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Photo: Mike Charest / Flickr

The world’s oldest orca, lovingly known as Granny, is missing and presumed dead by members of the scientific community. She is thought to have been 105 years old.

Professor Darren Croft of the University of Exeter led researchers on a quest that would follow Granny and her pod’s pursuits for years. “It was inevitable that this day was going to come,” he said, disappointed that the cetacean matriarch has likely disappeared from his radar for good. “But it is very sad news, and a further blow to this population.”

Less than 80 killer whales reside in waters stretching from California to Northern Washington. Salmon populations, which the whales feed on, have dwindled heavily over the last decade due to overfishing, and whale hunts, which lasted well into the 1970s, have taken massive tolls on orca numbers. Pollution is also proving to have drastic effects on sea life, and the fate of western killer whales remains unclear.

Dr. Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research (CWR) has been monitoring orcas since 1965. He first spotted Granny in 1976, and admits her alleged death leaves the ocean feeling empty and forlorn. His last recorded encounter with the animal occurred in October of 2016.

“Perhaps other dedicated whale-watchers have seen her since then,” he explains. “But by year’s end, she is officially missing from the Southern Resident Killer Whale population, and with regret we now consider her deceased. She lived through 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 she 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.”

Dr. Balcolmb points out a ten-year period – between 1965 and 1975 – when dozens of killer whales were taken from the Salish Sea between Canada and Washington for inclusion in live marine shows. Their often predictable and habitual behavior made them “ideal” for capture, but their absence bore mass effects on ocean stability. Balcolmb and his team lobbied for their protection in 2005, and saw them listed as an endangered species soon after.

Whales have much in common with human beings. Unlike our closest relatives the great apes, female orcas succumb to menopause the same way people do, and often leave the responsibility of child-bearing to their “teenage daughters.” A new study published in Current Biology examines the fertility patterns of both young and aged members of orca populations. Scientists discovered that younger whales are more likely to reproduce than their older counterparts, who eventually take on more matriarchal tasks like caring for calves, guiding pods, and even feeding males.

Study leader Darren Croft states, “Our previous work shows how old females help, but not why they stop reproducing. Females of many species act as leaders in late life but continue to reproduce. Our new work provides a mechanism that can explain why old females stop – they lose out in reproductive competition with their daughters.”

Typical circumstances dictate that females start breeding by the age of 15, but “cease operations” by the time they turn 30 or 40.

In related news, captive orca Tilikum (who gained notoriety as the subject of 2013’s Blackfish) died on January 6 after nearly 25 years in captivity. The creature had allegedly been fighting what park executives claim was a lung infection caused by bacteria found in both wild and zoological enclosures. Captured near Iceland in 1983, Tilikum has long been the subject of controversy. Some have cited the animal’s captivity as cruel and inhumane, while others have called him a “murderer” for his direct involvement in the deaths of two park trainers.

John Hargrove, author of the bestselling book Beneath the Surface, worked directly with Tilikum as a longtime SeaWorld trainer. He described the animal as a “gentle and motivated whale with a tremendous personality.”

“He was often brutally raked by the dominant females he was confined with, neither of whom was his mother,” he adds. “Sadly, this is the norm in captivity for male whales.”

SeaWorld announced the end of its orca breeding program last March, though several captive whales remain in U.S.-based parks. Orcas can live for over 90 years in the wild, but those in captivity rarely surpass the age of 25. Artificial habitats are usually too small to properly house the animals, and mental anguish can occur in short periods. Captive whales may often react violently towards each other, or mutilate themselves out of desperation and extreme boredom.

CEO of Born Free USA Adam M. Roberts states, “We urge SeaWorld to take Tilikum’s suffering, both before and after he became ill, as motivation to move the remaining orcas out of their tiny tanks. Five marine mammals have died at SeaWorld parks in the past year which is five too many. Both the will of the public and the science on orca welfare is clear; it is time to end captivity for good.”

One source lists several ways humans can assist ailing Southern Resident Orca populations. Among them are volunteering with ocean conservation groups, engaging in “respectful” whale-watching (giving pods their space and staying at least 200 meters away), and partaking in “green” travel and ecotourism.

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