Saving Springer, Part 1: How the Pacific NW united to rescue an orphaned orca

The first of a three-part series

Fifteen years ago this summer, the Northwest joined forces to orchestrate the unprecedented rescue of a wild killer whale calf. The effort built trust, partnerships, and goodwill that continue to contribute to killer whale recovery today. We tell the story of Springer in three parts. Today we present Part One.

Springer appeared in Puget Sound in the spring of 2002, hanging around ferries and recreational boats far from the calf's home waters in British Columbia.
Springer appeared in Puget Sound in the spring of 2002, hanging around ferries and recreational boats far from the calf's home waters in British Columbia. (Courtesy of Mark Sears)

The public meeting on Vashon Island in Puget Sound, where the fate of an orphan killer whale hung in the balance 15 years ago, remains a vivid memory for Joe Scordino, then deputy regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries in the Northwest.

The young whale named Springer had become separated from her population of killer whales in British Columbia and was hanging around ferries and boats in Puget Sound. She was losing weight and would probably perish on her own.

Scordino announced to meeting attendees that the agency was not going to leave the whale to die. He proposed a solution, something that had never been tried before: capture the young whale and return her to her family hundreds of miles away. For that to succeed, he told the standing-room-only crowd he needed help.

“If the effort was going to work, we had to have everybody on board because we had no experience trying something like that,” Scordino recalled. “We needed resources, we needed funding, and we needed support.”

Speaking from the heart
Around the room people stood up and voiced their willingness to help. That began a first-ever effort to rescue a wayward killer whale that would ultimately capture worldwide attention throughout the summer of 2002. The effort would bring together groups and organizations that had never worked with each other before; this strong spirit of teamwork and common purpose established a legacy of cooperation that continues to this day.

The rescue team attempts to maneuver close to Springer to begin the capture, so she could be returned to her wild population.
The rescue team attempts to maneuver close to Springer to begin the capture, so she could be returned to her wild population. (NOAA Fisheries)

“The whale had caught so many people’s attention – they felt like they knew her,” said Kathy Fletcher, then-executive-director of People for Puget Sound, which hosted the public meeting on Vashon Island and another in West Seattle. “Most of the public didn’t know what should be done, but they wanted something to be done.”

One of those who stood up to talk was Donna Sandstrom, a longtime whale advocate who would go on to help establish The Whale Trail, a series of whale observation sites along the West Coast. She recalled that most people at the meetings understood the risk to Springer if the rescue mission went wrong. The whale could die or have health problems during capture, in which case she might never be released.

While acknowledging the risks, Sandstrom concluded it was time to act.

“I was speaking from my heart,” Sandstrom recalls. “Nobody wanted that whale to go in an aquarium. They wanted her to go home.”
 

This article is the first of a three-part series. The story continues tomorrow with Part Two.