K21 along the north side of Stuart Island in 2015 (photograph by Dave Ellifrit).
K21 is one of the most well-known and iconic members of the Southern Resident community. His broad dorsal fin and bright, open saddle patch make him distinct even from great distances. We grieve for his pain and the loss his death would represent for the Southern Residents.
August 6, 2021
K21 - Gravely-ill Southern Resident killer whale
Center for Whale Research Statement:
Southern Resident killer whale K21
On July 28, the Center for Whale Research (CWR) received a report and video from a Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA) vessel of an apparently distressed killer whale in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. A CWR observer aboard a different PWWA vessel obtained further photographs of the whale. From these images, CWR scientists were able to confirm that the whale was 35-year-old male Southern Resident, K21, exhibiting severe emaciation and dorsal fin collapse. Members of all three Southern Resident pods, including K21’s closest associates, were photographed by CWR staff from the shore of San Juan Island on the evening of July 27; however, K21 was not located during this time.
The images from July 28 indicate that K21 would likely not survive much longer. The precise cause of his condition cannot yet be determined. Weather and border restrictions have precluded further direct observation by CWR staff. Fisheries and Oceans Canada are currently coordinating monitoring and response, and CWR is on call to support monitoring and understanding K21’s condition if he is resighted within our study area. Without any resightings since July 28, it is very likely that K21 has since passed.
K21 has been the oldest male Southern Resident killer whale since the death of L41 in 2019. Born in 1986, K21 had one confirmed sibling, K46, and two probable siblings in females K40 and K17. K21’s mother, K18, died in 2004, and the last of his close maternal relatives, K40, died in 2012. Since the loss of his family, K21 has traveled with K16 and her son K35, together forming what became the most socially independent subgroup within K pod. Genetic studies have not shown K21 to be the father of any sampled individuals.
While K21’s condition is heartbreaking, we celebrate his life as a story of flourishing under adversity. Males born in the Southern Resident population have an estimated average lifespan between 20 and 30 years, and few Southern Resident males reach K21’s age of 35.
In the years after his mother died, K21 was at even greater risk, but he endured and maintained a close social relationship with his sister and, later, his adopted family, the K16s. K21 is one of the most well-known and iconic members of the Southern Resident community. His broad dorsal fin and bright, open saddle patch make him distinct even from great distances. We grieve for his pain and the loss his death would represent for the Southern Residents.