A Tribute to J2 "Granny"
By Jan Hare, Ph.D.
Somewhere within the inshore waters of the Salish Sea, the channels connecting the San Juan Islands of Washington state and the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, “Granny” was often seen swimming ahead of her family, sometimes by as much as a mile. Approximately 21 feet long and 5,000 pounds, she was slightly larger than other females, perhaps because she matured during a time of plentiful food. She was easily recognized by her closed saddle patch and a half -rounded nick midway down the trailing edge of her dorsal fin. An endearing and less known fact: she had freckles on her left eye patch.
Granny was the estimated 105-year-old leader of the Southern Resident Killer Whales. (Her birth year could have been as early as 1911 or as late as 1931). She was last seen October 12, 2016. Her death sparked memorials, obituaries and international news stories. The Seattle Seahawks made her a 12th Man, in memorium.
Human centenarians are known to be robust, though not particularly spry. Granny, however,
was famously acrobatic, frequently launching her entire body out of the water even in the last months of her life. Photos abound of her fully displaying her exuberance and strength by spyhopping (head out of the water looking around), cartwheeling and kelping (playfully dragging seaweed along her body).
Granny’s life was large and inspiring. Who she was as an individual is illustrative of the
culture and intelligence of her species. Who she was to her family reminds us of the value of grandmothers in our own families. In the wide wake of her departure, the survival of Granny’s family’s sadly is critically endangered. In 2015 NOAA designated the beloved Southern Resident Killer Whales a “Species in the Spotlight” based on their high risk of extinction.
Killer whales are also known as orcas; northwest coastal native tribes sometimes refer to them as “blackfish”, though, of course, they are not fish. All orcas are apex predators, meaning they themselves have no natural predators in the ocean. Two ecotypes commonly share the same waters in the Salish Sea, though they don’t intermingle. Resident orcas like Granny are fish eaters whose travel patterns are influenced by seasonal salmon migrations; transient orcas eat other mammals such as seals and porpoises, traveling in response to their marine prey. These two types of orcas differ widely in culture and language. They don’t interbreed; for the most part, they politely avoid each other.
The Southern Resident orcas live in stable and highly social family groups comprised of three pods (J, K and L). Theirs is a matriarchal society. Within the pods, families form around matrilineal lines which center around the oldest female, the repository of ecological and cultural wisdom. Granny was the matriarch who for decades led her family to the best places to forage, the obscure places where salmon can hide. She was often seen with one or two close associates as much as a mile in the lead. If she sensed her family was swimming astray from where she was taking them, she sometimes slowed down and insistently slapped her tail on the water until they were back on track.
Orcas exhibit complex emotions as well as a capacity for empathy for one another and possibly even for humans. They are devoted to family, intensely social and cooperative. Fidelity to their family of birth is demonstrated in food sharing. They often bite a salmon into thirds so they can share it and sometimes bring the whole fish to a youngster. A month before her death Granny was noted to be in “relatively poor condition”. Drone photography showed her herding a salmon toward a young male whose mother had recently died.
The SRKW are culture-bound picky predators, using echolocation (high frequency clicks that are reflected back when sound waves hit an object) to locate and feed almost exclusively upon the largest and fattiest of salmon. During the years Granny was maturing, the average Chinook (sometimes called King salmon) weighed about 100 pounds; now the average is closer to 15 pounds. Currently they’re diminishing in numbers at an astonishing rate, primarily caused by overfishing and degradation to their habitat.
On average, a Southern Resident must eat between 18-25 adult salmon daily just to meet energy requirements. The salmon are laden with toxins from their environment and prey. The toxins build up, but are sequestered in the orca’s blubber when they have enough food to eat. When they don’t get enough to eat, they metabolize their blubber, releasing stored toxins which then circulate through their systems. This is particularly dangerous to a developing fetus and to nursing calves.
Orcas stop reproducing in their early forties. For most non-human mammals, infertility would signify the end with most female mammals dying shortly after they become infertile. Even our closest relative, the chimpanzee, is not similar to us in terms of having a long post-reproductive life. Female chimps lose their fertility around 35-40 years old and in the wild do not survive much beyond that age. As it turns out, only three mammals are known to experience menopause: humans, short-finned pilot whales and orcas.
A body of both historical and contemporary research exists showing that human children in both developing and developed societies benefit from their grandmother’s industriousness. These benefits are known as the “grandmother effect”. Since time immemorial grandmothers have played an important role in helping their grandchildren survive and thrive. Research clearly indicates the same is true for orcas.
Post-reproductive females like Granny are leaders, babysitters, midwives. They are the holders of cultural wisdom, especially crucial in times of food scarcity. Like all great and great great-grandmothers, they transmit their knowledge to their families.
These female elders appear to help their sons forage, playing a critical role in their survival. Adult sons of post-reproductive mothers who die are at risk of dying themselves in the first year after their mother’s death. Sons greater than 30 years old are at even higher risk than younger adult sons.
The lives of orca matriarchs are especially important in times of struggle and scarcity. Granny was the matriarch who for decades led the Southern Residents to the best places to forage, the obscure places where salmon can hide. During the last two years of her life, Granny bore witness to the precipitous decline in salmon. Within months of her own death, she also experienced the loss of five pod members, all who died far too young. Poor nutritional status or flat out starvation from the scarcity of salmon likely contributed to their deaths.
I wonder if she felt the weight of her responsibility. I wonder if her family anticipated her departure. Did they gather around, struggling to hold her up as she breathed her last breaths, as they have done with younger members of the family? Or did they simply let her go, knowing her life was long?
Granny’s life continues to inspire us, given the importance of her contributions. To Northwest coastal native tribes orcas are their ancestors. Orcas, with their highly-folded brains, live in a culture of intergenerational generosity. We humans, on the other hand, are living through a time when the individual is valorized over survival of the species and survival of the nation over survival of the planet, as though such things are possible. What do our orca ancestors make of us or are we even worth thinking about to an animal possibly more evolved than we are?
As our knowledge of the SRKW grows, the more intolerable is the prospect that we could lose them. Today they face the enormous environmental challenges of food shortage. We humans can correct this. The single best opportunity to help them now is to breach the four lower Snake River dams, allowing wild salmon access to more than 5,300 miles of spawning and rearing tributaries and streams. Breaching would mean removing the earthen berms at the dams to restore free flow of the river.
In January of 2016 the Southern Resident population was 83; today they are 73. Yet they continue to take care of each other and those still swimming lend support to the “grandmother effect”, reminding us that grandmothers do contribute to the survival of their families. Thank you, Granny. Safe travels.