An orphaned orca famous for an against-all-odds return to her community has become a mother – for the second time around. 

The whale in question, A73 or "Springer", was first seen with her new charge last month by whale research station CetaceaLab off the north-central coast of British Columbia, and the birth was recently confirmed by the Department of Fisheries and Ocean Canada.

Image: Springer and her new calf. Image: Lisa Spaven, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Via BC Killer Whale Research Report/Facebook 

The new calf is yet another remarkable benchmark for Springer, who in early 2002 showed up as a malnourished, ailing two-year-old orphan in Puget Sound near Seattle, Washington. Close scrutiny of photographs and analysis of her vocalisations (orca clans have distinct dialects) revealed Springer had strayed from a community of Northern Resident killer whales, mainly found from Vancouver Island in British Columbia north to southeastern Alaska. 

Scientists determined the calf was A73, born to the A4 pod whose territory lay some 250 miles north of Seattle's waterfront. (Puget Sound is home to Southern Resident orcas, an unrelated killer-whale population that overlaps geographically but not genetically with the Northern Residents.) Springer's mother, A45 (Sutlej), had not been seen since September 2000. 

Given the remoteness of her kin, the starving calf's deteriorating condition and the busy shipping channels she found herself occupying – plus her unnerving habit of approaching boats – researchers and advocates in both Canada and the US debated what, if anything, could be done for Springer's welfare, which had become a major news story. Ultimately officials decided to capture and rehabilitate the little orca and then release her into her home waters in the hopes she'd reintegrate with her extended family.

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Springer being lowered into her temporary seapen back in 2002. Image: US National Marine Fisheries Service

Springer was caught in June 2002 and convalesced a few weeks in a Puget Sound seapen, where she was closely monitored and plied with live salmon. In mid-July, she was transported to Blackfish Sound off northern Vancouver Island: along with nearby Johnstone Strait, this is typical summer digs for the Northern Resident A Clan to which the A4s belong.

Springer's handlers weren't at all sure she'd be able to rejoin her relatives. As John Nightingale of the Vancouver Aquarium said at the time, "The media have asked if we know this is going to be a success. We can plan the operation. The problem is, we haven't been able to talk to the whale."

Within weeks of her release, though, Springer was seen travelling with wild orcas – initially an adult, calf-less female from the A5 pod named Nodales, who may have functioned as something of a foster mother. Her rescuers and those studying the Northern Residents rejoiced at the successful homecoming – all the more so in 2013, when Springer was spotted with a calf of her own, A104 ("Spirit").

In a poignant twist, the latest news of her second round of motherhood comes 15 years to the month after Springer's return to the Northern Resident fold. Her prodigious two-legged fan base is about to mark the anniversary of the orca's rehabilitation and release during the "Celebrate Springer" event at the Whale Interpretive Centre in Telegraph Cove, B.C. on July 22 and 23. 

"Springer's story is an inspiration on many levels," Dr Paul Spong of OrcaLab, a killer-whale research centre based on Hanson Island near the head of Johnstone Strait, said in a statement. "It proved that an orphan orca, alone and separated from her family, can be rehabilitated and returned to a normal productive life with her family and community."

(To learn more about A73's remarkable story, check out this timeline by the Vancouver Aquarium as well as the short documentary Saving Springer.)


Top header image: Miles Ritter/Flickr