Day of the Dead 2023

Each year on Day of the Dead I take a moment to think about and honor the Southern Residents we have lost over the previous 12 months. This is my 14th year honoring this tradition, and you can read previous tributes here.

This year’s post is an honor of K34 Cali. (Note: while K34 was still alive as of the July 1 Center for Whale Research census date, he has not been seen with K-Pod since then and is currently listed as missing. It is likely he will be officially subtracted from the population total as of January 1, so I am choosing to honor him now.)

K34 was a K-Pod “classic”, sporting bold open saddle patches on both the left and right sides. Photo from 2021.

K34 Cali

K34 was the youngest offspring of K13 Skagit. He was first seen November of 2001 and was named Cali after the Coast Salish word for “heart”. Later in his life, through genetic testing, it was determined he was one of the many offspring sired by L41 Mega. It was in the early 2000s that I first started learning to ID the Southern Residents, so he was one of the first Southern Resident calves I got to meet in 2002, and thus also one of the first whales I got to watch grow up.

A rare close-to-shore pass form K34 Cali in 2014 off Lime Kiln. At this age (13 years old) he looked an awful lot like his sister K20 Spock.
This photo was taken just two years after the above photo (in 2016) and shows how much he had grown. This was from an afternoon when he chased a fish past our first research vessel, Serenity, near Kellett Bluff.

While sometimes it’s the youngest offspring who end up with the closest bond to mom, Cali’s older brother K25 Scoter was a real mama’s boy, which perhaps led to Cali tending to be more independent. He was often in the vicinity of his siblings but I don’t recall him as being one of those males who was always glued to mom’s side.

I had to go back into the film photography archives for this one! A young K34 in 2004

Cali lost his mom Skagit in 2017. We know that resident killer whale males have a higher mortality risk after losing their mother. Indeed, older brother Scoter passed away in 2019, so while no less tragic, it is perhaps not surprising that Cali ultimately found it difficult to survive, too, especially when reaching young adulthood. Moms are likely the social link adult males need into killer whale society, perhaps mitigating social conflict on behalf of their sons, and also helping to provision them through prey-sharing. Since Skagit’s death, Cali had become even more of a loner.

I saw K34 more from the water than I ever did from shore
(photo from 2020)

It’s not something I would have recalled about Cali off the top of my head, but looking back over my notes, I often noted he was either in the lead or among the lead whales when heading up or down Haro Strait. As a juvenile, I noted several times when Js and Ks were traveling together that he was with J2 Granny out in front! I wonder what that relationship was about.

Ten years ago, the K13s were such a source of hope for K-Pod. With multiple females and males of reproductive age, it seemed likely they would be making key contributions to helping the pod grow. But between 2011 and 2022 no calves were born to the K13s, or indeed at all to any K-Pod whale. And between 2017 and 2023, four members of the K13s have been lost: K13 Skagit, K25 Scoter, K44 Ripple, and K34 Cali. The remaining living members are K20 Spock, K22 Deadhead, K38 Comet, and K45 Uhura. Uhura, born in 2022, has been the one glimmer of hope for the K13s: she’s an important female calf, was born to Spock an incredible 18 years after her previous successful calf, and was the first calf born into K-Pod since 2011.

The newcomers: L126 and L127

It’s always bittersweet to reflect on the whales we have lost, so I like to end these posts with a celebratory note of the whales we got to meet for the first time this year. With the addition of both L126 (male, the firstborn offspring of L119 Joy) and L127 (female, the third offspring to L94 Calypso) to the L12 sub-group, this is only the second time in the last 10 years we’ve had a net uptick in the overall Southern Resident population size. Granted it’s only by one individual, but that’s certainly better than the continued downward decline we have seen in recent years.

We had seen photos of L126 off Tofino, so when the L12s came “in” to the Salish Sea a week later it was he that the Center for Whale Research was looking for. Imagine everyone’s surprise when they found not one but two new little ones traveling with this sub-group! Getting confirmation on the birth of these two youngsters on the same day was such a joyful moment, and we hope to have many more like it in the years ahead.

While still faint at this age, both L126 (pictured here) and L127 appear to have stunning open saddle patches
L127 traveling next to mom L94

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