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Rescued orca returned to wild

Scientists hope she'll rejoin her family

The orca's handlers release her into the wild Sunday.
The orca's handlers release her into the wild Sunday.  

TELEGRAPH COVE, British Columbia (CNN) -- The young orca whale who just recently returned to her home waters was released into the wild Sunday where, researchers hope, she will rejoin her long-lost family.

Scientists and veterinarians from the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Center released the orphaned killer whale -- called "Springer," "Boo" (Baby Orphaned Orca) and "A-73" (the scientific designation) -- from a net pen in the water. She swam off to sea.

Springer was put in the pen Saturday following months of care and rehabilitation in Washington state. Right away, officials noticed she was playful, hungry, and talkative.

"She was immediately active, immediately vocal, went into hunting mode right away and basically spent the whole night doing it," said Dave Huff, a veterinarian with the science center. Springer even jumped out of the water and did bellyflops, he said.

At about 1:30 a.m. Sunday, researchers noticed a pod of whales about 2 or 3 miles away, to which Springer responded immediately, said the center's Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard.

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"Springer became very excited, very vocal, very animated, breached, called very loudly, and began to orient on the end of the pen facing out toward the open water," he said. "She was obviously hearing the whales going by."

The whale pod included members of her immediate family, Barrett-Lennard said, and it sounded like they were interacting with Springer before they moved away. The young whale stayed excited for the rest of the night.

"You got the impression they were being kind of coy. Killer whales are very cautious animals," Barrett-Lennard told The Associated Press. "Her calls were so loud they practically blew our earphones off."

Springer was discovered in January off the Vashon Island ferry dock in Puget Sound -- her pod nowhere in sight. Scientists determined that her mother had died shortly beforehand.

It is unusual to find a solitary orca, particularly a juvenile, because killer whales typically travel in cohesive family groups.

A team of experts determined Springer had little chance for survival on her own, so they captured her and moved her into a holding pen, where they gave her food and medical attention to eradicate worms and treat a skin condition.

 Click here for more facts about Orcas

After nearly seven months of observation, scientists and veterinarians put Springer on a catamaran and took her 350 miles north to Canada.

Whether Springer will rejoin the pod remains unknown. If she is not accepted by her original pod, scientists hope Springer will join another pod spotted in the region. That pod uses the same dialect as Springer, scientists said.

Springer is wearing a VHF radio tag, attached by suction cups, so researchers can monitor her movements. Barrett-Lennard joked that more elaborate tracking mechanisms would only make Springer look like a "tourist" whale in the open ocean, where they hope Springer will simply be a wild whale.




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