Granny, the world's oldest-known killer whale, has been missing for months and is now presumed dead. It's a heavy loss for the already endangered population of Puget Sound orcas, which have had an exceptionally hard year with five orcas dying in the J-pod, which has dwindled to 78 remaining members.
Photo Credit: The Dodo
Called J2 by local biologists, Granny was the matriarch of her clan and thought to be over 100 years old — 105, by many counts. She was likely born the year before the Titanic sunk. Conservationists and whale-watchers have spotted her thousands of times over the last four decades, making her a quasi-celebrity in the Puget Sound and beyond.
Researchers remember her always swimming at the lead of J-pod. "She kept on going, like the energizer bunny," researcher Kenneth Balcomb wrote on the site for the Center for Whale Research. But no one has seen her since October.
Granny's family — otherwise known as the southern resident killer whales — was one of the most intensively tracked orca pods, in part due to its proximity to humans and its egregiously endangered status. But Granny was by far the most critical member of that family, offering some of the best arguments against keeping killer whales in captivity.
With marine parks like SeaWorld arguing that captive killer whales’ 30- to 50-year lifespans match those of their wild counterparts, Granny was living proof that orcas could, and should, live much longer.
Recent research has shown that female orcas, which often live far beyond their reproductive years, experience menopause not unlike humans. Even without bearing young, these older female orcas provide critical knowledge to their pods, helping to rear young and guide the pod toward food. This phenomenon, though incredibly rare in the animal kingdom, is a huge boon toward populations' chances at survival.
So the research will continue on J-pod, just without its greatest member. Professor Darren Croft from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom memorialized Granny and the storied life she led for BBC:
"She lived through the live captures ... and in recent years her world has changed dramatically with dwindling salmon stocks and increases in shipping threatening the survival of this incredible population.
Although J2 is gone, we will continue to benefit for many decades to come from the incredible data collected on her life over the last 40 years by the Center for Whale Research."