Important orca matriarch J14 disappears and is feared dead

Whale researchers announced that a matriarch in the southern resident killer whales’ J-pod might have died on the same day a young humpback washed ashore in Cowichan Bay.

J14 was last photographed from land Aug. 3, according to the Center for Whale Research, based in Friday Harbor, Washington. She showed no indication of illness.

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“It’s one of those oddball cases, because she wasn’t someone who had given us any indication there was anything wrong with her,” research director Deborah Giles said.

Sometimes an orca becomes thin, acts differently or shows other physical body changes before disappearing or dying — but not this one, she said.

J14, also known as “Samish,” is the second-oldest female in the J-pod, at 42. The oldest, J2 or “Granny,” is believed to be in her mid-80s, at a minimum.

Although nearing the end of her reproductive years, J14 still plays a vital role in the pod.

“She was one of these females who was the matriarch of her family,” Giles said. “To lose that knowledge, especially when J2 goes too, it’s hard for us to even predict what’s going to happen for those animals.”

J14 has three living offspring: daughters J37 and J40 and son J45.

J14 was last seen from the water on July 31. Research centre staff have since had three on-the-water encounters with the rest of her matriline, but she was not present.

The centre will wait for at least one more definitive encounter with her matriline, before recording her as officially deceased.

If she is dead, it brings the total J-pod population to 28 and the total southern resident killer whale population to 82.

Southern resident killer whales are listed as endangered under the Species at Risk Act.

A dead humpback whale was also hauled out of Cowichan Bay Wednesday morning.

A spokeswoman for the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans said the dead humpback whale, a young animal, washed up near a commercial dock in Cowichan Bay.

Veterinary analysis and tests will be performed to determine a cause of death.

The animal will then be disposed of safely, with the bones headed to a museum or school if requested.

The whale was first spotted on Saturday, looking as though it was in trouble. It seemed to be surfacing with difficulty.

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