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Oldest known orca seen off Saturna Island

The oldest known orca whale in the world was spotted leading her pod in foraging Island waters Mother’s Day weekend. The matriarch of southern resident killer whale J-Pod is known as Granny, or J2, and is estimated to be up to 103 years old.
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Southern resident orca J2, or "Granny," left, with L87, or "Onyx," in the foreground in the southern Strait of Georgia on May 9.

The oldest known orca whale in the world was spotted leading her pod in foraging Island waters Mother’s Day weekend.

The matriarch of southern resident killer whale J-Pod is known as Granny, or J2, and is estimated to be up to 103 years old.

“It’s great news she’s back, another year older, and thriving,” said Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. There are roughly 80 southern residents and they are listed as endangered in Canada and the U.S.

Granny and the 25 members of J-Pod were spotted around 2 p.m. May 9 in the southern Strait of Georgia by Simon Pidcock of Ocean EcoVentures out of Cowichan Bay.

“She was in the lead with Onyx [a male orphan],” said Pidcock, who had 12 passengers from around the world in his 33-foot boat. They spotted the pod midway between Point Roberts and Saturna Island after a tip from a friend on a ferry.

“I’ve seen Granny in these parts about 1,000 times over 13 years,” said Pidcock. “She looked really healthy and playful. It was good to see them foraging, finding fish here.”

His guests were blown away by the whale sighting, which he hopes inspired them to support conservation efforts.

“It surprises people when they realize this whale was around before the Titanic sank. She’s lived through fishing changes and live captures of whales. I would love to know what she thinks,” said Pidcock.

The lifespan of a wild orca is generally 60 to 80 years, but the southern residents might have longevity in their genes. K-Pod’s Lummi died in 2008 at the age of 98 and L-Pod’s Ocean Sun is thought to be 85 years old.

One of the oldest whales in captivity, Tokitae, or Lolita, in Miami Seaquarium, captured in 1970, is 50. The longevity for captive orcas is about 20 to 30 years.

“Granny was caught in 1967 but was already too old for the sea parks so she was let go,” said Ken Balcomb, from the Centre for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington. He’s watched Granny for 37 years in a row. “She’s seen it all; people shooting at her, the salmon disappear.”

Balcomb said age doesn’t seem to be wearing her down. “She’s like an Energizer Bunny.”

While Granny can make an 1,300-kilometre food run from California, where she was just over a week ago, she shouldn’t have to work so hard to eat, he said. “The era of dam construction in the U.S. decimated the salmon supply,” Balcomb said. “[Orcas] used to be able to cherry-pick salmon runs. Now they forage for them.”

Paul Cottrell, marine mammals co-ordinator for Pacific Region Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said the return of Granny with J-Pod this year is exciting for researchers. “She’s such an interesting animal. It’s fantastic following her and the links she has with other whales,” said Cottrell. He has worked with the Fisheries Department on amendments to the marine mammal regulations that would better protect the southern residents and their habitat. It is awaiting federal approval.

spetrescu@timescolonist.com