First Killer Whale Reintroduced to Wild Has Baby

Springer, who was rescued in 2002, is a success story, experts say.

Springer swims with her baby recently in British Columbia.

The only killer whale known to be put back into the wild after human intervention was spotted with her first baby last week.

In 2002, a young killer whale named Springer was reintroduced to her pod in northern Vancouver Island (map), Canada, after she was found orphaned in Puget Sound (map), about 300 miles (480 kilometers) south of her home.

No one knew if the move would hurt the whale or her chances for reintegrating back into the pod and one day becoming a healthy mother. (See National Geographic's whale pictures.)

Finding Springer with her baby is "the ultimate sign that this whole reintroduction was a success. It was very exciting," said Graeme Ellis, a research technician with Fisheries and Oceans Canada's Pacific Biological Station. Ellis spotted the 13-year-old orca and her calf last week on the central coast of British Columbia while conducting an annual photo survey of the whales.

"Her calf was healthy and active and energetic," said Ellis, who estimates that the baby killer whale is about seven feet (two meters) long. (See baby-animal pictures.)

"What she's doing in terms of having this baby is ensuring the continuity of her maternal lineage into the future," added Paul Spong, director of the research station OrcaLab off northern Vancouver Island. Spong helped facilitate Springer's reintroduction, which involved U.S. and Canadian government agencies, the Vancouver Aquarium, the Namgis First Nation, nonprofit groups, and individuals.

"It's a confirmation of everything that the [orca-research] community believed about the possibility of her coming back and resuming a normal life."

Little Orca Annie

Springer, nicknamed "Little Orca Annie" by the press, made big news when she was found hanging around the waters off Seattle in January 2002. The Seattle Times described the lone whale as having "bad skin, worms in her stool and bad breath."

Not only was her health poor, but so were her social skills, noted John Ford, head of the Cetacean Research Program with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, who was involved in Springer's reintroduction.

"She was very lonely—these are very social animals—and so she started interacting with bits of driftwood and boats and became quite fixated on them."

Based on her distinct vocalizations, whale researchers were able to identify her as a member of the A4 pod of Northern Resident killer whales in northern British Columbia.

Killer whales are socially complex animals that travel in pods of closely related individuals. Each pod has its own "dialect." (Also see "Rare Breed of Killer Whale May Be New Species.")

"We were then able to make a match with photographs to this little tiny whale that had lost its mother back in 2001," said Ford.

Little Orca Annie was identified as whale A73, whose mother A45 had not returned with her baby to Johnstone Strait the previous summer and was presumed dead.

The young whale's "future prospects didn't look great, so there was a decision in June [2002] to intervene," said Ford.

After being nursed back to health inside an ocean enclosure at a government research station in Manchester, Washington, Springer was transported in July 2002 via a high-speed catamaran back to her native waters, where she spent a day in a floating net pen before being released back to her pod.

Family Ties

When marine biologists first released Springer, she raced over to a floating piece of driftwood and started to rub against it, rather than joining her relatives that were vocalizing nearby.

"We were very concerned at that point," said Ford, who recalled she continued to fixate on boats upon release as well.

However, over the next few weeks, Springer became more integrated with her clan and eventually began to travel with her nearest blood relatives in the A4 pod, a great aunt and the aunt's offspring—the equivalent to her second cousins.

"Successfully mating and having a calf in the population means that she's fully accepted and part of the social dynamics of the population," said Ford.

"It gives us hope that if such an event happens in the future, provided that all the right bits are in place—that is, knowing who the animal is and what group it comes from—that these kinds of efforts can be successful."

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