Iconic killer whale is missing

Mar 7, 2011

The oldest and perhaps most-recognizable of the local killer whales is missing and researchers fear he may have died over the winter.

The orca known to researchers as J-1 was last seen on November 21st near Victoria, B.C. Also known as “Ruffles,” for the wavy edge to his distinctive six-foot-tall dorsal fin, J-1 was believed to be about 60 years old. He was one of the first individual orcas to be identified by researchers in the early 19-70s.

Ken Balcomb is the senior scientist at the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor. He says the fact that J-1 hasn’t been seen in several months is worrisome.

“We’re very concerned,” he says. “We’re holding out some kind of hope that he’s out on his walkabout like he did the previous year. He spent about a week away from the others, and maybe he’s extended his walkabout this year.”

Balcomb isn’t ready to say J-1 is dead for sure; whales have been known to show up unexpectedly, and Balcomb says it’s embarrassing to have to “resurrect” a whale researchers have declared deceased.

But other orcas that normally travel with J-1 have been sighted, and the longer that iconic dorsal fin goes unseen, the more likely it becomes that the patriarch of J-pod is gone.

Population numbers fairly stable, for now

The possible loss of J-1 aside, the population numbers for the killer whales that call the Salish Sea home is holding fairly steady. The Center for Whale Research counts 85 animals currently in the three family groups known as the Southern Resident pods.

That’s down slightly from 87 mid-last year. Ken Balcomb says one factor in that relative stability is the good survival rates of last year’s newborns.

“Usually there’s about a 50 percent mortality, and so we had five out of six live births we know are still around.”

Balcomb says the numbers may be holding steady right now, but he’s concerned that there are only 25 whales of reproductive age in the current population. That’s a number he says could be a problem maintaining genetic diversity among the population.

Overall declines from historic levels

Population numbers for the local killer whales dropped sharply from nearly 100 animals in 1995 to fewer than 80 in 2002. During the mid-1960s to 1970s, 45 whales were taken for marine parks and aquariums, and at least 13 died during attempted captures.

The population was listed as endangered in 2005.