Over the past weekend, an orca was spotted off the coast of Vancouver Island in the Strait of Georgia. Considering the area has a healthy whale watching industry, that fact alone isn’t too shocking. What is amazing about that sighting was the fact that it was an orca named J2, also nicknamed “Granny.” Granny is believed to be 103 years old, which makes her the oldest known orca in the world.
That age is quite impressive, given that the average lifespan of a female orca is 70-90 years in the wild. Males don’t tend to live quite as long in the wild, and average about 50-60 years old. In captivity, orcas do not fare nearly as well. Of the 159 orcas that have died in captivity, the mean age at the time of death is 8 years, 6 months. The stress from such a small living space, demands of training, unnatural diet, and separation from their families are attributed to this shortened life, despite access to medical care and monitoring at those facilities.
When Granny was spotted, she had just returned from the annual migration with her pod, which includes her two children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren. This is fairly typical, as orca calves tend to stay with their families and they all live in one group. The pods are led by older females of the family. Males will leave to join other pods for mating purposes, but return to their family pod afterward.
Granny was identified by Simon Pidock from Ocean Ecoventures, who is quite familiar with the J Pod, which includes Granny and her family. "With her age, we're always concerned, you know, whether she's going to come back, you know, for another year. … It's the first question … is Granny there?” Pidcock told CBC News.
J Pod is one of three known pods that inhabit the eastern Northern Pacific waters, along with K and L Pods. Collectively, they pods are known as the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW). They range from British Colombia all the way down into Washington state, though researchers don’t believe J travels as far south as K and L. The SRKW have been studied regularly since the 1970s.
This group is one of the most endangered populations of orca, and they lost a fifth of their population between 1995-2001, which is not sustainable for such a small population. The reasons for this decline aren’t entirely clear, though there are some hypotheses that are interconnected. Human activity, such as pollution and noise from boats, has affected the whales as well as the Chinook salmon the orcas depend on for food. SRKW are also considered to be one of the most polluted in the world. They accumulate considerable toxins over the course of their lifetimes, due to chemicals that have been dumped in the water.