J14 with her oldest daughter J37, 2015. Photo by Deborah Giles.
Someone asked me once if I take it personally when a whale dies. Do I get sad? Is it like losing a pet or a friend, they asked. The answer to that is: it depends on the whale. We don’t like to pick favorites. It doesn’t seem very scientific or objective does it? We even have a saying around here about it. "Don’t pick a favorite or they will be doomed", something like that. What we mean is that, oddly, your favorite whales seem to be the most likely to die. Morbid? Definitely. Sad? Very, but also seemingly true.
I remember my first favorites. It was during my first few years at the Center, maybe 2005, that I had a really amazing encounter with L73 and L74. They were two cousins, both born in 1986. They were both around 19 at the time, and both getting big. L73 had a ripple in his fin which caused a lot of speculation about J1 being his dad. L74 had a fin like a butter knife, rounded and blunt. They were both part of the L9 sub-pod, of which L84 is now the only remaining member. One fall, we were out at Hein Bank on Orca. I think it was Dave and Katie with me, in the early years of our winter studies contract. We had been following these two, who frequently traveled together, and we had lost them in the fog. We were drifting around waiting for them to pop up, trapped in the silent calm of the fog bank. The only sound was that of the bell on the Hein Bank buoy, creepily chiming despite the flat calm water. It seems that we all spaced out for a moment or two.....it got very quiet. Suddenly, there they were! L73 and L74 exploding out of the water flanking both sides of the boat! We all screamed, even Dave I think. Then we laughed. I was sitting up on the bow and could swear I got splashed they were so close. It felt like they did it on purpose. Look what we can make the humans do! I definitely had some other great moments with those two guys, but that foggy day was one of my favorites. A few years later they were both gone. L74 in 2009 and L73 in 2010. My first experience of our inside joke about not picking favorites. “Especially don’t pick two at the same time!”, someone said to me. I did pick a few after that, it’s hard not to. J30 was one. Maybe he reminded me of those two. He did look a little like L74 in that generic sort of way.
To be honest, I wouldn’t exactly call J14 a favorite. But she was well known to me, as I am sure she was to many of you. One of the first whales I learned to recognize, with her distinct fin tip, almost the perfect resident-type dorsal fin, a small thumb on both sides of here saddle patch, and tell-tale hook shaped scratch on her right side. Before J30 died in 2009, she had the perfect matriline composition. Two girls (J37 and J40), one big boy (J30), and one little boy (J45). She just seemed like a good mom, a solid female leader in J pod. She was born in 1974, just a few years before the Orca Survey project started, the same year Mike Bigg’s study began. Our last on-the-water encounter with her was on the 31st of July, encounter number 76. We have had three subsequent encounters with the rest of J14’s since then, but she was nowhere to be found. The most recent was on the 22nd of August. For those of you who don't know these whales, not finding an individual with their family group for several encounters in a bad sign. It almost always means that individual has died. J14 was 42 years old this year.
It seems as though the Southern Residents are not living up to their expected life spans. J14’s mother, J12, lived to be 61. Females born more recently appear to have shorter lifespans than females born in the early years of the study. The most obvious cause of this is shortage of food. Chronic food scarcity is known to cause reduced lifespans in many other mammals, including humans. Feels like we keep coming back to this point - the whales don’t have enough to eat! They are literally starving to death. The question is when will it be too late to do something about it?
A few years back I was trying to describe my job to someone. I was explaining how we count the whales each year, and update the ID guides, taking out the dead whales and sometimes add new ones. I can’t remember who the person was, but I remember what they said: “sounds like your job is to document the demise of the southern residents.” I know there is a lot more to what we do here than that, but I have to admit that sometimes it does feel that way.
Today is one of those days.