Was believed to be 95-105 years old
FRIDAY HARBOR, Washington––Granny, the oldest known and perhaps the most famous wild whale in the world, and certainly the most recognizable and oldest orca whale among the Puget Sound and Salish Sea populations, was declared dead on January 2, 2017 by Center for Whale Research founder Ken Balcomb.
Balcomb in 1976 was the first researcher to identify Granny by her international tracking number, J2, and may have been the first to call her Granny. Even then, though, Granny was known to be an old whale, though many of the stories about her age may be apocryphal.
Orca whale pods are identified a letter, beginning with A for pods native to the North Atlantic; individual whales are then numbered, in the order in which they were first recognized by dorsal fin markings and other scars and distinctive trails. Granny was known from a distinctive nick in her fin, a white patch on her back, and the scratches on her side likely made by the pectoral fins of male orcas during mating attempts.
Three orca pods, J, K, and L, frequent the Salish Sea, the term used to describe the inland waters from Puget Sound north through the Georgia Strait dividing mainland British Columbia from Vancouver Island.
Granny was the second J-pod member to be identified, following her son Ruffles, J1, last seen and believed to have died in 2010 at estimated age 59. Another son, J24, was captured in 1971 and died in 1972.
Granny was believed to have had many living descendants among J-pod.
But Granny was the oldest known whale in the world only since Balcomb announced the probable death of Lummi, K7, longtime matriarch of K-pod, on August 7, 2008, eight months after she was last seen. K-pod, the smallest of the Salish Sea resident pods, was left with just eight members, but has rebounded to 19, with about 35 orcas in L-pod and 24 remaining in J-pod.
“Knew this day would come”
“We knew this day would come,” the Center for Whale Research posted to Facebook, “and each year that she returned with the rest of J pod brought us closer to this inevitable moment. With heavy hearts we have to say goodbye to yet another southern resident, perhaps the most loved and known to all and the oldest orca to date: J2 also known as Granny.”
Her loss reduces the highly endangered Southern Resident orca population, as J, K, and L pods are collectively identified, to just 78 individuals. Eight orca calf births in 12 months had briefly boosted the Southern Resident population to 85, but deaths surged in 2016, including the loss of one whale, L95, to an infection suffered as result of a botched radio-tagging attempt, against Balcomb’s advice.
Last seen swimming north
Balcomb wrote that he had last seen Granny on October 12, 2016, swimming northward far ahead of the rest of her pod.
The J, K, and L pods are now routinely seen and photographed by as many as half a million people per year, mostly from commercial whale-watching vessels. In addition to those observers, hundreds of individuals and perhaps a dozen full-time marine mammologists follow the whales, using private vessels, vehicles, aircraft, and underwater sound-monitoring devices.
“Perhaps other dedicated whale-watchers have seen her since then,” Balcomb added, “but by year’s end she is officially missing from the Southern Resident Killer Whale population, and with regret we now consider her deceased.”
No reports of more recent Granny sightings followed, though it is likely that no other whale populations are as closely monitored and documented.
Born in 1911?
Often described as “older than the Titanic,” launched in May 1911 and sunk after colliding with an iceberg on April 15, 1912, Granny was somewhat arbitrarily assigned a birth year of 1911, but might have been a decade or more younger. Only positive identification of her remains could positively establish her actual age.
Granny was reputedly first photographed at some point in the 1930s. ANIMALS 24-7 has not found the alleged photo, however, in online searches, and has found no reference to the photo predating 2006 or citing a specific date or location as to where it might be seen.
Few whales of any species were photographed alive in the wild before widespread access to cameras with fast shutter speeds began in the post-World War II era.
Also likely apocryphal is a Wikipedia claim that Granny was “captured with the rest of her pod in 1967 but was too old at that time for a marine mammal park and so was released.”
Survived the capture era
This story is likely apocryphal too. The Wikipedia articles provide footnotes, but to newspaper articles published nearly 30 years after the purported capture, which themselves lack documentation. Attempted roundups of whole pods had barely begun in 1967, and the number of orcas who had been captured could still be counted on fingers and toes.
Granny, did, however, verifiably survive the entire era of orca captures for exhibition within her habitat, and may have witnessed many or most of them.
The first known orca capture attempt came in May 1958, when entrepreneur Darcy McBride sought unsuccessfully to lasso an orca off Santa Monica, California. Granny probably was not a witness to that, since McBride appears to have approached a transient pod, a thousand miles south of Puget Sound, not one of the Salish Sea resident pods.
But Granny might have ranged as far south as California, since members of J-pod have occasionally been photographed in California waters, and might have been nearby when an orca named Wanda was netted in November 1961 in Newport Harbor, British Columbia, by a collecting crew from Marineland of the Pacific, a marine park that operated in Los Angeles from 1954 to 1987.
Wanda died after just 42 hours in the Marineland of the Pacific tank. Other orcas taken from Granny’s habitat fared somewhat better there. SeaWorld eventually bought Marineland of the Pacific and closed it to obtain a male orca named Orky and a female named Corky. Corky, captured at Pender Harbor off the British Columbia coast in 1969, is still at SeaWorld San Diego, and has lived longer in captivity than any other orca––even Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium, who was captured at Penn Cove, Whidbey Island, Washington, in 1970.
Granny might also have been nearby when second captive orca, Moby Doll, was both harpooned and shot near East Point, Saturna Island, British Columbia, in 1964. Hunted to become the dead model for the orca sculpture displayed outside the Vancouver Aquarium, Moby Doll survived the harpooning and shooting for three months.
Displayed at the Burrard Drydocks, near the aquarium, Moby Doll completely changed the previous public perception of “killer whales” as ruthless, bloodthirsty, and treacherous.
The third captive orca, Namu, was accidentally netted by salmon fisher William Lechkobit in June 1965 near Namu, British Columbia. Sold to Ted Griffin, the entrepreneur who had founded the Seattle Marine Aquarium on Elliot Bay in 1962, Namu was exhibited in a sea pen for just over a year before his death on July 9, 1966.
Namu was the first orca to appear with human performers, beginning with Griffin himself.
Seeking a female companion for Namu, Griffin in October 1965 captured Shamu in Puget Sound. Again, Granny might have been nearby.
But Shamu and Namu did not become friends, despite her name, said to have meant “friend of Namu.” In November 1965 Griffin sold Shamu to SeaWorld, a then struggling San Diego theme park opened in March 1964.
Shamu became a crowd-pleasing performer whose success may have saved SeaWorld from a quick collapse. Shamu was retired from performing in April 1971, however, after biting the legs and hips of SeaWorld employee Anne Eckis, who as a publicity stunt had been asked to ride Shamu while wearing a bikini.
Shamu died in August 1971, still in adolescence, but SeaWorld has continued to use her name and image ever since.
Griffin & Goldsberry
Learning that he could make more money from capturing and selling orcas than from exhibiting them himself, Griffin and partner Don Goldsberry netted and sold about 30 orcas after Shamu, more than half of the 58 Puget Sound orcas known to have been sold into captivity.
Most notoriously, Griffin and Goldsberry on August 9, 1970 netted most of all three pods of the Southern Resident orca population at Penn Cove, between San de Fuca and Coupeville, Washington. Granny was almost certainly among the orcas captured then, and that was probably the capture from which she was released as “too old.”
Five orcas drowned
The Penn Cove mass capture of 1970 appears to have been the first and only mass orca round-up that was extensively photographed, having been done entirely within easy view of shore, before hundreds of witnesses from the communities of Coupeville, San de Fuca, and Monroe Landing.
At least four young orcas plus one adult were snagged in the nets and drowned. Griffin and Goldsberry blamed the drownings on activists who allegedly tried to cut the nets; other sources say observers tried to free orcas who were already snagged and drowning.
Whatever happened, Wikipedia recounts, “Griffin and Goldsberry attempted to conceal the deaths by weighting and sinking the bodies, but months later the carcasses washed up.”
Public outrage over the incident led to state legislation banning orca capture in 1971, and contributed to the passage of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1973.
Granny might already have survived many close calls. In her youth, and into her middle age, “killer whales” were persecuted as purported threats to fishing, often blamed for declines in salmon stocks that were belatedly recognized as caused by the combination of overfishing with failure to protect spawning streams.
The soil erosion from clear-cut logging near spawning streams, and residential and commercial development near spawning strams, probably hurt the Salish Sea salmon population more in each year of the 20th century than the sum of orca predation, with the effects of dam-building and overfishing equally serious.
Orcas took the rap
Meanwhile, orcas took the rap.
“In 1939, Canada’s armed services instructed pilot trainers to use the killer whales for target practice in Georgia Strait, shooting high-caliber bullets from airplanes,” recalled Seattle Post-Intelligencer writer M.L. Lyke in a 2006 series that used Granny’s life as the focus for describing a century of ecological change in Puget Sound.
It was the Lyke series that mostly firmly established Granny’s identity in the public mind and her alleged age in the public imagination, though Lyke acknowledged that she might have been a decade or more younger.
“In the 1960s,” Lyke wrote, “when entrepreneurs began rounding up orcas to sell to marine parks, captors reported about 25% of the animals had scars from bullet wounds. Did Granny see the dark holes blossom red on her relatives’ sides? Did she watch them flail and sink into the dark underworld? Somehow, the canny female survived the humans who cursed at her, shot at her, their bullets whizzing by her bulbous head as she navigated an underwater maze of old linen fishnets, wall after wall, in search of food.”
63% of orcas had been shot
Lyke appears to have understated the frequency with which orcas were shot at. Wrote Washington Department of Conservation senior researcher Erich Hoyt for Canadian Geographic, “A 1973 statistic revealed that 60% of all killer whales caught and examined by scientists and legitimate whale netters in British Columbia and Washington state waters had bullet holes in their bodies.”
Legend has it that the twin long-range guns installed at Fort Ebey, on the far side of Whidbey Island from Penn Cove, were fired except in practice only at orca whales. But documentation of the persecution in the Salish Sea is sparse compared to the documentation from the North Atlantic, where according to Hoyt, “in the mid-1950s the U.S. Navy killed hundreds of orcas with machine guns, rockets, and depth charges. Also in the North Atlantic, the U.S. Air Force practiced strafing runs on killer whales,” ostensibly to protect Icelandic and Norwegian fish stocks during the height of the Cold War, when Iceland and Norway were key U.S. allies against Russia.
Oldest whales are bowheads
However old Granny was, and Lummi at her death, the oldest whales of all are likely to be bowheads, who live their entire lives within the Arctic circle. The extreme age of some bowheads was confirmed in 2007 when a three-and-a-half-inch projectile from a “bomb lance” was found embedded in a 49-foot male bowhead killed under a subsistence quota allocated by the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission.
“The bomb lance fragment, lodged a bone between the whale’s neck and shoulder blade, was likely manufactured in New Bedford, on the southeast coast of Massachusetts,” New Bedford Whaling Museum adjunct curator told Associated Press writer Erin Conroy. “It was probably shot at the whale from a heavy shoulder gun around 1890,” Conroy summarized. “The small metal cylinder was filled with explosives fitted with a time-delay fuse so it would explode seconds after it was shot into the whale. The bomb lance was meant to kill the whale immediately and prevent it from escaping,” but did not hit the whale in a place where it caused a lethal wound.
That bowheads might live for more than 100 years had been suspected since an arrow of a type not used by Alaskan aboriginal hunters since the 19th century was found embedded in the body of a whale killed near St. Lawrence Island in 1980.