She was born before the First World War, evaded capture in the 1960s, and outlived her offspring, but as of January 2017, southern resident killer whale J-2 — affectionately known to her many fans as Granny — is missing and presumed dead.
The Washington-based Centre for Whale Research, which has been studying the killer whales of the Salish Sea since the 1970s, announced Granny's death in a blog post on New Year's Eve, prompting an outpouring of sadness among the whale-watching community and concern for the vulnerable pod she leaves behind. Granny was widely regarded as the leader of J-Pod, one of three pods that make up the endangered southern resident population. Her only offspring, a male named Ruffles, died in 2010, but she was surrounded by grandchildren and great-grandchildren in J-Pod.
Tessa Danelesko, coordinator of the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network at the Vancouver Aquarium, says Granny's death is sad but not unexpected given her advanced age, which researchers believe may have been anywhere from 80 to 105. However, it's a troubling end to what was a difficult year for the southern residents.
"Unfortunately, Granny's was the seventh death of 2016, all of them from J-Pod except for a male, designated L-95," Danelesko says. Among the other whales deceased in 2016 were Granny's granddaughter, J-14 (Samish), and J-28 (Polaris), both important matriarchs in J-Pod.
Southern resident orcas live in matrilines that can span multiple generations. Females take charge of the distribution of food and the nurturing of calves in their family group, so the loss of three females in one year is a major blow to J-Pod.
"All of the researchers and those who monitor J-Pod are shaking their heads. We're really not sure what happens next," Danelesko says.
The southern resident orca population has faced increased pressure in recent years from ship traffic, noise, pollution and the precipitous decline of some Chinook salmon stocks. Danelesko says she hopes Granny's death will inspire the public to adopt whale-friendly behaviours.
"It's really sad and the entire community is in mourning, but it’s really important in these times to think of how we can contribute positively to whale conservation, for example by eating sustainable seafood," she says.
Whale sightings, which help researchers keep track of population numbers and distribution and identify important habitats, can be reported to the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network here.