The most iconic whale in the Southern Resident Community of killer whales has been missing since November 2010. J1, nicknamed Ruffles for his wavy dorsal fin, has been the most recognizable whale in this population since it was first determined whales could be individually identified in the early 1970s. When they first started the photo ID study of these orcas, Ruffles was already a full adult male, leading researchers to estimate his birth date as 1950. This means that last year, at the age of 60, he was by far the oldest male among J-, K- and L-Pods. In truth, he could have been even older. This is especially remarkable when you consider that many other male killer whales die in their 20s and 30s.
Since Ruffles' family has been seen often since last November, it is likely that he has passed away. It has taken me a while to write about his passing because it's a difficult thing to process. When I worked on a whale-watching boat, many return visitors remembered Ruffles and wanted to see him again. Others, first time whale-watchers, had heard about him and knew he was one whale they wanted to see. It seems like everyone in the whale world has at least one good Ruffles story.
|J1 Ruffles coming to the surface, as seen from the top of Lime Kiln Lighthouse in 2005|
I first met Ruffles in the year 2000, and unlike most people I don't remember the first time I saw him. My natural affinity was with J2, Granny, Ruffles near-constant companion and potentially his mother. Still, he has been a continual presence in J-Pod since I came to knew these whales, and it seems like there is a hole now that he is gone. He and Granny together made such an impression on me that I painted a mural of them in our houseboat, and I sit underneath them every time I write a blog post. It's not quite accurate to say Ruffles was a friend, but for each whale encounter of mine over the last decade he has been a friendly presence, and I'm sad now that he is gone.
|J1 Ruffles in the middle with J2 Granny (right) and K12 Sequim (left)|
While I have been lucky enough to have some close encounters with Ruffles over the years, my most lasting image of him is from far away. I picture him surfacing far offshore, his towering dorsal fin easily visible from a mile or more away. He had a characteristic way of surfacing: slow, deliberate, with a strong thrust of his flukes as he dove that caused the last visible tip of his dorsal fin to lurch forward just before it disappeared. When the rest of J-Pod was tightly grouped or closer to shore, he might be off on his own, almost as if standing guard.
Of course Ruffles wasn't always by himself. He often hung out with the young males; I think I've seen him traveling in close association with every J-Pod adult and sub-adult male. Everyone sort of thought of Ruffles as "the man" of the Southern Residents, and this view was somewhat substantiated with some genetic paternity research that was recently done on this population. It turns out that Ruffles was the father of quite a few whales, not only in K- and L-Pods, but even in J-Pod. This threw the assumption that whales only mate outside their own pod out the window. I always thought of Ruffles hanging out with these young males as being a tutoring session - maybe he was passing on his knowledge about being such a successful and long-lived orca.
|J1 with a sub-adult male, J30 Riptide, in 2005|
I really felt better equipped to honor Ruffles with a photo tribute, so I went through my hundreds of pictures of the big guy and put my favorite 25 Ruffles images in a photo gallery. I always knew he associated a lot with Granny and the young males, but one thing I never really noticed until I went through my photos was how much time Ruffles spent with some of the older females from the other pods, as well. I have a lot of pictures of him with K12 Sequim (born in 1970) and also with L7 Canuck (born in 1961).
There are a lot of sightings local naturalists covet and regularly swap notes on. Have you seen a tufted puffin this year? Taken a photo of a breaching whale with Mt. Baker in the background? These types of things earn you "street cred" among your peers, and another one to add to the list is having seen Ruffles breach. He wasn't known for being super active at the surface, and breaches in particular were a rarity. It's something I only saw him do on two occasions. The first time was when I was volunteering on Soundwatch years ago, and let me tell you, even though we were a ways away, he made our small blue boat feel even smaller. The second time was last year, when he and Granny were way ahead of the rest of J-Pod and slowly traveling north. On that day he breached three times in a row, and I was quick enough to get some photos. As big as he normally looks, I always think he looks surprisingly slender from this angle:
With Ruffles passing on, the oldest male among the Southern Residents is now 34 year-old L41 Mega. When I first started getting to know these whales, they were experiencing a scary bottleneck in adult males, with only four in the entire population. L58 Sparky died, leaving only three for quite some time (Ruffles, Mega, and L57 Faith, who has also passed on). Luckily, in part due to Ruffles' successful fathering of calves over the years, we now have about 10 adult males, with many more "sprouter" males on the way.
On one hand, Ruffles lived a very long and successful life for a male orca, and the deaths of some of our young males (like L73 Flash and L74 Saanich last year) is sadder in that it means something is happening to keep our breeding age males from surviving as long as Ruffles did. On the other hand, though, he is so well known to me and many others, that his loss is incredibly sad, too. I'll miss you, big guy.
Please feel free to share your own memories of Ruffles in the comment section....I would love to hear them.