(Photo by Dave Ellifrit, from December 2015 birth announcement of J28’s calf J54)
2:10 PM: We have just left Bell Street Pier downtown, where advocates for the Southern Resident Killer Whales summoned media to hear sad news and a plea for action before time runs out.
First, they announced the death of another local orca, a nursing mom whose calf is dead or dying too. This is the “obituary” read by whale researcher Ken Balcomb:
J28 was born in mid-winter 1992/93 in or near Puget Sound Washington, and was the first of four known calves born to J17 in the J9/J5 lineage of southern resident killer whales (SRKW – see family tree) inhabiting the inshore marine waters of the Pacific Northwest. The iconic and world-famous J1, first SRKW ever to be photo-identified, was her father.
Photographs of J28 that were taken in the summer of 1993 by Center for Whale Research staff and Earthwatch volunteers show that she was a healthy and vigorous ‘calf’’ among six new calves born that year into the SRKW population. In late autumn 2002, when J28 was nine years old she acquired a small nick in the trailing edge of her dorsal fin that made her easily identifiable to whale-watchers and the general public, and she became one of the darlings for a growing fan club of humans that were beginning to raise concerns that this iconic population was precipitously declining from around 100 in 1995 to around 80 in 2003. The SRKW population was declared Endangered under the US Endangered Species Act in 2005, and earlier this year it was listed as a “species in the spotlight” by NOAA for its lack of recovery since then.
Sexual maturity for these immensely popular neighbor animals is typically attained in the early to mid teens, and J28 had her first known calf, a daughter J46, in November 2009 when she was sixteen years old. Gestation is approximately 17 months, so we can estimate that J28 became pregnant at age fourteen and a half. In January 2013 (three years after the birth of J46), a freshly dead neonate calf was found on Dungeness Spit and identified from DNA as belonging to J28 with the father most likely to have been L41. The dead calf was not given an alpha-numeric designation because it had not been documented alive. She subsequently (23 months after the dead calf) had her second live-born calf, a son J54, in December 2015 at the tail end of a so-called “Baby Boom” of 2014/15. Regrettably now that mom has died, he will not survive and may already be dead, along with two other “boomers” (J55 and L120).
J28 was noted to be losing body condition in January 2016, presumably from birthing complications, and by July was clearly emaciated. If her carcass is ever found an examination of her ovaries may reveal how many ovulations/pregnancies she actually had, as well as her proximate cause of death (probably septicemia). We estimate that she died in the Strait of Juan de Fuca sometime between 16 and 18 October, prior to her first noted absence on 19 October.
J28 is survived by her Mother, (J17) two sisters (J35 and J53), a brother (J44), a daughter (J46), and a nephew (J47). Her daughter and her oldest sister (J35) are attempting to care for the orphaned calf, but at ten months of age he is too young to survive without mother’s milk supplement, and he has gone too long with inadequate nutrition. No other lactating females have adopted him and his grandmother is too occupied raising her own newest calf (J53, born in October last year) to care for him. His sister, J46, had been catching and offering salmon to her mother and little brother for several months while mom was ill, but that was simply not enough nutrition provided to three whales by one little female no matter how hard she tried. The family requests that in lieu of sending flowers and cake*, well-wishers please send more wild Chinook salmon to and from Pacific Northwest rivers.
— West Seattle Blog (@westseattleblog) October 28, 2016
The SRKWs population is now down to 80, Balcomb said (down from 85 early this year).
The advocates are urging support for one key action to make that happen: Removal of four dams on the Lower Snake River. They say that the dams are losing money anyway, and have been studied ad infinitum, with another study about to be launched – needlessly, they say – and that the dams could be breached/removed by order of the President. 202-456-1111 is the White House number they’re urging supporters to call. They also suggested pressure on Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell as well as Governor Jay Inslee.