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Remembering J-2 Granny

10 months ago

The Orca Spirit family is mourning the loss of the oldest member of the Southern Resident Killer Whales and the oldest known orca in the world, J-2 Granny. Granny was a force to be respected on the water. This ultimate matriarch led J-pod with intelligence that only a wise leader could; a whale who has lived through World Wars and the dynamic changes of the Salish Sea. Killer Whale deaths are all heavily mourned in the whale watching community, however this one is especially difficult given Granny’s leadership role in the population. Females in killer whale social structure hold a special place. After reproductive years, they assume a matriarch position. This is often compared to a “grandmother” in the pod, helping to pass down information to the next generation and, in times of food shortage, lead the others to historically rich fishing areas. In September Granny was documented catching a fish and sharing it with her orphaned great grandson J-45 Se-Yi-Chn, a perfect example of an older female teaching and helping the young. We would see her leading J-pod through the passages of the Salish Sea, most often in the lead, and in recent years followed closely by her adopted son L-87 Onyx. In 2005, after losing his birth mother, Onyx attached himself to a few older females, finally attaching to Granny and remaining by her side to her last day. In the wild, a male losing his mother decreases his chance of survival three times, but it appeared that Granny was taking good care of him. She is the suspected birth mother of J-1 Ruffles, who lived to be the oldest male orca known to this day, passing at approximately 60 years old. This is one of the pieces of evidence to support Granny’s astonishing age of 105. She did not give birth to another calf after being first photographed by the father of killer whale research Dr. Michael Bigg in 1971, which means she was likely post-reproductive at that point.

The loss of Granny is the end of an era. We can only imagine what she saw throughout her lifetime. From waters full of salmon to family members being born and passing; she lived through humans fearing and killing orca to present day conserving and treasuring them.

The next year will be an interesting one for J-pod and the rest of the Southern Resident Killer Whales. In 2016 we said goodbye to J-2 Granny, unnamed J-55, L-95 Nigel, J-14 Samish, J-28 Polaris, J-54 Dipper, J-34 Doublestuf and 3 unsuccessful calves who did not live long enough to be given a designation. As of the last day of 2016, the critically endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population is down to 78 individuals with only 30 reproductive adults.

The following stories have been shared by Orca Spirit senior naturalists who spent years watching Granny in the wild.

The news of Granny’s loss was a difficult way to end 2016. From a naturalist standpoint, the story of Granny and her incredible longevity has always been a joy to talk about. As J-pod is the most resident of our resident whale pods, I had the privilege of watching Granny numerous times over the years. She was never one to let her advanced age slow her down. She often thrilled guests and crew alike with spyhops, cartwheels, and breaches. However, the thing that I will miss most about Granny is watching her interactions with the other members of her family. Early on in my naturalist career, it was always the sight of Granny (J-2) and Ruffles (J-1) traveling side-by-side furthered my deep respect for these amazing creatures. Granny will be missed. – Corey Vink

Well what can I say about Granny, where does one start? She was such an enormous figure amongst the Southern Resident Killer Whales, it is hard to imagine any words that could describe the greatness of her presence. I first had the honour of meeting Granny in 2010. She was leading J-pod north off the west side of San Juan Island. It was never hard to find Granny in those days as she was often flanked by Ruffles (J-1), he with his rippled dorsal fin, and her with that crescent-shaped notch in the trailing edge of her dorsal fin. She soon became one of the first whales I could identify, and her story left me mystified and mesmerized. I was in the presence of the oldest known orca in the world!

My favourite visit with Granny was in the summer of 2013. Granny was best friends with another senior female named Spieden (J-8), the two were seldom seen more than a few dozen metres apart. Spieden was the adopted mom or grandmother to a wondering L-pod male named Onyx (L-87). Onyx lost his mom a long time ago, and seemed to find comfort in spending all his time with Spieden and Granny. It was a beautiful, sunny day and superpod (all members of J, K and L pods) was traveling in one massive group across the Victoria waterfront towards their favourite fishing grounds off San Juan Island. As we trailed alongside the whales, I soon spotted the dorsal fin of Onyx, which meant the next whale to pop up would surely be Spieden. As expected, she surfaced beside him. It was an easy assumption then that Granny must be close. Seconds later the curved dorsal fin with the half moon nick and a solid saddle patch popped up! Our Captain eventually asked me if we should move to a different group of whales, but I asked if we could just stay close to these three. There was something special about watching 2 of the oldest orcas in the population swim gracefully through the sea. Two grandmas, best friends, providing the love and companionship to a son that was not their own, but loved as though he came from their own wombs. I remember thinking that this may be the last time I see Granny or Spieden as they were the old ladies, and I wanted to soak up every moment of that visit. It turns out that was the last time I would ever see Spieden, and now Granny has joined her best friend.

Those of us who were blessed with knowing Granny will cherish every memory we have of her. She was the matriarch, the leader of the family. She lead her pod through tough times and celebrated with them during the joyful ones for over a century. I have witnessed Granny doting on her great grandchildren, helping new moms manage spunky little ones, and I have even seen her breach a few times! She will forever hold a place in all our hearts, and we will never stop telling the world about a wise and beautiful whale named Granny. – Rachael Merrett

Swim in peace, Granny. You will be missed.

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