Canada eyes Friday return home for orphan whale
Author: Allan Dowd
The female orca, nicknamed Springer, has made a strong recovery from several illnesses and is scheduled to take a 740 km (460 mile) boat ride on Friday to the waters off British Columbia it would normally call home during the summer.
Officials stressed there was no assurance the whale would be able to rejoin its family after having been separated for several months, but said the attempt was still worth the effort.
"We will consider this a success if she lives her life out in the wild, even if she lived independently," said Lance Barrett-Lennard, senior whale expert at the Vancouver Aquarium, which is overseeing the transfer.
The black and white, 545 kg (1,200 pound) whale, officially named A-73 by scientists for her birth rank in her estranged family, has attracted wide attention since she was discovered in January swimming in Puget Sound near Seattle.
It is believed she either became separated from her pod, or was rejected after her mother died, and eventually made her way down the coast. She was suffering health problems including a skin rash, bad breath and worms that had reduced her appetite.
Worried that Springer would die or be injured in Washington state's busy waterway, U.S. officials agreed to capture her in May so she could be treated, with an eye to returning her to Canada when her pod arrived in its traditional summer feeding grounds off northern Vancouver Island.
U.S. fisheries officials declared the orca fit for travel on July 2, but Canadian officials wanted more time to examine her to assure she was not a health hazard to other wild killer whales when she was released.
Vancouver Aquarium director John Nightingale told reporters this week that Springer appears to have recovered from all her illnesses and has regained her appetite - consuming 30 to 40 kg (60 to 80 pounds) of fish a day.
A-73 has been kept in a large water pen since she was captured. The aquarium considered several methods of moving her to her home waters before finally deciding to use a high-speed catamaran to make the day-long trip.
Officials plan to load the whale on to the boat early on Friday and transport her to an area near Telegraph Cove, British Columbia - about 375 km (250 miles) northwest of Vancouver - where she will be placed in another pen until the family pod arrives.
"They could show up at any time. They usually show up in the middle of July," Barrett-Lennard said.
Biologists hope they can release Springer when her closest relatives are in the area because they share the same distinctive whale dialect, but acknowledge they have may have to resort to introducing her to more distant relatives.
Although the killer whales that summer off British Columbia are among the most studied orcas in the world, this marks the first attempted to reunite a separated wild whale with its family, and officials say the effort has already taught them valuable lessons.
"This is ground-breaking... This is going to result in a great deal of interest in the general public but among scientists as well," Nightingale said.
The effort to reunite Springer with her pod has been compared with the so-far unsuccessful effort to return long-captive killer whale Keiko - star of the movie "Free Willy" - but Barrett-Lennard said biologists were more hopeful in this case.
Unlike Keiko, A-73's home pod is known to biologists, Barrett-Lennard said.
Officials said they do not know how long they will keep the whale in the pen at Telegraph Cove, but said she will be released in any case before the end of summer, when British Columbia's killer whales return to the deeper waters of the Pacific Ocean.