Imagine a smooth inky black dorsal fin emerging slowly from the water, climbing to a height of near two meters as its bearer makes an un-fussed approach toward your tiny boat. As he draws nearer, you began to notice that the trailing edge of his dorsal fin was not straight like those of the other whales nearby.
This male, scientifically noted as J-1, was remarkably memorable due to the gently ruffled cartilage that naturally developed on his dorsal fin as it grew to its full size.
Ruffles was a member of J pod, and travelled very closely to the well-known matriarch named Granny. The two displayed textbook mother-son behavior since the start of the Orca Survey in 1976, through to his passing in 2010. Many strongly believe that the two were related, though some genetic evidence suggests otherwise and the jury is still out. Ruffles was estimated to have been fifty-nine years old when he disappeared, and remains the eldest male on record to this day.
Given humans’ strained understanding of killer whales throughout history, we came very close to never having the chance to get to know Ruffles at all. J pod, along with their relatives K and L pods, were captured multiple different times throughout the 1960’s and 70’s life-capture rush for aquaria. Contracted “whale hunters” (often fishermen or navy personnel) were hired to corral a pod of whales in an enclosed bay. They regularly used nets, explosives, or aircraft to track the whales’ movements and not miss out on a catch. The buyers, mainly well-known theme parks, were most interested in capturing young killer whales. The calves were the easiest to transport and presumably the easiest to train, though our lack of knowledge about the needs of wild killer whales meant that many of the youngsters died during capture, or within days of arrival in their tanks. A handful lasted years, and only one still survives today.
During one of these captures Ruffles was pulled from the makeshift enclosure with intent to be taken from his family. In a fateful turn of events however, he was released back into the water – deemed “too big” to travel to an aquarium. Had that moment gone any other way we may never have seen this charismatic individual again. He may never have gone on to father many calves in K and L pods, and visitors from around the world may never have had the chance to spot that famous ruffled fin. We humans have interfered so much in the lives of whales in the past. Ruffles’ story is one where ‘what could have happened’ is all too plain and clear; and forever reminds us of why we should make the choices that are the best for these whales in the wild, for generations to come.
Next week we will meet Onyx, a male with a story that made us rethink our understanding of the social dynamics within killer whale pods.
Words by: Amanda Madro