Nichols boat transports orca

Nichols Brothers Boat Builders of Freeland probably won't go into the whale rescue business permanently, but according its owner, Matt Nichols, helping in the relocation of orca A-73 was a wonderful experience.

"It was exciting, a real rush being part of what has become a real fairy tale story," Nichols said. "This is a time when we all need good news. With the continued threat of terrorism and an uncertain economy, lifting people's spirits is important. Taking Springer home was just the right thing to do."

The 12-foot orphaned orca had been languishing in Puget Sound near Vashon Island for nearly six months. After a month of rehabilitation, the 1,348-pound whale was ready to move north to the waters off Hanson Island, B.C. Scientists hope she will reunite with her pod there.

"It really took a community of people to make this happen," Nichols said.

"We were happy to be a part of it."

The job of getting Springer home was a big one: It required Nichols Brothers to burn about 8,000 gallons of fuel during a 20-hour round trip to get the whale home, as well as thousands of work hours from those who cared for Springer prior to and during the trip.

Nichols donated the use of the Catalina Jet, one of the company's high-speed catamarans. The journey was delayed for a day after the crew was unable to push the craft over 20 knots. Nichols said barnacles on the hull and a buoy that was sucked into one of the Catalina Jet's water intakes were the culprits.

After the boat was cleaned up and the buoy removed, it left Saturday with 73 people on board, including 43 Nichols employees and family members, who traveled 300 miles roundtrip and spent two nights on the boat's decks.

"The vessel was perfect for the job," Nichols said. "If we were building a boat to carry whales safely, this would be the one. It rides smooth and is able to cut through some rough water."

The vessel is 144 feet long and 40 feet wide and is designed to provide a stable, smooth ride even in rough seas.

"For that reason it was perfect to carry Springer because she wasn't jostled or stressed," Nichols said.

The "Catalina Jet" is a luxury vessel designed to carry 500 passengers with all the creature comforts. The boat has three decks, a main, second and upper deck. Springer was carried in a tank on the second deck aft. She floated in a 15-foot-long tank filled 36 inches deep with saltwater.

"She was precious, pampered cargo all the way," Nichols said. "We all had our jobs. The whale handlers kept a close eye on Springer while our crew pumped fresh water into the tank and continually checked the security of the bindings holding it."

Nichols engineer Mike Downey donated his services for the trip, monitoring the engine room.

At one point the orca's caretakers ran low on ice, so the boat stopped in a small town along the way and formed a line from the ice machine in front of the grocery store to the vessel.

"We loaded 100 bags of ice quickly," Nichols said.

The trip was an adventure for everyone.

"I felt like an explorer heading into unchartered waters and doing something for the first time," said Nichols' son Justin said. "It was amazing."

Also on board were four of the Nichols grandchildren.

When the vessel arrived home passengers were euphoric about the experience.

"As we climbed off the boat, we all agreed we were ready to do it again," Justin Nichols said.

The company has been approached to participate in another whale rescue to bring an orca from the waters off Canada to its pod in Puget Sound.

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