The greatest Hanson Island story ends here, but it begins far to the south. Off the dock of a ferry terminal in Puget Sound near Vashon Island. In early January 2002, ferry goers inherited a mascot, a tiny, emaciated, two-year old orca whale. The little whale became an instant celebrity, following the ferry back and forth day after day. Yet the lost whale was in trouble, separated from her family, malnourished, and in dire need of the attention and physical contact she craved.
Biologists up and down the Pacific Northwest coast rushed to Puget Sound in an attempt to discover where the tiny whale belonged. Saddle patch photos and acoustic recordings traced her, not to the nearby southern Resident community, but to the A4 pod from the northern Residents off the northern coast of Vancouver Island, 250 miles from home. She was A73, commonly known as Springer. The previous summer, she had failed to return to Johnstone Strait, as had her mother Sutlej (A45), both were presumed deceased. Springer had returned from the grave, but how she had made it all the way to Washington was a total mystery.
And so the debate began about what to do with this tiny whale that had violated international law by crossing the border. Had she been rejected by her pod? Did she have some communicable disease? Had she already grown too attached to the boats that choked the sound? A wild orca had not been taken into captivity in U.S waters since 1976, but this was different. Without human intervention, Springer seemed doomed. But public opinion made it clear; Springer needed to go home not to a tank.
But no wild orca had successfully been reintroduced to the wild, the closest had been Keiko of Free Willy fame, who had lived a solitary existence in the wild before dying of Pneumonia. The federally funded U.S program NMFS (National Marine and Fisheries Service) balked at the idea, claiming lack of funding and the difficulties that had transpired in Keiko’s rehabilitation.
While the debate raged, Springer received round the clock attention as people tried to keep boats, ferries, and others from interacting with her. It was a hopeless endeavor, as Springer continually rubbed against boats in search of a surrogate for other whales. Whatever was decided, rehabilitation or captivity, Springer could not spend her life off the Vashon Ferry dock. After two months of debate, NMFS accepted a a plan that included seapen rehabilitation, translocation, and finally, a reintroduction into the wild.
In the meantime, Springer needed to get healthy in order to satisfy Canadian officials who feared returning a possibly diseased and contagious whale to its already threatened northern Resident population. Over the next three months Springer became one of the most monitored patients in the world, receiving antibiotics to clear up a skin condition, ketoacidosis, and worms. Slowly, her condition improved. And so a new debate began, where and when to release Springer. The solution was in Orca Lab’s front yard. A fifteen minute walk through the woods behind the lab leads to a small, skinny, and protected bay known as Dongchong Bay. The plan was to place the net pen in the back of the bay, and wait for Springer’s family to swim by.
Moving day came on July 13, 2002 when Springer was lifted by crane from her holding pen in Puget Sound onto a catamaran for her big trip north to Hanson Island and home. The following day, Springer’s pod appeared, swimming south in Blackfish Sound past the mouth of the bay. The moment of truth had arrived, and the net pen was opened. Springer showed no hesitation, pelting straight for her long lost family. But it was not quite the storybook ending everyone had hoped for as Springer and pod eventually departed in opposite directions.
Free but still orphaned, Springer returned to her old pod mate; boats. Two days after her release, Springer positioned herself squarely under a boat, making it impossible to maneuver without hitting her. She would have to learn to live with wild orcas again, and just as importantly, they had to learn to live with her. Her first few interactions appear to have gone poorly as she was seen with teeth marks raking her body as pods seemed reluctant to add another hungry and growing whale to their ranks.
By August however, Springer seemed to have found a degree of acceptance. A young female orca (Nodales, A51) from the closely related A5 pod began to serve as a surrogate mother, guiding Springer away from nearby boats. While eventually Springer reunited with her closer relatives in A4 pod, Nodales probably saved her life in those first few turbulent weeks back home. As summer came to a close, and the orcas began to disperse for the winter, everyone held their collective breath, knowing that the winter months would be Springer’s biggest test yet. The following summer she returned with her natal pod, fat and healthy. At the lab she received a heroes welcome. The massive wooden sign still hangs above the observation deck, adorned with a spyhopping orca, hearts, and the message, “Welcome Home Springer.
Every few days I run through the forest to Dongchong Bay. The forest is spongy and bouncy, it feels less like running and more like bouncing on a trampoline. Arriving at the bay always gives me pause, a small rocky trail runs along the left hand side of the tiny bay, breaking free of the trees and giving a full view of the bay and Blackfish Sound beyond. In my mind I can see the net pen, the notoriously energetic orca springing clear of the water in breach after breach. Her loud squeals and calls echoing off the watery canyons of her home. She’s a mother now, no longer just a nice story but an integral and contributing member of orca society.
I wonder if she remembers this place, this bay and the multitudes of people that healed her, fed her salmon, and most importantly, were able to let go and let her go home when the time was right. I wonder if she ever pauses at the mouth of Dongchong as she goes by. If she can still hear her voice ricocheting and bouncing off the rocks, hear the crack of her splashes as she returns to the water. If she has any idea what a miracle her life is.