Thoughts run to an orca called Granny and her clan of five generations

Looking back on the various comments that followed the death of the killer whale named Granny, I realized that there were a couple of thought-provoking tributes that I never shared with readers of this blog.

Granny, designated J-2, was believed to be more than 100 years old, and she was the obvious leader for many of the Southern Resident orcas that frequent Puget Sound. Granny went missing last fall and was reported deceased at the end of the year by the Center for Whale Research. See Water Ways, Dec. 30.

Some tributes to Granny were written and posted soon after her death notice, including one by Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research. I posted my thoughts along with some others in Water Ways on Jan. 4.

Two weeks ago, the town of Friday Harbor and The Whale Museum held a potluck to celebrate the life of Granny, who had lived long enough to be survived by a large well-documented family, including a great-great-grandchild. During the event, local school children displayed “Granny quilts,” made of paper squares bearing their drawings of Granny.

Also present were Friday Harbor Mayor Carrie Lacher and Town Administrator Duncan Wilson, who unveiled a sign to be erected on a street renamed “Granny’s Way” that will carry on the memory of a special whale.

The multi-media slide show, on this page, was created by Jeannie Hyde, a longtime orca observer. (Be sure to view in full-screen mode.) I think Jeanne does a wonderful job of capturing the family orientation of killer whales and recounting Granny’s life story. It got me to thinking about these intelligent animals with whom we share a place on Earth.

As much we have learned about orcas through the years and try to relate to what they are doing, we still have no way to know what they are thinking or feeling, how they communicate, how much they plan ahead and what they know about humans.

At times, observers say, killer whales seem to have fun, and sometimes we notice what looks like support and affection for each other. Perhaps we can observe their rituals of passage, as mothers mourn the death of their offspring and behaviors change for a time after the loss of older members of the society.

How deep do their emotions go? Will we ever be able to find out whether they experience what we humans call love? I certainly don’t have the answers, but the amount of affection that people feel for killer whales, as well as other marine mammals, suggests a powerful connection, perhaps at the subconscious level.

At the celebration of life two weeks ago, Jenny Atkinson, director of The Whale Museum, shared her thoughts about Granny:

“You may be familiar with the weekly program Sunday Today with Willie Geist and the segment ‘Honoring a Life Well-Lived.’ I love that segment and am titling my comments ‘Honoring a Life Well Lived: Granny (J-2).’

“’We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.’

~ quote by Henry Beston, The Outermost House

“We first met Granny in the mid-1970s, but she had met us long before. For thousands of years, she led her family through these home waters, travelling near the lands of Tribal & First Nations peoples. Then as early as the 1500s, westerners started to discover these islands. While Granny would not have been here for the Pig War in 1859, she was born in time to witness the establishment of the National Park Service, the Boy & Girl Scouts, the first transcontinental flight, the first telephone call, and later, the first run of the Washington State ferry, and many more small & large historic events.

“Estimated to have been born in 1911, Granny had already become a Grandmother by the time she was included in the Orca Survey. She led her family, year after year, season after season, from one salmon run to the next, making sure they were together and cared for. Until 2010, her presumed son Ruffles always travelled by her side. Granny & Ruffles, two of the most-well-known and loved orcas in the world. How many of us were honored & thrilled to see this pair swim by? Once you knew what to look for, how easy it was to spot Granny’s elegant dorsal fin with a half-moon shaped notch on the edge, along with Ruffles’ tall, wavy fin. Always, leading the family.

“Five generations of her family were recorded with her surviving family members including her three great grands – Hy’Shqa, Suttles & Se-Yi’-Chn, and great great grand T’ilem I’nges. Her granddaughter Samish passed this last summer. After Samish’s passing, Granny’s family, which includes her new adopted son Onyx, stayed together, travelling with her and being watched over by her. Resident orcas have tight family bonds, travelling by their mother’s sides all of their lives. We believe that Granny was the wisdom keeper, the matriarch of the Southern Resident Community. For at least the last four decades, she steadfastly led her family. Granny knew how to lead – whether it was out in front or from behind. We could count on her … the orcas could count on her. She lived life to the fullest, known for tail slaps and inverted tail lobs, surprising us with cartwheels & breaches, even at 100!

“We to invite others to share their memories of Granny & her family. Here’s one of mine: During the summer of 2012, Granny seemed to take particular interest & delight in the kelp beds just off the Westside preserve. She would swim in and roll around in the kelp, then come out draped in it. She spent so much time slapping the surface with kelp draped over her flukes, even I could recognize Granny by her tail flukes with that notch on the left edge. Even when out in the middle of Haro Strait, you knew Granny would veer off and head straight for that kelp bed, which we ended up nicknaming Granny’s Kelp.

“It is with heavy hearts we say goodbye to Granny. She was a complete being, ‘gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear’ but long to. She was an awesome, beautiful, majestic orca. Just by watching and observing, we had the opportunity to learn much from her about living in harmony with all of creation and stewarding our planet for the health of all. I hope we were listening and will continue to reflect on what she taught us, helping take care of her family in her absence. After all, we are blessed and far richer for having known her. Thank you, Granny.”

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