Image credit to the Center for Whale Research. Photographed by Michelle Thompson. Used with permission.
NOTE: Orca Action Network does not condone using the Dodo, which is heavily biased, as a source, and will not do so regularly. Due to the nature of this piece, however, we had to quote and use the Dodo extensively.
UPDATE 1/2017: Granny has recently made the news as the Center for Whale Research announced that she has not been seen with her pod since October and is considered deceased. We ask that her memory is respected. Please do not use this iconic whale’s death in order to promote an agenda.
There’s lots of sensationalism surrounding the orca captivity debate, but one of the most misleading instances is the claim that one orca in Washington’s endangered wild orca population, J2 or “Granny”, is over one hundred years old. An animal rights website called “The Dodo” has been especially key in promoting this myth, with headlines proclaiming that “Spotting Of 103-Year-Old Wild Orca Was Indeed Bad, Bad News For SeaWorld“. They even go so far as to say that they know Granny is 103 years old, but then admit farther down in the article that “her age is actually more of an estimation“.
Here’s the basic fact – Granny is, at most, in her 80s or 90s, and we’ll tell you why.
Granny was first identified in 1971 by members of Washington state’s Center for Whale Research, although some speculate that she was caught and recognized as early as 1967 and released because she was too old to be put in captivity (saying that she was too old doesn’t mean she was what we would consider old – whale catchers preferred to take animals from 5-10 years of age because they were easier and less expensive to transport).
When she was spotted in 1971, researchers noticed that she spent a lot of time with an adult male orca, J1 or “Ruffles”, and concluded that he must have been her son. Researchers estimated his birth year at around 1950.
J2 has never been seen with any young calves, and this led researchers to speculate that she was past reproductive age when she was first spotted in 1971. They assumed that Granny’s last calf was J1 Ruffles, and estimated Granny’s birth year as 1911, meaning that this year, Granny would be 105 years old.
In 2011, the Journal of Heredity published a study coauthored by eleven researchers, including well known orca researchers Brad Hanson and Ken Balcomb. The study looked at blubber and skin samples from living Southern Resident killer whales. The study sampled both J1 and J2, and found that Granny is not the mother of Ruffles.
What does this mean? At most, scientists assume that Granny was born around 1930, if she was past reproductive age when first identified in the 1970s. This would mean she was around 85 years old. J2 could be as “young” as 55 or 60 years if she was never able to successfully have a calf.
Remember, the average age for female orcas is 50 years, with the maximum being 80-90 years. Even if J2 is 85, that does not mean all female orcas should be living to that age. That would mean that all women should live to be approximately 120 years old. It’s not normal for orcas to be in their 80s or 90s.
So remember – it’s a huge, false assumption that J2 is 105 years old. Just don’t tell the Dodo.