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Originally published June 14, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 14, 2007 at 11:08 AM

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Young whale's tale is story of success

Five years after Springer's rescue, the orphaned orca's relocation to her pod in the wild appears to be an unqualified success. The rescue, five years...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Five years after Springer's rescue, the orphaned orca's relocation to her pod in the wild appears to be an unqualified success.

The rescue, five years ago Wednesday, was launched after the female orca, 2 years old at the time, was spotted alone, far from her home waters off northern Vancouver Island in Canada.

First seen near the Vashon ferry dock in January 2002, she had bad skin, worms in her stool and bad breath. She also appeared lonely and was hanging around ferries and small boats, looking for attention.

"I could move my hand in a circle, and she would roll over; it was amazing," said Ken Balcomb, of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor. "I am dog-sitting a dog right now that was not as good as Springer.

"It was like she was auditioning for SeaWorld. I'd splash water, and she would spit and splash back. She wanted to interact. She had nothing else to do down there, and people were her entertainment."

Concerned that she would become habituated to people and eventually get hurt, National Marine Fisheries Service managers worked with a host of partners to rescue the orca and reunite her with her family.

On June 13, 2002, the orca, by then nicknamed Springer, allowed herself to be hoisted in a sling and moved to a holding pen off Manchester, Kitsap County. Before long she was eating 60 pounds of salmon a day and gained 112 pounds.

A month later, the fisheries service coordinated her boat trip home. Springer was released from a holding pen in her home waters the next day, as her pod swam by. The young orca and her family had already recognized each other by their vocalizations.

Then came a dicey time for the whale, which was seen pushing a log along with her flipper toward a fishing boat, even waving as if in greeting. An effort was mounted in Canada to warn people to stay away from the whale for her own good.

It worked. Before long, Springer, or A73, left the area and rejoined her pod. After that, she was seen with her family regularly. Last examined by scientists in August 2005, she was acting like a normal orca in every way. She was still undersized, but no longer the smallest member of her pod. She swam fast, ate well, looked good. She has been spotted with her pod since then.

"It really was a success in an unprecedented situation," said Lynne Barre, a marine-mammal specialist for the federal fisheries service. Barre estimated the rescue effort cost between $400,000 and $500,000, including donations.

Since the orca's capture and reintroduction, agencies have worked on recovery for depleted populations of orcas in both U.S. and Canadian waters.

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Northern residents, including Springer, are listed for protection in Canada. Southern residents were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2005. Since then, federal officials have designated critical habitat for the whale and are creating a recovery plan, which may be completed by the end of the year.

Southern resident orcas in J, K, and L pods are just now returning to their home waters in Puget Sound for the summer. They infrequently interact with northern residents. The populations don't interbreed or even speak the same language.

To some, the rescue, which took cross-border cooperation as well as the work and support of many volunteers and private businesses, shows what's possible when people care.

"It was a successful effort," Balcomb said. "We can save these whales; it's a matter of wanting to."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736.

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