World’s Oldest Orca Dies, Pod Without its Compass

The Center for Whale Research recently announced the death of J2—or as she was affectionately known by many “Granny”—the world’s oldest known killer whale. Granny was estimated to be a possible 105 years old. With Granny gone, the Southern Resident killer whale population is down to 78 individuals and missing their mighty compass.

Credit: Holly Fearnbach, NOAA

Granny was a hero among giants. Famous for her athletic and bold leaps, remarkable for her robust size, she led the Southern Resident killer whales. And a leader was something this family of endangered whales desperately needed. Indeed, the last time the Center for Whale Research saw her, they didn’t know Granny was in her last months because she was still out in front of the pod, showing her family the way, like always. 

I still cannot believe she's gone. We've lost a legend.

Killer whales live in matrilineal families. A young whale stays with its mother for life, and even in its later adult years, it follows and depends on its matriarch. Although killer whale females typically stop reproducing in their 30s and 40s, post-reproductive females are repositories of ecological knowledge, the teachers of whale family culture, and vital to community survival. They remember and guide their groups to historic safe zones and productive foraging grounds.

Credit: NOAA

NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center took its last photos of Granny a few months ago and, at the time, they documented that she was thin and “in poor body condition.” Sadly, this alone is no great surprise. The Southern Resident killer whales are starving towards extinction. They eat only fish and live on the Pacific Northwest’s crown jewel of fish—salmon.

Once, salmon and orcas were the perfect pair.

In Granny’s youth her band of nimble black and white hunters of the sea would feast on underwater fields of fatty Chinook salmon. When she was young, salmon pulsed through not just Puget Sound but up and down the coast of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California too. And at the time of her death, Granny held the memory of a time before the Columbia River Basin became the most hydroelectrically developed river system in the world, a time when whales grew bigger, lived longer, and ate until their bellies were full. A time that today feels long gone.

Granny taught this band of whales where to hunt. For decades she brought them back to the mouth of the Columbia River. She continued to hunt for her pod-mates even in her final days. The last time NOAA saw Granny she had corralled and caught a fish—and although she herself was thin—they documented her presenting the fish to her orphan great grandson (J45). His mother “Samish” (or J14) died of unknown causes earlier this summer.

Granny is not the only whale from this special population of orcas that we lost this year. In addition to Granny, the population lost six more whales: babies J55 and J54, young males J34 and L95, and reproductive age females J14 and J28. Without great-grandma Granny at the helm, their compass for so many years, many are asking who will lead these whales now? 

In our own way, we can help. We can fight for more fish.

The Army Corps of Engineers is reviewing the current operation of its Columbia and Snake River hydroelectric dams. The agency has been compelled to undertake this rethinking by federal court order because, in short, the dams are killing too many salmon. Let’s all get our voice on record today to demand that the Army Crops stop decimating salmon runs and starving orcas.

In particular, there are four dams on the lower Snake River—the largest tributary to the Columbia River—that are choking access to the most pristine salmon habitat in the lower 48. We’re asking the Army Crops Corps to conduct a rigorous review that includes this reasonable alternative: retire the four lower Snake River dams and replace them with carbon-free alternatives. You can write to them too:

Written comments can be sent to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Attn: CRSO EIS, P.O. Box 2870, Portland, OR 97208-2870. Or email them at comment@crso.info.

For the most up-to-date information on this killer whale family, check the website and sign up to receive information about encounters at the Center for Whale Research.

About the Authors

Giulia C.S. Good Stefani

Attorney, Marine Mammal and Southern California Ecosystems projects

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