Rescue & Release of Orphan Killer Whale A73 (Springer)

NOAA Fisheries has responsibility for whales in the U.S. under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The agency monitored orphan orca A73 after she was located in Puget Sound and identified in early 2002. Although she had been eating, she had some medical conditions such as worms and a skin rash. NOAA Fisheries, in consultation with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, convened a panel of independent whale scientists to advise on what actions would be best for the health and well-being of this animal. Following behavioral monitoring and the results of medical tests, the panel recommended that A73 be rescued, rehabilitated, and relocated to Canadian waters.

NOAA Fisheries announced on May 24 that it would attempt to rescue A73. In addition to her health conditions, she had become increasingly interested in people and boats. Such behavior threatened her success in the wild, and she needed to be treated for her medical conditions and moved from a busy shipping lane. The agency formed a rescue team of experienced and highly qualified experts, and made plans in partnership with Washington State, Canada and the Vancouver Aquarium. Fisheries officials also opened discussions with a variety of public-interest groups. The assistance of these groups was valuable in monitoring, evaluating and protecting the whale, and was crucial during the next weeks and months.

Seven conservation organizations established the Orphan Orca Fund to provide a single, coordinated opportunity for the public to support A73's rescue. The fund was administered by The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, Wash. To help with these efforts, and cover a portion of the costs, NOAA made available emergency funds from the Prescott Stranding Grant Program.

The successful rescue took place June 13, 2002. A73 was moved safely to a floating net pen on Washington State's Kitsap Peninsula. She weighed in at 1,240 pounds and measured 11 feet in length. Veterinarians then did several tests to assess her medical condition and plan her treatment.

After a month of rehabilitation in the net pen, A73's ketosis disappeared, her skin improved, and she received medicine to eliminate her worms. She gained 112 pounds, weighing about 1,350 pounds when she was hoisted onto the transport vessel for the ride to her home waters off northern Vancouver Island on July 13, 2002.

A73 made a smooth trip up the coast to Johnstone Strait between the Canadian mainland and Vancouver Island. At Dong Chong Bay on Hanson Island she was unloaded into another net pen to recover from the trip. She recovered quickly, and appeared quite excited to be in the area. On July 14, 2002, she responded excitedly to whales from her pod swimming in the area near the net pen. Officials from the Vancouver Aquarium and Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans decided the time was right to release A73. The gate of the net pen was raised about 2:45 p.m. PDT, allowing the whale to swim free.