Oldest living orca ‘Granny’ visits over Mother’s Day weekend

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dsc_4974Killer whale ‘Granny,’ the 103-year-old matriarch of the Southern Resident killer whale community, last week led J-Pod up from California into the Strait of Georgia just in time for Mother’s Day in the Northwest.

And at 103 this year, Granny (officially known as  J2) is thought to be the oldest living orca whale.

“It was great to have all of J Pod, a family of 25 Southern Resident killer whales, return for the first time since March 3rd,” said Captain Simon Pidcock of Ocean EcoVentures Whale Watching in an email exchange. (Those are his photos in the gallery above. He reminded us that the photos were shot with a telephoto lens and cropped. … So, no, they were not right on top of the whales invading their space.)

“What made the encounter extra special was Granny … leading the family and looking very healthy,” he said.

Back from California 

News of the return of Granny and her pod was announced Saturday by Michael Harris, executive director of Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA). He wrote in a news release that the pod was believed to be off the coast of California near the mouth of the Russian River just eight days before showing up in the NW.

“And then yesterday we see her cruising through Boundary Pass on her way to Bellingham. That’s a distance of about 800 miles covered in a little over a week,” Harris said in the release. “Not bad for a great-grandmother. This is wonderful news – just in time for Mother’s Day.”

Pidcock was also quoted in the release enthusing: “We were thrilled to see her. And it’s mind-blowing to think that this whale is over 100 years old.  She was born before the Titanicwent down. Can you imagine the things she’s seen in her lifetime?”

Harris wrote:

The average lifespan of a wild orca is between 60 and 80 years, and yet the Southern Residents – despite being listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act – have some extraordinary longevity stories, including the female K7, or Lummi, who died in 2008 at the age of 98. Another Southern Resident female, L25, or Ocean Sun, is thought to be 85 years old.

The Southern Resident orca Tokitae, or Lolita, now in Miami Seaquarium, and the Northern Resident orca Corky in SeaWorld San Diego – both about 50 – are the oldest killer whales in captivity.  They are the last surviving orcas captured from the region for marine parks.

“These Pacific Northwest orcas certainly have great genes,” continued Harris. “I’m sure the pressures we put on them have made them resilient. They’re problem solvers, survivors. We’ve taken away their food and trashed their homes.  We’ve done all sorts of awful things to them, and yet here they are – and here’s Granny, still out front, still running the family. It gives us hope that we can still turn this ship around and save them from this extinction slide. It shows that if we give these whales a little help, they’ll do a lot with it.”

So how do you know how old an orca is?

We hit up Harris for a quick explanation of how one can tell the age of an orca, especially when it was born before detailed records were being kept of these killer whale pods. Oh, and we wondered if orca years were like dog years or calendar years …

“No, it’s not dog years!!” he wrote us back.  ”Wild orca researchers use an extrapolation scheme to estimate ages of orcas. It’s a well-accepted technique used by both U.S. and Canadian scientists, based on the fact that offspring stay close to their mothers all their lives.”

Here’s the “scheme”:

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