Day of the Dead 2016

This post was originally published on Monika’s blog, Orca Watcher, on November 2, 2016

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. It’s hard to believe this is the seventh time I’m sitting down to do this!

Last year’s post recounted  a roller coaster ride, from the death of J32 Rhapsody to the baby boom that followed, resulting in a modest rise in the population. Both those events garnered a lot of media attention, and the Southern Residents have remained in the spotlight since then. Every death I’m writing about today has made headlines, and in some cases been politicized and turned into calls for action – for less invasive research, for more food, for fewer dams. It’s right that we try to find meaning in their deaths, and try to get something positive to come out of them by making sure, especially if humans played a role in their demise, that other whales don’t meet the same fate. But in light of all the abundant media on what should happen to do right by these whales going forward, I wanted to take a different tone in this post – remembering these whales as the individuals they were, with personalities and stories all their own, with family members left behind without them. They were unique members of this endangered population of whales. And each one without fail has their own meaning to me as well. I’ve now reached the point where I’ve known these whales half my life, longer than I’ve known most of my friends. While I’m just on the periphery of their world, they’re at the center of mine, and I follow their lives as best I can, taking what moments they share with me as gifts and trying to learn what I can from them and about them with each passing year. So this is, simply, my tribute to the members I’ve lost of my whale family this year, individuals I have come to know and love and will miss going forward.

L95 ~ Nigel

In the spring of 2016, Nigel washed up dead deep in an inlet on Vancouver Island, identified in part by the remnants of the satellite tag still embedded in his skin where he had been darted about a month prior. Many people immediately drew the conclusion that the dart killed him. I doubted that was the case at first, thinking it was probably an unfortunate coincidence, trusting perhaps too much in the studies done before about how safe the tags were. But in October, with the release of the necropsy report, it became clear that a fungal infection at the site of the tag wound was in all likelihood the reason for Nigel’s death, resulting in the indefinite suspension of the Southern Resident Killer Whale tagging program.

I honestly don’t remember Nigel too well from my early years of whale watching. The rest of his family had much more distinct saddle patches to my newly trained eye – his mom L43 Jellyroll, big sister L72 Racer, little brother L104 Domino, and nephew L105 Fluke all had or have such distinct open saddles that Nigel was just the “other” whale in the family. But when Jellyroll and Domino passed away in 2006, Nigel became more known to me. I worried about his chances for survival as a young male without his mother, and watched over the years as Racer seemingly filled that roll for him. The remaining members of their matriline – Racer, Nigel, and Fluke – became a tight threesome for many years. While Racer became Nigel’s adopted mother, Fluke became like his little brother, and the two were often seen playing together.

L95 Nigel and L105 Fluke in 2010.

Additionally, as I got better at identifying whales, I also realized Nigel wasn’t just a nondescript whale in the crowd, despite the flashy saddle patches of his family members. The wispy top edge of his saddle patch and distinct “black spine” became the key features I’d look for to identify him, even as he reached his teenage years and began growing the taller dorsal fin of an adult male.

The distinct saddle patch of L95 Nigel

One particularly memorable encounter with Nigel and his family happened in July of 2009 when I was working aboard the Western Prince. We were following along Fluke and Nigel when the strong flood tide seemed to push them into the heavy currents of Cattle Pass at the southern end of San Juan Channel. Fluke breached a couple of times, and then it wasn’t long until the other twenty or so whales in the area followed these first two into the pass. The underwater geography of Cattle Pass includes some extreme depth changes, and with the up to twelve-foot tidal exchange we have, the narrow channel can make for some intense and unpredictable currents complete with upwellings, back eddies, tide rips, and whirlpools. At times, Cattle Pass can look more like a river with running rapids than a saltwater channel, and on some days we would even stop the boat to let the passengers experience the phenomenal power of the currents as they spun our 46 foot vessel with ease. On this day, it simply looked like L-Pod was playing in the tumultuous water. They were being pushed by the water as they hung at the surface, rolling around, slapping their fins, and doing lots of spyhopping. They truly seemed to be enjoying themselves! On our morning trip this day my camera battery had died, and while it was special to just sit back and watch these whales play in the current, it was also the day I learned to always, ALWAYS carry a back-up battery.

As he got a bit older, Nigel started becoming more independent from Racer and Fluke, sometimes even traveling in a different group from them entirely. His new favorite traveling companions seemed to be other adult males.

L95 Nigel and J27 Blackberry in 2015

My last encounter with Nigel occurred in September of 2015 when I was aboard Serenity hanging out with a group of foraging L-Pod whales at Kellett Bluffs. The whales were milling about nearshore, so we stopped our engine offshore and dropped the hydrophone. We listened to several minutes of awesome L-Pod vocalizations when all the whales disappeared on a long dive. They got totally quiet as well, when suddenly my hydrophone picked up some very close echolocation. “Somebody’s RIGHT here….” I told my friend, and less than 30 seconds later L95 Nigel surfaced off our stern, both startling and thrilling us. I’m pretty sure I literally jumped!

A special moment as L95 surfaced right off our stern – I had no idea it would be the last time I would see him

I don’t want to say Nigel was seen as an “expendable” member of the Southern Residents, because obviously we value each and every whale – but honestly, his chances for survival were always lower after the loss of his mother, and the fact that he was a young male is also one of the reasons he was chosen as a target for satellite tagging. Unlike the other whales we lost this year, he was not seen as an iconic whale among the Southern Residents, lesser known than many others. But I write this tribute to him to say that the Southern Residents won’t be quite the same without his presence, either.

L95 in front of Mt. Baker – digital art created from a 2015 photo using the Dreamscope app

J55 and unnamed calf of J31

In mid-January, during a winter foray into Puget Sound, researchers documented two neonates with J-Pod. One, designated J55, was seen swimming with the J14 matriline, and the other, likely a stillborn, already dead but being pushed at the surface by would-be mother J31 Tsuchi. A month later, J55 was also absent, and the loss of these two newborns at the end of the 2015 “baby boom” was a reminder of the high mortality rate of young calves, and the potentially widespread difficulty Southern Resident mothers seem to be having of carrying calves to term and birthing them successfully. We don’t know if J55 was the offspring of J14 Samish or her daughter J40 Suttles, and we will likely never know unless Suttles happens to give birth in the near future (making it impossible that she was also pregnant at that time). If it was Suttles’ calf, it’s especially heartbreaking to me, as both she and Tsuchi would have been denied the right to be first time mothers at the same time. The fact that Tsuchi, a whale who has always been so in love with babies, was seen carrying around her deceased offspring is the undeniable evidence to me that these whales grieve. I never got to meet either of these little ones, so I’m simply left wondering who they might have been, had they survived.

J14 ~ Samish

What happened? I always thought of J-Pod as the most resilient of the three pods, yielding successful calves when Ks and Ls struggled to do so, and living into their elder years rather than dying during their prime. The death of J14 Samish underscored for me that even J-Pod is not immune to the issues that are plaguing the Southern Residents, be it lack of food, difficult births, or disease. We really have no clue what happened to Samish, as she was still looking robust in the middle of the summer when suddenly she simply disappeared at the age of 42, leaving her three surviving offspring motherless.

J14 Samish with J45 Se-Yi’-Chn in 2015

What can you say to pay tribute to an icon? Samish was the likely granddaughter of matriarch J2 Granny, and together their family group is undoubtedly the one with which I’ve spent the most time over the years. From my very first encounters with J-Pod, Samish was always right in there with other J-Pod icons J1 Ruffles, J2 Granny, and J8 Spieden.

J14 Samish (right) with J1 Ruffles and J2 Granny in 2009. The calf surfacing in the background is newborn J45 Se-Yi’-Chn.

Samish was also one of the most prolific mothers I’ve known, though she experienced both success and tragedy with her offspring. Her sons J23 and J30 Riptide both died before their prime, and her fifth known calf J43 only lived a few weeks. But surviving her are her oldest daughter J37 Hy’shqa, youngest daughter J40 Suttles, and seven year-old son J45 Se-Yi’-Chn. In 2012, Samish became a grandmother for the first time when Hy’shqa gave birth to her own first calf, J49 T’ilem I’nges.

Three generations from left to right: J14 Samish, daughter J37 Hy’shqa, and grandson J49 T’ilem I’nges

I’ve always thought of Samish as an iconic Southern Resident not only because of her role as a J-Pod mother that spend so much time in inland waters, but because of her looks as well. My major field mark for her was that she had a perfect dorsal fin – so elegantly curved to a perfect tip. Her bold, solid saddle patches were equally perfect. One of my photos of Samish is on the Washington State Ferry Samish; both she and the vessel were named after the local Coast Salish tribe. This is the photo, which I think captures her elegance perfectly:

J14 Samish – perfect dorsal fin, perfect saddle patch

Samish was just reaching the end of her breeding years, and I fully expected her to live decades more and go on to live a role like Granny as an elder leader of J-Pod. Thankfully, her tight family still has J2 Granny as the glue to potentially hold them together, though there is no replacing a mother. Already, J45 Se-Yi’-Chn has been wondering further from his sisters, spending more time with other whales since the loss of his mother.

The perfect synchrony of a mother and daughter – at first glance you can’t even tell there are two whales here, but that’s J40 Suttles nearly fully blocking the view of her mother J14 Samish as the two surface in perfect unison

It’s hard to think of a single encounter or two to share about Samish, because she was nearly always there! I just think of her as the quintessential mother, embodying not only the perfect looks of a resident killer whale, but the ideal mother, her offspring always surrounding her.

Samish surfacing the background with her son J30 Riptide and daughter J37 Hy’shqa

As is almost always the case – we never know when an encounter with a whale may be our last. But I suppose that’s true for all aspects of life, when you think about it.

My last photo of J14 Samish from July 2016, when she swam right off the kelp with her family

J-Pod just isn’t the same without you.

J14 Samish – digital art created from a 2015 photo using the Dreamscope app

J28 ~ Polaris and J54 ~ Dipper

I always thought losing whales without the chance to say goodbye was hard to take, but it turns out watching them slowly decline is even harder. It was in early August I first noticed J28 Polaris was looking thin, and other researchers confirmed she showed signs of being in ill health and that her young son, J54 Dipper, was also small and skinny. At the time, people thought Polaris was in her final days. Would this be the last time I would see her? Would this? Yet still she hung on. She was slow moving, spending a lot of time logging or drifting, but she managed to keep up with her pod. As the weeks passed, and at one point she looked a little more robust, I allowed myself a flicker of hope that she would pull through, and that she only battled a temporary illness. But her decline continued. Her daughter Star spent a lot of time babysitting Dipper, presumably to let mom rest. Star was also observed catching salmon not only for herself but to share with her family. But the heroic efforts of the eight year old Star weren’t enough, and in October the suffering of Polaris ended. There is a heart-wrenching account of Star still not giving up on her younger brother, cradling him at the surface even when he was unable to swim on his own. With a caring family and a grandmother nursing her own calf, some thought that maybe, maybe this nearly one year-old baby could survive without his mom. But no one still that small and dependent can live without his mother, and Dipper passed away too.

I haven’t seen the J17s since Polaris died, but it is going to feel so bizarre to not have her there. During my earlier years here, the J17s were a threesome – mom J17 Princess Angeline and daughters Polaris and J35 Tahlequah. It was like that for years, until suddenly within the span of less than a year all three of them had calves, doubling the size of their matriline just like that. With the addition of J44 Moby, J46 Star, and J47 Notch, I thought that might just be the beginning, with the fertile and successful mothers helping to boost the Southern Resident population in the coming 10-20 years. But those early successes were not to be repeated. Tahlequah hasn’t been seen with another calf in the last six years, and Polaris is believed to have had a failed birth in early 2013 when a neonate that washed up was genetically determined to be hers. Things looked up when Princess Angeline and Polaris again had a calf within a few months of each other last fall, but now this.

Polaris was so nondescript to me early on, but I remember first seeing her in 2003 after she had acquired a new tear in the trailing edge of her dorsal fin. Never again would she be hard to find in a crowd, easy to identify even at great distances or backlit by that unique notch. 

J28 Polaris and her unmistakable notch

I always love the more abstract whale photos, ones where you can’t tell exactly what you’re seeing or only part of the whale is in the frame (I’m notorious for not zooming out even when the whales are right on the rocks to get these kind of photos). One of the reasons I love this kind of shot is because of this early photo of mine of Polaris – one of my longtime favorites. I love the feeling of this whale swimming *right* at you.

Polaris right off the rocks at Lime Kiln in 2005

Polaris came into the kelp a lot…how can you not love that about a whale?

Kelping J28 Polaris in 2016

One of my most poignant memories with Polaris was in November of 2009, when a friend reported hearing whales on the hydrophones and I dropped everything and headed out to Lime Kiln. When I got out there, I recognized most of the other cars in the parking lot: this time of year, the local whale fanatics don’t take a whale report for granted, and without many tourists around we were just about the only people at the Park. It had been nearly a month since I had seen the whales, and I felt sure I would see them at least one last time before I could really call the season “over”. Sure enough, as soon as I got down to the water I could spot blows in the distance to the north. It was J-Pod, having appeared seemingly out of no where as the whales are apt to do in the winter months, with fewer people on the water to detect their comings and goings. With her obvious notch, I was able to spot Polaris despite the backlighting, with a small whale in tow. I figured at first she was babysitting her new younger brother J44 who had been born 10 months earlier. That summer she had often been seen with him, and I figured she was the right age (16) to start learning about taking care of little ones. With this being the first addition to her family in eleven years, it was her first real opportunity to experience being around a calf. As the two whales got closer, however, something wasn’t quite right. This little whale was too small to be the ten-month old Moby. This was a new baby whale: this was Polaris’ first calf! This was the first time I was on scene the first time a new calf was seen; its identify was confirmed later in the day and the little whale was designated J46. 

J28 with newborn J46, who was still so tiny she had fetal folds

Polaris was a doting mother on J46, and the two were rarely apart, unlike Polaris’ sister Tahlequah and her first calf, Notch, who was a lot bolder and roamed around a lot. When Dipper was born, Polaris was the same way – I don’t think I ever saw another whale babysit Dipper until Star did in Polaris’ final months.

J28 Polaris and her second calf J54 Dipper

Sometimes when a mom has another calf, her older offspring will become more independent or spend more time away from her. But that didn’t really happen with Star. While they started spending time away from the rest of the J17s, they were always a tight threesome.

The J28s

At the end of July, before I heard Polaris wasn’t doing well and before she looked thin to me, there was one of those magical evening passbys at Lime Kiln. It was one of those epic nights – it lasted several hours, complete with thunder and lighting, a double rainbow, an spectacular colorful sunset. My favorite moment, though, was the J28s passing right offshore. This is the image I will always remember of them:

The J28s backlit by the sunset

I last saw Polaris at the end of September. She was right in with a group of whales, which I took as a hopeful sign, but she surfaced along in this moment – the last photo I took of her. Any other whale, and I would have had no idea who she was. But there was that notch.

So yes, it’s hard when a whale simply disappears as did J14 Samish. We have no idea what happened to her, and no chance to say goodbye. But it was even harder watching the slow decline of Polaris, doubly so as we knew her dependent calf was suffering with her. She fought for over two months. It’s easy to anthropomorphize, but she showed such tenacity, and I believe it was out of love for her son and daughter that she held on for so long. Surely they all knew it was coming, as we did. How did she prepare Star for life without her? How did she comfort Dipper? I can’t imagine how her family – mother, sister, brother nephew, son, daughter – dealt with her decline. They probably felt as helpless as we did. Even more than usual, my heart breaks for the family she left behind, particularly Star. But I have a vision of Star growing up to become the prolific mother that Polaris, at the age of 23, didn’t have the chance to become.

J28 Polaris and J54 Dipper – digital art created from a 2016 photo using the Dreamscope app

This post is to remember those we have lost – but as always, I also want to celebrate the new ones we have gained. Last year at this time, we had six new babies to celebrate and amazingly, all of them are still with us. And the 2015 baby boom wasn’t quite over yet – J54, J55, and L123 were still to be born over November, December, and January. But as mentioned above, we have since lost both J54 and J55, so the only new one we have to welcome here is L123 Lazuli, a male, the first calf of L103 Lapis. 

L103 Lapis and calf L123 Lazuli

Since January 2016, we’ve again gone through a dry spell with no new births for the Southern Residents. Prior to the 2015 baby boom, with nine new little ones, we went two and a half years without a calf. We’re all crossing our fingers this isn’t the beginning of another such drought. This May, K27 Deadead, who gave birth to the last successful K-Pod calf in 2011, was seen pushing a stillborn at the surface. Another failed pregnancy.  Ongoing research has hinted that these whales are getting pregnant, so they are fertile, but they’re not carrying calves to term. More will be revealed in the coming years about why that is, and we can only hope we take action soon enough to reverse that trend and help this population recover. In the meantime, it’s so difficult to watch. But what do you do, when a friend or a loved one is going through a hard time? You don’t turn your back on them, unable to handle what they’re going through. You stay with it, you help where you can, and,  today, for now at least, you remember the ones who have lost the battle at too young an age.

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