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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


July 27, 2002 - Issue 66


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Scientists Set Orca Free as Pod gets Near

by Eric Sorensen The Seattle Times
credits: Alan Berner/The Seattle Times
A-73 awaits her release from a holding pen in Dong Chong Bay off Vancouver Island.

TELEGRAPH COVE, B.C. — At last, after nearly a half-year wallowing in Puget Sound, a month in rehab and a daylong, high-speed ride home, the orphaned Canadian orca A-73 yesterday was reunited with her family.

At least she swam toward them, pausing only briefly to play with some kelp. She then got within 100 yards of them, coyly looked them over and swam off in a different direction.

"It was incredibly emotional for me," said Lance Barrett-Lennard, a Vancouver Aquarium scientist who helped coordinate the whale's move from Puget Sound and her ultimate release.

"The best thing I can think of now is that she's headed away from Seattle," joked a euphoric Clint Wright, vice president of operations for the aquarium.

As of last night, it was unclear whether the 2-year-old will ultimately fit into the tight social structure of her northern-resident kin.

Scientists remain worried that she will continue a habit, acquired between Seattle and Vashon Island, of approaching and even playing with boats.

Shortly after her release, a group in a 20-foot Bayliner saw the 12-foot, 1,348-pound orca approach and check them out.

"She came right up to the boat," said Cindy Strom of Enumclaw, "circled the boat, went under the boat, circled it again."

The people in the boat could tell it was her from two suction-cup radio tags to monitor her movements that scientists attached moments before her release.

Release officials were extremely optimistic that A-73, also known as Springer, would be eager to see family members after she appeared to hear a group of about 30 killer whales vocalizing around 1:30 a.m. yesterday near her net pen in Dong Chong Bay.

A-73 became very excited, leaping as high as the handrails of her pen, calling loudly and pushing at the front of her net toward the open water.

That and a clean bill of health from veterinarians told officials a release was imminent.

"Based on what we saw last night, we were quite sure that whenever it happened she was going to go charging off, and she did go charging off," said John Nightingale, president of the aquarium, moments after a radio call to the Canadian Coast Guard confirmed she had been released around 3 p.m.

"So now the next question is if some kind of match has been made and how long will it last."

Release workers, including aquarium experts, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and a team led by former Keiko handler Jeff Foster, started preparing for a release when members of the A-11 family group were seen less than two miles from Dong Chong Bay and closing.

A-73 was often seen with the group before her mother disappeared a year ago and she drifted down to Puget Sound. Scientists now hope that several young breeding-age females in the group of about eight whales will feel maternalistic toward A-73 and adopt her.

As the group reached the mouth of the cove, it stopped and turned toward A-73's pen several hundred yards away. A-73 and the whales calmly called back and forth to each other, as if they were being inquisitive.

"You could just see question marks coming out of their heads," said Barrett-Lennard.

There was a quick caucus among Barrett-Lennard, Helena Symonds of the nearby OrcaLab research facility, Graeme Ellis of Fisheries and Oceans, and John Ford, the scientific authority with the final say on the release.

"It was magical," said Barrett-Lennard. "At that point, we said we can't be sure we'll ever get another chance like this. It had to happen then."

About a half-dozen divers steadied A-73, with Foster and Wright at her head, while the end of her pen was lowered. A-73 appeared unconcerned, said Wright, possibly because she has grown used to humans, possibly because a salmon passed by and she took to eating it.

Then, a volley of shouts: "Push her under!" "Clear!" "We're off!"

A-73 slipped out of the pen, rose briefly, gave a few quick twitches of her tail and took off. The pen was all cheers.

About 100 yards out, with about 100 yards separating A-73 and the other whales, they all stopped. A-73 spyhopped, lifting her body halfway out of the water to get a look. Some of the other whales spyhopped, too.

"The impression you got was they were both being kind of coy, a little bit cautious," Barrett-Lennard said. "Killer whales are incredibly cautious animals."

The whales then swam slowly away from each other, maintaining acoustic contact but putting about a mile and a half between them before the researchers lost visible contact with A-73.

A smaller group of scientists will now monitor A-73's movements, relying largely on her radio tags until they fall off in a week or so, then using a network of whale monitors around Johnstone Strait. The researchers following A-73 will stay 400 to 500 yards away before the tags fall off.

Meanwhile, they are asking boaters to stay clear to avoid disrupting the "acoustic clarity" among the whales and to minimize A-73's contact with boats.

"I think there's a good chance that she'll join up with the pod," said Barrett-Lennard. "She could end up being a solitary whale that spends most of her time alone, or she may sort of move from pod to pod. We'll have a much better idea in a month or two."

Vancouver Aquarium

Telegraph Cove, BC Map
Maps by Travel

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