Springer's success inspires whale experts
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By Eric Sorensen
Seattle Times staff reporter

The successful reintroduction of a Canadian killer whale rescued last year from Puget Sound has orca advocates pushing to have another orphaned whale brought back from Canada to the U.S.

The Canadian orca A-73, or Springer, was spotted Wednesday safe and sound with her family off northern Vancouver Island. Whale experts say this is proof positive that she has successfully reunited with her pod after a joint Canadian-U.S. effort rescued her last summer from waters off the Vashon Island ferry dock.

"By any measure this rescue, rehabilitation and return have been an unprecedented success," said Bob Lohn, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries Northwest Region.

Now several groups are calling on officials to repeat the process with L-98, or Luna, a young male who has been swimming alone in Nootka Sound, on the west side of Vancouver Island, since 2001.

With his fellow southern residents dwindling in numbers, orca advocates have been pushing to see him brought back to his subgroup, the L-pod.

"Given the success of Springer and the physical health of Luna, the two countries need to rise to the occasion before September, when sightings of L-pod begin to become less frequent," said Fred Felleman of the Orca Conservancy.

But U.S. officials say it is the Canadians' call to make, and Canadian officials have been reluctant to undertake a reintroduction. They remained so yesterday.

"Luna is presumably in good health," said Donna Sandstrom, founding member of Orphan Orca Fund, a coalition created last year to help A-73. "It's just a matter of getting him to the right place."

A panel of experts assembled by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the agency responsible for L-98, earlier this year concluded it would be too risky to try reuniting L-98 with his pod.

"A-73 coming back doesn't change that risk," Lara Sloan, a spokeswoman for the Canada fisheries department, said yesterday.

While A-73 appeared sick and possibly undernourished in Puget Sound, L-98 is healthy, active, eating well and in a good, clean environment with plenty of food, according to the Canadian fisheries department. The agency said he might also reunite with his mother naturally, whereas L-98's mother was dead when her reintroduction was considered.

Marc Pakenham, executive director of the Veins of Life Watershed Society in Victoria, said L-98 appears to be depressed, distractedly bumping up against the fenders of boats out of Gold River. Meanwhile, tourists are getting increasingly aggressive about approaching him, risking a propeller injury to the orca and a domestication that will make a reintroduction more difficult.

Moreover, he said, the Canadian fisheries department just this week cut funding for his group to continue a project of discouraging people from approaching the orca.

"So there are no resources going into protecting the whale," Pakenham said.

Eric Sorensen: 206-464-8253 or esorensen@seattletimes.com