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K-7, oldest of Southern resident orcas, believed dead

K-7 was last seen by Center for Whale Research staff on Oct. 30, 2007 in Haro Strait. K-7
K-7 was last seen by Center for Whale Research staff on Oct. 30, 2007 in Haro Strait. K-7's last known sighting was in Puget Sound on Dec. 23 by Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
— image credit: Courtney Smith / Center for Whale Research

K-7, the oldest orca in the Southern resident pods, is believed dead. She is believed to have been 98 years old and was the matriarch of a line that extended five generations.

The whale, also known as Lummi, was last seen Dec. 23 and has not been seen since K pod returned in spring, according to the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. All other K pod whales are accounted for, including K-42, a calf born in June.

The Center for Whale Research, which has monitored the local orca population since 1976, puts the whale population at 88. That's 26 in J pod, 19 in K pod and 43 in L. Research assistant Courtney Smith said the estimated population of L pod is "soft" because L pod has spent most of the season along the west coast of Vancouver Island. "We haven't accurately identified everyone in L pod yet," she said.

As for K-7, "(Researchers) have seen everyone else in K pod except K-7. It's safe to say she's gone," Smith said.

K-7's last known sighting was in Puget Sound on Dec. 23 by Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

K-7, believed born in 1910, was an important symbol. When she was born — to parents undoubtedly born in the 1800s — the local orca population was possibly over 120. In her lifetime, she survived bullets from fishermen that saw orcas as competition for salmon. She survived the marine park era, in which 50 whales were captured or died during capture. She survived despite depleted salmon stocks and increased marine pollution.

The population rebounded from 71 in 1973 to 99 in 1995, then plummeted to 79 six years later. The population rebounded to 80 in 2002, 83 in 2003, 85 in 2004 and 89 in 2005, but has seesawed around 88 since then. The local pods were declared endangered by the U.S. and Canada by 2005 and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has been patrolling the area to enforce rules requiring boats to maintain a distance of 100 yards from the whales.

The Center for Whale Research says the whales' biggest threats are pollution in Puget Sound and declines in salmon. The center says the Navy may also share the blame.

"The whale population decline is coincident with the deployment of (Destroyer Squadron) 9 to Everett in 1995,” the center's Web site states. "The destroyer squadron's exercise area is nominally off the Olympic Peninsula but has included Strait of Juan de Fuca and Haro Strait.”

The whales are called Southern residents because they spend a lot of the year in this region. J is here much of the year, while K and L travel as far as California but return in the summer.

When the pods return to the San Juan Islands in early summer, the Center for Whale Research gets their first good look at who is present, including any new calves, as well as who may not have made it through the winter.

“These orcas are icons and indicators of the quality of Puget Sound and coastal waters," center director Ken Balcomb said in an earlier interview. "How they fare in coming years will tell us a lot about our own fate.”

With K-7's death, the oldest Southern resident orca is J-2, also known as Granny, believed born in 1911. The matriarch of L pod is L-25, also known as Ocean Sun, born in 1928.

K-7 descendants include a daughter, K-11, believed born in 1933; a granddaughter, K-13; four great-grandchildren, K-20, K-25, K-27 and K-34; and a great-great-grandchild, K-38.

K-38 is the offspring of K-20.

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