Day of the Dead 2021

Below you will find my twelfth annual installment of taking a moment on Dia de Los Muertos to honor the whales we have lost over the previous year.

I am in the process of transitioning all these posts to OBI’s website here, where you can read the tributes from 2016-2021, but you can still find all the Day of the Dead posts dating back to 2010 on Monika’s blog here.

K21 Cappuccino

K21, known as “Cappy” during his early days, was born in 1986. He was an iconic whale from the get-go. It was with his birth that scientists decided to move the whales in his associated family group from L-Pod to K-Pod, the first and only time Southern Residents have had their pod designations changed. The groups that would be known as the K18s and K30s were unclear in their familial relationships, and during initial surveys had been observed traveling with L-Pod. Their later “switch” to K-Pod, along with the fact that they made traditional K-Pod discrete calls, led to the re-designation. Cappuccino’s mom, K18 Kiska, was thus originally known as L18.

K21 was a bit of a late bloomer; his dorsal fin still had some growing to do when he was a 19-year old male, seen here in 2005

When I first met Cappuccino, he was part of the memorable trio which included his mom Kiska and his sister K40 Raggedy. Both Kiska and Cappuccino had bold, check mark-shaped saddle patches on both sides, and Raggedy was so-named for all the notches on the trailing edge of her dorsal fin. These identification marks made them some of the first Southern Residents I was able to ID, and they further endeared themselves to me when, during my first-ever week spent with the Southern Residents, they circled the whale-watching boat I was on, turning to look up at us from underwater.

Kiska passed away just a few years later in 2003, so Cappuccino and Raggedy became the inseparable brother-sister pair I would become more familiar with over the next decade. For some reason, Raggedy was never seen with a calf, and in some ways perhaps that benefited Cappuccino, who defied the odds and lived a long life as an adult male after the passing of his mother. The two would continue the pod-wandering tradition of their family group, spending days or sometimes weeks traveling with J or L Pods.

Cappuccino, on the right, with his sister Raggedy off the south end of San Juan Island on a summer evening in 2009
In 2010, Cappuccino returned with a nasty wound on his dorsal fin, which would later heal into a notch

After Raggedy died in 2012, it was now a certainty that K21 would be the last living member of both his matriline and the unique K-Pod subgroup that had originally been seen with Ls. With no living female relatives his future became even more uncertain, but he found an adoptive mother figure in K16 Opus and could regularly be found traveling with her and her son K35 Sonata, again sometimes separating from the rest of K-Pod as a wayward trio.

Whenever there was a male gathering when multiple pods were traveling together Cappuccino always seemed to be in the middle of it. Whether it was “sword-fighting” (you know what I mean, right?) or surfing a freighter wake, this often stoic male was always also up for some fun and games.

K21 was always in the middle of the “boys only” parties, like this one in Boundary Pass in 2009 that started with a cuddle puddle and ended with K21 and L41 surfing a freighter wake together

While the K13s and K14s were seen in the Salish Sea in early 2021, and the K12s made an appearance in early July, the K16s and K21 were MIA during these visits, which was not altogether unusual. It wasn’t until all of K-Pod came in with Js and Ls on July 27th that there was an opportunity for us to see K16, K21, and K35. The whales didn’t make it to the west side of San Juan Island until nearly sunset, and they were all spread out and in mixed subgroups. I found Opus and Sonata in my photos but didn’t see Cappuccino, but knew I hadn’t seen about half the whales present, so didn’t think anything of it….until the next day.

The Southern Residents were already heading back west on the morning of July 28th but later in the day a disturbing report came in of an adult male orca with a collapsed dorsal fin in Race Passage. Photos and videos showed it to be K21, emaciated and with a completely collapsed dorsal fin the likes of which I have never seen before. The heartbreaking images made their way to social media and research teams scrambled to assemble to reach him. Given that he was undoubtedly past the point of no return at this point, I was somewhat thankful that he was not found the next day, and I can only hope that he passed in peace overnight.

The death of this striking adult male at age 36 raised questions, some of them uncomfortable, and led to debates, even among researchers. Why had he been left alone when he was dying? Did he die of starvation or something else? Did he live a full life or did he die young?

As with nearly evening when it comes to orcas, we will never know all the facts and can only speculate. Rather than delve further into the varying claims that were made as the result of his death, I will choose to remember Cappuccino as the striking adult male he was, one who defied the odds and lived on as the sole representative of the K18 matriline for many years. He was beloved by so many and will be deeply missed.

The way I will always remember Cappuccino. This photo was taken during one of my last encounters with him in July 2020.

L47 Marina

Marina was always a quiet presence in L-Pod to me, overshadowed perhaps by some of the larger or more distinct whales in her sub-group, but always still distinct with her shorter triangular fin and fingered saddle patches that always reminded me of her mother, L21 Ankh.

A classic shot of L47 Marina – easy perhaps to overlook in a crowd, but distinct in her own way

I have a fun “side challenge” with myself to photograph orcas with as many different species of birds as I can. I’m not even sure what my count is at, but I always remember being so excited to add black oystercatchers to the list when I photographed one flying by Marina in 2014.

Her story as a mother was always a bittersweet one. As matriarch of the “M” matriline, her reproductive life started out well by giving birth to two daughters, L83 Moonlight when Marina was sixteen and L91 Muncher five years later. What followed was a series of births that was hard to witness, with 4 calves being born and getting alphanumeric designations but not living longer than a year: L99 in 2000, L102 in 2002, L107 in 2005, and L111 in 2008. Somehow, the pattern was broken in 2010 with the birth of her son L115 Mystic, who livedhtIn addition to her three living offspring, Marina is also survived by her two grandsons, one born to each daughter: L110 Midnight and L122 Magic.

Marina flanked by her daughters L83 Moonlight and L91 Muncher in 2011

Some of the most memorable encounters I had with the L47s occurred when they were traveling with their separate sub-group of L-Pod (which I always refer to as “the greater L4s”). On several occasions they’ve gone through San Juan Channel on their own, leading to always-unforgettable passes from Southern Residents at Cattle Point. This group of L-Pod in particular seems to love playing in those strong currents that can form in Cattle Pass! The one that stands out most in my mind, however, was in September 2008, when this group of Ls ended up within 1/4 mile of the T18s. At this point, this L sub-group didn’t have any adult males, and the way they behaved was very unusual. They were all in one tight group, moving quickly, doing much longer dives than usual as they made their way north towards Spieden Channel and presumably the more open waters of Haro Strait. Usually, on those rare occassions when Ts and Southern Residents intersect, it seems like the residents are the “aggressors”, or at the very least that the Ts are the ones that divert course and leave the area. On this day, it as the Ls who seemed to be the ones vacating the area, with the four Bigg’s killer whales in fairly close pursuit.

The L4 sub-group including L47 Marina (top) being pursued by the T18s (bottom) in San Juan Channel in 2008

In recent years, it seemed Marina was most often with Mystic, her daugthers elsewhere with their own offspring. I have so many memories of sitting on the west side and watching Marina and Mystic foraging together, spread out just the two of them searching for fish, then converging, presumably to share prey between mother and son.

Marina with her son L115 Mystic off Lime Kiln in 2014

Here’s hoping Marina’s legacy as a dedicated mother lives on through her offspring, and that her daughters are able to have some more successful births of their own to carry on this important L-Pod matriline.

New Additions

While it’s important to honor the whales we have lost, it’s also a sad process to go through. It’s nice to end these posts by celebrating the new additions to the population, too. This year we got to welcome L125 Element, a female born to L86 Surprise! early in 2021. Any calf is a cause for celebration, but in the male-biased L-Pod, a daughter is even more crucial to the future recovery potential of the population. I first got to meet L125 in late July when members of all three pods made that brief evening appearance. She would have already been over 6 months old at this point!

My first glimpse of L125 in July 2021

With the changes to the population this year, as of this writing the Southern Residents number 73. With word of several late-term pregnancies we have our fingers and toes crossed for some more successful births soon.

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