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How a past orca rescue & reunion could inform the journey of Tokitae

Northern Resident orca "Springer" was found in Puget Sound waters in 2002, separated from her pod. Recordings helped experts identify her family- and get her home.

WASHINGTON, USA — As plans continue for Tokitae's journey, there are lessons to be learned from another orca central to Puget Sound cetacean history: Springer, the Northern Resident orca rescued and reunited with her family after she was separated from her pod in 2002. That includes the way recording sounds played a role -- and how calls are key for whales. 

Joe Olson, who took some of the first recordings of Springer, helped identify the pod she belonged to. For decades, he's designed, built and deployed hydrophones and other instruments, and currently guides others in acquiring and analyzing underwater acoustic data. 

"The whole thing with Springer was a perfect example of people working together for the best interest of [the animal], and I would like to take the whole Springer protocol and have that work with Toki," Olson said.

Olson says local orca advocates, representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), aquarium veterinarians, and non-governmental organizations worked together to help Springer and bring her home.

"We went out on a very cold January day, I had a hydrophone and my brother came out with me and he was taking field notes and I was just recording, dipping the hydrophone in the water whenever she was nearby and trying to get her sounds, and most of those sounds were the background noise of the ferry, which was incredibly loud, and then a lot of her just making her orca baby talk," Olson said. 

"A lot was just these weird little [noises] that didn't really mean anything, right? But every once in a while she'd make something that was more of a squeal, a squeal like her pod. That was what it was, just several hours out in the ice cold water, recording her -- and that's all it took, to be able to narrow down who she was," Olson continued.

Watch: Tokitae still using whale calls she learned from her family in the Salish Sea, expert says

The NOAA says she was identified as A73- A for her family group and 73 for her birth order. After identifying her, the community came together to nurse her to health, care for her in a net pen, and then release her so she could return to her family.

Listening to the calls of orcas - like Tokitae - for traces of their native languages can help researchers determine which pod they belong to. Olson says playing them sounds can also condition them for different environments, and that what Tokitae will hear in the Salish Sea is much different than what she is likely hearing at the Miami Seaquarium.

"Having water chiller pumps and all sorts of stuff circulating, and who knows what kind of sounds from being in there, she's been there her whole lifetime, you know there's construction noise and destruction noise inside that arena, she's had to deal with that as well, so in that sense, I think she's an urban whale... and so the sounds here probably won't be very disturbing, is my guess," Olson said. "I think she'll definitely get relief, by being in the natural waters here, even with the vessel traffic that we have - I think it's not going to be nearly as bad as what she's been exposed to for the last 50 years."

One of Olson's most memorable experiences collecting audio underwater was during the Dyes Inlet experience of 1997, when 19 orcas swam into the area to feast on salmon and spent days breaching playfully, attracting big audiences. The orcas belonged to L-pod -- specifically, the family group Tokitae is believed to be a part of by many.

Olson says he hopes to help in any way he can with the return of Tokitae -- and would also like to see freedom for other orcas in marine park captivity.

"It's way past time for us to start making things right again- and my hope is by this really simple act, it may be complex in the logistics, but it's really a simple act of just bringing somebody home," Olson said. 

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