irregular – orcas are known as a nannying culture, and if a mother is not present, there’s usually an auntie or grandmother near by. But this orca calf was on its own, and it was ailing.
“That,” Sandstrom says, “was when everything came together.”
Scientists scrambled to figure out where the calf, eventually called Springer, had come from. They recorded and listened to her vocal calls, which are distinctive to every pod, and eventually they were able to link her to A Pod, from the community of Northern Resident killer whales (NRKW). With her mother missing and apparently dead, this orca calf – the equivalent of a toddler – had strayed 250 miles out of her territory.
Springer was emaciated, she had worms, and her skin was in bad shape. Additionally, she had developed an alarming habit of rubbing up against marine vessels of all sizes. Perhaps the calf was compensating for the touchy-feely social interaction normally practiced amongst orcas, but this was putting both boaters and herself at risk.
Much debate ensued amongst the papers and in the local press about what to do. Should an attempt be made to reconnect Springer with her family? Should nature be allowed to run its course without human intervention? Should she be sent to an aquarium for rehabilitation?
This was where Sandstrom stepped in. “I found my role as a public organizer, serving as liaison between what science knows and the public interest in whales.” And there was no way she was going to let any aquarium get its clutches on another orca from the Salish Sea.
After many fits and starts among many different stakeholders, and under intense public scrutiny, the decision was made to try to return Springer to her family. The audacious effort would involve an unprecedented coalition of American and Canadian government agencies, First Nations fishermen, scientists, conservation groups, veterinarians, and a boatbuilding company.
Sandstrom’s Orca Alliance was tapped by the National Marine Fisheries Service as one of the key organizations responsible for raising dollars that would attract matching grants to cover the operation. The money was raised in a matter of weeks, and the plan was set into motion.
In June of 2002, Springer was captured and held in a sea pen at a research station in Puget Sound. She responded well to medical treatment and enhanced nutrition. Within a few weeks, the worms were eradicated, her appetite rebounded, she gained weight, and her skin condition cleared up.
Just a month later, in a painstakingly crafted operation that still managed to develop a few harrowing kinks along the way, the young orca was lifted by crane aboard a catamaran and deposited into a shallow, custom-built tub for the 13-hour journey north.
Upon arrival in her home waters of Johnstone Strait, British Columbia, she was carefully transferred into another sea pen. Remarkably, within 24 hours, she had re-established vocal contact with extended members of her family. She was released from the pen shortly thereafter. It took a few days of tentative overtures and trailing after the pod for Springer to gain acceptance from her long-lost relatives. But gradually the resilient little whale began to bond with her kin, and in the months that followed, she managed to be reintegrated within the pod.
Naturally, the partners who had worked together to reunite Springer with her family felt elated and empowered – Sandstrom among them.
“We had the political will to make it happen!” she says now. “It’s the deepest joy – and everybody who participated shares that.”
There is additional gratification in knowing that Springer, now an adult, has become a mother two times over, and her children are thriving. This has been perhaps
the most spectacular of several successes for the NRKW.
But what about the Southern Residents?
Sandstrom talks with visitors about the whales they might be able to see throughout the year from this viewpoint in West Seattle – photo credit Barbara Lloyd McMichael