Mega Downer

The Dorsal Spin

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Our critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW) cannot catch a break. After a January 24 encounter in Haro Strait, the Center for Whale Research announced the demoralizing discovery that cherished Mega (L41) was missing from his L11 matriline. He was last seen in August, and he looked thin as far back as January 2019. Born in 1977, Mega was the eldest SRKW male.

Like his predecessor Ruffles (J1), Mega was a super stud — genetic studies revealed that J1 and L41 fathered many SRKW offspring. Ruffles died in 2010 at the estimated age of 59; Mega was only 42 in 2019, but that is still considered old for SRKW males.

With L41’s loss, the SRKW population drops to 72. For grim perspective, the population was 71 in 1976 when captures for whale jails had eliminated at least one-third of the Southern Residents. The population fluctuated for a time and even rebounded to 98 in 1995, but the SRKW never fully recovered from the captivity era. Shamu died for your sins. Now our Kéet relatives are fading into oblivion while most of humanity is on the sidelines watching this train wreck.

Before the soul-crushing news about Mega (L41), I had planned an uplifting article about the first Vashon orca encounters of 2020. Beginning on January 23, we had three consecutive days of distinguished guests – both Residents and Transients. SRKW photos are scant due to torrential rain and the orcas’ vastly spread out travel patterns. Boat-based research was not possible.

Members of all three pods were present. Based on available photos and video, it appears likely that all of J and K Pods were here with one L Pod matriline for sure, the L4s, and enigmatic Onyx (L87) – at least 49 SRKW. As yet undetermined is the ecotype of about ten orcas northbound in Colvos Pass and off Point Vashon on the morning of the 23rd.

“It’s complicated” is L87’s current relationship status, evidently. In the research community, Onyx gave us a scare in late November when he was missing from J Pod in three sequential encounters – the dreaded three. To our immense relief, he was found with K and L Pod whales at Carmanah on the outer coast.

In December and January visits to Vashon, I spied L87 close to some L4s – specifically Kasatka (L82) and her offspring. Onyx was often tight with the J17s, but their matriarch Princess Angeline (J17) died in 2019. I am intensely curious to see how J17’s loss will impact Onyx’s social standing. Nugget (L55), age 43, is the matriarch of the L4s. Perhaps Onyx will switch pods again, in search of an attentive post-reproductive matriarch.

Documenting the Transients (Ts) was less complicated – Odin and I saw all of them, and I identified most of them. The impressive group included the T90s, T101s, T124As and three lone males, T87, T97, and T124C – a forest of tall dorsals and a slew of youngsters. Imagine a “Far Side” style cartoon of busy mom T124A with a minivan full of offspring. The T124A matriline has ten members, though T124A1 does not always travel with her family.

Roughly twenty Ts trekked south in East Passage, through Dalco Pass, and into the Tacoma Narrows on January 24. They re-emerged in two groups from the Narrows on the 25th. Group One journeyed up East Pass, Group Two went north in Colvos Pass. The Chetzy stopped while Group One sauntered through the ferry lane. Did anyone aboard notice adorable T124A3A, age 1, with Mom T124A3 off the bow?

In Mega’s honor, this week’s photo shows him with his nephew Windsong (L121) in 2017. My favorite pictures are of massive L41 tenderly accompanying his tiny relatives. His legacy endures in his SRKW progeny. Beloved Mega, we will miss you.

Please support the work of the Vashon Hydrophone Project (VHP): REPORT LOCAL WHALE SIGHTINGS & STRANDINGS ASAP TO 206-463-9041. Several calls from Islanders were extremely helpful to our research effort.  Prompt reports expedite vital data collection and sustain an accurate record of sightings for Vashon-Maury initiated four decades ago by Mark Sears. When reporting a sighting or stranding, be specific: date, time, location, travel direction, species description, number of whales/seals/etc., and behavior observed. We prefer phone reports, but if email is the only way to coax you to report, send sightings and photos to Vashonorcas@aol.com. Your marine mammal photos are valuable for ID purposes. We are grateful to everyone who contacts us directly.