A U.S. whale research organization says a “grandmother” killer whale belonging to a group of endangered orcas is missing and likely dead.
L47, a 47-year-old southern resident killer whale, was last seen Feb. 27 in Swanson Channel, according to the Center for Whale Research.
She was missing in subsequent surveys conducted by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in the western Strait of Juan De Fuca, the center said.
“She was one of the matriarchs and yeah, it’s always sad to see any of the whales disappear,” says Mark Malleson, a Research Assistant with The Center for Whale Research and Fisheries and Ocean Canada.
In September alone, teams have had six encounters with members of L47’s pod including her offspring and grandoffspring, but she was not seen.
“Her repeated absence meets our criteria for declaring a whale missing and likely deceased,” the center said.
L47 was born in 1974 and was among the “most prolific” of the southern resident females, giving birth to seven calves that survived long enough to receive alphanumeric names — the most of any southern resident, according to researchers.
“She was unfortunately a little younger than the average life expectancy,” adds Malleson.
While four of her calves did not survive past their first year, her three surviving offspring are the young male L115 and adult females L83 and L91, which are raising sons of their own.
“Females play critical roles in leadership especially in foraging, they tend to have the longest memories, really good sense of where to find food and when to find it there, which is especially important in times of scarcity,” says Jason Colby, Author of ‘Orca’.
Her death could mean that her offspring face an increased risk of death, especially considering waning Chinook salmon abundance in the whales’ feeding habitats.
The center said that a 35-year-old male orca, K21, is also missing from recent encounters and was last seen in July exhibiting “extreme” emaciation.
“CWR can confirm that K21 is deceased, as our teams have repeatedly censused all of K pod without locating K21,” it said.
Conservationists have said recovering the Fraser River chinook salmon population is key to sustaining the population of endangered southern residents, whose numbers now total 73 whales.
It’s not all bad news for the endangered population of orcas that frequent B.C. waters.
Last week, researchers announced that three members of J-pod were pregnant.
“It gives us a sense of hope,” said Josh McInnes, a researcher with the University of British Columbia’s Marine Mammal Research Unit. “This population is trying to survive.”