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Monday, August 4, 2008

Not For the Faint of Heart

Three pieces of bizarre and unwelcome news today, but all definitely interesting and worthy of speculation.

First of all, The Whale Museum reported that the body of a killer whale calf was found on Henry Island. The carcass, much too small for a normal full-term calf, was likely aborted. A necropsy on the remains will help determine the pod of origin (it is presumed to be a Southern Resident) as well as provide important information from tissue samples on things like toxin levels. Unfortunately, the body wasn't immediately reported to the stranding network, so it had decomposed considerably. Remember, if you find a marine mammal stranded, either alive or dead, report it right away to the Museum's marine mammal stranding network at 1-800-562-8832.

Secondly, while watching J-Pod head south from Lime Kiln this afternoon, I was photographing a harbor seal. It looked normal and healthy, until it turned its head. It's left eye was completely infected, puffed up and pink, bulging out of its head. Totally disgusting, but interesting in its own right. I can't believe the seal was still alive.

Finally, it was officially confirmed today that K7, Lummi, is no longer with us. No one had seen her this summer so the official confirmation is not a surprise, but it doesn't make it any less sad. I would write more words about her, but I don't think I could top what was written by Howard Garrett of Orca Network, so I will quote what he wrote here.

We don't really know how important K7 was to her extended family these last nine or ten decades. We do know that K7 was a great-great-grandmother since 2004 when her great granddaughter K20 gave birth to her great-great grand son or daughter, K38. But there's no hard evidence to tell us how orcas treat each other or how their roles develop as they grow in wisdom over the years.

After over 32 years of continuous studies based on Jane Goodall's method called individual recognition, the research community believes that older females guide the entire clan and pass their deep knowledge of habitat and family traditions on to younger generations. K7, aka Lummi, was estimated to be the very oldest of them all. Her calculated birthdate was 1910, making her 98 years old this year, which is essentially equal to J2 (Granny), who lives on at about 97 years old. The next oldest is L25 (Ocean Sun), est. born in 1928, and three other females who were given a birthdate of 1933. J2 and K7 were definitely the elder females of the clan, and now only J2 can be considered to have the longest life and experience among the Southern Resident orca community.

We can only surmise how the other members of her family behaved and felt toward K7. We know that, like humans, females often live on for decades after having their last offspring at around age 40, so it is believed that these mature females must be highly valued by their families for their knowledge of fluctuations in habitat and where and how to find abundant food. But we also know that the Southern Residents' entire vocal and behavioral repertoires are completely unique and distinct from all other orca societies, and presumably it's the grandmother class that carries and transmits all these calls, rules, attitudes and traditions to the younger generations. When every aspect of life, from when and what to eat, when to mate (and with whom), when not to mate, when to split up and travel and when to meet and greet and throw a party, are all determined according to cultural norms, clearly some individuals must play the part of respected guides and mentors.

But our understanding of all those mysterious and intricate interrelationships will have to remain in the realm of informed speculation, because we have no idea what they are saying to one another, and to date there have been no clear observations of discipline or jousting for dominance, or forced behavior of any kind (except when moms corral or command their young ones), and unlike the scars found on humpbacks and sperm whales, there's no sign that they fight at all.

It's apparently all done with subtle suggestions based on the profound influence of the longest-lived, most richly experienced females. K7 must have been highly regarded as one of the most reliable sources of traditional knowledge among Southern Resident orcas. May she be remembered respectfully and fondly by humans and orcas alike.
Howard Garrett, Orca Network

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