Granny, a killer whale unlike any other, stayed graceful to the end

If we can celebrate the life of a person who has died, it seems fitting to me that we should celebrate the long, productive life of a killer whale known as Granny.

Granny, or J-2, breaching in 2009, as she was known to do throughout her life.Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
Granny, or J-2, breaching in 2009, as she was known to do throughout her life.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Granny, officially designated J-2, was the oldest orca in the three pods of Southern Residents. Possibly more than 100 years of age, her longevity is something we can only hope to see among the other orcas that frequent Puget Sound.

Granny was the longtime leader of J pod. In a matriarchal society like the orcas, offspring stay with their mothers for life. Generally, the older females lead the way, and Granny was almost always seen at the front of the pack as J pod moved through the Salish Sea.

For a long-lived intelligent orca, it is hard to imagine the amount of knowledge she must have accumulated through the years. I tend to think that Granny had a personal history with nearly every cove and inlet in the Salish Sea. I think she understood the movement of salmon and where the fish would congregate before heading up the streams. It must have been tough for her to watch the decline of the whales’ once-abundant prey.

In 1997, a group of 19 orcas from L pod spent a month in Dyes Inlet between Bremerton and Silverdale. (Check out my stories in the Kitsap Sun.) There is pretty good evidence that their record-long stay in one location was at least partly because they were not comfortable going under the Warren Avenue Bridge, which was their only way out.

If something about the bridge spooked the whales, then how did those 19 orcas make it under the enormous structure when they first entered Dyes Inlet? Although it has never been confirmed, observers at the time reported seeing two groups of whales coming into the inlet.

I’ve always wondered whether Granny had visited Dyes Inlet long before the Warren Avenue Bridge was constructed. Could she have led both the J- and L-pod whales into the inlet, where chum salmon were abundant? Did the L-pod whales choose to stay behind to catch fish only to become confused later when they tried to make their getaway? I guess we’ll never know.

When a beloved friend or relative dies, it is hard to keep going as if nothing has changed. I know there is sadness about Granny’s passing among longtime whale observers, orca researchers, educators and whale-watch boat operators.

I can’t help but wonder how the orcas in J pod are coping with Granny’s loss. How long will it take to rally around a new leader? How will Granny’s knowledge be missed as the whales struggle to find bountiful salmon runs? How will her sudden departure affect cohesion among the whales, which were already breaking into smaller and smaller hunting groups.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research ponders some of these questions in a tribute to Granny, a story that appropriately recognizes the important discoveries of the late Mike Bigg, the first person to realize that orcas could be identified individually and that each whale has a story to tell.

I was also touched by a report from Ken’s associate, Dave Ellifrit, who spent time on the water with J pod on Dec. 28 near the San Juan Islands. Dave, who knows the whales as well as anyone, found them spread out and spending significant “down time” as they foraged for food. In a scientific tone, Dave dispassionately described the actions of all the whales he could find, then he concluded his report:

“This was CWR’s first encounter with J pod in several months where we felt like the coverage was good enough to find all the whales present, and we could not find J2. Many have suspected for the last couple of months that she might be gone, and it is looking like that is the case.”

Jeanne Hyde, a longtime orca observer, offered a number of interesting observations in her blog “Whale of a Purpose,” including this:

“Late this past season I noticed Granny with the J16s. That was very curious. It was out of the ordinary. Slick J-16 in the lead with Granny behind her a ways, and Mike J-26, Slick’s oldest male, on the offshore side…hum…highly unusual…

“In the late part of the year, the J Pod whales acted, to me, like they were lost…like they didn’t know which way to go or they didn’t know what to do…their travel also seemed unusual….they have lost their leader…how will that impact this community who has not ever been without a leader?”

Another longtime observer, Sara Hysong-Shimazu, wrote a piece on her Facebook page with this observation:

“Even in her death Granny leads by example. ‘This is how it should be,’ she tells us, even now. ‘This is when we should be parting ways … at the end of a long life.’ The tears in our eyes and on our cheeks are for the loss of a whale — a beloved friend — who has led a life whose length alone is worthy of remembrance and of celebration.

“The times ahead are ones I cannot predict, for I do not have the gift of foresight. But whatever they bring — be it triumph, tragedy, or something in the middle — may we face them with the same tenacity and dignity as Granny. She lives on in the whales that still remain, in the calves that have yet to join us. She lives on in our hearts, and more importantly in our deeds.

“She is epic and awesome and impressive and she will always be.”

In 2006, M.L. Lyke, a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, wrote about how she perceived Granny’s life in a series called “The Sound of Broken Promises,” now featured on the Orca Network webpage.

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