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Poking Around The Pod

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An orphaned killer whale has not yet joined her family, but experts watching her progress say she's doing well.

Springer the whale is trailing close to her pod, which is swimming near the coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

Last night she visited a popular "rubbing beach" with a few members of her family group. Killer whales like to massage theirbellies on the smooth stones near the beach.

The 2-year-old, 12-foot-long orca was not intermingling with the eight other whales but she stayed within calling distance, said John Ford, a whale expert with Canada's Department of Fisheries.

The orca appeared to be doing fine, though easily distracted by boats, logs and kelp, he said.

"She's a toddler," Vancouver Aquarium whale expert Lance Barrett-Lennard said Sunday. The life stages of killer whales roughly parallel those of humans.

The young whale apparently strayed into Puget Sound in January after he mother died. She was captured in June because of safety concerns in the busy sound, and transported by ferry 400 miles to a small bay near her home waters.

The eight orcas entered the bay Sunday morning and exchanged calls with the female in a temporary pen. She poked her head out of the water, as did some in the group. After her release Sunday afternoon, the whale paused to play with some kelp then swam west.

"Her best chance is to find a female she can bond with closely," said aquarium vice president of operations Clint Wright, who oversaw coordination of her transport north.

The hope is that she will find a niche within her clan, but life as a solitary whale in these waters would offer her a more secure future than she could have found in Puget Sound, he said.

Killer whales, a kind of dolphin, are found in all the world's oceans. Resident pods in the inland waters of the United States and Canada are struggling with dwindling salmon runs, increasing human contact and pollution.

Within two hours of her release, the orca swam up to a passing motorboat. The orca was easily recognizable because of yellow transmitters attached to her with suction cups to help the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans keep an eye on her during her first days as a free whale.

Canadian officials are asking boaters to try to steer clear of her. She had gotten too cozy with boaters in the Seattle area.

"It's for her own good," Barrett-Lennard said. "There's a very real possibility of her sustaining an injury from a propeller."

And she could put kayakers at risk by nuzzling up against them, noted John Nightingale of the Vancouver Aquarium. If such behavior is encouraged and becomes a problem, she may have to be taken back into captivity. But such a drastic step would be a long way off.

"That's the worst-case scenario," he said.