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
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
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
Aerial photos of the orcas also are used by researchers to
record social behaviors of the animals, John notes. A photo on his
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.
For additional information, check out the following blog
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, 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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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
UPDATE, Jan. 2
The Center for Whale Research has announced that J-2, known as
“Granny,” has apparently died. The oldest orca among the three
Southern Resident pods, Granny was one of the first Southern
Residents identified when Ken Balcomb began his Orca Survey in
1976. At the time, she was estimated to be at least 45 years old
and probably in her 70s, putting her likely age at more than 100.
Ken’s tribute to Granny can be read on the Center for Whale Research
website. More to come.
When it comes to the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound, a
year can make all the difference in the world. Last year at this
time, we were celebrating a remarkable baby boom — eight new orca
calves over the previous 12 months. See
Water Ways, Dec. 16, 2015.
Another new baby was added in January of this year, for a total
of nine. But if 2015 was the boom year, then 2016 turned out to be
a major bust, with six orca deaths recorded during the calendar
The latest death among the Southern Residents was J-34, an
18-year-old male named DoubleStuf. He was found dead floating near
Sechelt, B.C., northwest of Vancouver, on Dec. 20. Check out the
tribute and wonderful photos
on Orca Network’s webpage.
It has just turned winter in the Northern Hemisphere, which
means that it is now summer in the Southern Hemisphere. The
Japanese whaling fleet has entered the Southern Ocean to kill up to
a self-designated quota of 333 minke whales, and Sea Shepherd has
We have heard the story before, and many of us have watched the
drama play out during six seasons of the TV series “Whale Wars” on
Animal Planet. This year, Sea Shepherd hopes to have an advantage
with a ship declared to be faster than the Japanese whaling
vessels, as I explained in
Water Ways at the end of August.
On Dec. 3, the Sea Shepherd vessel Steve Irwin left Melbourne,
Australia, for the Southern Ocean for its 11th campaign against the
whalers. The Steve Irwin was followed a day later by the new ship,
Ocean Warrior. Yesterday, the Ocean Warrior located one of the
Japanese harpoon vessels, the Yushin Maru, inside the Southern
Ocean Whale Sanctuary, according to Capt. Adam Meyerson, the
skipper of the Ocean Warrior.
“The crews of the Ocean Warrior and the MV Steve Irwin have been
battling through thick fog and ice to protect the whales in the
Australian whale sanctuary,” Meyerson said in a
news release. “The Yushin Maru was hiding behind an iceberg and
came out on a collision course.
“Finding one of the hunter-killer ships hiding behind an iceberg
in a thick fog means that the rest of the fleet is nearby,” he
added. “We all hope to have whaling in the Southern Ocean shut down
Some underwater ocean sounds remain a mystery, while other
sounds are well understood by NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental
PMEL’s acoustic division continues to find unusual sounds within
its long-term mission of recording and measuring ocean noise and
assessing potential problems created by noisy humans.
I remain intrigued by ocean sounds, and I can’t help but worry
about sensitive marine creatures, such as whales, that must live in
our modern world of noisy ships and machinery.
One mysterious sound nicknamed “Upsweep” was present when PMEL
began recording on the Navy’s SOSUS (Sound Surveillance System)
array in August 1991. The sound, which consists of a series of
upsweeping sounds, is loud enough to be heard throughout the
Pacific Ocean, according to PMEL’s
website. This sound was speeded up 20 times to be more easily
It has been hard to take the news that J-28, a 23-year-old
female killer whale named Polaris, is now missing and presumed dead
— even though I knew this news has been coming since August. It now
appears likely that her 11-month-old son J-54, named Dipper, will
not survive either.
I sadly reported on Polaris’ “super-gaunt” condition in
Water Ways (Aug. 24) after talking to Ken Balcomb of the Center
for Whale Research. Until recently, various whale-watching folks,
including CWR researchers, have reported that Polaris was still
alive. She was generally seen moving slowly and in poor shape, but
at times she seemed to have more energy, raising hopes that she
might recover. But the last sighting of Polaris was Oct. 19 in the
Strait of Juan de Fuca.
During a press conference Friday, Ken announced the death of
Polaris, as he spoke out to raise awareness about the plight of
Puget Sound orcas.
Ken said Dipper’s sister and aunt were attempting to care for
the young orphan, but no other lactating females have moved in to
provide milk, so he likely will die if he is not already dead.
Ken read a personally penned obituary for Polaris, noting
that she was popular with whale watchers, in part because she was
easily identified by a nick in her dorsal fin. She acquired the
distinctive mark when she was nine years old.
At the press conference, Ken talked about the most concerning
problem facing the orcas: a shortage of chinook salmon, their
primary prey. The food shortage is exacerbated when the whales burn
fats stored in their blubber, causing the release of toxic
chemicals from their blubber into their bloodstream. Chemicals can
affect the immune and reproductive systems, as well as other
When I was a young child, we didn’t have to worry about wildlife
getting strangled by six-pack rings, because these plastic binders
for cans had not been invented yet. I was 9 years old in 1961 when
this simple, convenient form of packaging was invented, so I
clearly remember the transition. (See Hi-Cone
At the time, nobody predicted the conservation consternation
that would be created by such a simple piece of plastic. During the
1970s and up to present, pictures of entrapped birds and other sea
creatures became common, suggesting that we at least cut the
plastic to save the animals. The first video provides a story of
Before the invention of six-pack rings, people bought soft
drinks and beer in cardboard packages, which sort of wrapped around
the cans. Pabst Blue Ribbon may have been the first beer sold in
cardboard cartons (second video), although Coca Cola may have
started the phase. The Coke
company claims to be the first to take its bottles out of
wooden crates and begin offering cardboard packaging for consumers
as early as 1923.
Chum salmon are beginning to make their way into Central and
South Puget Sound, which means the orcas are likely to follow.
Given this year’s dismal reports of chinook salmon in the San
Juan Islands, we can hope that a decent number of chum traveling to
streams farther south will keep the killer whales occupied through
the fall. But anything can happen.
On Oct. 2, orcas from J and K pods — two of the three Southern
Resident pods — passed through Admiralty Inlet and proceeded to
Point No Point in North Kitsap, according to reports from Orca
Network. The whales continued south the following day and made
it all the way to Vashon Island, according to observers.
On Tuesday of this week, more reports of orcas came in from
Saratoga Passage, the waterway between Whidbey and Camano islands.
See the video by Alisa Lemire Brooks at the bottom of this page. By
yesterday, some members of J pod were reported back of the west
side of San Juan Island.
The movement of chum salmon into Central Puget Sound began in
earnest this week, as a test fishery off Kingston caught just a few
chum last week, jumping to nearly 1,000 this week. Still, the peak
of the run is a few weeks away.
When a 20-year-old killer whale named Nigel was found dead
floating off Vancouver Island at the end of March, experts
expressed immediate concern about the sharp barbs that remained
embedded in the whale’s dorsal fin. (See
Water Ways, April 14.)
This type of barb is commonly used to attach satellite
transmitters to all sorts of whales and dolphins, allowing the
animals to be tracked over long distances. The satellite tags are
designed to fall off completely — but that did not happen for
Nigel, designated L-95.
As the result of an investigation by the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration, we now know that the barbs helped to
introduce a dangerous fungus into Nigel’s body. The fungus appears
to have spread to his lungs and other organs, ultimately
contributing to his death.
“After a thorough necropsy and investigation, including an
expert review of findings, there was sufficient evidence to
implicate the tag attachment site as a source of fungal infection
to the whale,” states a
report by an expert panel (PDF 209 kb). “This fungal infection
contributed to illness in the whale and played a contributory role
in its death.”
After Nigel was found dead near Nootka Island, NOAA suspended
the satellite-tracking program. As a result of these latest
findings, the agency announced today that it will continue to
prohibit satellite tagging, at least until new standards can be
developed through the International Whaling Commission.
After that, any further tagging would require a new review under
the Endangered Species Act. That’s because the Southern Residents —
the orcas that frequent Puget Sound — are listed as an endangered
The tagging program has provided much information about where
the whales go during winter months when they leave Puget Sound and
travel up and down the coast. That information is expected to help
NOAA Fisheries develop a new “critical habitat” designation for the
Southern Residents. Critical habitat in coastal areas might provide
the whales with protected areas where they could hunt for chinook
salmon, their primary prey.
For now, NOAA may need to use methods other than satellite
tagging to keep track of the whales during winter, said Richard
Merrick, chief scientist for NOAA Fisheries. Experts are reviewing
the existing data to see if they have enough information for
expanding critical habitat outside of Puget Sound.
A total of eight Southern Residents have been tagged using a
similar dart system since tagging began in 2012, according to a
report from Brad Hanson (PDF 972 kb) of NOAA’s Northwest
Fisheries Science Center. Nigel was the last, and all the other
whales are alive and have shed their darts, although one whale did
retain a dart for a while.
The fungus that contributed to Nigel’s death has been found in
the surface waters off Vancouver Island, experts say, and the
attached tag provides an entry point for infection. A couple of
factors may have made things worse for the orca. First, the tag was
dropped during handling and may have become contaminated with
seawater. Although it was sterilized with alcohol, protocols for
tag deployment call for the use of bleach as well.
It was a “human error,” said Merrick, adding that the NOAA
scientists involved are “dismayed” that any of their actions could
have contributed to the orca’s death.
The tag also went into a spot on the dorsal fin lower than
recommended. Although other whales have not had problems with this
location, the concern is the proximity to large blood vessels that
could allow the fungal organism to more easily enter the
final necropsy report (PDF 365 kb) provides evidence that Nigel
may have had some problems with his immune system, and this
particular fungus is known to attack people who are
immune-compromised. I have written about the added risks of disease
among killer whales because of their exposure to toxic chemicals.
You might want to check out my series in the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound.
Because Nigel’s carcass was severely decomposed when it was
found, the actual cause of death may never be known. But
contributing factors are many.
Reached by phone today, Ken told me that he has given his best
information to government researchers through the years — not only
about the risks of tagging but about other issues as well.
“I get no communication back,” he said. “They just ignore
His greatest concerns today are focused on the lack of wild
salmon to feed the whales, he said. The high death rate and the low
birth rate in recent years largely results from a lack of food,
which compounds other problems that the orcas are facing. While
nine new orca calves since the end of 2014 is encouraging, he said,
the 82 Southern Residents are not in good shape as a
“They do have to eat,” Ken said. “This population requires a
certain quantity of fish, and they are not getting it. Recovery (of
the orcas) is not happening, and it won’t happen until the recovery
of natural fish populations happens.”
The removal of dams on the Snake River would help increase the
wild chinook population, Ken said, but better management of all
life stages of salmon is essential. That means better coordination
between the U.S. and Canada, he added.
Humpback whales have been making the news for their organized
“rescues” — seemingly heroic efforts in which the humpbacks have
intervened in attacks by killer whales against other marine
The humpbacks have not only protected their own calves but they
have gone well out of their way to protect gray whales, minke
whales, Dall’s porpoises, Steller sea lions, California sea lions,
Weddell seals, crabeater seals, harbor seals, northern elephant
seals and even ocean sunfish, according to researchers.
The latest incident, in which humpbacks reportedly intervened in
a killer whale attack on a Steller sea lion, is said to be the
first reported incident in the Salish Sea. The incident took place
last week off Sooke, BC, about 20 miles west of Victoria.
“What we witnessed was pure aggression,” Capt. Russ Nicks of BC
Whale Watch Tours of Victoria said in a
news release from Pacific Whale Watch Association. “We had four
humpbacks trumpeting, rolling on their sides, flukes up in the air
“The killer whales split many times into two groups, with one
that appeared to try to draw the humpbacks away from the sea lion.
The other group would go in for the attack while the humpbacks were
safely away – but then they’d get in the middle of it again,
fighting the orcas off. It was amazing to watch.”
These killer whales were of the transient variety, a subspecies
of killer whales that eats marine mammals, as opposed to the
resident orcas that each fish.
The same attack and rescue was viewed by naturalist Alethea
Leddy of Port Angeles Whale Watch Company, as reported in the news
“We got there in time to see some crazy surface activity, with
humpback whales splashing in the distance along with orcas. Then
two humpbacks surfaced next to us trumpeting, and the next thing we
know there were four humpbacks, possibly six, all defending the sea
“The water boiled all around as the orcas tried to separate the
sea lion from the humpbacks. It was a wild scene, with the
humpbacks even circling the sea lion trying to keep him safe while
he frantically struggled to get his breath.
“The anxiety of the humpbacks was palpable, and they took turns
diving and slashing at the orcas. This life-and-death drama went on
and on until the four transient orcas, known as the T100 family,
moved off in the distance. As they did, we saw the sea lion appear
next to the humpbacks being guarded and escorted in the opposite
“This was an unbelievable encounter. Hats off to our courageous
humpbacks and best wishes to our little Steller sea lion, survivor
for another day!”
In July, 14 marine mammal experts reported on 115 apparent
rescue efforts by humpback whales during what appeared to be killer
whale attacks on other species of marine mammals. Their report
appeared in the journal Marine
Reasons for these rescue efforts are open to much speculation,
but the researchers noted that evidence is mounting in favor of a
belief that killer whales that eat marine mammals, called MEKW,
attack young humpback whales more often than commonly reported.
“Clearly, MEKW predation, even if rarely observed and targeting
mainly calves and subadults, represents a threat to humpbacks that
is persistent, widespread, and perhaps increasing,” the report
states. “As such, humpbacks could be expected to show some specific
anti-predator behaviors, and indeed some have been suggested. Ford
and Reeves (2008) summarized the defensive capabilities of baleen
whales faced with killer whale attack, and they identified two
general categories of response.
“Balaenopterid rorquals (including fin whales and minke whales)
use their high speed and hydrodynamic body shape to outrun killer
whales and were classified as flight species. The
generally more rotund and slower-swimming species — right whales,
bowhead whales, gray whales and humpback whales — apparently rely
on their bulk and powerful, oversized appendages (tail and
flippers) to ward off attackers. This group was categorized as
Of course, it is one thing for the humpbacks and other baleen
whales to take a defensive posture. It is quite another thing for
them to go after killer whales when another species of marine
mammal is under attack.
In the report, humpbacks initiated encounters with MEKWs 58
percent of the time, while the killer whales initiated contact 42
percent of the time — at least for those cases when the killer
whale ecotype could be identified as marine mammals eaters. On a
few occasions when known fish-eating killer whales were involved,
the encounter was relatively benign, the researchers said.
The video, shot by BBC filmmakers, show a pair of humpback
whales attempting to prevent a group of orcas from killing a gray
whale calf. In this case, the effort was unsuccessful.
When humpbacks went to the rescue of other marine mammals, it
appears that the rescuers were generally a mixture of males and
females, according to the report. Humpback postures, whether
attacking or defending, involved slapping their flukes on the
surface, slashing from side to side, bellowing, persuing and
flipper slapping. The length of battles reported ranged from 15
minutes to seven hours. In the end, the prey that was at the center
of the battles was killed 83 percent of the time — at least for
those cases when the outcome was known.
“The humpback whale is, to our knowledge, the only cetacean that
deliberately approaches attacking MEKWs and can drive them off,
although southern right whales may also group together to fend off
MEKWs attacking other right whales,” the researchers stated, adding
that humpbacks’ powerful flippers covered in sharp barnacles can
shred the flesh of their opponents.
When in hunting mode, transient killer whales are generally
silent, not making much noise. Once an attack begins, they become
more vocal, perhaps to coordinate the attack. It appears that
humpbacks respond to killer whale vocalizations from distances well
out of sight of the attack.
The reasons the humpbacks would get in a fight with killer
whales to save another species are listed in three categories:
Kin selection: Protecting an offspring or
closely related animal.
Reciprocity: Protecting unrelated animals,
generally as part of a social organization.
Altruism: Benefitting another animal at some
cost to the one taking action.
It is possible, the researchers conclude, that humpbacks could
be improving their individual and group fitness to fend off attacks
against their own by protecting other species. One idea is that the
killer whales may think twice about attacking a humpback of any
“We suggest,” they write, “that humpbacks providing benefits to
other potential prey species, even if unintentional, could be a
focus of future research into possible genetic or cultural drivers
of interspecific altruism.”