ABOARD THE CATALINA JET, British Columbia - An orphaned killer whale that strayed into Puget Sound last winter and won hearts for her troubled species across the continent was finally headed for home Saturday.
After a false start Friday - barnacles on the hull of her catamaran transport cut its top speed from 40 to 17 knots - the 2-year-old orca was lifted out of her pen by crane and settled into a blue, water-filled box for the 400-mile trip to Johnstone Strait, near the north end of Vancouver Island.
The transfer went without a hitch, and an overnight weather change to cool and misty rather than sunny and hot was better for the orca, said John Nightingale, president of the Vancouver Aquarium.
The 12-foot killer whale, named A-73 for her birth order in Canada's A-pod, chirped a few times but settled right down in the container on the catamaran's stern. Whale handler Jeff Foster and his crew covered her upper body with wet towels and slathered her dorsal fin and the skin around her blowhole with ointment to keep her skin moist.
Fisheries officials in the United States and Canada decided to move the whale from the busy waters around Seattle over concerns about her health and her increasing coziness with small boats.
Throughout the 380-mile journey up the Inside Passage between Vancouver Island and the west coast of British Columbia Saturday, Foster and his crew were taking turns in the box, talking and petting the orca to comfort her.
"She's a very calm animal. And at that age they're very adaptable," said whale-handler Jen Schorr, 30, of Seattle. "They're pretty bold in most cases. They're the top predator so they can afford to be."
The Vancouver Aquarium will oversee A-73's care in a net pen near Hansen Island until her release.
Veterinarians and scientists will decide when the time is right. Pods or family groups from A-clan, whose vocalization patterns are similar to A-73's, have been in the area for weeks, and her grandmother's group, A-24, was spotted up there Thursday.
"If her pod comes by tomorrow, and they vocalized and were positive, we could release her tomorrow ... open the door and cross our fingers," said David Huff of the aquarium.
U.S. and Canadian officials arranged the relocation in hopes that the juvenile orca will rejoin her family group.
If she does not, the consensus is she will fare better there than in the busy waters near Seattle, where her health faltered as she struggled alone to feed herself from mid-January until her capture by Foster's crew June 13.
Tightly knit killer whale pods hunt cooperatively, and young animals learn while accompanying adults. Orca experts noted the disappearance and likely death of A-73's mother last year, and they believe she wandered south when she was unable to keep up with the others.
In her four weeks in captivity at a federal research facility on the Kitsap Peninsula, across Puget Sound from Seattle, she was treated for minor health problems - an itchy skin condition and worms - and fattened up. She gained more than 100 pounds, from 1,240 mid-June to 1,348 Saturday.
The relocation follows months of discussion and planning by the U.S. and Canadian governments, with input from community activists in both countries. Officials became concerned as the orca grew increasingly friendly with boaters around the Vashon Island ferry dock in busy Puget Sound, actually scratching herself on the hulls of small boats.