SEATTLE -- An orphaned female orca has passed all medical tests and is ready to be reunited with her family in Canadian waters, a spokesperson for the National Marine Fisheries Service said.
''It is time for her to go home,'' Brian Gorman said Tuesday. ''She's got a ticket, her bags are packed and we're just waiting for word from the Canadians.''
Gorman said U.S. researchers gave results of the killer whale's final battery of medical tests to their Canadian counterparts last weekend. She was found to have no communicable diseases, and an itchy skin condition and internal condition that made her breath smell like paint thinner have cleared up.
''She's behaving like a healthy, active young whale,'' Gorman said.
Canadian researchers and veterinarians are studying test results and were expected to decide by Friday whether the whale would be allowed to come north, said Michelle McCombs, a spokesperson for Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
''What they're looking at is whether there would be a risk to the wild population,'' she said. ''We want to make sure the animal is healthy and ready for transport.''
The NMFS and Canadian officials have been in daily discussions about options for moving the 2-year-old, 1,240-pound killer whale north. Authorities hope she will rejoin her family, or pod, when those whales make their annual summer visit to waters east of Vancouver Island.
She was captured by an NMFS team June 13 and has been under close watch since in a 40-by-40-foot holding pen in Clam Bay near Manchester, on the Kitsap Peninsula across Puget Sound from Seattle.
The agency decided to capture her in part because of concerns about her health, and also because she had become extremely friendly with small boats off Vashon Island -- raising concerns about both her safety and that of boaters.
The whale, dubbed A-73 by researchers for her order in her birth pod, was first spotted near the Vashon ferry dock in mid-January. Researchers believe her pod left her behind after her mother died, and she found her way into Puget Sound.
Whale activists are helping raise money to cover capture and relocation costs, which could reach $500,000.
The whale has adjusted well to captivity, Gorman said. Since her first few days in the pen, when she ate only one or two 5-pound salmon, she has increased her intake to a steady 40-50 pounds of fish and significantly more some days.
Canadian officials have said they would not allow A-73 into their waters if there was any sign she could have communicable diseases. However, Gorman said the U.S. team has conducted an array of tests for diseases including the dangerous morbillivirus.
''It's a bad virus,'' he said. ''It would have been a disqualifier. But we had run a test in May, one again after she was taken out of the sound, and again last Tuesday, and she was negative all three times.''
Canadian experts will oversee the effort to reunite A-73 with her home pod in Johnstone Strait, off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. Plans call for her to be held in a penned-off cove to allow her and the pod to become accustomed to each other.
Orcas, actually a kind of dolphin, are found in all the world's oceans.
The population of Washington state's three resident pods has dropped from 98 in 1995 to 78 today. NMFS considered listing the mammals for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act but said last month the pods did not qualify as a distinct subspecies. Other efforts are planned.
On the Net:
Orca Conservancy: http://www.orcaconservancy.org/
The Whale Museum: http://www.whalemuseum.com/
National Marine Fisheries Service: http://www.nwr.noaa.gov/
Vancouver Aquarium: http://www.vanaqua.org/
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