J28 with calf J54, December 2015. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research.
I first met J28 in 2003, but I didn’t know her name until 2004. She was the first whale of the Southern Resident community that I could ID on sight. Granted, she was easy to spot because of the rather glaring notch on the trailing edge of her dorsal fin; it was thrilling for me to be able to pick her out of the crowd.
Living on Pender Island in British Columbia has its many benefits, but my favourite above all others is the proximity to shore the whales come when passing Thieves Bay – at times it feels like you could reach out and touch them. On the many occasions (upwards of 250 times) that I've had the luxury of witnessing them swimming by, J28 has always been one of my favourites to see. I think it's because she was for the longest time the last one to pass by the Thieves Bay breakwater during a Pender Island orca encounter. She'd “cut the corner” and come by incredibly close to shore and often at a pretty good clip. Very fun to see. She always looked as thought she was in a hurry to catch up with the rest of J Pod. And seeing her at the back of the pack always signified the end of a J Pod encounter.
I have wondered why she was almost always at the end of the group. Eventually, I decided that she was a bit of a daydreamer. When she looked around and noticed the rest of her family were way ahead, she rushed to catch up. This conjured some great images in my mind: What was she looking at? What was distracting her?
After becoming a mother her habits changed. She no longer passed close to the Thieves Bay shoreline nor was she ever at the end of the group. She seemed to have lost her day-dreaminess and had become a very attentive mom. I liked this about her. She often took J46 a little further offshore and was never far behind the rest of her family. Then along came J54 in 2015 and I almost lost sight of J28 completely. She did a very good job of blending in with the crowd.
Now J28 might be sick. She has severe "peanut head," indicating illness. Whether she's suffering from disease or is starving, we don't know. Either way, it is so sad. Not only are we faced with the possible demise of yet another whale, but also there is the cold hard fact that, at only 9 months of age, J54’s life is left hanging in the balance. It makes my heart break.
We have talked about this among our group at CWR and hope that with the tight family and the bonds within the Southern Resident orca community that someone else in J28's family will adopt J54. Maybe grandmother J17, who has a new calf herself, J53 - just two months older - will take on nursing J54. We can only hope. As they say. . . it takes a village.
In reality, it's going to take a village of humans making difficult but much needed policy changes that will result in more abundant prey, most importantly Chinook salmon, throughout the whales’ entire range from Southeast Alaska to Monterey California if these endangered Southern Resident killer whales are to have any hope of surviving and thriving.
On August 31st, 2016, Center for Whale Research staff were surprised - and honestly delighted - to document J28 actively foraging with her two offspring and energetically swimming back and forth along the west side of San Juan Island along with several other members of J pod. With this most recent encounter we are considerably more hopeful that this important member of the Southern Resident killer whale clan will yet survive.
I find myself cautiously optimistic about J28’s recovery from whatever is ailing her and I am certainly looking forward to seeing J28 swimming by Thieves Bay for many years to come.