Orphan orca swims to freedom in Canada
Author: Allan Dowd
Scientists said it was too early yet to declare their effort a complete success, because it remained to be seen how long the whale known as A-73 and her family pod would remain together.
"It's not over yet, but we're very optimistic," said Clint Wright, a vice president of the Vancouver Aquarium.
If the effort is successful, it will mark the first time a lost wild orca has been reunited with its family by scientists.
The whale - nicknamed Springer - had clearly been anxious leave her holding pen off Telegraph Cove on northern Vancouver Island after she was transported there from the U.S. Puget Sound on the weekend.
As she waited in the pen, she pressed her nose up against the net, looking at the open water. Then when a group of related whales swam close to the pen early Sunday afternoon the two groups began communicating.
"They were definitely vocalizing," said Lance Barrett-Lennard, another aquarium official who said it was clear that A-73 knew she was in home waters after being returned from the United States on the weekend.
The 2-year-old, 1,200-pound (545-kg) whale was sick when she was discovered in January in a busy shipping channel near Seattle. She has since been nursed back to health, and as soon as the net was opened to free her on the weekend she dashed off to join the other whales.
A SUMMER OF EATING SALMON
Orcas normally spend their entire lives with their relatives, but scientists believe A-73 either was accidentally separated from the pod or was rejected by the group when her mother died last year.
Amid concern that she would die at a time when the already small population of killer whales on the North American Pacific Coast was declining, U.S. and Canadian authorities agreed to capture A-73 and return her to Canada.
Biologists chose an inlet off the Johnstone Strait near the fishing hamlet of Telegraph Cove because A-73's pod was known to spend the summer eating salmon there.
Barrett-Lennard said observers using underwater monitoring equipment knew that A-73's relatives were in the area. Sound is very important to orcas. Different pods have distinct dialects created from air trapped in the animals' blowholes.
In human terms, A-73 is the equivalent to a toddler so biologists say her best hope is to be adopted by another female of about the same age as her dead mother.
"There are a lot of killer whales out there, so it's really up to A-73 to decide what pod she is going to join," said Barrett-Lennard.
Even if the full reunification fails, scientists have said they would consider their efforts an improvement if A-73 remains in the wild off Canada, even as an independent.
Asked about his feelings on seeing A-73's reaction to her new surroundings, Barrett-Lennard said, "I don't think there was a dry eye at the net pen."