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Weekly Whales: Southern Resident Killer Whales


What image comes to mind when you think of the word granny? Perhaps a fresh batch of cookies, a well-worn floral apron, a warm crinkled smile?

For us, the word granny summons an entirely different image. We feel anticipation, the rocking of a boat on the Haro Strait, excitement as a pod of killer whales approaches from a distance with an iconic female classically in the lead. Granny, scientifically noted as J-2, was the matriarch of the Southern Resident Killer Whale population. Sadly, she is believed to have passed around October 2016, as this was the first time her pod was seen without her since the start of the Orca Survey study in 1976. Her body was never recovered, but rather returned to the deep to become part of the cycle of life in the ocean once more.

Granny’s journey to fame began when researchers in the Pacific Northwest began their studies of the killer whale population living in the waters between British Columbia and Washington State. J-2 was a unique female, as she was generally travelling in lead of J pod, and presented some mysterious new questions for the scientists to unravel. Behavioral studies pointed to several different whales that were thought to be the offspring of Granny, and it was through the mystery of Granny’s roots that the story of her advanced age began to develop.

Researchers used their data on social bonds, body development, and menopause in adult females to make assumptions about the ages of individuals and their offspring. It was through this process that they came to the conclusion that J-2 was one o f the eldest females in the population. This trait, combined with her leadership qualities, earned her memorable nickname of Granny. Based on this information, Granny was believed to be approximately 105 years old at the time of her death. Though this estimation has been debated over time.

As scientific technology progressed, marine biologists had an ever-widening array of tools at hand to study this enigmatic group of animals. Additionally, the public at large had finally begun to take notice of their work, and attitudes were slowly changing. Non-invasive genetic studies began on the whales to reveal many mysteries of their lives, including family lineages. Over time some of the original assumptions made about these three families were questioned, some overturned and others solidified. We learned more about the intricate social natures of these whales, along with discovering their highly developed language systems. With each new discovery researchers uncovered more questions to be answered. What was it that made Granny such a prominent leader? Was she truly as old as they thought she was?

Scientists believe that Granny’s unique leadership behavior may have been due to the modern discovery that she had no living offspring of her own. She has be known to ‘adopt’ males who have lost their mothers, perhaps explaining her close bond with the male named Ruffles (killer whales do not mate within their own pods, but rather with members of the other two pods in the population. Calves stay with their mothers for life).

When asked who they believe will replace Granny as the dominant matriarch of J pod, researchers give the simple yet complicated answer of “no one”. She is believed to be the only female who could have held her particular role and established such solidarity within the group. Was J-2 truly 105 years old, the eldest living killer whale on earth? We may never know for sure. Researchers believe that she could have been 75 years old, or perhaps even older than 105. One must ask themselves though: does this fact even matter?

Even at 75 Granny would have been the eldest whale in the population by a long shot, and her influence reached much further than simply her impressive age. She taught us about the social dynamics within her population, and the lifelong bonds these whales forge with one another. She captured the hearts and minds of the public and sparked conservation and activism, which aided in the protection of her species and the ocean as a whole. She was unique; a leader and a teacher, as all of our grannies have been. May she rest in peace, and her lessons never be forgotten.

Next week we remember another icon: a male known as Ruffles that was recognizable to visitors from around the world due to his unusual dorsal fin.

Words by: Amanda Madro

Southern Resident Killer Whales

Have you met the Southern Resident Orcas? One uses the term ‘met’, because those who know them will attest to the fact that the experience is far greater than to simply ‘see’.

Lean in, hear their breath. Watch their fascinating movements and delight in the stories told of each pod, discovering how each individual whale has a tale to be shared. Many will know, but for those who don’t, the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population consists of three pods known as J, K, and L. This strictly fish-eating group can also be referred to as J clan, and has fluctuated between a high of 98 and low of 71 individuals since surveys began in 1976. Presently, the Centre for Whale Research census finds 78 whales living in the waters of British Columbia, Canada, and Washington State, U.S.A. Killer whales (or orcas, both are correct) have held positions of cultural importance to coastal First Nations communities since time immemorial, and are subjects of great scientific and cultural interest in the modern day.

There are several top reasons why scientists believe that these whales are struggling to maintain a stable population, all of which will be explored here in this journal series over the coming months. We will discuss cases of individual whales, living and passed, whose lives have helped us to comprehend some of the biggest threats to cetacean populations worldwide – illuminating a path toward a cleaner and healthier future for our oceans.

Of course these whales we have improved upon more than just our understanding of the perils of a modern ocean. As some of the most intelligent animals on the planet, the Southern Resident Killer Whales have helped us discover and appreciate the vast cognitive abilities and social natures of marine mammals. We owe much of this knowledge to a dedicated group of marine scientists who undertook a long-term study with the goal of changing our distorted modern views. No longer were these the unintelligent bloodthirsty beasts of the early 20th century – we finally recognized that they are fascinating sentient creatures worthy of freedom, admiration, and respect.

Next week we get started by examining the impact one of the most iconic whales of our time, a female known as ‘J2’, or more commonly ‘Granny’.

Words by: Amanda Madro

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