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Articles in "The Dorsal Spin"

With the shattering deaths of their matriarch extraordinaire J2 and nine others in 2016, our vanishing tribe of endangered Southern Resident Orcas is on the precipice of oblivion. Will the distracted humans continue to squander Granny’s legacy? Only 78 whales remain in J, K, and L Pods - something to ponder during Earth Month.

So many tears; so much heartache and mourning in 2016. In a malicious parting shot, the final devastating blow was struck in late December of the *Deplorable* Year: Granny (J2) is gone, missing since October.

This morning the cat gingerly, tenderly, on little cat feet, balanced on top of my radio and inserted his head into the dog biscuit bag, and came out with a dog biscuit in his mouth. He carefully backed off the radio and over to the hutch where I feed him, broke the biscuit up with his teeth, and ate it.

During our six-day stay on San Juan Island in June, Southern Resident orcas were nowhere to be found. The west side of the island was a lonely place without J, K and L Pods. Sure, Transient killer whales and a few Minke whales swam by, but June is customarily the time when Residents do the West Side Shuffle. Except for kayaks and commercial shipping traffic, Haro Strait looked empty.

Like bears emerging from hibernation, we are a bit grumpy and out of sorts at Chez VHP. Papa Bear has a busted eye tooth that requires an extraction or a root canal. This tooth is one of the most examined and x-rayed choppers in the world! Papa Bear is inclined to have it pulled so he can just be done with it.

I readily admit that I am not a graceful griever. The one-year anniversary of my beloved Mother’s death is imminent, and I have been in a funk for weeks, all cranky and isolated for fear of snapping at someone unintentionally.

Once again, our venerated Southern Resident killer whales provided much material for this news cycle. Prospective subject matter for this column included “Resident orcas penetrate Quartermaster Harbor for the first time in recent memory,” or “Late breaking: L Pod matrilines off West Seattle.”

Our cherished orcas, both Residents and Transients, are certainly newsworthy of late. With six babies and an extraordinary journey up to Springer’s homeland, or Northern Resident traditional territory, the Southern Residents have generated a plethora of news. I will start locally, however, with a remarkable Transient encounter.

This morning, I watched a seal pup casually floating on her back, with hind flippers flexed, drifting gently in a Salish Sea current. A few gulls kept her company. On Vashon-Maury, we can expect to see Harbor seal pups – newborns and “weaners” --into early October.

Granny (J2) perpetually blows my mind. Granny, of course, is our supreme Southern Resident orca matriarch. Previously, J2’s birth year was estimated to be 1911, but recent genetic testing shows she is more likely of the same vintage as fellow elder matriarch Ocean Sun (L25), born circa 1928.

The weeks around Mother’s Day, the first one after my mother’s death, bordered on unbearable this year. Distraught and preoccupied were the operative modes. On May 18, I was on a major bummer -- profoundly sad and missing my mother intensely.

This Earth Month, we have four Southern Resident orca babies to celebrate -- cautiously. Technically, the calves are not included in the census until they have survived one year. With roughly 50% mortality in the first year, not all four newborns may survive.

Matriarchy and mortality are recurring themes in my Loop articles. Typically, I attempt to decipher the potential ramifications of births and deaths in Southern Resident orca matrilines. I fret most about the impact on surviving podmates when mature, elder females die.

Mother Slick (J16) is an exceptional J Pod matriarch. 1972 is her estimated year of birth – that is significant because she could be slightly younger or even older. A preponderance of photographic evidence shows that Slick is the Southern Resident Baby Mama of precious newborn female J50. In four decades of field studies, J16 is the only known Southern Resident female to give birth to a thriving calf at age 43-ish.

On December 26, 1995, Mark Sears spent the day tracking an elusive J Pod. With his own children in tow, Mark and the Sears Pod circumnavigated Vashon-Maury. Near Blake Island, the Sears Pod finally caught up with J Pod.

Raven was building a PowerPoint slide show when all hell broke loose. It seems that Raven offended the little helpers who keep the lights on and the email sending smoothly. At the last minute, Raven invited Rabbit and Coyote, his Trickster compadres, to the shindig.

In observance of Native American Heritage Month, we -- Orca Annie and Odin Lonning -- will present “THE SACRED WHALE: Requiem for Ruffles (J1),” on Thursday, November 20, at 7:00 PM in the Vashon Land Trust Building.

Our endangered Resident orcas brought a glorious October Surprise to Vashon when about 60 of them graced us with a visit on October 17. They traveled south to Point Robinson in the morning and then, as is typical in early fall, they did the East Passage shuffle and turned north again by afternoon.

At Chez VHP the other day, we heard loud bleating through an open window. We popped outside to ascertain who the unhappy camper was. A few feet from shore, a newborn Harbor Seal pup paddled frantically and yowled for Mom. Mama was away from Baby, and l’enfant did not like that at all.
 

Earth Month brought an orca bloom to Vashon. Multiple groups of killer whales visited Island waters. In mid-April, two distinct ecotypes traversed the territory, gingerly avoiding each other.

Since the Southern Residents left us in January, Vashon-Maury waters have been drearily devoid of tall dorsal fins. That changed on April 4, when ten or more Transient killer whales blazed down the Sound from Edmonds. In East Passage, NOAA researchers clocked one male in the group

Mustelid mania overcomes our Jack Russell terrier, Nashoba, when she detects Ono the Otter scampering under our deck with a juicy flounder or other succulent prey item. Nashoba whimpers and snorts at the floor above the spot where the river otter hides. This can be challenging when it happens at 3:00 AM.

I write this on the sorrowful anniversary of Tsu’xiit/Luna’s death. Hail pounds the roof, as it did on the day Luna died. Tsu’xiit left his earth swim during a freaky, powerful thunderstorm. Killed on March 10, 2006 at the tender age of 6½,

Chez VHP had a fortuitous and nostalgic encounter with J Pod on January 18. I fretted that we might miss our beloved Kéet, but the orcas’ leisurely pace allowed us to find them as they cruised up the west side of Vashon in dispersing fog.