[Video by Fred Horn]
The bad news about K21 came immediately after of a brief but enthusiastic comeback in the Salish Sea by residents of the south on the afternoon and evening of July 27. The three population groups, the Js, Ks, and Ls, were recorded by scientists at the unusual gathering, which arrived steaming around the southern tip of Vancouver Island in mid-afternoon, and then frolicked (breaching, spy jumping, throwing the tail) for several hours up and down the western side of San Juan Island.
The appearance delighted whale watchers on the islands, who had been starved for the orcas’ presence: for some of the pods, it had been long weeks since they were spotted in the waters of the Salish Sea; J pod had been absent for 108 days. But it was only a brief respite; The next morning, residents of the south were seen heading north around the west coast of Vancouver Island.
However, Cappuccino didn’t seem to be among them. Scientists at the Center for Whale Research photographed the killer whales from shore during their brief visit, took census data, and then noted: “Members of the three southern resident pods, including K21’s closest associates, were photographed by CWR staff from the coast of San Juan Isla on the afternoon of July 27; however, K21 was not located during this time. “
The next day, a whale-watching operation based in Sooke, British Columbia, reported seeing K21“And the news was shocking.”
Last night at approximately 5 PM, we received a call about a very emaciated killer whale that had been seen at Race Passage. [off the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca]. The whale was identified as K21 (Cappucino), the last surviving member of the K18 matriline.
K21 is / was very emaciated. Its dorsal fin was tilted to one side and it could barely swim against the current that flowed through the Race Passage.
The photos accompanying the Facebook post were shocking. In some shots, its dorsal fin, normally six feet tall, was not even visible. Worse still, he clearly exhibited a severe case of “peanut head,” a shrinkage of the tissue behind the skull that usually indicates malnutrition or disease.
The post went on to describe K21 struggling to maintain any forward momentum in the mighty current, and when the whale watchers left him, he was fighting the tides alone. Later, a listening station picked up members of his clan making vocalizations as they apparently returned in search of their mate: “This morning at 4:30 am, K pod members were heard on the hydrophone located at Sheringham Point”, reported. “These animals are likely to return to check on the status of their missing travel companion.”
These kinds of conditions are universally considered a death sentence for killer whales among scientists who study them. “The July 28 images indicate that K21 would probably not survive much longer,” reported the Center for Whale Research. “With no new views since July 28, it’s very likely that K21 has passed.”
Since he was 35, K21’s death came as no surprise: The average age of men in this population has dropped to 30 in recent years, and he was the oldest man in the southern resident population. As orca scientist Monika Wieland Shields of the Orca Behavior Institute observed on facebook:
K21 is a 35-year-old man who has no living immediate family since the loss of his presumed sister K40 Raggedy in 2012. He has been “adopted” by K16 Opus, with whom he travels regularly. The average life expectancy of a male resident killer whale is about 30 years. It is never easy to lose one of these whales, but it is even worse when they are not living a full life. K21 at least had that.
Furthermore, it is not entirely clear that the cause of K21’s death was necessarily malnutrition or a lack of salmon. The other members of the Residents of the South, including their fellow K capsule, all appeared to be generally in excellent health over the past year, and so did during the July 27 raid. At least one calf has been born into the population in the past year, and reports from fishermen on the west coast of Vancouver Island, where whales are believed to have been spending most of their time, indicate a large number of prey with large and substantial streaks of Chinook Salmon.
The cause of the K21 condition could be a number of threats, from ingesting plastic to illness or a persistent condition. Or it could just be age-related. Because his body has not been recovered, we will never know for sure. As Wieland Shields commented: “The images of K21, shared on social media by someone who observed it, did not show any obvious visible signs of an external injury, such as the impact of a ship. Although he is clearly undernourished, we cannot say with certainty what contributed to his severe physical decline: illness, lack of food, or, most likely, some combination of factors. “
However, his death came as a shock to the many killer whale advocates, particularly those who have been fighting to bring the salmon they depend on to regain health, the shortage of which is widely recognized as the main cause of their decline. More than that, K21 was a well-known and widely recognized whale, loved for his antics and playful demeanor.
A former naturalist commented on Twitter that she was “devastated to hear this” in part due to a personal connection she had made with the charismatic killer whale years earlier, when she had worked as a naturalist aboard a ship in San Juan.
“When I was pregnant with my son, he jumped in front of me, swam away, came back to the boat and raised his dorsal fin up to my outstretched hand.” It was, he said, “one of the most powerful moments of my life.”
I myself had a close encounter with K21 in 2008. He spied on me a short distance from the seaweed bed where I had parked my kayak to avoid being in the path of K pod and other whales as they approached me in the Haro Strait. It was my first experience looking into the eyes of a wild killer whale and it changed my life.
“While K21’s condition is heartbreaking, we celebrate its life as a story of prosperity under adversity,” CWR’s Ken Balcomb commented in a public statement. “Males born to the southern resident population have an estimated average life expectancy of 20-30 years, and few southern male residents reach the K21 age of 35 years.
“In the years after his mother’s death, K21 was at even greater risk, but endured and maintained a close social relationship with his sister and later with his adoptive family, the K16s,” he continued. “K21 is one of the most well-known and iconic members of the southern resident community. Its broad dorsal fin and bright open saddle patch make it distinct even from great distances. We mourn his pain and the loss that his death would represent for the residents of the South ”.
However, the reasonable long-term prospect of K21’s death doesn’t say it all. His death at 35 also tells us that the window has receded for the survival of the southern resident killer whales. At one point, there were several males over 40 in the SRKW population, most famously J1 Ruffles, the killer whale that became an icon in part because of images of him that appeared in the film. Free Willy and that he passed away in 2010 at the age of 59.
There are no more J1s in the SRKWs. The oldest males in the population are now J26 Mike and L85 Mystery, both born in 1991 and just turning 30 years old.
That window shift tells us just how steep the decline of the SRKWs has become in recent years, particularly since the 2015-16 wave of deaths made world famous by a young woman who mourned the death of her calf by pushing her on her rostrum. for 18 days. The public outcry that led to the situation forced Governor Jay Inslee to address the problem, which he did by creating a state commission charged with finding solutions.
The results of the task force so far have been mixed at best. While he has proposed a number of band-aid solutions, including restrictions on whale watching that are of questionable utility and efficacy, he has relentlessly avoided the big gorilla on the table: restoring the traditional primary prey of whales, namely the whales. Chinook salmon. coming out of the Columbia River, which have been destroyed primarily by four low-energy dams on the lower Snake River.
Dams have been a game of play in the Northwest’s political culture wars of recent decades, with Republicans in eastern Washington huddled in their defense, though the state’s two Democratic senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell. As a result, politicians like Inslee face a rising tide when it comes to mustering the political will necessary to restore Columbia’s salmon.
However, Inslee was inspired to issue a long statement responding to K21’s death, suggesting that he understands it to be a powerful sign that the time for political handshakes is long past:
“The K21 fight highlights how important it is that we all continue to do our part to give these iconic and beloved whales the best chance of survival. Whales need space from ships. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) issued an emergency rule last week requiring commercial whale-watching boats to stay within a half-mile of the K-21, which is now presumed to have passed away. If you’re sailing in Puget Sound, be wise with whales and keep your distance to give orcas the opportunity to feed, travel and socialize. Thank you to NOAA for announcing an expansion of the critical habitat designation for southern resident killer whales to the coastal waters of Washington, Oregon and California today.
“It’s time for big, bold changes in the way we view salmon and killer whale recovery. Southern resident killer whales are facing multiple threats, including lack of food, which is primarily Chinook salmon, and as keystone species, killer whales and salmon are telling us to better protect our waters. While we have done transformative work recently, we must do more. The health of our salmon and southern resident killer whales are irreversibly intertwined, and one’s recovery depends on survival of the other.
“Despite progress, too many salmon runs are on the brink of extinction. We need to look at the roles of hatcheries, hydropower, habitat and harvest. It is time for a transformative clean water infrastructure for salmon and fish. people, it’s time to make big strides in salmon habitat, including setting barriers to fish passage, and time to address climate resilience in all the work we do. This also highlights the critical importance that the infrastructure package Federal can play in the recovery of salmon and killer whales in our state.
“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a difference by not losing our state’s southern resident killer whales. To be from the Northwest is to know salmon and killer whales as part of our landscape and our shared heritage, and we must dedicate ourselves to their protection “.
Good words. It may be too late for K21. But the fate of the rest of the national treasure that is the southern resident killer whales will depend on whether the action follows them.