By Jan Hare, Ph.D.
Southern Resident orcas live in a culture of intergenerational dependence. Neither female or male calves ever leave their mothers. Instead they remain in their own pod all their lives, close to their mothers and other matrilineal family members.
Orphaned Onyx, however, is the only orca known to have switched pods. Since his mother’s death, he has attached to several older females (each one belonging to a different pod) until they died, then switched again.
The Whale Museum’s profile of Onyx describes his various transitions. The year following his mother’s death, he switched to K pod and traveled mainly with Lummi (K-7) and Georgia (K-11). After Lummi’s death in 2007, he stayed close to Georgia, but also mixed in with the other K Pod whales.
Photo Credit Brooke McKinley
Within a few weeks of Georgia’s death in 2010, Onyx switched pods again. This time he joined J Pod, travelling with elder Speiden (J-8), until she died in 2013. When he was next seen, he was right beside Granny (J-2) with whom he travelled until her death in 2016. Granny was the matriarch of the Southern Resident Community, with an estimated age of 105 when she died.
Onyx has spent time with all three pods, sometimes travelling alone a mile away and many times in the company of other motherless males. However, he did have a close attachment to 42-year-old Princess Angeline (J-17) and her large family until she died in 2019. Was his relationship with her different from the relationships he had with older females? Since her death, he has been seen with members of J, K, or L pods various times during the year and has not formed another close attachment to an elder female. To understand why it is that Onyx seeks out an older adult female, we must consider the roles of females.
Reproductive orca females spend time raising calves and caring for family by babysitting, sharing food and playing with the young. Post-reproductive females become secondary caregivers, sometimes even acting as midwives. Female elders appear to continue helping their sons forage, playing a critical role in their survival. While it’s not uncommon for males to share food within their family, it is more common for females to share. In other words, females “hold up the sky” in orca culture, as is true with many mammalian species, including humans.
It seems that Onyx already understood what researchers have only recently learned – that orphaned male orcas are at particular risk. Adult sons of post-reproductive mothers who die are at risk of dying in the first year after their mother’s death. Sons greater than 30 years old are at even higher risk than younger adult sons.
In the process of writing this story of Onyx, I learned about the day he lost his mother. Individuals both on the water and on shore witnessed this remarkable event. What I will describe here comes primarily from the following people: Orca Sound’s Dr. Scott Veirs, an oceanographer who specializes in bioacoustics and Sharon Grace, an attorney, who lives on SJI and has worked pro bono for 10 years on behalf of the SRKWs.
Scott Veirs and his students were on a sailing vessel with Beam Reach Marine Science School, one week into a one-month sail, following the Southern Residents. Mid-afternoon of October 4, 2005, they sailed along the west side of San Juan Island following J and L pods. The sailing catamaran paralleled the orcas as they moved northward from Salmon Bank.
Sharon Grace was on land above Hannah Heights watching with binoculars as many socially active J and L pod whales gathered. She noticed something else was going on with about five or more whales grouped together a couple hundred yards up island. This smaller group of whales seemed to her to be in a “cuddle puddle” rolling around one another on the surface. Then she heard a marine radio report that the “cuddle puddle” was a number of Southern Residents who were trying to hold matriarch, Olympia (L-32), up at the surface. Sharon later learned that one observer had noted Olympia appeared emaciated and with "peanut head". The marine radios reported that when Olympia slipped below the surface, the other orcas would bring her up again and again until finally they let her go.
Scott Veirs and his students reported that subsets of J and L pods began to concentrate about 100 meters off Hannah Heights near a promontory with abundant driftwood. One group of about nine members of J Pod plus a calf were grouped tightly together, moving horizontally at the surface along shore southward for a few minutes and then doubling back north.
Another group of about nine L Pod adults congregated in a rough line, also mostly at the surface, slowly moving southward around the driftwood point toward the J Pod group. Within a few minutes the L Pod whales drew together in a line. When the two groups were about 25 meters apart, the Js lunged in unison toward the Ls, submerged and joined together with the Ls. There ensued what seemed to be similar to a “Greeting Ceremony” that sometimes happens in the spring when different Southern Residents pods return to the Salish Sea from the open ocean or when different pods or sub-pods come together for the first time after being apart for a while.
Both groups combined with lots of activity, including sexual behavior, foraging, tail lobs, milling, pectoral fin slaps, lots of echolocation and calls. While this would be similar to the Greeting Ceremonies that have been witnessed many times, the students and scientists who were present all noticed an unusual quality to the acoustics, later referred to as “an amazing coordinated acoustic event”, noting that the tone seemed more subdued than previous greeting ceremonies. This ceremony lasted at minimum 15 minutes and probably longer, but the research vessel had to depart as it was becoming dark. At the end of this story is a link to a video by Scott Veirs which documents the greeting ceremony.
The next day the Beam Reach group discussed what they had seen with staff from the Center for Whale Research, as well as with Tom McMillen, Sharon Grace and others who had witnessed the L-32 event that occurred prior to the greeting ceremony. In the discussions these witnesses wondered if what they had observed was a “goodbye” ceremony – a ceremony in response to the loss of a matriarch. Olympia (L-32) was not seen at the greeting ceremony and reportedly was not seen again after October 4, 2005. Onyx was seen one or two days after, not in the company of his mother.
At the time of this writing, Onyx’s travel patterns are still unclear, though he seems mostly to be with his natal L Pod. What will happen to him likely depends upon what happens to the older Southern Resident females. At this moment, the population of SRKWs is 74. Of those, eight are females who range in age from 43-94: two in J Pod, two in K Pod, and four in L Pod. Because these older females are critical to the survival of the Southern Resident Community of endangered orcas, we must restore the salmon.
* Video of Greeting Ceremony October 4, 2005 on YouTube.
April 8, 2022