VANCOUVER - Eleven years after an orphaned killer whale was reunited in dramatic fashion with its pod off Vancouver Island's northern coast, Springer has had a calf — proving rehabilitation work with whales can pay off, says a Fisheries and Oceans scientist.
Springer, also known as A73, and the calf were spotted off B.C.'s North Coast July 4, while Department of Fisheries researchers were completing an annual photo-identification study of northern resident killer whales, said John Ford, head of the cetacean research program at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, B.C.
Mother and calf appear to be robust and in good health, although researchers don't yet know the specific age or gender of the younger animal, and there can be a significant mortality rate for calves in their first year, he said.
"I think this clearly is another sign that such rehabilitation is possible," he said. "We are, of course, very pleased and gratified that after all the effort that went into Springer's rehabilitation and release by so many different groups and people that she continued to thrive.
"And Of course, having her first calf pretty much right on schedule at 13 years old is a great sign that she's a normal functioning member of the community again," said Ford.
He said Springer is the first killer whale he is aware of that was captured in a debilitated state, brought back to health, released and successfully reunited with a pod.
Springer's pod is listed as threatened under Canada's Species at Risk Act.
The orca caught the public's attention in January 2002 when it was spotted in the waters of Puget Sound, near Seattle, Wash. Its mother had died and the orphan had become separated from its pod.
In poor health and unlikely to survive alone, Springer was monitored, captured by killer-whale experts and then held in a huge ocean net pen for about a month in June 2002, while officials on both sides of the border worked out a plan to reunite the orca with its pod.
On July 13, 2002, Springer was transported by high-speed catamaran to Blackfish Sound, near Alert Bay, and held in a floating net pen. The next day, its pod appeared and researchers decided to release Springer.
Ford said Springer reunited with the whales over the following weeks, and he said researchers have been monitoring the orca's progress ever since in annual studies.
Graeme Ellis, a DFO research technician, said he was in Bella Bella July 4 when he received a call from a colleague that some whales were in an area know as Gosling Rocks.
Ellis said it took him about an hour to get on scene, but the first whales he photographed were Springer and the calf.
"I was pleased to say the least," he said, noting he then took photos of other members of the group, too. "It was clear that her calf was healthy and active and energetic.
Determining the calf's gender is a matter of luck, said Ellis, noting researchers will be able to make that call if the animal surfaces and rolls over near a boat. He said in some cases researchers can't tell an orca's gender until it produces a calf or its fin grows to full size.
Ellis said Springer appeared to be about 5.5-metres long, with the calf measuring about 2.5-metres long and both looked "fat and happy."
"It was just a relief for me after all these years since her reintroduction. It's the ultimate success, I think."