British Columbia

Hopes rise as endangered 'grandmother' killer whale is spotted alive

Some were expecting her to die, but J17, a member of the B.C. coast's endangered southern resident killer whale population, has resurfaced in B.C. waters in the last few days.

42-year-old J17 is a member of B.C.'s endangered southern resident killer whale population

A photo taken of the southern resident killer whale known as J17 on New Year's Eve showed the 42-year-old female had developed a so-called peanut head, a sign of starvation. (Center for Whale Research)

A matriarch killer whale thought to be on the brink of starving to death has resurfaced in B.C. waters, spurring cautious hope among local researchers.

J17, a member of the J pod family and B.C.'s endangered southern resident killer whale population, was spotted in coastal waters looking healthier than when she was last spotted in the fall.

Martin Haulena, the head veterinarian for the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, said the orca looks better from observations at sea-level, but stressed more information must be gathered to get a clearer picture of her condition.

"Certainly that observational data is very, very important and certainly it's good news," Haulena said. "But I think we need some … corroboration on that."

Signs of starvation

Last fall, researchers said the 42-year-old whale was showing signs of starvation, sporting a so-called peanut head. That's a condition where fat stores in the whale dwindle so much that the typical roundness of the whale's head becomes sunken and misshapen like a peanut in shell. 

The pod suffered a difficult summer when a newborn calf and a three-year-old whale died. The deaths brought the total number of southern resident killer whales down to 74, a 35-year-low.

J50, a juvenile whale, seen keeping up with her pod near San Juan Island, Wash. in summer 2018. J50 later died. (Katy Foster/NOAA Fisheries)

The loss of J17, an elderly matriarch and grandmother, would have been devastating.

"For these animals, those matriarchs are very, very important," Haulena said.

"They're important for cultural reasons, for passing on knowledge to younger animals. They're the leaders in their pods and and even more directly, they often do a lot of food sharing with the younger offspring."

'Very, very valuable'

Haulena suspects that the family of whales spent the winter along the outer coast and could have travelled as far south as California in search of salmon, their preferred food source.

"The salmon stocks all the way up and down our coast from California up to B.C. are also incredibly important for this group of animal," he said.

In the meantime, Haulena is working with other researchers from the Centre for Whale Research and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop a contingency plan to help animals who are in distress, consolidate different tools available, and share data.

"There aren't too many of these guys left. We don't seem to be getting more. We seem to be getting less as time progresses and every individual is very, very valuable."

Listen to Martin Haulena's interview on All Points West:

With files from All Points West


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