Springer, an orphaned northern-resident orca who showed up near Vashon Island in 2002, loved back scratches. But she was also very sick, until scientists captured her and brought her back to health. Can it work with J50?
Capturing J50 will be trickier than it was with Springer, the 2-year-old orphan orca successfully captured and rehabilitated in 2002.
Pete Schroeder, of Sequim, a marine mammal veterinarian, was part of the team put together by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to rescue A73, a northern-resident orca when the whale turned up alone, following boats such as the Vashon ferry.
She had bad skin, was passing parasites and underweight. She also was so tame she was in danger of getting too close to people and propellers.
Biologists were able to get blood samples from her just by offering back scratches with the stick Springer would bring to the side of their boat, Schroeder said. “You knew she was going to come back to get more stick action; pretty soon we got enough blood for a full blood work, and we were able to repeat it two days later.”
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The blood samples collected from her over the side of a NOAA skiff on May 8 and 10, 2002, led to the decision that she did not suffer from any incurable problem and could be rehabilitated. The decision was made to intervene, and she was “collected” on June 13 of the same year.
Jeff Foster — the same biologist who is involved in the response to save J50 — had plenty of experience from his days capturing orcas for aquariums, and he knew just what to do. After getting her accustomed to the sounds of the boat and its gear, Foster looped a soft rope around her tail.
“The more experience you have, the more confidence you have,” Schroeder said. “And it is incredible how animals, not only orcas and other marine mammals, but raptors too, respond; they understand you are trying to help and they are really interested in participating.
“These guys don’t make an attempt to escape,” he said of orcas. “Why should they, there is nothing tougher and bigger and smarter than they are. We took advantage of that with Springer.”
Foster guided her into a specially made padded sling, with slits cut for her flippers. She was lifted by crane onto a landing craft, and taken to a 40-by-40-by-12-foot deep net pen in Clam Bay, adjacent to Port Orchard state Park in Manchester, Kitsap County.
Once in the net pen, Springer was fed live Atlantic salmon from the Cypress Island net-pen farm — today owned by Cooke Aquaculture — through a 30-foot PVC tube (to avoid her getting into the habit of being hand-fed). She ate 29 pounds during the first four days. Not enough to stay alive, so a tube slid down her throat was used to give her medicine, including a dewormer and water to rehydrate her.
She ate 55 pounds of salmon two hours after the treatment and averaged 60 pounds a day thereafter, eventually gaining 150 pounds by the time she was transported to her home waters near the northern end of Vancouver Island on July 13, 2002, and put in a temporary open-water pen and fed local native coho and chinook. She started eating and vocalizing, and by nighttime was vocalizing with other members of her pod passing by — as Springer breached to see them. She was released 18 hours after she arrived.
Yet she was soon in danger once again. In no time she was approaching boats again, waving a stick tucked under her flipper, soliciting back scratches. She was exhausted, swimming slowly and panting.
This was the critical turning point for her survival: Straitwatch Canada, a nonprofit, and the Kwakiutl First Nation told all boaters, including fishermen, to stay away from Springer, even if she approached them. She would not change her behavior, so boaters had to shun her. They cooperated — and before long, it worked. Springer left the area with her adoptive A pod cohorts, and eventually was so integrated into the pod she went on to have two calves, one in 2013 and another in 2017. She has continued to thrive in the wild.
The success of Springer gives NOAA confidence to give it a try with J50, Schroeder said. But J50 is much further gone, and she is not alone, complicating any interaction.
There are several ways to capture an orca, depending on the situation, Schroeder said. By herding the animal with boats to a cove, and netting it off. Or, creating a bow wave and when the orca surfs it, slipping a hoop over its head as it leaps, bagging the animal in an attached net. Or a lasso can be swooped onto its tail, as with Springer. No matter what the method, the key thing is to move slowly, gently and get people in the water right away to reassure the whale, Schroeder said. It’s a lot like horse whispering, he said. “Whispering is the important part.”
For humans, so is a tolerance for cold. “It involves being in really cold water in a wet suit with an animal you don’t know for sure what it is going to do, it takes a certain amount of relaxation to not get the animal agitated. The last thing you want to do is create an acute stressor with an animal that has already been stressed all its life.”
In the days ahead, anything could happen, NOAA officials stressed in a Wednesday news call, from deciding whether J50 is too sick to help, to a full-on captive rehabilitation . “There are a lot of uncertainties, a lot of unknowns,” said Lynne Barre, director of killer whale recovery for NOAA’s Northwest region.
Either way, if intervention is the goal, it’s important to act quickly, Schroeder said: J50 has lost so much fat she is in a vortex in which it becomes harder for her even to keep her head above water.
“That fat pad behind the blow hole is used up, they lose head buoyancy and they have to move harder to stay on top of the water.”