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In Memoriam

By Kenneth C. Balcomb

December 31, 2016

J28 alongside J17 - Photo by Ken Balcomb, Aug 1993

     We have now seen J2 thousands of times in the past forty years, and in recent years she has been in the lead of J pod virtually every time that she has been seen by anyone. In 1987 we estimated that she was at least 45 years old and was more likely to have been 76 years old (the oldest SRKW at the time, and the presumed mother of J1). And, she kept on going, like the energizer bunny. She is one of only a few “resident” whales for which we do not know the precise age because she was born long before our study began. I last saw her on October 12, 2016 as she swam north in Haro Strait far ahead of the others. Perhaps other dedicated whale-watchers have seen her since then, but by year’s end she is officially missing from the SRKW population, and with regret we now consider her deceased. The SRKW population is now estimated to be 78 as of 31 December 2016, and J pod contains only 24 individuals plus the wandering L87. To whom will he attach now? Who will lead the pod into the future? Is there a future without food? What will the human leaders do?

J2 in 1976

Photo by Ken Balcomb

J2 with members of the southern resident killer whale community - Sept. 2016

Photo by Ken Balcomb

My first acquaintance with the southern resident killer whale designated J2 was on April 16, 1976 in Admiralty Inlet, Puget Sound.

     I remember calling Mike Bigg immediately after processing my film of the encounter to notify him that we had found a group of about a dozen whales plus a few calves including a newborn, and none of them were whales that we had seen on our previous encounter on April 6 with most of the so-called southern community of these iconic “resident” killer whales. We (Camille Goebel, Rick Chandler, and I – forming an non-profit organization) were beginning our third week of a ‘Killer Whale Study in Puget Sound and Environs’ for the Seattle Marine Mammal Division of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, and I was excited to ‘discover’ any new whales that Mike did not already know. There was great controversy at the time (1976) about whether the killer whale population being ‘harvested’ for sale to marine parks and aquaria throughout the world was identifiable and finite, essentially local, or anonymous and infinite as in merely passers-by from a world ocean of these large and charismatic marine predators.

     Mike Bigg was at the crux of this controversy because he had the audacity to say to the world’s most respected cetologists (whale and dolphin scientists) that he could identify each and every individual killer whale in the Pacific Northwest by the shape of its dorsal fin and the pigment pattern and scars on the ‘saddle patch’ on the back of each whale. Forty years later this individual whale recognition is now common knowledge, but in 1976 the validity of the individual identification technique was being argued in US Federal Court and in meetings of the International Whaling Commission. On the 17th of April 1976, Mike essentially proved to me that he was right when he calmly told me over the phone that the whales we had seen the day before must be J pod, and he went on to precisely describe each individual: “The largest male with a closed saddle and tall prominent dorsal fin with a wavy trailing edge that gives a side view appearance of slight scalloping, that is J1; he is closely associated with a closed-saddle female that has a small nick half way down on the trailing edge with a finger-size tag of tissue protruding upward from the bottom of the nick, that is J2; another large male with an open saddle and jaunty dorsal fin that bends to the left about half way up its height, that is J3; and, another female with a closed saddle and a dorsal fin that looks like it has a human bite-size piece missing from the trailing edge near the top of the fin, that is J4; etc., until he described each whale that appeared on my film. I was humbled – the only whale I had been able to photograph that Mike hadn’t seen was a newborn calf with mother J4 – and we designated it J15.

J2 last seen by CWR on October 12, 2016

Photo taken from the deck of CWR by Ken Balcomb

J1 and J2 - May 2009

Photo by Erin Heydenreich

J2 Photo Gallery - Over The Years

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