The Southern resident killer whales are sacred, wondrous members of our Pacific Northwest marine world. We study them, we revere them, we spend thousands of dollars just to briefly witness their beauty from the deck of a vessel. And few were more beloved than Granny, the oldest known orca in the world.
Aged between 80 and 100 years, she represented strength and wisdom. She was the leader of her pod. She was elected the honorary mayor of Eastsound in 2015. Dana Lyons wrote a song about her. The BBC made a documentary about her life. As Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research wrote in his In Memoriam post about Granny, “she kept on going, like the energizer bunny.”
Granny, officially named J2, has been seen thousands of times over the past 40 years. She was last observed on Oct. 12, 2016 and is presumed dead.
She is the latest in a list of deceased orcas. While her death is not terribly surprising – she lived a long life in our Puget Sound waters – the Southern resident population is decreasing. As of Dec. 31, it is estimated to be at 78, while Jpod has 24 members.
Across the northwest, communities have been holding candlelight vigils to honor those who have passed. According to the Orca Network, the following orcas died in 2016:
• J-55: The new calf was discovered in January 2016 and died by February.
• L-95: 20-year-old Nigel was found dead in March. His satellite tag, from February, possibly caused a fungal infection that weakened his immune system.
• J-14: Samish, who was born in 1974, was the mother of six known calves. She went missing in August (Many orcas’ bodies are not recovered, and they are declared missing, not dead.).
• J-28: Polaris, born in the early 1990s, died of possible birthing complications in October, after appearing emaciated for several months.
• J-54: Dipper, J-28’s son, was born in December 2015 and went missing the following October.
• J-34: The roughly 19-year-old male, known as DoubleStuf, was found dead off the coast of Canada, after suffering from blunt trauma to his head, which could have been from a vessel.
Research from the Friends of the San Juans found that there would be a 31 percent increase in vessel traffic in the Salish Sea if the currently proposed projects from the U.S. and Canada were passed. This includes the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which was approved by the Canadian federal government in November.
But Balcomb says the primary issue is food. Researchers have called to breach four dams in the lower Snake River to open more spawning ground for Chinook salmon. The salmon from the Columbia River are the orcas’ main diet and have been on the endangered species list for about six more years than the Southern Resident killer whales.
Balcomb told the Journal earlier this month, “People need to have elected officials pressure government agencies to restore wild salmon to river systems.” As we mourn the loss of Granny and the younger members of her pod, we also must look to the future. What will we do to preserve our precious orca population? They need a strong food base and limited human interference in order to survive. How important are they to us?