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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Day of the Dead

Today is Dia de los Muertos, a Latin American holiday that celebrates and honors those that have died. I wanted to take a moment today to remember the whales that we lost this year from the Southern Resident Community of killer whales.

K11 ~ Georgia (estimated birth year 1933)
K11 Georgia was the oldest living whale in K-Pod. She was the probable daughter of K7 Lummi, who passed away in 2008 at the estimated age of 98, and the probable mother of K13 Skagit, who has four offspring of her own. I always loved talking about this matriline as a naturalist, because for a while there were five living generations of orcas all traveling together.

Lummi and Georgia were two iconic whales of K-Pod. Both were easy to identify - Lummi with her two notches, and Georgia with her distinct open saddle patches - and they were always together, often in front leading the way. Georgia took on another special role in recent years when she seemingly became the adopted mother to L87 Onyx, who had lost his own mother. Onyx basically switched pods to be with Georgia and her family, and many were and are concerned about how he will adapt after losing another mama figure. (It seems like he may have latched on to J8 Spieden, another older female.)

It seemed like K-Pod kind of "reshuffled" with the loss of their oldest whale Lummi, and it will be interesting to see what changes now that Georgia has passed on as well. The oldest living whale in the pod is now K40 Raggedy, estimated to be 47 years old, and she has always been a bit of a rogue. She and her brother K21 Cappuccino don't always travel with the rest of the pod, and she has never been seen with a calf. Of course we will never know for sure, but it will be interesting to see if any changes happen in terms of socialization or travel patterns with the loss of Georgia.

L73 ~ Flash (born 1986)
Flash was the one whale that more often than not got mistaken for J1 Ruffles. He had a very similar wavy dorsal fin which led to much speculation about who is father likely was. He could be distinguished from Ruffles in part by a notch at the base of his dorsal fin. Flash is also unique in that he is the only Southern Resident to receive a name that had previously been given to another whale. Flash the First was L48, a whale that died at the age of six in 1983.

I took this photo of Flash on May 14th of this year, and he went missing shortly thereafter. It's always sad to lose a whale, but is especially of concern when it is a younger whale in their prime, as Flash should have been at the age of 24. When it is a male whale that is lost, the role of toxins always becomes a question, because unlike females they have no way to offload the bio-accumulated chemicals like DDT, PCBs, and PBDEs, which can all tax the immune system.

Whenever I saw Flash I would look for another big male, L74 Saanich, who also went missing this year. These two males were cousins and seemed to be good buddies. I wonder if the loss of his friend played any role in the deteriorating of Flash's health. Adult males especially seem to be susceptible to not living long after other important whales in their life pass on. He is, however, survived by his mother, L5 Tanya.

L74 ~ Saanich (born 1986)
Saanich, named after a district and peninsula on Vancouver Island, was another adult male that should have been in his prime. He had been living without any immediate family members since his mother  L3 Oriana died in 2002, but had really latched on to L73 Flash and the two were nearly always seen together.

Saanich didn't have any real distinguishing marks, but I always looked for his by his especially broad, butter knife-shape dorsal fin. He had a small indentation near the top of his fin that you could use to pick him out in photographs. 

My favorite encounter with Saanich happened on July 21, 2007, when the above photo was taken. It was a cold, rainy day at Lime Kiln Lighthouse and most of the whales had already gone by. Many of the people watching had decided to leave by then, but a few of us die-hard whale watchers kept standing in the chilly drizzle because there were a couple of whales, including Saanich, milling around a ways offshore. Slowly, slowly, they started zig-zagging their way closer to shore. Eventually they went into the cove just north of the lighthouse, and came back and a forth a few times through the kelp just in front of us. All feelings of discomfort were forgotten during that special encounter, one each witness still remembers clearly to this day. It wasn't until the whales finally moved on that I realized I was drenched and could no longer feel my fingers! My camera had a plastic bag over it to try and protect it from the elements.

I don't know what caused you to lose your life at such a young age, Saanich, but you will certainly be missed.

L114 ~ Unnamed (born 2010)

This last whale is one I never got to meet. It was first reported February 21st of this year by the Center for Whale Research, who saw this new calf with first-time mother L77 Matia. This was exciting news, because Matia's sister L94 Calypso had also had her first calf in October 2009, and all of a sudden the L12 subpod, which had been made up of only adult whales for a long time, had two new members. Unfortunately first born calves especially have a high mortality rate, and it's not believed that this little whale survived more than a couple of days. I can only imagine what it must be like for Matia to watch her sister raising her first calf when she has lost her own.

I can't mention the whales we have lost without also mentioning the whales we have gained. We've had four other calves born in 2010: J47 to J35 Talequah in January, K43 to K12 Sequim in February, L115 to L47 Marina in August, and L116 to L82 Kasatka in October. This makes the current population of the Southern Residents 88, by my count.


Anonymous said...

What an amazing post Monika. Brings tears to my eyes.

Lois Evensen said...

I am so impressed. Knowing the whales so intimately must make it so hard to see one die, yet such a joy when new ones are born. Wonderful post.

Howard Garrett said...

Well said Monika, thank you.

Lucky said...

Beautifully written memorial Monika. As much as you feel honored by their presence, they too are so fortunate to have you. :-)

Lee Ann O'Toole said...

Just lovely. You seem so fulfilled by these AMAZING animals. I sure do envy you,yet so grateful at the same time.

Monika said...

Thanks everyone for all your heartfelt comments. :)