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Act in Granny's Memory during Orca Action Month

We've recently spent quite a bit of time reflecting on our five-decade-long ORCA SURVEY research of the Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW). The importance of mothers and grandmothers in the fish-eating orca community stands out as a valuable discovery. Unfortunately, while many female orcas have been born into the population during the Center for Whale Research's 45 years of study, celebrations have been tempered by a significant number of deaths.


J2 with Southern Resident family members in June 2011

(Photograph by CWR's Dave Ellifrit).


The best-loved Southern Resident orca to have lived and died during ORCA SURVEY is J2, also known to the world as Granny. It's been nearly five years since Granny left us, but she is still frequently on the minds of many. The long-time J pod and SRKW matriarch was first seen by the Center for Whale Research's Ken Balcomb and two colleagues on April 16, 1976, in Admiralty Inlet in Washington State.


"I remember calling [Canadian killer whale researcher] Mike Bigg on April 17, 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. 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 'resident' killer whales," Ken Balcomb said about his first encounter with J pod. "We were beginning our third week of [ORCA SURVEY], and I was excited to 'discover' any new whales that Mike did not already know. Mike told me over the phone that the whales we had seen the day before must be J pod. 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 halfway down on the trailing edge with a finger-size tag of tissue protruding upward from the bottom of the nick, that is J2. He identified every orca that appeared in my photographs from April 16, except for one: a newborn calf with its mother. J4's calf would be designated J15." Read Ken Balcomb's handwritten logbook account of CWR's first J pod Encounter.


Right side ID shot of J2 in October 1976

(Photograph by CWR's Ken Balcomb).


In 1987, the Center for Whale Research estimated J2/Granny as at least 45 years old (and more likely much older), making her the oldest Southern Resident orca at the time. Her exact age was unknown because she was born long before ORCA SURVEY began. She was also presumed to be J1's mother, but genetics has since suggested she wasn't. J1 was the easily identified and best-known male orca tracked during the study (he died in 2010). Following Ken's first sighting of J2 in 1976, she was seen thousands of times during the next forty years. In her later years, she was almost always leading J pod.


J2 and J1 in May 2009

(Photograph by Erin Heydenreich).


"She kept on going, like the Energizer bunny," Ken Balcomb said following her death. "I last saw her on October 12, 2016, as she swam north in Haro Strait far ahead of the others." By year's end, Granny was officially missing from the SRKW population and was considered deceased.


The Pacific Ocean was Granny's home. She resided in inland waters and along the outside coast for many, many years. Recent evidence from tissue samples and genetics suggests she was 80-90 years old. We'll never know J2's exact age, but she was a member of her society for close to one hundred years!


In her early years, she was likely cared for and learned from her mother (and probably her grandmother) and other females in her extended family. Then she bore her offspring, nurtured them. As she aged, her matriarchal role presumably expanded to include more leadership responsibilities, including showing younger whales where to find the most fertile fishing grounds. After menopause (around age 40), now a grandmother, she took the lead hunting for salmon, sharing most of the salmon she caught. In addition, she became an invaluable teacher and a regular babysitter. As Chinook salmon stocks plummeted, her fishing expertise made the difference between life and death for family members. Her contributions to her community became more and more vital. And her enthusiasm for life never wavered; she was still breaching in her final year.


J2 breaching in September 2011

(Photograph by CWR's Dave Ellifrit).


Many Southern Resident orcas have come and gone in the past 45 years, but none stands out in our memories like Granny. She was revered, and deservedly so. Her zest for life and selfless contributions to her community family are valuable World Ocean Day lessons. She always acted in her community's best interests. J2 taught us a lot: about the importance of mothers and female elders (grandmothers) and the significant roles each plays in maintaining a healthy, cohesive, and close-knit community. A lesson for humans.


J2 is permanently etched in our memories.


Act in Granny's memory during this year's Orca Action Month. We need to urgently restore Chinook salmon populations to stave off Southern Resident orca extinction. You can help by urging elected politicians and government bureaucrats to take immediate steps to improve Granny's Pacific Ocean habitat . . . for the benefit of Pacific Northwest salmon and the Southern Resident orcas. The biggest bang for the buck is the removal of unproductive hydroelectric dams, particularly the Lower Snake River dams (see TAKE ACTION at WhaleResearch.com).

 

Learn more about the importance of SRKW grandmothers by watching: THE AMAZING GRANDMOTHERS OF THE KILLER WHALE POD, a TEDEd Animation Lesson written by CWR's Dr. Darren Croft. As of June 6, 2021, it had 1,138,071 views.



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