'Whale whisperer' teaches orca to trust humans

Posted: Sunday, July 14, 2002

SEATTLE - The orphan orca from Canada who strayed into busy Puget Sound last winter charmed locals for months, splashing and playing off the Vashon Island ferry dock.

But beneath the playful exterior lay concerns about the whale's health and her future. And when experts decided to capture her, nurse her back to health and release her to her pod, they called on "whale whisperer" Jeff Foster.

It was Foster, who's spent a lifetime working with wild - and not-so-wild - creatures around the world, who persuaded the young orca to trust her human caretakers.

Now, he'll play a role in returning her to the wild. And he's optimistic about her success.

"She's feeling better. She's a lot more active. She's just doing better all the way around," Foster said. He and his team were asked to accompany her to Canada, where U.S. and Canadian officials will attempt to reunite her with her home pod.

The little female - dubbed A-73 for her birth order in Canada's A-pod - was losing weight in Puget Sound and had worms, an itchy skin condition and breath that smelled like paint thinner. As the weather grew warmer, she began approaching boats.

"These guys are powerful animals - she wouldn't have any problem flipping a kayak," Foster said.

After consultations with whale researchers, activists, Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Vancouver Aquarium, the National Marine Fisheries Service concluded she had no future down here, 400 miles from home.

Foster was enlisted to catch her - a task he and a half dozen other Keiko-campaign veterans managed in about half an hour on June 13.

"Jeff's got a good feel for this. We would have had second thoughts without someone like him to help us," Joe Scordino, NMFS assistant regional administrator, said afterward.

Foster had been visiting with A-73 since January. When the time came, he slipped into the water, wrapped a thick, soft rope around her tail and then he and a colleague tucked her into a sling. A crane then lifted her onto a barge for the move to a holding pen across Puget Sound from Seattle.

In the days before, "we had probably a half dozen interactions where we tried to ... get a line on her tail," Foster said. "She loved that interaction, that contact."

The maddening itch helped.

Foster stroked her and cooed, "just like you talk to a dog with fleas. 'How does this feel? Do you like it right there?' Her skin was so irritating to her - she just liked that relief, that rubbing. So we were able to use that as a tool in our capture."

For the past several years, Foster has been trying to free Keiko, the "Free Willy" star returned to his birth waters off Iceland in 1998 after more than 20 years in captivity.

But Keiko - left in the wild for days at a stretch - seems to prefer humans to orcas.

"He doesn't want to go," Foster said. "I think WE seem more like his people."

He thinks A-73's chances are better: She has had only limited contact with people and has been separated from her family group for just months.

Foster - now 46 - has been catching critters since he was 3 years old and spotted a golden pheasant in his grandparents' Iowa garage.

Love of animals runs in the family. His father, veterinarian Jim Foster, started with a small-animal practice and an interest in exotics. He became the first full-time vet at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, and then went into field research - focusing on wolves in Alaska and then on gorillas in Rwanda, where he died five years ago.

At 15, Foster was a certified diver collecting octopus, fish and wolf eels for the waterfront Seattle Marine Aquarium - where his future father-in-law, Don Goldberry, was capturing orcas in the 1960s and '70s.

After high school, he headed for the South Seas, "hitchhiking on boats," flying - doing whatever it took to "see what was over the hill" in New Zealand and Australia.

In his 20s, Foster was back home working with Goldberry on the last Puget Sound orca captures.

"We thought there were hundreds," Foster said. "We knew virtually nothing about them."

Experts now figure the maximum population of the state's three resident pods, which summer near the San Juan Islands, was probably about 120 in the early 1960s. There are now just 78 orcas in those pods, down from 98 in 1995. The decline is not entirely understood, though dwindling salmon runs, boat traffic and pollution are considered likely factors.

In the 1960s and '70s, the orcas were targets for fishermen irate at having to share the salmon harvest.

"Almost every whale captured back in the olden days had bullet holes in them," Foster said. "They pulled three bullets out of Namu."

People are more enlightened now - but sympathy for the animals hinders efforts to learn more about them.

"Even getting genetic samples here a few years ago was so taboo - 'Don't touch them,' " Foster said. "The Canadians have done some genetic work the last few years and found some incredible information. The toxin levels in these animals are so much higher than anybody ever predicted or thought was possible."

It's been just 30 years since Canadian researcher Michael Bigg determined individual orcas could be identified from their markings - work that enabled researchers to identify A-73 and determine that her mother had not been seen for months and was probably dead.

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