Photo: Killer Whale Tales
For marine mammal specialists, Springer's release came as proof that orcas could persevere despite knowing captivity.
"This is a great experiment that is a success. We are very happy," Michael Harris of the Orca Conservancy told KOMO 4 News. "She's with her family now. She's fat, she's happy. We've been holding our breath for a long, long time and this is great news."
Every year since then Springer has been seen in the company of her pod near Vancouver, seemingly unencumbered by her time in captivity. But this year, her visit was extra special -- she was with a calf who had survived the crucial first year of its life.
"They appear to be healthy and robust... normal in every way. Great stuff," wrote Lance Barrett-Lennard, head of the Marine Mammal Research Program at the Vancouver Aquarium.
"This sighting is great news for everyone interested in the welfare of killer whales off the west coast of North America -- and will be particularly gratifying to those who were involved in the many aspects of Springer's identification, assessment, rescue, rehabilitation, transportation and release 12 years ago."
Springer's successful reintegration back into the wild with her pod, despite her prolonged interaction and dependency on humans, stands counter to the argument that orcas currently held at marine parks like SeaWorld must remain that way for the rest of their lives.
Truth is, no one knows what invisible bonds continue to tie captive killer whales to their families in the wild, or what other happy reunions, like Springer's, could be awaiting them.