Originally posted November 2, 2018 on Monika’s blog, Orca Watcher
The Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is about honoring those who have passed on – every year, I take a moment on this day to remember the Southern Residents we have lost in the previous year. You can see the whole series of blog posts here. Over the years these posts have gotten harder to write, as the population continues to decline. But now more than ever, as we continue to fight for the survival and recovery of the Southern Residents, it’s important not to forget the stories of the whales we have lost along the way.
After the first May on record without any Southern Residents in inland waters in 2018, June 11th was an even happier day when word came in there were lots and lots of whales in Haro Strait. The joy at the return of J-Pod and part of L-Pod was dampered however when it became apparent that L92 Crewser was not with them. The group of L-Pod made up of the L4s, L26s, L47s, and L72sthus went from being referred to among naturalists as “The 19 Ls” to “The 18 Ls”.
As the Southern Residents have become even more well studied in recent years we’ve learned, in the words of NOAA researcher John Durban, that there’s “a social basis to vulnerability” among resident killer whales. It is not surprising then that Crewser was at risk, being a young adult male (age 23) without a mother or other strong social connections with successful adult females. Males are known to be more likely to die after the death of their mothers, though Crewser survived a pretty remarkable 16 years after the death of his own mother L60 Rascal, having attached to his likely grandmother L26 Baba until her death in 2013. Crewser’s only surviving relative is L90 Ballena, a 25 year-old female who has never been seen with a viable calf. If Ballena fails to reproduce during her lifetime, this will spell the end of the L26 matriline.
Crewser was easily picked out of a crowd, being both the only sprouter/adult male among his sub-group of L-Pod and also having a distinct kink at the top of his fin.
When the opportunity presented itself, he would often associate with males from other pods and sub-groups.
With Crewser’s death, the population of the Southern Residents numbered 75 whales for the summer of 2018.
I will never forget being out on the water on December 30, 2014 with J-Pod in Haro Strait, and hearing over the radio that Dave from the Center for Whale Research was on scene with the leaders in Swanson Channel with a new calf. It had been more than 2 years since there had been a successful calf born, and after the recent death of J32 Rhapsody with her near full-term daughter deceased inside her, it was the symbol of hope we all needed to start a new year. And what a year it was. The new calf – J50 Scarlet – was the whale the kicked off the baby boom of 2015.
It was a record spate of births not seen among the Southern Residents since the 1970s, and included another calf in Scarlet’s matriline when J52 Sonic was born at the end of March. The J16 matriline quickly became the “nursery group”, as the two little ones were seemingly always rambunctious and goading the rest of their family into playing as well. It was so special seeing two such little calves together all the time, and I dreamed of getting a shot of the two of them surfacing right together – a wish that was granted in June 2017 when they passed right off the rocks at Lime Kiln together:
From the beginning, Scarlet was a little different. The namesake scars she bore on her dorsal fin led to speculation that she had a difficult birth.
She also roamed a lot – away from mom further and younger than we see from other calves. Even at less than a year old it was not uncommon to see her all by herself.
She also didn’t seem to be growing properly – while whales of a similar age like J51 Nova were gaining length and girth, Scarlet remained a petite whale, both slender and short. When I saw J-Pod in March of 2018, however, she still looked good. But when J-Pod returned in June, she had the beginning signs of peanut head, showing undernourishment. Experts thought she probably had weeks to live. But the weeks ticked by, and she hung on.
Scarlet’s story took center stage when J35 Tahlequah brought international attention to the plight of the Southern Residents by carrying her deceased calf for 17 days in July and August. Suddenly, there was a renewed interest in trying to “rescue” Scarlet, and what unfolded in the following weeks was a media frenzy as researchers tried to diagnose what was wrong with her by taking breath and fecal samples, treated her by darting her with antibiotics and deworming medication, attempted to feed her by releasing salmon down a chute off a boat, and laid plans to go as far as capturing her if needed. While the debate raged over whether or intervene or leave her alone, she somehow still swam on, despite her condition continuing to deteriorate.
She was a swimming bag of bones at the end, and it came as a surprise to no one who had been observing her when she disappeared. The circus still wouldn’t come to an immediate end, however, as a helicopter search continued for several days after her disappearance until it was fully acknowledged she was deceased. Regardless of which side of the intervention debate you were on, there was no arguing that, either directly or indirectly, we had failed her.
Scarlet became the latest of the baby boom calves to die, leaving just five survivors from that incredible year. It was just three years ago, but it is already hard to recall what it’s like to have a healthy, active newborn in the population. It’s now been over 3 years since the last successful birth. Population down to 74.
I often end these posts with acknowledgment of the new whales that have joined the ranks of the Southern Residents, but for the third year in a row, there are no more to add. It’s also impossible to write about the whales we lost this summer without mentioning the deceased neonate J35 Tahlequah carried around for an incredible 17 days. As a grieving mother, Tahlequah made an incredible statement that resonated around the globe.
So much more could be said about her vigil and the emotion and activism it inspired, but to put it simply, it has reignited my dedication to not only the living whales but to the next generation of Southern Residents. We have learned about the incredible rate of failed pregnancies among Southern Residents in recent years, while meanwhile the thriving transient killer whale population has had something like 90% survivorship of calves. My goal is that Tahlequah and all the other future moms will not have to go through this again. And so, we fight on.