Day of the Dead 2020

Originally published November 2, 2020 on Monika’s blog Orca Watcher

Today is Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a time every year I take a moment to remember the Southern Resident killer whales we’ve lost over the previous 12 months. You can find all my previous Day of the Dead tributes here. I believe it’s so important to remember their stories, as they all, both in life and in death, fuel our fight for a brighter future for this unique population of whales.

 L41 Mega

Every loss is sad, but some hit me harder than others, and L41 was one of those harder ones. I think it’s in large part because he was such an iconic whale for me from the very beginning. When I first started watching the Southern Residents, there were only three adult males in the entire population (kind of hard to believe, because now we’re seeing such a male-bias among viable calves that we’re hoping for females all the time). One of those “original” adult males was Mega, so he was one of the very first whales I was ever able to identify. In addition to his tall dorsal fin, he was easily identified by the large notch in the middle of his fin.

Mega and “the girls” in 2005 – his sisters L77 Matia and L94 Calypso and elder female L25 Ocean Sun

Mega was part of a small sub-group of L-Pod known as the L12s. While occasionally given the tongue-in-cheek characterization of being “boring” whales (because they often are spread out and doing long dives, thus being less exciting to watch) , they’ve always been one of my favorite groups to see, perhaps because I have so many special memories of them.

When I first got to know him, Mega had just lost his mom, L11 Squirty, but his sisters had yet to have any offspring of their own, so it was always the trio of siblings I looked out for. Adult males that lose their mothers have a dramatically increased likelihood of dying themselves, and those that survive seem to do so in large part because they find an adoptive mother figure to “take them in”, so to speak. Such was the case with Mega. While he was often seen with his sisters, he was also often seen with his adoptive mothers L25 Ocean Sun, the matriarch of the L12 sub-group with no living descendants of her own (save for perhaps Lolita/Tokitae, the last Southern Resident surviving in captivity, who is theorized to be L25’s daughter due to their proximity in capture photos).

L41 with L25

In another “it’s hard to believe now”, back in my early years the L12s were the whales I encountered most often after J-Pod, being known at the time for the “westside shuffle” and often spending hours hanging out in front of Lime Kiln. But those afternoons of seeing the L12s go north and south and north and south from Lime Kiln will be how I always remember Mega; while not every pass was like this, it seemed like more often than not he was right in the kelp.

The way I’ll best remember Mega: wowing onlookers right off the rocks at Lime Kiln

My all-time favorite photo of him came during one of the first-ever trips I worked as a naturalist, when he broke off from the rest of his family group and swam right under the boat. I was standing on the roof of the vessel and perfectly positioned to watch him emerge, capturing this unique angle of the very beginning of his exhale.

L41 surfacing after diving under the whale-watch boat I was on

Mega and J1 Ruffles were always the most iconic males to me, and it turns out that was a fitting association. Through genetic tests, it was determined that as of 2017, more than 50% of the living Southern Resident population was either directly or indirectly descended from those two males. While the adult male bottleneck that occurred in the early 2000s surely had something to do with it, it’s also perhaps an indicator that either the older and/or larger males are the most desirable mates. Mega is the largest Southern Resident male among those measured by the photogrammetry research team, coming in at 7.3m / 24 ft.

2015 aerial photogrammetry photo of L41 by NOAA Fisheries/ SR3

Per Ford et al.’s 2018 paper on paternity in the Southern Residents, Mega is the probable father of the following whales:

  • J34, J35, J36, J37, J40, J44, J45, J53
  • K33, K34, K35, K36, K42
  • L95, L100, L101, L106, L112, L116

In that sense, perhaps for more so than any whale save J1, Mega’s legacy will truly live on for many generations. 

For some reason, the L12 sub-group became more scarce in recent years, so much so that in 2019, it was the first year that I personally didn’t see them at all. That means my last photo of Mega goes all the way back to September 2018, where he was traveling with his niece L119 Joy. Mega lived a good, long life – he was over 40 years old when he passed away. We can only hope all his descendants are blessed with the same fertility and longevity.

The last photo I took of Mega, in September 2018. He’s traveling with his niece L119 Joy.

New Additions

To help counteract the nostalgia that comes from writing these posts, I always like to end with a note of welcome to the whales that have been born into the population over the previous year. In some years, there were no births to celebrate. In many years, the deaths outnumbered the births, sometimes by a lot. This year, there’s joy in the fact that with the birth of two little whales in September, the population has actually grown by one.

J57 feels in some ways like a royal baby, born to J35 Tahlequah two years after the tragic loss of her previous calf that gained global attention as she carried the body for 17 days. Tahlequah certainly has celebrity status in the media, so J57’s birth was big news.

The little dorsal fin of J57 next to mom J35 Tahlequah in September

I’ve only gotten one brief glimpse of J57 so far, but I have no doubt I’ll see plenty more of him alongside the other calf, J58, who was born just a couple weeks later to a whale very close to my heart, J41 Eclipse.

Baby J58 between mom J41 Eclipse and big brother J51 Nova

2020 has undoubtedly been a rough year, for so many different reasons. But I’m trying my best to hold on to the glimmers of hope for 2021, including these two new little whales, and the word that there are other prengancies among the Southern Residents, so hopefully there are more calves on the way in the near future

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