A Leader Lost: What's Next for the Southern Resident orcas?

Granny was a living legend, famous at home and across the world; a matriarch and guiding light for critically endangered Southern Resident orcas.  Researchers knew Granny as J2, the leader of the Southern Resident orca community, but she has been missing for months and now, sadly, the Center for Whale Research (CWR) recently announced that Granny is presumed dead.  Without her, we are now faced with the sad questions: Who will lead the Southern Residents?  And what will it take to save her family?

Granny (J2)

At an estimated 105 years old, Granny was the oldest known orca in the world.  She was photographed and identified at the beginning of CWR’s annual orca census more than 40 years ago, already an adult and leader of her family.  The population studies of the Eastern North Pacific orcas – the Northern and Southern Residents, and the West Coast Transients (Bigg’s) – established the existence of multiple populations and ecotypes of orcas off the west coast of the United States and Canada, and gave researchers a snapshot of the complex social lives of these orcas.

Resident orcas live in family groups led by elder females.  These matriarchs play a crucial role in the daily lives and overall survival of their pods.  Granny was a source of historic knowledge for the Southern Residents; she knew the timing of salmon runs, the maps for finding food, the safe places to evade detection, the cultural traditions of her family.  Without Granny, how much of this knowledge will be lost?  So many things in Granny’s world changed over her lifetime.  What did she pass along to younger Southern Residents, and what has changed so much that it will be forgotten?

Granny was born into a larger Southern Resident population, during a time of more abundant salmon and cleaner waters.  In the early 1900s, cars were a novelty and the Pacific Northwest was still mostly untamed wilderness.  Telegrams were a common way to communicate across long distances.  Toxins were not yet a concern and people still freely dumped waste into waterways, assuming the great ocean would wash it away.  Salmon runs were already declining, but were still plentiful enough to feed the Southern Resident orcas. 

A life of over 100 years will see many changes.  Granny witnessed the decrease of salmon, in size and abundance, from overfishing, habitat loss, and the construction of dams that choked wild rivers.  She avoided the wrath of angry fishermen, shooting at orcas for taking their fish; and the rumored target practice of orca pods by Navy forces. The development of the Pacific Northwest brought hundreds of thousands of people, who tore up the forests and polluted the waters.  Runoff from growing industrial and agricultural practices introduced new and deadly elements into her waters, but Granny survived it all.  She knew an ocean before the rise of shipping traffic and the development of Navy sonar.  Increasing human-created noise forever changed the soundscape of her underwater world, and is already having lasting impacts on her family. 

Southern Resident orcas
The Southern Residents, seen here against the Seattle skyline, are the most urban orca population in the world

She was a symbol of freedom during the brutal capture era of the 1960s and 70s, when an estimated 40% of the entire Southern Resident orca population was sold to marine parks or died in capture efforts.  Already an adult by this time, the captors who were targeting calves and juveniles had no interest in Granny.  The first Shamu came from her family, a young J pod female who survived only six years in captivity.  The only Southern Resident taken into captivity still surviving is Tokitae (also known as Lolita, held at Miami Seaquarium), who by now would be a matriarch and leader in her own pod.

The world Granny was born into was one of clean water, free of harsh chemicals and deafening noise.  It was full of fish and life, and she swam freely with her family.  She survived so much change in her lifetime, and turned into a wise and beloved leader of her community.  Whale watchers in the Northwest would often see her well ahead of the other Southern Residents, directing them where to go.

In one of the last sightings of Granny by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), she was seen in “relatively poor body condition.”  But despite this, she was photographed catching and sharing a salmon with her young great-grandson Se-Yi’-Chn (J45), who lost his mother in the summer of 2016.  In their statement following the news of her death, researchers at NOAA noted that Granny was longer than most adult females in the Southern Resident population; this may be because she grew up in a time with more salmon, and had access to better prey resources. 

Southern Resident killer whales
Granny (J2, right) chasing salmon with her great-grandson

The Columbia River Basin was once one of the greatest river systems in the world, and the largest producer of salmon on the west coast.  When Granny was born, there were only a handful of dams in the Columbia Basin.  Today, it is the most dammed river system in the world with more than 400 total dams.   Granny grew up eating the large and fatty salmon from the Columbia – these salmon runs are now mere fractions of their historic abundance.

There are now just 78 members left in the Southern Resident orca community.  Declared endangered in 2005 with 88 members in the population, a recovery plan was finalized in January 2008 – but so far, recovery efforts have not been enough to stop the decline of this unique community of orcas.

Recovery for Granny’s family means addressing all the threats to the population – increasing food availability, decreasing toxins in their home, and implementing vessel regulations to reduce noise and harassment.  You can help protect the Southern Residents by demanding that the federal government take action to restore salmon, the key food source for these endangered orcas.  Sign our petition here – join the #MigrationNation to recover salmon in the Pacific Northwest, and ensure that Granny’s family continues her legacy for the next hundred years.

Image of one of the four dams on the lower Snake River



Certain humans will only be happy when they become extinct in

A very sad loss, especially for her family and community. Granny is also a wonderful example of the full, rich and incredibly long lives orca can lead if we as humans give them the respect they are owed. xo

I dearly wish all could have lived a life as long as Granny.It has broken my heart about poor Tilikum and all the others who have suffered terribly in captivity.Everyone keep up the great work and support to help these and all other creatures suffering at the hands of cruel greedy humans .I'm ashamed to be of the same species at times.......

Brillent post,like you I felt distraught about Tilikums untimely death.We who care about these wonderful Orca's will never give up doing what we can,to see them survive.

I had no idea that Orcas lived so long. Parrots, Tortoises and Turtles, are other animals that lives to a tremendous age. What a wonderful animal was this inhabitant of Earth called "Granny", the revered Orca leader, rather like a matriarch elephant, the leader of the pack!

R.I.P. Granny you Lovely Old Lady. I hope your successor lives as long.
Long live all Orcas !

Very sad news, we had the pleasure of observing Granny and her family in July 2016. She really was an amazing leader and we heard many fantastic stories about how she really cared and protected her pod.

I spent two years sailing with J, K and L pod and the various transient orca who swam in the BC waters. My life is profoundly changed forever after. Intelligent and gentle, curious and formidable, my love for orca is forged on an admiration like no other. They survive inspite of human interference and contamination. Maybe, just maybe, we humans can right the wrongs done to the beautiful creatures before it is too late. Globally orca's lives are held in a precarious balance as the pesticides stored in their blubber sits like a ticking time bomb waiting to be released into their systems because their preferred fish stocks dwindle. The BC orca may go elsewhere or possibly die unless we work hard to restore the salmon stocks which they feed on. Only changing human behaviour and arrogance can help them.

I really hope she turns up, prayers xxx

Within all these humane infantilism existing their chances are not good. In fact there is also no honest decision from them, which are only talking much about, to save or help them, elsewhere it would happen.

I am so sad with all these , I hope human will learn from his mistakes and start protecting life on earth. http://www.blepharitis.eu

What a despicable and destructive species we have become. There is something very wrong with the world when we not only endanger human life but also wildlife and sealife. I can only hope that I will see a huge change in my lifetime and see these beautiful creatures thrive once again. Sleep well Granny.

Greed, money, want, want, want.....humans are the most destructive force on this planet. Those that know compassion and understanding for our fellow beings have the power to turn this around. Educate, legislate, don't give up....for all those that have died because of us, it is our responsibility to make the changes. If you do just one thing in your life, please let it be that you do all you can to turn this around...sleep well, swim free my fellow souls.

It really is a sad thing, greedy greedy sinful humans messing with creation. I just have to remember its all a part of God's plan, which will be hard but not impossible.

I have been fascinated with orca's and all ocean life in general since I was 4 years old. I've read every book, scientific paper and learned from some of the most prominent orca researchers who have studied the southern and northern resident orcas. Michael Bigg, John Ford, Graeme Ellis... I look at our world today, and I can't imagine what these pioneering researchers much be seeing happening to these amazing creatures. While I know this is a US site, I am from Victoria BC Canada on Vancouver Island, and the southern residents spend a lot of time in these waters as well. Currently our country is arguing over building oil pipelines to the coast so as to export to China and other countries. This is a major concern for me and for the safety and health of our orcas. This could mean an increase in more oil tanker traffic, more potential oil spills and accidents at sea. This will affect both southern and our northern resident orcas as well. Especially if the very narrow Johnstone Stait becomes heavy with traffic, which happens to be a very active region for northern residents. I am doing my best to educate people as much as possible. It's also why I am in school doing a bachelors in environmental resource management and hope to be more involved in communities and Government throughout the province of British Columbia.