time, though the problem reoccurred on several subsequent occasions. Springer and the other orcas spent much of the day in the same general area at the “top” of Blackfish Sound, sometimes coming towards each other and sometimes moving away – generally keeping a kilometer or more apart. All were silent. A dramatic moment occurred when A12, the oldest matriarch in the group, headed straight towards Springer – Springer swam rapidly away in the opposite direction, though she soon stopped and resumed her casual behaviour. When the tide turned to flood in mid afternoon the group of orcas moved slowly east in Blackfish Sound and Springer tagged along – she was on the opposite side of Blackfish Sound and perhaps a kilometer behind, but moving in the same direction. All were still silent, but as the group (A12s, A11s) entered Johnstone Strait they began calling. Shortly after, as Springer entered the Strait, she began calling too! Soon, Springer was hurrying after the other orcas as they traveled east towards the ecological reserve at Robson Bight. There, she moved closer and closer, until she was right in the midst of the group swimming beside a young male, A55. Then she headed into the “rubbing beaches” with the other orcas and had a great 10 minute “rub” with them. A collective cheer went up from watchers and listeners! When the whales turned back to the west, Springer did so too, and though she soon separated again she tagged along with them, bringing up the rear.

Day 3 (July 16). After a night in which she remained close to the others, Springer was seen at daybreak with two groups – the A35s, one of the families into whose company she was released, and the newly arrived G3s. All were silent. The A35s and G3s slipped away, leaving Springer behind. She soon attached herself to a sports fishing boat, rubbing against the hull so vigorously that she frightened the people on board. After they radioed for help, a researcher resolved the situation by attaching a line to the vessel and towing it swiftly away and leaving Springer behind. Springer soon found another vessel to play with, again causing anxious moments for those on board. This time, again at the suggestion of researchers, the vessel first moved slowly away under power, with Springer following, and then at speed. Springer reacted by breaching repeatedly, perhaps indicating her displeasure at being abandoned by the boat. Out of these incidents a “boat” strategy was devised – boaters were urged to move away from Springer if they sighted her, and if she happened to come to them, to radio for help. At the end of this day, Springer was alone at the “top” of Blackfish Sound, without boats or orcas, but in a good acoustic space to encounter whales if they entered or left the area. Meanwhile, the other orcas had all traveled far to the east in Johnstone Strait.

Day 4 (July 17). Springer began this day by attaching herself to yet another small boat, rubbing against it. The situation was resolved fairly quickly with the advice of researchers – the boat moved slowly away at first & then rapidly, again causing Springer to breach repeatedly in apparent displeasure. Soon after, the three A36 brothers came into the scene and Springer joined up with them. By now, Springer’s behaviour was settling into a pattern – if other orcas were present she was attracted to them, especially if they were vocal, if no orcas were present she was attracted to boats. The “boat strategy” seemed to be working – boats were either avoiding Springer altogether or moving rapidly away from her if she approached them. Fortunately, the arrival of the A36s on the scene distracted Springer this morning and she spent several hours in their company. Just before noon Springer breached several times, finally losing the last of her instrumentation tags. She then travelled into Johnstone Strait along with the A36s. However, when the A36s began to rest she attached herself to yet another vessel – this time a sailboat which could not move fast enough to leave Springer behind. The skipper was asked to head east as fast as possible. Half an hour later, after traveling constantly at 7 knots, Springer tired and dropped back, once again encountering the A36 brothers. As they traveled east together a lovely scene unfolded, with tiny Springer sandwiched between the huge male orcas, one in front and two behind, deep inside the Robson Bight Michael Bigg Ecological Reserve. A little while later, several new groups of orcas entered Johnstone Strait via Weynton Pass and headed east. They included the A25s, a group of two young orcas who had lost their mother several years ago. The A36s and Springer turned back to the west and headed towards them. More orcas (Rs & Ws) then entered Johnstone Strait via Blackney Pass, making the scene suddenly very busy again. All the orcas proceeded to the east, with Springer travelling along with them, though not easily visible in poor weather conditions.

Day 5 (July 18). The day began around 3am, when a large group of orcas was heard traveling west along the Cracroft Island shore. With morning daylight, more and more groups came into the scene. Springer could not be seen in the crowd, but she wasn’t seen anywhere else with boats either. Hours later, in mid afternoon she was finally seen again – in the company of A51, A61, and A60… three other orphaned orcas!

As we enter day six, everyone is hopeful that Springer has found a comfortable niche in which to continue her life as a member of the society she was born into. Certainly, her story is far from ended, and there may well be bumps in the road ahead… but she is home at last!

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