Below you will find my thirteenth 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.
So often with the Southern Residents, it seems we have to simultaneously hold on to both grief and joy. That was certainly the case in early summer 2022, when our celebration of the first birth into K-Pod in 11 years with K45 being born to K20 was coupled with the news that the previous successful calf, K44 Ripple born in 2011, was no longer with us.
Ripple was the first surviving offspring of K27 Deadhead, one of the few breeding age females in K-Pod and a key member of the population if the Southern Residents have a chance at recovery. We know she has had several failed pregnancies since the birth of Ripple, but she has yet to have another living descendant.
As many sons are, especially firstborn ones, Ripple was not often far from mom. Even as he got a bit older, he was still regularly seen swimming in K27’s slipstream.
That said, we also saw him hanging out in what we affectionately call “boy bands”, social groups of juvenile and adult males from multiple matrilines. I’ll never forget a sunny afternoon from December 2020 when Js and Ks came down San Juan Channel. It was freezing cold but such a joy to be out on the water with Southern Residents, especially after the year that 2020 had shaped up to be. K44 was in the middle of a classic “boy band” group that also included J27 Blackberry, J38 Cookie, J47 Notch, K26 Lobo, and K34 Cali. (Oddly enough, J53 Kiki was also in there!) We had been paralleling the group as they went southbound when suddenly they all disappeared for several minutes. When they surfaced again, J38 and K44 surprised us with a close pass.
I last saw Ripple myself in December of 2021, when Jason and I gambled on making a day trip down to Vashon Island and lucked out by seeing a close pass from J- and K-Pods at Point Robinson. He looked fine then, and indeed was seen in the April 2022 video taken off the Oregon coast where we got our first glimpse of K45. Per the Center for Whale Research’s annual census update, “The body of a juvenile male killer whale, matching K44’s size and with markings consistent with a southern resident, was found entangled off the Oregon coast in late June, however, a lack of further photographs or biological samples prevents a definitive ID.”
It’s always sad to lose a member of the Southern Resident population, but the fact that he was a young whale combined with the possibility it was a death due to entanglement makes it even more devastating. This loss feels somehow even more senseless and unnecessary, one that could have been avoided. Entanglement, a more common issue for larger whales in the region like humpbacks, hasn’t even been on our radar as a threat to orcas and the Southern Residents. It’s one more thing to worry about, one more issue in which we need to advocate for reform, one more danger outside of our immediate control. The compassion fatigue is real – it’s hard to not feel burnt out in the face of the myriad of issues these endangered whales face. But I’m not willing to let Ripple’s death pass unremarked upon. Whether it was him or not, it’s clear entanglement does pose a risk to orcas. So in his honor, I vow to make sure that fact is not forgotten.
Solstice, along with the rest of the L12 sub-group, was a whale I spent a lot of time with in my earlier years on San Juan Island. He was recognizable with what I always thought of as his “swirly” saddle patches. Not open, not fingered, just….swirly. He also had a faint double notch near the top of his fin, creating a subtle “indented rectangle” that I would look for in photos.
The L12s were regular “westside shuffle” whales, spending a lot of time between Salmon Bank and Pile Point, and occasionally making it up as far as Lime Kiln. When they did, they would sometimes come through the kelp right off the lighthouse, something the L12 males in particular seemed to enjoy.
I’ll always remember one day in particular, because despite it being mid-July it was raining steadily all day. The L12s and “back page Ls” (as we called the greater L5s back in the day) had come up from the south and were well offshore of Lime Kiln. They were treadmilling in the tide, facing south but not making much progress. I was soaked and getting cold, but they were drifting ever so slowly closer to shore. Finally, about 2 hours after they had appeared from the south, a group of them ended up in the cove just north of the lighthouse. They came by one by one through the kelp: L85 Mystery, L74 Saanich, and all three of the L22s. Classic L12s – they make you wait for it, but it was often worth the wait.
L89 was born in 1993 to L22 Spirit, joining his older brother L79 Skana who was born in 1989. During the years I spent the most time with this family, both young males were sprouters, and I would always look for Spirit with her subtle notch flanked by her two sons:
2013 feels like the year things really started to change. It was the first year it was really noticeable that the Southern Residents were deviating from their typical summer pattern with all three pods being here regularly throughout the summer. After the first week of June, sightings started to really drop off. In early July, the three L22s were here by themselves – something I had never seen before, because they had always previously been with the rest of the L12 sub-group. In mid-July, L79 Skana was seen for the last time, prompting us to wonder if their unusual behavior had anything to do with his impending death. In retrospect, I have to wonder about a lot of the odd things we saw that summer, and how many of them were harbingers of what would come in the years ahead. Truly, many things changed after the death of Skana.
In recent years, the L12s have become much more scarce, and I felt like I barely saw L89 in the years before his death. I got a distant look at him in the fall of 2021, my first look at him in over three years (!! He had occasionally been in the Salish Sea, but I hadn’t seen him) and what would turn out to be my last. Solstice was reported missing when seen in January off Alert Bay. Some L-Pod sub-groups are seen so infrequently it took months for the Center for Whale Research to be able to confirm that he was indeed gone at the age of 29, leaving his mother L22 Spirit behind, now with no remaining living offspring.
In August 2013, just a few weeks after Skana went missing, Ken Balcomb penned an article in the San Juan Journal titled “What shall we do for recovery of our local orca?” Nearly a decade later, his same words are fitting to follow up on the death of Solstice:
“This is a question that deserves some deep soul-searching. There is no doubt that our beloved local orcas – SRKW aka Southern Resident killer whales – are at risk of extinction this century if things keep going the way they are….This summer should serve as a ‘wake-up’ that our ‘resident’ whales will simply take up residence elsewhere, or keep moving from here to elsewhere in search of a suitable food supply. We can watch ‘transient’ killer whales and minke whales, humpback whales, etc. but the ‘resident’ orca provide the indicator of the health of the local ecosystem that we all depend on. Let’s keep them around.”
It’s bittersweet to reflect on the whales we’ve lost, so I always like to end these posts with a celebration of the whales we’ve added to the population, too. This year felt like two extra-special births, with two more young females added to the population.
J59 (who will be named by the Samish Indian Nation like all descendants of J14 Samish) was born at the very end of February 2022 and first seen on March 1. She is the second living offpsring of J37 Hy’shqa, joining her 10 year-old brother J49 T’ilem I’nges.
K20 Spock also became a new mother for the second time, giving birth to K45 Uhura early in 2022. Uhura, confirmed now to be a female, was first seen in a video from a recreational boater off the Oregon Coast in April, and first documented in the Salish Sea in July. She joins her 18 year-old brother K38 Comet, meaning Spock has become the Southern Resident with the longer inter-birth interval between successful calves.
Here’s hoping that as we head into a new year, we’ll see a net population increase for 2023.