The world’s oldest known orca is missing in action and presumed dead. Officially called J2, but affectionately known as Granny, she has been swimming the waters off the coast of Vancouver and Seattle for at least 100 years. Unfortunately, she has not been seen since October.
“Perhaps other dedicated whale-watchers have seen her since then, but by year’s end she is officially missing from the [Southern Resident Killer Whale] population, and with regret we now consider her deceased,” writes Kenneth C. Balcomb, from the Center for Whale Research (CWR), who have been following J2 and her kin over the decades. When first identified in 1987, she was thought to be around 76 years old, meaning she would have been born the year before the Titanic sailed.
“We have now seen J2 thousands of times in the past forty years, and in recent years she has been in the lead of J pod virtually every time that she has been seen by anyone,” continues Balcomb, who was one of the last to officially see Granny.
But more than simply being a local celebrity, Granny has been teaching biologists about a stage of life found only in a handful of species. Only three mammals are known to go through menopause: humans, short-finned pilot whales, and killer whales. With Granny living way beyond her reproductive years, she has provided valuable insight into why older females continue to live even though they can no longer pass on their genes, while in most other species they die.
In her later life, Granny became a lynchpin for the orca pod. She became the matriarch, leading the group as it cruised the region in their eternal hunt for fish and sharing knowledge of where to find food at certain times of year. She helped look after the young of other females in the pod, while also at times feeding larger males.
The insight that Granny has given about post-reproductive females is invaluable. Research has shown that the older females not only lead their families, but help their pods to survive, particularly when times are tough and the ancient knowledge they retain becomes a valuable resource. This might be more relevant than ever, as the number of orca swimming the Salish Sea diminishes.
There are now thought to be only 78 killer whales in the South Residents population. Split into three groups, the J pod, to which Granny belonged, has already suffered numerous losses this past year, as one young male was hit by a boat and a further four members died earlier in the year. It is thought that the dwindling supply of Chinook salmon, which forms the bulk of their food, could be contributing to the declining number of orca in the region.
The death of Granny, however, will not be in vain. The researchers continue to add to the vast body of knowledge that has been gained from her life, and hope it will help with the continued protection and understanding of her relatives that call the Salish Sea home.