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Rescuers Aid Orphaned Orca Whale

An orphaned orca that had been alone at sea for months appeared to be settling into her new temporary home after a capture that officials said went off without a hitch.

The lost killer whale rolled over for a tummy scratch 30 seconds after she was lowered into the offshore net pen that will be her temporary home, her new landlord said.

The goal is to move her as soon as possible to a netted-off cove between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland in the hope that she will rejoin her family, known as A-pod, when they return later this summer for their annual visit.

The capture of the 2-year-old black-and-white baby went remarkably quickly, said Bob Lohn, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"On a scale of one to 10, it was 10," Lohn said.

The whale was taken to a federal research station near the Kitsap Peninsula town of Manchester for some dockside tests, and then gently placed in the pen.

Capture-team leader Jeff Foster and others planned to stay with her for the first 24 to 48 hours to comfort her in the unfamiliar closed environment.

Foster has caught and tagged orcas for the Norwegian government and also assisted in the so-far-unsuccessful effort to return long-captive adult killer whale Keiko, star of the movie "Free Willy", to his native waters near Iceland.

The first challenge will be to get the young whale to eat. A fish farm is contributing Atlantic salmon to help fatten her up, and her caretakers are scrambling to diagnose and treat her health problems.

The orca, a relatively petite 11 feet long and 1,240 pounds in a species where adults can measure 30 feet long and weigh 10 tons, is underweight and known to be suffering from worms and an itchy skin condition, both likely aggravated by the stress of her situation. And her breath smells like paint thinner, a symptom called ketosis that her caretakers are not sure how to interpret.

The whale wandered into the strange new world of Puget Sound from her native Canadian waters after apparently being left behind by her family. Canadian orca researchers' records enabled whale watchers to identify her by her markings and dialect when she was spotted in mid-January near a ferry dock southwest of Seattle. Her mother is dead.

Orcas are actually a kind of dolphin. Washington State's three resident pods have dropped in population from 98 in 1995 to 78 today. The government is to decide this summer whether to list killer whales as an endangered species.

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