Returned To The Wild

Returned To The Wild »Play Video
HANSON ISLAND, B.C. - The orphan killer whale who strayed into central Puget Sound near Seattle - 340 miles from her native waters here - eagerly fled her human helpers to join her own kind.

After being released off this remote Canadian island Sunday afternoon, the 2-year-old orca was tagging along Monday within a half-mile of eight whales belonging to A-clan, to whom she is related. The whales had answered her cries Sunday and entered the small bay where she'd been penned less than 24 hours before her release.

The orphan orca, named A-73 for her birth order in the whale community, had not yet intermingled with the other whales, but was staying within vocal range, said John Ford, a whale expert with Canada's Department of Fisheries.

The orca appeared to be doing fine, though easily distracted by boats, logs and kelp in her new surroundings, he said.

"She's a toddler," Vancouver Aquarium whale expert Lance Barrett-Lennard said Sunday. Killer whales have about the same life span as humans, and their life stages roughly parallel those of humans.

Or perhaps she was just being shy.

The orcas who entered the bay - a very unusual move for killer whales, Barrett-Lennard said - were also somewhat tentative.

They entered the bay "slowly, inquisitively," he said. "Your impression was that they were being coy."

After her release, they milled around for a time at a distance, exchanging calls with the long-lost A-73 and then advanced a bit.

She spyhopped - poking her head out of the water - as did some in the group.

As they left Dong Chong Bay, she headed west and the others headed east, though they were still in acoustic range.

The whales were second cousins, her grandmother's sister's daughter and her offspring, and other A-clan whales, Barrett-Lennard said.

There are numerous females in the group of reproductive age.

"If anyone is going to adopt a calf, they're the ones," he said. "Particularly young females - they're kind of clucky," with burgeoning mother-hen instincts.

"Her best chance is to find a female she can bond with closely," said aquarium vice president of operations Clint Wright, who oversaw coordination of her transport north.

The hope is that she will find a niche within her clan, but life as a solitary whale in these waters would offer her a more secure future than she could have found in Puget Sound, he said.

Within two hours of her release, A-73 swam up to a passing motorboat. The orca was easily recognizable because of yellow transmitters attached to her with suction cups to help the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans keep an eye on her during her first days as a free whale.

Canadian officials are asking boaters to try to steer clear of her. She had gotten too cozy with boats in the Seattle area as well, and it poses risks to both sides.

"It's for her own good," Barrett-Lennard said. "There's a very real possibility of her sustaining an injury from a propeller."

And she could put kayakers at risk by nuzzling up against them, noted John Nightingale of the Vancouver Aquarium. If such behavior is encouraged and becomes a problem, she may have to be taken back into captivity. But consideration of such a drastic step is a long way off.

"That's the worst-case scenario," he said.

There is lots of water up here, lots of salmon to eat and other orcas to connect with over the summer season, which can last into September.

She was in captivity just a month and a day, captured near Seattle on June 13 when her health worsened and boat contact raised safety concerns. She was pronounced in perfect health after treatment by National Marine Fisheries Service scientists and a group of private caretakers. Then she was transported to Hanson Island, just off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, on a high-speed catamaran ferry.

The transmitters likely will drop off within days. Initially, there were three, but one fell off before she had traveled a mile.

There are more permanent ways to attach transmitters, "but we didn't want her going up all dressed up like a tourist" with tags hanging off her, Barrett-Lennard said.

"We'd just like to be able to monitor her movements" in the first weeks after her release, he said.

After that, Canada has a monitoring network of government staff, area residents and other volunteers along the hundreds of miles of coastline on both sides of Vancouver Island and all along the Inside Passage that separates the island from the mainland.

The network recently brought word of a new addition to A-clan - a calf dubbed A-74, whose distinctive white markings now are baby pink.

Killer whales, actually a kind of dolphin, are found in all the world's oceans. The inland resident populations of British Columbia and Washington state feed mostly on salmon, while transient coastal populations eat marine mammals.

The resident groups are struggling now with dwindling salmon runs, increasing human encroachment and pollution.

Human concern about orcas is new, and "a complete turnaround" from just 25 years ago, when many people were afraid of them, Barrett-Lennard said.

As recently as 10 years ago, "every killer whale that washed ashore had bullet holes in it," he said.