HANSON ISLAND, British Columbia — An orphaned killer whale that strayed into Puget Sound last winter and won hearts for her troubled species arrived back in her home waters Saturday.
A high-speed catamaran carrying the whale arrived in Dong Chong Bay, where a crane lifted the orca onto a barge. She was examined and tested and then put in a net pen 50 feet square and 65 feet deep.
During the 400-mile trip to Johnstone Strait, near the north end of Vancouver Island, the mammal, nicknamed Springer, got a bit restless, wiggling in her water-filled travel box while handlers scratched her skin and doused her with cool water.
The 12-foot whale, called A-73 for her birth order in Canada's "A" pod, or family group of orcas, spent at least six months in Puget Sound, often swimming beside the Seattle-area passenger ferries. Scientists captured her last month to treat her health problems and to attempt to reunite her with the pod.
Whale handler Jeff Foster and his crew covered her upper body with wet towels and slathered her dorsal fin and the skin around her blowhole with ointment to keep her skin moist. During the journey up the Inside Passage between Vancouver Island and the west coast of British Columbia, Foster and his crew took turns petting and talking to the orca to comfort her.
"She's a very calm animal. And at that age they're very adaptable," said handler Jen Schorr, 30, of Seattle. "They're pretty bold in most cases. They're the top predator, so they can afford to be."
U.S. and Canadian officials arranged the relocation in hopes that the whale would rejoin her family group.
Pods from the A clan whose vocalization patterns are similar to A-73's have been in the area for weeks, and her grandmother's group was spotted there Thursday.
The consensus is that she will fare better there than in the busy water near Seattle, where her health faltered as she struggled to feed herself from mid-January until her capture June 13.
"These are the waters where she grew up, and fish she knows how to catch," said Marilyn Joyce, marine mammal resource coordinator for Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Orca experts noted the disappearance and likely death of A-73's mother last year, and believe the young whale then wandered south to the Seattle area because she was unable to keep up with the rest of the group.
Wildlife officials worried as the orca grew friendly with boaters around the Vashon Island ferry dock in busy Puget Sound, even scratching herself on the hulls of small boats and raising the threat that she could upset a small craft as she grew.
Now that her health problems have been cleared up, and her weight has increased to 1,348 pounds, the Vancouver Aquarium will oversee her care in a net pen near Hanson Island until her release.
"If her pod comes by tomorrow, and they vocalized and were positive, we could release her tomorrow ... open the door and cross our fingers," David Huff of Vancouver Aquarium said.
Killer whales, a species of dolphin, live in all the world's oceans. Resident populations on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border feed on fish, while transient coastal populations live on other marine mammals.
Both groups are threatened by depleted salmon runs, growing ship traffic and pollution.