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Boat Trouble Snags Orphan Whale's Return to Canada

Fri Jul 12, 2002

By Anthony Bolante

MANCHESTER, Wash (Reuters) - After weeks of struggling with medical and logistical questions about reuniting an orphaned killer whale near Seattle with her family pod in Canada, mundane mechanical problems on Friday forced officials to delay the animal's journey home.

The female whale, known as A-73 to scientists but nicknamed Springer by the media, was to have been hoisted at dawn from a holding pen in Washington state's Puget Sound and placed on a high-speed catamaran for the 740 km (460 mile) trip to waters near Telegraph Cove, British Columbia.

But the first such effort to reunite a wild killer whale with her family ran into trouble before the transfer began, when the boat crew they could not get the craft to operate at full speed, and had to return to port for repairs.

The boat was repaired, but officials decided it was too late to complete the 12-hour trip safely and it would be better to delay the effort until Saturday.

"We need to make sure that she's going to be as safe as she can possibly be all the way through. It's not a big deal really to move it (back) one day," Clint Wright, vice president of the Vancouver Aquarium, which is overseeing the transfer.

The two-year-old, black and white, 545 kg (1,200 pound) whale has drawn international attention since she was discovered in January swimming in Puget Sound near Seattle.

Experts believed she either became separated from her pod or was rejected by it after her mother died, and eventually made her way down the U.S. coast to a busy shipping area near Seattle where orcas rarely venture.

By the time she came to the attention of authorities she was suffering health problems including a skin rash, bad breath and worms that had reduced her appetite.

Experts captured her in May and gave her several weeks of medical treatment before declaring her fit to return to Canada.

Officials plan to transport Springer to northern Vancouver Island in the hope that she will rejoin the members of her family pod when they return to their traditional summer feeding grounds in mid-July.

Scientists admit they do not know if the reunion will be successful, but have said the whale will be safer in the new location even if she remains independent.

While the mechanical problems may have bothered the officials, the whale was apparently unfazed by the turn of events. Photographers who gathered in Manchester for the transfer could see her splashing from time to time.

"She's doing great, so she's happy where she is. She doesn't even know she's going to be moving. So it's always going to be about her and that's always gonna be the primary focus." Wright said.

The effort to reunite A-73 with her pod has been compared by the media with the so-far unsuccessful effort to return long-captive killer whale Keiko -- star of the movie "Free Willy" -- but scientists say there are key differences.

Unlike with Keiko, Springer's home pod is well known to biologists, and they have limited her contact with humans during her brief captivity to ensure she remains a wild animal.

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