A new addition to A pod, Springer seen with new calf

Summer 2013

She’s back with a newborn by her side! Springer, an orphaned killer whale calf rescued from Puget Sound and returned to her family in Canada in 2002, was sighted last week with her new calf—adding to her already remarkable story. Eleven years ago, the Pacific Northwest community came together to save one small whale, who is still thriving in the wild. NOAA Fisheries worked closely with local communities and Canadian officials on an unprecedented rescue effort to bring the young orca home. Springer’s story includes many milestones, from overcoming health conditions, and staying calm on the catamaran as she was transported up to Dong Chong Bay outside Telegraph Cove, B.C., to returning every summer with A pod to the waters of British Columbia. At each turning point, Springer proved she was ready to go home—to swim with her family, to hunt and forage for salmon, and learn the ways of her pod.  

Springer was seen with her newborn calf on the 4th of July along British Columbia's central coast. Photo courtesy Graeme Ellis.

Producing a calf of her own means she has successfully reintegrated into the pod’s social structure and is ready to pass on all she has learned to this new calf. Springer’s family will teach, demonstrate, and expose this newest member of A pod to the productive fishing areas between Frederick Sound in southeast Alaska and Washington State. As a new mom, Springer has now contributed to the growth of the threatened Northern Resident population.

This new dimension to Springer’s story is a testament to the partners dedicated to her successful repatriation and their continued efforts to protect killer whales and their habitats.

Springer’s Rescue

Alone and ailing, the small whale was first seen in Puget Sound in early 2002. A young calf on her own caused immediate concern and set local researchers on a quest to learn more. Researchers used photos of her saddle patch and dorsal fin, as well as recordings of her calls to identify her as A73, an orphan from A pod and a member of Canada’s Northern Resident killer whale community.  A73, also known as Springer, needed help.  She was far from home, separated from her family, and following a Washington State ferry throughout Puget Sound.   

On capture day, swimmers bring Springer next to a small boat to load her into a sling for transport. Photo courtesy Lynne Barre.

Luckily for Springer, the intense interest of concerned citizens, non-profit conservation groups, researchers, and governments wanting to help translated into ingenuity, generosity, and dedication to make a difference for this whale. NOAA and Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans brought together experts to devise a rescue plan. On June 13, 2002, an experienced team coaxed Springer into a sling, setting the plan into motion. A giant crane gently lowered her into a net pen at NOAA’s Manchester Research Station.

Springer eating a live salmon in her net pen. Photo courtesy Lynne Barre.

For the next 30 days veterinarians and a rotating international animal care team looked after Springer, providing her with hydration, medication, live salmon, and monitoring 24 hours a day.  She had sticks, kelp, and other natural items to play with to keep her stimulated while medical samples were sent to labs. Everyone who cared for and visited Springer was touched by her spirit, but her rehabilitation program was carefully designed to keep her wild so she would not become dependent on people.

orca care team

The animal care team takes a blood sample to ensure that Springer doesn't have a disease or health condition that could pose a risk to her family. Photo courtesy Lynne Barre. 

The Return

Springer was cleared for the trip back to Canada when the medical team determined she was healthy and did not pose an infection risk to other Northern Resident killer whales. Her clean bill of health started the next phase of the plan, transferring her to Canada. Nichols Brothers Boat Builders donated use of a high speed catamaran and Six Flags Marine World provided a transfer box.

On July 13, Springer’s journey home began with a send-off, including Tlingit Indian tribal dance and song. Ten hours later she was greeted by members of First Nations bands in Canadian waters. As she settled in, Springer was greeted once more that evening, this time by calls from members of A pod, her family. When A pod approached again on July 14, Springer was released. Researchers watched the reunion unfold over the next days and weeks. Though tentative at first, Springer was soon surrounded by members of her extended family and she stopped interacting with boats. Since this successful family reunion in 2002, Springer has returned with her pod each year to summer in British Columbia’s Johnstone Strait—including this 4th of July when John Ford, Graeme Ellis, Brian Falconer, and a University of British Columbia sea lion research team sighted Springer with her new calf.

Springer and her calf were seen with the A35 matriline, a part of her family pod. A35, Skagit, is a mother to three offspring (A52, Kiltik; A70, Sunny; and A77, Roller) and grandmother to two (A81, Nalau; and A82, Canoona, who is also an orphan). Springer’s calf now gets to swim with mom, cousins, aunts, uncles, and great-grandmother to learn all that a killer whale needs to know survive. The A pod is one of 16 pods in the Northern Resident population, which has more than 250 whales.

Celebrating Springer & Looking to the Future

Last summer, Springer’s rescuers gathered in the U.S. and Canada to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of her rescue and look to the future recovery of both the Northern and Southern Resident killer whale populations. NOAA Fisheries is working with Canada and other partners to implement a comprehensive recovery program. As part of this effort, a collaborative research program is focusing on filling the data gaps that will help to answer the remaining mysteries about killer whales and the threats they face.  
Springer has united the human community around a common goal: conservation of these magnificent animals. Today, citizen groups, the Puget Sound Partnership, governments, tribes, scientists, and businesses are working together to restore and protect killer whales and their habitat here in Puget Sound. Because of Springer, new conservation initiatives are emerging, like the Whale Trail, a series of land-based sites to view marine mammals and promote stewardship.

Children and adults alike are captivated by Springer’s successful journey home. She serves as a positive example of international coordination and cooperation, and community engagement. The birth of Springer’s first calf is a new chapter in Springer’s story.  A new calf and continued population growth will inspire us to build on the good will generated by our success, and create new partnerships to work together with a common purpose, helping all of our killer whales recover.

Learn More…

See Springer’s rescue firsthand:
The Emmy Award-winning documentary “Saving Springer” is available on youtube

Learn how you can help:
Southern Resident Killer whale viewing guidelines
Viewing guidelines for other marine mammals
Report marine a mammal in trouble

Learn more about killer whale recovery:
NMFS recovery implementation
NOAA Fisheries Northwest Fisheries Science Center research
Puget Sound Partnership

Home page photo of Springer and her newborn calf courtesy Graeme Ellis.