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

Day of the Dead 2022

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.

K44 Ripple

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.

Blink and you’ll miss him: little K44 was hard to photograph alongside mom in July 2011. This was my first photo of him taken just a week after he was first seen, and he would surface so quickly on the far side of K27 that I felt lucky to get this photo.

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.

K44 Ripple (at age 3, in 2014) passing Lime Kiln during a memorable superpod morning

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.

One of my favorite photos of Ripple (with the distinct fingered saddle patch in the middle of a tight group of whales), taken in the summer of 2016.

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.

A memorable close pass from K44 on December 5, 2020

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.”

The last photograph I took of K44 Ripple on Deecmber 2, 2021 in Puget Sound

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.

L89 Solstice

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.

L89 off Land Bank in 2011

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 Solstice right off the kelp at Lime Kiln on a rainy July day in 2007

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:

The L22s the way I’ll always think of them: L22 Spirit flanked by her two sons L79 Skana and L89 Solstice

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.

L89 off the west side in 2012

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.”

New Additions

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.

J59 with mom J37 Hy’shqa off Lime Kiln in May 2022

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.

K45 Uhura off San Juan Island in August 2022

Here’s hoping that as we head into a new year, we’ll see a net population increase for 2023.

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.

Day of the Dead 2017

Originally posted on Monika’s blog, Orca Watcher, on November 2, 2017

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. 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.

J2 ~ Granny

We all knew we would lose this great matriarch one day, but that didn’t make it any easier when the day finally came. The oldest living Southern Resident Killer Whale, Granny’s estimated birth year was 1911. While we will never know her exact age, we do know she lived through all the major changes the Southern Residents have experienced in the last many decades, including the live capture era, the commercial fishing boom, the rise of whale-watching, and the crash of Chinook salmon. Of all the whales, how I most wished I could have a conversation with Granny.

The iconic J2 Granny, with her half-moon notch

Granny was a leader in a the true sense of the word. We suspect she held and shared important communal knowledge for the Southern Residents, such as where to travel and forage in different times of year and different seasonal conditions. We know she was often out in front, literally leading the way as her pod traveled from place to place. It wasn’t uncommon to see Granny a mile or even several miles ahead of everyone else as they went up and down Haro Strait.

While at times she seemed to be “all business”, other times she definitely showed that even an old gal can “kick up her heels” and play, too.

Inverted tail slap by Granny

For many years Granny’s most constant travel companion was J1 Ruffles. The two were so close, it was assumed they were mother and son. Genetics have indicated this may not be the real story; it begs the question what kind of relationship they had, and if J1 wasn’t finding in Granny something similar to what the orphaned L87 Onyx would find from her years later.

For many years, J1 Ruffles and J2 Granny were the symbols of the Southern Residents

Granny regularly associated with many different whales. Whenever whales from outside of J-Pod would travel with Js for a period of days or weeks, it was often Granny’s group they were associated with.

Granny, the foremost whale, was a central figure in Southern Resident social networks

Granny wasn’t only an important whale in her whale community, she was an important whale among the human world as well, including to me personally. She was the first whale I saw swimming through the kelp at Lime Kiln, an image forever etched into my memory. She was the whale I chose to get tattooed on my arm, and the one I painted a mural of on my family’s houseboat. When we bought our boat and had our first-ever Southern Resident encounter, she was the one who came out of no where and circled around us, giving us what felt like a proper “christening”.

On our first whale encounter aboard Serenity, Granny came out of no where and circled our boat

Even after another full season has passed, it still feels bizarre to see J-Pod without Granny. It will likely take years for us to see what the result of her passing might be, if we will ever know. One thing we can say is that she lived a long life, and we can only hope her descendants get a chance to do the same.

K13 ~ Skagit

Just like the loss of J14 Samish last year, the death of K13 Skagit really came as a surprise to me. She was another productive mother just as the end of her reproductive years, who had the potential to enter to the matriarch role for her pod, and then, out of no where – gone. Because K-Pod was so scarce in inland waters this year, it took a while before we knew for sure if she was gone or not. I held out hope as long as I could, but when her whole family came by Lime Kiln without her, there was no mistaking her loss.

K13 Skagit actively foraging off Lime Kiln in 2016

Having been born in 1972, Skagit likely just narrowly escaped being taken into captivity for the marine aquarium industry. Instead she went on to become a mother of two sons and two daughters, and also lived to see the birth of her first two grandsons. While her daughters are past due to give birth to their second calves, I had really hoped Skagit would be around to see her family and her pod grow.

I’m anthropomorphizing here, but with Skagit’s loss I was most worried about her older son, K25 Scoter, who has always been such a mama’s boy. He was rarely more than a few body lengths away from her in recent years, and we know that the likelihood of survival for males goes way down after the loss of their mothers. It was good to see Scoter this summer, and according to the photogrammetry research team he was looking pretty plump, but it must be a hard adjustment for all the remaining K13s.

K13 Skagit and her oldest son K25 Scoter

I wonder if Skagit’s loss had anything to do with the fact K-Pod was barely around this year? Will their travel patterns completely change without her?

J52 ~ Sonic 

Sonic was the first-born calf to J36 Alki and part of the amazing stretch of births that occurred between December 2014 and January 2016.Sadly, in recent months he became the latest “baby boom” calf not to make it, bringing us down to just five survivors among the ten known births during that time. To me, it felt like his birth was the one that made it a baby boom. We had J50 and J51 after nearly 3 years with no live births, and then within the same 3 month span J52 was born and I remember my reaction was one of disbelief: “No way….another one?!” His arrival was especially hopeful because he came to a young first-time mom. So many young females that should and could be having calves are not, and it was reassuring to see Alki have her first calf at a “normal” age.

J36 Alki and J52 Sonic

Sonic was a spunky little whale, and he regularly found willing playmates not only in his mom, but in his sisters J42 Echo (who liked to babysit him) and J50 Scarlet, who was just a few months older than him. His faint saddle patch was just visible enough to see that it was an open check-mark shape like several of his other family members, and I had been excited to see what it might look like as he grew older.

It took me nearly a year and a half to get the photo I was hoping for after these two calves were born into the same matriline – J50 Scarlet and J52 Sonic, seen here passing near the rocks at Lime Kiln this summer

Sonic’s decline was pretty rapid. In my last few encounters with him he looked okay, but the photogrammetry team documented him with peanut head in September and the Center for Whale Research has a final encounter with him where he was very lethargic and clearly malnourished. His mom Alki had looked skinny in the spring of 2016 (not totally unusual for a nursing mom) but recovered, and I was thankful at least that the photogrammetry team thought she looked “okay” this fall. The fact that he was so thin and she wasn’t makes me wonder if a disease or something played a complicating role in his demise. As with most orca deaths, we will never know for sure. What I do know for sure is that the J16s won’t be the same without him.

Breach from J52 Sonic in summer 2017

When will the next birth happen?

Usually in these blog posts I also take a moment to acknowledge the new whales that have joined us, but there are no new Southern Residents to welcome this year. After the birth of J49 in 2012, we went over 2 years before another live calf was seen, and over 3 years until the next calf survived. We had the baby boom from the end of 2015 through 2016, but again we’re coming up on 2 years without a live calf seen. Meanwhile the population has dropped to just 76 whales, a 30 year low. The situation is dire.

The silver lining, if there is one, is that the state of emergency the Southern Residents are in is beginning to be acknowledged on both sides of the border. In October, the federal government of Canada held a workshop to assess actions to be taken on behalf of the Southern Residents. The San Juan County Marine Resources Committee also held a workshop to brainstorm immediate actions that can be taken at the County level. Two days later we had our 5th CALF (Community Action – Look Forward) workshop, also focusing on citizen actions to help the whales. Washington Governor Jay Inslee has indicated his concern, and willingness to take unprecedented action. The first action to come out of all this was Canada adopting at 200 meter vessel rule to match the 200 yard limit in the US; additionally the Canadian government promised lots of funds towards continued ocean noise monitoring. While dealing with vessel noise may help the whales hunt more efficiently, the fact is that even silencing our oceans entirely won’t give the whales enough fish to eat. If the Southern Residents are going to have a fighting chance, major actions need to be taken to address Chinook salmon recovery. It remains to be seen is what concrete actions will be taken regarding salmon. Yesterday, the Puget Sound Partnership  passed a resolution to accelerate Chinook salmon recovery efforts on behalf of the whales. Let’s hope this is just the first of many such efforts in the coming months.

Meanwhile, the whales continue on, and so must we. The writing of this blog post was delayed by the unexpected appearance of the Southern Residents in Haro Strait this evening.  After hearing them on the Lime Kiln hydrophones, I went out to the west side. Even though they were several miles offshore, it was obvious they were in party mode, as there were breaches and tail slaps galore. When it got too dark to see, I came home and am still hearing all three pods (and many more percussives) on the hydrophones right now as I finish this post. We didn’t have a true superpod all summer, where the entire Southern Resident community was together, but I wouldn’t be surprised, with all the crazy vocals and surface activity, the first Salish Sea superpod of 2017 is underway today. 

Day of the Dead isn’t part of Southern Resident Killer Whale culture, but how fitting if today they too are coming together in celebration. It never ceases to amaze me that despite their losses, they still carry on and clearly still know how to have a good time. I have no doubt they remember their ancestors, and here’s hoping some new calves are being conceived among all that partying tonight!

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.