Tag Archives: Springer and the stick

Learning the fate of Springer’s stick, a key to an orca rescue

When is a medical intervention appropriate for a sick or ailing killer whale?

It’s a complicated question, as I learned by interviewing a variety of experts in a two-part series just published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

One aspect of the story that I found interesting was how a simple tree branch helped to make a connection between humans and a lonely orca named Springer. If you have read my story, you might be interested in how the stick played an ongoing role after the rescue.

The question of medical intervention with wild killer whales has become more urgent with an ongoing drop in the population of the critically endangered southern resident orcas of Puget Sound.

Last summer, the world watched as 4-year-old Scarlet, a female orca designated J50, became emaciated and eventually died. Medical experts tried unsuccessfully to help her, and they are still debating whether they did too much or too little.

In contrast, we have the story of Springer, or A73, an orphan killer whale who was successfully rescued from Puget Sound, nursed back to health and returned to her family in Northern British Columbia.

Differences between the two cases are stark. No doubt the biggest difference is that Springer was all alone, whereas Scarlet stayed with her close-knit family. Anything done to Scarlet, helpful or not, had effects on all the orcas around her.

As I learned while talking to folks about Springer, the lonely whale found an attachment to humans through a stick, which served as both a back scratcher and a toy. The stick became the key to getting a blood sample from a moving whale, and the blood sample was essential to moving ahead with the rescue, as I explained in the story.

What happened to the stick after Springer was captured and taken to a net pen for rehab?

Dr. Pete Schroeder, a veterinarian who helped get the blood sample, told me the stick stayed with the whale in the net pen. Sometimes people working with her would bring out the stick after she ate her meal of fish. It was a type of reward, Pete said. He calls the stick a “transitional object,” a term from psychology for an item that brings comfort.

“She loved that stick,” Pete said. “She swam up to it, recognized it and did 360s around it.”

The stick also went with Springer to Dong Chong Bay on Hanson Island, where she was released to her family calling to her through the water.

A First Nations dance group, called the Le-La-La Dancers, is known for performing traditional Kwakwaka’wakw (pronounced kwa kwa key wok) dances, representing the First Nations culture of the North Vancouver Island region. One dance is enhanced with a unique five-foot-long mask of a killer whale. The dancer’s moves — up and down, and side to side — represent the diving, breaching and swimming of a killer whale. Check out the video on this page.

As Pete recalled, “They used that special orca mask in a ceremony as we handed the stick over to the First Nations band. We hoped that they could use it to somehow influence Springer’s homecoming to her pod.”

After Springer was released from the net pen on Hanson Island, she swam out to her pod, but she did not stay with the whales. Slow to integrate with her own kind, she approached fishing boats and other vessels, even as the whale researchers asked boaters not to interact with her.

“We knew we had a problem,” Pete said, “and we were asked by the First Nations people to attend a meeting.”

The researchers were told about the history and culture of the native people and the spiritual relationships with the animals of the region, especially the killer whales.

George Taylor, who leads the Le-La-La Dancers, said a special ceremony was held for Springer using the killer whale mask and the stick. The dance with the mask has been performed many times, George told me. It represents the transformation of a killer whale into a man.

The “sacred stick,” as George calls it, was brought into the ceremonial dance to revisit the connection between Springer and the people who knew her. George has long felt a spiritual connection to killer whales, a connection that started years ago when he was approached by orcas during a fishing trip.

“The killer whales came and swam around me,” he said. “It seemed like they knew who I was.”

Some things are too mysterious to explain with science, Pete said. For whatever reason, the timing of the ceremony involving the stick coincided with Springer’s permanent break with the humans and a return to more natural ways.

“After the ceremony,” Pete recalled, “she stayed with her pod and never approached humans again.”

George says he does not know what happened to the stick after that.

Springer stories: Read “Pod reunion: Waters of home welcome Springer,” July 14th, 2002