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Sunday, November 1, 2015

Day of the Dead ~ 6th Annual Tribute

Every year on the Day of the Dead (or Dia de los Muertos), I write a blog post honoring the Southern Resident Killer Whales that we've lost during the previous year. You can find the whole series of blog posts here. Last year was a particular sad post, as there had been three deaths and no births to the population. This year there's a little bit of a different story to tell; with two deaths and six births since my last Day of the Dead post, the population has risen from 78 to 82 animals.

J32 ~ Rhapsody

In early December of 2014 we heard the tragic news that a killer whale had washed up dead near Comox, BC. From photographs it was quickly determined to be J32 Rhapsody, and the subsequent necropsy had even sadder news: she was pregnant with a full term fetus that had preceded her in death, and it's thought that she died from an infection that resulted from being unable to expel the fetus. After having no successful births into the population for over two years, losing a prime age reproductive female with a full term calf was an especially sharp blow. A dark cloud was definitely hanging over the whole whale community with Rhapsody's death.
But it was important for us not to forget Rhapsody's zest for life. She loved to breach more than most, and even had a distinct style to it that sometimes made it possible to identify her just by how she was jumping out of the water.

J32 Rhapsody breaching in August 2013 - she would have been just a few months pregnant here

Rhapsody was born in 1996 to 15 year-old J20 Ewok. Rhapsody's family life turned upside down in 1998 when her mother died. Luckily she was "adopted" by her aunt J22 Oreo, who had just had her own calf, J34 Doublestuf. The matriline would continue to experience tragedy over the next couple years, as Rhapsody's grandmother J10 Tahoma died in 1999 and her uncle J18 Everett in 2000. Oreo, Doublestuf, and Rhapsody became a tight threesome that survived, joined later in 2003 by J38 Cookie.

Strong family bonds last a lifetime to resident killer whales. J32 Rhapsody on the right was tight with her adopted mom J22 Oreo, center, and adopted brother J34 Doublestuf, left. September 2012.

In addition to her adopted family, Rhapsody also spent quite a bit of time with other whales, especially those with calves. Perhaps she liked spending time among their youngters in preparation for becoming a mother herself.

J32 Rhapsody, left, with young mom J37 Hy'shqa in 2014 - 6 months before Rhapsody's death.

It was hard to fathom that we had lost Rhapsody at just 18 years of age. The silver lining that came out of her death, however, was that finally, people were outraged. The Southern Residents had been listed on the Endangered Species Act for 10 years, yet nothing substantial had been done to improve their fate and Rhapsody was a prime example of that. Rhapsody's death became a rallying point for activists who strongly felt the government was not doing enough to protect the whales, and her story became a focal point in the fight to breach the four Lower Snake River dams that would dominate 2015. As tragic as her death was, it certainly was not in vain.

L27 ~ Ophelia

In contrast to Rhapsody's death, which received a lot of media attention, Ophelia quietly passed away in the late summer of 2015, at the estimated age of 50. Part of the L4 matriline, she played an important role as aunt and babysitter to many of the young whales in that family group. In a family where many of the whales have fairly nondescript dorsal fins and solid saddle patches, she also stood out with her short fin with a notch in it, and distinct left and right saddles that each had a slight finger.

L27 Ophelia balancing a piece of kelp on her rostrum

Ophelia was estimated to be born in 1965. She had four known calves of her own, but sadly they all preceded her in death at ages of 3 (L80 Odessa and L93 Nerka), 10 (L68 Elwha), and 20 (L62 Cetus). 

L27 Ophelia with newborn calf L68 Elwha in 1985 - Photo by Fred Felleman

From 1996 onward she was the oldest female in the L4 matriline and would often be seen out in front leading the way, but just as often she would be right in with the youngsters of her sisters. It seems to be the fate of some adult females to be the "aunties", or caretakers and aides to the young of others (J8 Spieden comes to mind as another one), and this was a role that Ophelia filled with zeal.

L27 Ophelia (left) with her sister L86 Surprise and year-old L112 Sooke in 2010

One of my strongest memories of her is from the fall of 2014 where she never left the side of newborn L120, who lived for just seven weeks.

L27 Ophelia with L86 Surprise! and newborn L120 in September 2014

L-Pod has a real shortage of reproductive age females who are successfully producing offspring. The L4s are one of the few matrilines that carry the potential for the future of L-Pod, and I have no doubt that one reason they have had been raising some successful young is because of the help over the years from Ophelia. She will be missed.

L27 Ophelia in June 2015

Each year in this blog post I always like to take a moment to honor not only the lives that have been lost, but the new additions to the Southern Residents. Amazingly, since this time last year, there have been no less than six new births into the community.

While the gloom of Rhapsody's death still hung over the whale world, J50 Scarlet was a true bringer of hope when she was first seen on December 30, 2014. She is the sixth known calf of J16 Slick, who at an estimated age of 42 at the time of birth was tied for the oldest documented Southern Resident mother.

J50 Scarlet with mom J16 Slick in February 2015

Then just six weeks later in February, at the other end of the spectrum, J41 Eclipse became the youngest-ever documented Southern Resident mother at just 9 years old when she gave birth to her first, J51 Nova.

J51 Nova in June 2015

Two weeks after that, still in February, we got word from NOAA's outer coast research cruise that they spotted new baby L121 Windsong with mother L94 Calypso (her second calf.)

L121 Windsong in August 2015

And they weren't done yet! At the end of March, another new baby was seen in the J16 matriline - J52 Sonic, who is the firstborn of J36 Alki.

J52 Sonic and J36 Alki in August 2015

The next new birth came in early September, when another first-time mother L91 Muncher had her first calf, L122.

L91 Muncher and L122 in September 2015

And finally, just over a week ago, on October 24th J17 Princess Angeline was seen with her fourth known offspring, a new little one designated J53 who I haven't had the chance to meet yet!

As exciting as these SIX new births are, it's important to remember that they don't mean all is well with the Southern Residents. This means there are six more mouths to feed, and this population is still facing a real uphill battle trying to find enough of their primary prey, Chinook salmon. Some have pointed out that it's likely no coincidence that these little ones were conceived during or near a winter when there was a particularly strong Columbia River Chinook return. It's up to us to do our part to make sure they continue to have enough to eat as they grow and hopefully thrive. Fingers crossed this really is the turning point for Southern Resident Killer Whale recovery, but there's a lot of work yet to be done.

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