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Weekly Whales: Southern Resident Killer Whales

Granny

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

Granny (J2): Oldest Known Orca in The Entire World

Granny (J2) the 105 year old Southern Resident Killer whale has returned to the Salish Sea for another summer of foraging for Chinook salmon and socializing with her family J pod and the other Southern Resident Orca pods, K and L.

J2 has been observed and studied in our waters since the mid 1970s. There are photographs of Granny from the 1930s and the size and growth of Granny and the other orcas are used in the age estimates. Granny is recognizable from the gray saddle patch just behind her dorsal fin, and a half-moon notch in her fin. She is the matriarch leader of J pod and estimated to be born in 1911. The life span of a female orca is between 60 and 80 years old. Granny has surpassed those expectations greatly! Granny has no living off-spring but is grandmother of Samish (J14) and great grandmother to 3 other J pod whales.

Even at 105 Granny hasn’t lost her playfulness. You will often find her spy hopping and breaching along with the younger members of J pod.

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Humpback Whale Sightings

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Although we spend most of our time with Orca Whales we are getting to spend more and more time each year with Humpbacks. We have had some amazing encounters with Humpback whales this season! We are very excited that the Humpback whale population is increasing as the sightings will continue to grow. Humpback whales are seasonal feeders and eat about 4,400-5,500 pounds of plankton, krill and small schooling fish each day during the feeding season. They are one of the largest whales that swim in our waters and grow to be about 15 meters long and weighing about 40 tonnes. These whales usually live to be 45-50 years old.

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For the past couple of weeks there have been several reports of Humpback whales in the area. On one of our afternoon tours we got suited up and headed down south to the report of 20 humpbacks!! As soon as we arrived on scene there was one playful humpback breaching in the distance welcoming us. This was quite a sight to see! The humpback whales are very acrobatic and are known for breaching, spy hopping and slapping their tail on the water’s surface. This season we also got to spend time with Big Mama and one of her calves. The calf has been very active in its behavior and enjoys breaching in and out of the water.

690Humpback whales travel in large loose groups, or even alone with the exception of the mother and calf having a strong bond. We are so incredibly lucky that these gentle giants swim in and out of our waters. Please enjoy some of our best photos so far as we are hoping these endangered species stick around a little longer, as they make their way north to spend their summers feeding.

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Transient Orcas

Transient OrcMay 2015 136as, also known as Bigg’s Killer Whales (named after Dr.Michael Biggs, famous for his Killer whale reseach), or commonly called T’s are an ecotype of Orca that are marine mammal hunters (they also eat the occasional bird, and very rarely a terrestrial mammal, but not humans :). These animals traditionally travel in smaller groups of between two and six individuals and have less stable family bonds (as compared to the Resident Orcas, Southern and Northern). Generally Transient Orcas vocalize less than the Residents and have a different dialect than the other ecotypes.

In the last few years the Bigg’s Killer Whales have become less “transient” in our waters, the Salish Sea. We have, in the 76 calendar days between June 1 and Aug. 15 of last summer 2015, saw transient whales on at least 49 days of 79! We have seen even more consistency so far this season! In the last 10 years, which is short for a species to recover, we have noticed undoubtedly that more and more transient Orca are returning to this area every spring.

InMay 2015 532creased Transient Orca Sightings

The increased amount of Transient Orcas in the area can be attributed to the influx of marine mammals, including harbour seals.The B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network doesn’t tally its counts until the end of the year, but co-coordinator Tessa Danelesko said it’s safe to say transient populations are increasing.
The Vancouver Aquarium says that we are seeing population growth of two to three per cent a year. And they think that’s directly linked to prey availability. It is believed that there are about 300 Transient Orcas living between California and Alaska. All of this is excellent news for a species of cetacean that was once listed as endangered and I know we are all excited to have so many back already this spring!

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Looking forward to a great season!

What an amazing start to the season we have had! The beautiful weather and abundance of wild life has helped us have a great kick off to the season. We have been very lucky to have sightings of some of our Resident Orcas- J pod in the area since mid February, Transient orcas, Humpback whales, seals, sea lions and many marine birds. Over the last year and a half we have had a “baby boom” within our Southern Resident Orca population. Six of these calves have been identified as male and we were excited for the good news of the birth of female calf J53 (L123’s sex is still unknown). Often with good news, there comes sad news, another Resident Killer whale L95 and unknown neo-natal calf were found dead. This is another tragic loss for a beautiful and already struggling species. With these recent occurrings the total population for our Southern Resident Orcas now stands at 83.

On April 7th we were lucky to have the Global news along for a tour early in the season and got to spend the day viewing Transient Orcas, Sea Lions, Seals, Eagles and much more that the Salish Sea has to offer. Over the month of April and into May, the beautiful Sidney weather and the calm seas throughout the Gulf Islands has made for some very memorable trips and some great photo opportunities.

The team at Sidney Whale Watching is looking forward to another great season and excited to share these memorable experiences will all of our guests.

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82 Resident Orcas make for a great summer!

105This season for viewing wildlife in the Salish Sea has been one for the records. As of the summer of 2015, our Southern Resident Orca population has increased to 82 Orcas! During the past year we have had the birth of five healthy Resident calves. Three in Jpod, baby J50 (female) with mom J16 Slick, J51 (male) with mom J41 Eclipse, J52 (male) with mom J36 Alki, and two in L pod, baby L121 (male) with mom L94 Calypso and L122 (male) with mom L91 Muncher.

 

We have alsoQG9E7754 sl Orca pod (1) been very lucky this season with the amount of Super pod days. A superpod is when all three of our Resident Orca pods- J, K, and L meet up in the same area and often put on a great show, breaching, tail slapping, spy hopping and socializing together. J pod has 27 members, K pod is the smallest of the three pods with 19 members and L pod is the largest with 36 members.

 

123Over 99% of our tours this season have been spent with our Resident and/our Transient Orcas. It has been truly fantastic. With the amount of new Resident Orca babies and the general trend of more Transient Orcas and Humpback whales returning to this area, we are all hopeful for many more exciting summers to view these magnificent marine mammals.

 

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Each day as we pull away from our dock in Sidney we are obviously excited to spend time with our Southern Resident Orcas, Transient Orcas, and from time to time the Humpback whales that frequent our waters, but those animals are not the only things are we are lucky enough to see as we travel through the Salish Sea and the Southern Gulf Islands. Our trips are full of marine mammals, sea birds, and other amazing creatures. This post will focus on some of the beautiful sea birds that we encounter on our tours.

Sea Birds

We are so fortunate to have an abundance of sea birds just off of Sidney. Here are a few of what you might see when you head out on a trip with us.

Pigeon Guillemont A40Y1777 smg 2 Pigeon Guillemot with lunch (1)

You can find these birds from Alaska down to California. They belong to the Auk and Puffin family. They have black bodies and large white wings with patches. Their legs and feet are bright red. These birds feed on crustaceans, mollusks, and marine worms.

 

A40Y2169 sl smg OystercatcherOystercatcher

These large, stocky, black and white wading birds rarely stray too far from the coastline. They have long orange/red bills and reddish-pink legs. They make their nest on the shoreline. preferring the rocky terrain. These birds feed on clams, barnacles, and other sea creatures.

 

A40Y2238 sl smg Pelagic CormorantsPelagic Cormorants

This type is the smallest of the Pacific Cormorants. They are glossy black with a dark bill and a long, slender neck and a red throat patch. They are found near coastal areas on cliff faces or rocky islands. They feed mainly on fish, but are known to eat crab and other crustaceans. They have been known to dive up to 70 meters in search of their food!

 

A40Y2515 a sl smg a Rhinoceros AuckletRhinoceros Aucklet

This type of sea bird with a close relative of the puffin. It feeds on small fish and nests in burrows or natural caves between 1 and 5 meters deep. Their name comes from the horn-like extension of the beak, but the horn is only present in breeding adults. Their plumage is dark on the top and paler below. Breed adults have white plumes above the eyes and behind the bills.

 

A40Y5944 sl smg Common M urreCommon Mure

This bird is large and belongs to the Auk family. It has a black back and head and a white underside. It dives under water to catch it’s prey and feeds on fish, squid, and other marine invertebrates. The egg of the Common Mure is pointed at one end, so if it is pushed around on a flat surface it rolls in a circle. This could be to ensure that the eggs don’t fall out of the nest!

 

A40Y0945 sl s Eagle seaquestBald Eagle

This amazing bird is found to live along waterways and especially along the northwestern coast of Canada and the USA. They are a large eagle with blackish colour and a white head and tail and a yellow beak. They can weigh up to 14 lbs and have a wing span of up to 7 feet (2 meters). They have great eyesight that is seven times better than people. During flight they can reach speeds of over 120 km per hour. Their favourite food to eat is fish but will eat small mammals as well.

Thanks to Suzanne Huot for the fantastic photos of these amazing birds that we get to see on a daily basis!

 

Spring Orca Babies!

Wow, it’s hard to believe that June is here already! We have had an amazing spring season with a variety of whales making appearance in the Salish Sea. We have had two of our resident pods, J Pod and L Pod back in our waters with four healthy babies. We have also had some amazing encounters with Humpback whales this spring. As well, there have been sightings of Minke and Grey whales. We couldn’t ask for a better spring.

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Our sighting of Humpback whales seems to be increasing every year as their population continues to grow again. Humpback whales are one of the largest whales that frequent our waters. They weigh in at around 15 meters long and 40 tonnes. Most humpback whales spend the summer in cool waters and winters in warmer tropical waters. The summers are spent feeding and winters are spent mating and calving.

Traveling from the frigid waters of Alaska to the tropical seas off Hawaii, Humpback Whales migrate through Canadian waters twice a year. Humpbacks use BC waters mainly as feeding grounds.

These whales are slow swimmers, making them easy targets for whalers in the first half of the 20th century, when they were killed by the thousands for their blubber. Now protected, Humpback populations have grown to nearly 54,000 worldwide— over 45 percent of their original numbers. The many years of whale hunting put Humpback whales on the endangered list. With recent conservation efforts they have been taken off the endangered list and are now listed as a threatened species.

Summer Ahead

We are looking forward to the upcoming summer and the return of all our resident Orcas. We also can’t wait to see all four babies continue to thrive in the Salish Sea.

Baby Boom

At last Spring is here! The sunny skies, warmer weather, and arrival of 4 new resident orca babies in 4 months has us very excited to begin our season. With the announcements of the two new additions to J Pod and the new L pod baby this winter we couldn’t wait to get the boats in the water and start viewing these new babies. The sighting of  another brand new J Pod baby just a few days ago has us even more eager to share our amazing resident orcas with our guests.

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We started off our season with a bang. We met up with J Pod just north of Pender Island and were able to spend a few hours viewing as they made their way through Active Pass and into the Straight of Georgia. We were able to see for the first time J50 and J51 – the newest additions to J Pod (until a few days ago! We haven’t yet be able to get our own picture of J52.) They started to become more active as they made their way through active pass. We were entertained with spyhops, tailing slapping, breaching, and fin waves.

 

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Whales and other wild life

The Gulf Islands and surrounding area has an abundance of wild life to see. As we were travelling with the Resident Oracs, we were able to stop and spend some time with a large group of bald eagles and a group of seals. We spotted 5 or 6 adult eagles and were able to see them flying with another 5 or 6 juvenile bald eagles. Such an amazing sight to see so many of them in one small area. In the same spot we were able to hang out with a small group of seals. The tide was quite high so most of them were just hanging out in the water.  Such a great day out on the water in Sidney. Can’t wait for more!

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