Tag Archives: Wildlife rehabilitation

Springer, once a lonely orphan, gives birth to her second baby orca

Springer, the killer whale, has borne a second calf some 15 years after she was rescued as a young orphan swimming alone near Vashon Island in Puget Sound.

Springer with her new calf in Canadian waters.
Photo: Lisa Spaven, DFO, Canada

Springer’s rescue and return to her family in British Columbia is one of the all-time-great orca stories. It was a privilege to be a news reporter in 2001 when I was able to break the news of the lonely orca and follow the rescue effort in Puget Sound.

After Springer was found swimming dangerously close to the Vashon-Fauntleroy ferry lanes, officials with NOAA Fisheries and other organizations put together a rescue plan. The young animal was identified as a member of the Northern Resident killer whales, a group that never comes as far south as Puget Sound. Experts believe that Springer’s mother had died and the young animal wandered all the way to Puget Sound.

Springer was captured and placed under medical care at NOAA’s Manchester Lab in South Kitsap. She gained weight and became healthier before she was moved by jet catamaran some 300 miles north to Telegraph Cove near the northern end of Vancouver Island, B.C. After her release, she was soon reunited with other members of her family, as later described in a NOAA video (posted on this page).

Orphan Orca, Saving Springer from NOAA Fisheries on Vimeo.

“Springer’s story is an inspiration on many levels,” said Paul Spong of OrcaLab in a news release. “It proved that an orphan orca, alone and separated from her family, can be rehabilitated and returned to a normal productive life with her family and community; and it showed that disparate parties with diverse interests can come together and work together for the common goal of helping one little whale.”

Springer’s newest calf was spotted June 5 by folks at CetaceaLab on B.C.’s north central coast. The birth was confirmed by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Springer and her first calf Spirit, born in 2013, remain healthy, observers say. They are most often seen in northern British Columbia, visiting Johnstone Strait at times during in the summer.

News of the new birth comes just in time for the 15th anniversary celebration of Springer’s rescue. The event, called “Celebrate Springer,” will be held next weekend in Telegraph Cove. The public is invited to the festivities, including a slide show, “Springer’s Story,” Saturday at 11 a.m. featuring members of Springer’s rescue team. A panel discussion will follow. A new Telegraph Cove Whale Trail sign will be dedicated at 4 p.m., followed by a salmon dinner on the boardwalk at 5:30 p.m.

“We can hardly believe it has been 15 years since Springer was reunited with her family,” said Mary Borrowman, director of the Whale Interpretive Centre in Telegraph Cove. “The most exciting news is the confirmation that Springer has had another calf, and we hope we will be fortunate enough to see this famous mother with her family this summer.”

Lynne Barre of NOAA’s regional office in Seattle said partnerships developed during Springer’s rescue are enduring and demonstrate how federal agencies can work with state, tribal and nonprofit groups to help both Northern and Southern Resident killer whales.

“The Springer success story continues to be an inspiration for all of us working on conservation in the Salish Sea,” Barre said.

“Springer’s reunion is an unqualified success — the only project of its kind in history,” said Donna Sandstrom, director of The Whale Trail and co-organizer of the “Celebrate Springer” event. “To get the little whale home, we had to learn how to work together, as organizations, agencies and nations…. We hope her story inspires people to join us in working on issues facing our endangered Southern Resident orcas today, with the same urgency, commitment, and resolve.”

For additional information, check out the Springer Facebook page.

As much as Springer’s story is one of cooperation and success, her rescue will always be linked in my mind to the tragic death of Luna, another young orca who was orphaned at the same time.

Springer, as we’ve said, was born among the Northern Resident killer whales, which stay mostly in northern British Columbia. At the same time that Springer was lost and alone in Puget Sound, Luna, a Southern Resident, was lost and alone in Nootka Sound on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. In fact, my initial report on the situation featured both young orcas in a front-page story in the Kitsap Sun. The coincidence of two orphans at once is next to unbelievable, considering that orphan killer whales are practically unheard of.

Much has been written about the failed rescue of Luna, which I covered at the time. A full-length documentary was later released by filmmakers Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm. See my review of “The Whale,” originally called “Saving Luna.”

Luna never made it back to his family. He eventually died after being sucked into the propeller of a powerful tugboat.

Before Luna’s death, Parfit wrote about Lunda for Smithsonian magazine. It was a story that I had pieced together over several weeks as a series of newspaper stories. Mike and Suzanne stayed around Nootka Sound to obtain a fuller story for their film.

The greatest lesson from the Luna story may be similar to the one we learned from Springer, that cooperation is the key and that every detail must be considered before the rescue begins.

Medical records to be compiled for individual orcas in Puget Sound

When a person becomes severely ill, the doctor will usually check the person’s medical file before offering a diagnosis. In the same way, researchers are now setting up medical records for each of the 84 endangered killer whales that frequent Puget Sound.

Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. This is the kind of information that could become part of their medical records. Photo: Pete Schroeder
Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. This kind of information could become part of the orca medical records. // Photo: Pete Schroeder

Orca researchers and other wildlife experts spent the past two days discussing how to create a medical database for all the Southern Resident orcas, often described as the most studied marine mammal population in the world.

Eventually, the information could be used to put an individual orca under medical observation or even administer medications, such as antibiotics — but that is likely to be a few years off.

“As a research community, we realize that we are at critical mass and have enough data to start asking these questions to get meaningful answers,” said Brad Hanson, research biologist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Lynne Barre, NOAA’s recovery coordinator for the Southern Resident killer whales, said researchers in both Canada and the U.S. have collected data on these animals, which travel into both countries and down the West Coast.

“Some of these data sets are really large,” she said, “and it takes technology to bring the data together. There are a lot of players with different types of data.”

Fortunately, the research community is cooperative on both sides of the border, Barre said.

Still, it will take formal cooperative agreements to share available information that will eventually be used in research reports, said Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian with SeaDoc Society, a nonprofit research organization. The person who collects the information should have the right to publish his or her findings, he said, but it would be nice if researchers could post their observations immediately for the benefit of the whales.

Over the coming year, general observations could be put into the database, but eventually individual health records for the orcas could include:

  • Fecal samples, including levels of various hormones;
  • Breath samples, including the types of bacteria harbored by individual killer whales;
  • Observations of skin conditions;
  • Photos taken from boats and from the air to show body conditions, including evidence of malnutrition or possible pregnancy; and
  • Blubber samples for some whales, including DNA fingerprints and other health conditions.

The number of Southern Resident killer whales was on the decline in recent years until nine new babies were born over the past year and a half. Individual killer whales can be identified by the shape and size of their dorsal finds as well as the “saddle patch” behind the dorsal fin. In addition, the family structures of the Southern Residents are well known.

Last month, I wrote about how a group of researchers, including Joe Gaydos, opened my eyes to how disease can be a powerful ecological force. While researching stories about disease, I learned about various ideas to monitor Puget Sound for disease organisms. The idea of creating a health assessment for each killer whale had been kicked around for awhile. Read about my newfound understanding of disease in Water Ways, and find my stories at the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Kirsten Gilardi, co-director of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at the University of California-Davis, has worked with mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rowanda, where the animals are under close human observation and each has its own medical record. Each gorilla can be identified by a wrinkle pattern on its nose, besides physical size and other obvious characteristics.

The animals are checked to make sure they are eating, moving normally and show no signs of coughing or sneezing, she said. “When they do show signs of illness, the veterinary teams can go in.”

Sometimes antibiotics are delivered to the animal in the field. If necessary, such as when a gorilla is injured in a snare, the animal may be anesthetized and treated on the spot or even brought to a hospital for care.

People also collect fecal samples left by the gorillas and leaves from plants that they chewed to gain information about hormones and various bacteria and viruses they may carry.

When the Gorilla Doctors program was started in the 1980s, it was the first time that veterinarians went in to treat the animals in their habitat, Gilardi said. Since then, the population has grown nearly four-fold, and they are the only great apes whose numbers are increasing in the wild.

Information collected for individual killer whales would not be so different than what has been collected for gorillas, she said.

Cynthia Smith, a veterinarian at the National Marine Mammal Foundation, has assessed wild dolphins affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In that case, individual health assessments were used to complete an assessment of the overall population. From there, management decisions were made to protect the overall health of the population.

The same kinds of results could come from pulling together information on the killer whales, she said.

“By setting up a database and using it, you can have a finger on the pulse of the health of these animals,” Smith said. “Then you can develop strategies to manage the problems.”

The health-assessment project is supported by a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, funding from NOAA Fisheries and private support from SeaDoc Society donors.