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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

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