Granny, the orca, was seen in poor condition before her death

About a month before the Center for Whale Research last observed Granny, the killer whale, the elder orca was pictured in aerial photos by researchers from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

Granny shown in poor body condition in September. Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091
Granny, or J-2, shown in poor body condition in September.
Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091

The last aerial photos of Granny showed her to be in “poor body condition,” according to a report from marine mammal researcher John Durban on NOAA’s website.

Granny, designated J-2, was missing for weeks before the Center for Whale Research gathered enough observations to announce her death on the last day of 2016. The oldest whale in the three Southern Resident pods could have been more than 100 years old, according to estimates, as I discussed in Water Ways on Jan. 4.

The aerial photos, taken from a small unmanned hexacopter, are used to monitor the health of the orcas, John noted in his report. The photos taken in September show Granny to be thinner than other adult females. The photos on this page show Granny (top photo) to be thinner than J-22, a 32-year-old female named Oreo (second photo) who was reported in “robust condition” and may have been pregnant.

J-22, named Oreo, appeared in better shape than Granny in September. Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091
J-22, named Oreo, appeared in better shape than Granny in September.
Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091

Aerial photos of the orcas also are used by researchers to record social behaviors of the animals, John notes. A photo on his web post shows Granny with J-45, an 8-year-old male named Se-Yi’-Chn, whose mother died in August. Granny and Se-Yi’-Chn were chasing a salmon that was eventually caught by the older animal and shared with the younger one, according to the report.

“Helping other family members catch food is a key role for older, post-reproductive females like J2,” John wrote. “This is a striking example that, through such cooperative behaviors, individuals will put the pod’s health ahead of their own.”

The video (below) explains the ongoing aerial study of killer whales, with John Durban interviewed by NOAA science writer Rich Press. Besides Durban, Holly Fearnbach of Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Lance Barrett-Lennard of Vancouver Aquarium are involved in the photogrammetric project.

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