Less than a day after the brief return of the Southern Resident orcas to their home waters in the Salish Sea, our excitement turned to sorrow with the devastating news that K21 (Cappuccino) was seen lagging far behind his podmates, severely emaciated and with a completely collapsed dorsal fin. While he has not been sighted since then, it is very likely that he was in the last hours of his life, and that the Southern Resident community was accompanying him home to die.
While the Southern Residents have been spending less and less time in their traditional summer habitat, researchers have noted that the three pods in the population have returned to their home waters in recent years when there is a birth or death in the community.
The Salish Sea undoubtedly has special meaning for these whales, a place where they used to all came together after a winter spent mostly apart, searching for food in coastal waters. With salmon abundance decreasing in the spring and summer months, the whales have forsaken their summer home, spending more time looking for food outside the Salish Sea.
It is truly devastating to lose orcas from this small, highly endangered community, and to watch their culture change before our eyes.
Not only is every member vital for their survival, but these are some of the most well-known whales in the world. We know who their families are, we give them nicknames, we see their unique personalities and behaviors, and the special cultural traditions that define the community. We’re not just losing a whale – we’re losing a neighbor, a friend, & an icon.
It may be some time before the loss of Cappuccino is confirmed by researchers. The Southern Residents left the area quickly, and while it will be hard to confirm his absence from the group, it is very unlikely that he will recover.
At 35 years old, Cappuccino was an average age for the life expectancy of a male Resident orca, though they can live into their 50s and 60s. With the struggles the community continues to face, we are grateful that Cappuccino was able to have a fairly long life.
We will also likely never know what caused his demise: illness, injury, malnutrition, or “old age.” But no matter what the cause, a lack of food makes all other problems worse.
These whales need more salmon throughout their range, and working to make food available and abundant for the Southern Residents is WDC’s highest priority for their recovery.
We will mourn Cappuccino, celebrate the healthy new calves, and renew our efforts to make sure that sad news like this not “the new normal” for the Southern Residents.