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.

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12 thoughts on “Is J2 Granny Really 100+ Years Old?

  1. And then ? What do you try to demonstrate, Kalia ? That SeaWorld is good for the orcas ? That SeaWorld is a paradise for them ? How many “well cared orcas” have ever reach 50 in captivity ? Listen to me : SeaWorld is dead, orca training is dead and people like you, whispering truncated information, promoting cetacean slavery, will disappear soon as a bad nightmare. Please close your blog.

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    1. Hi yvongodefroid,

      You seem to have misunderstood the purpose of this article, which is to show the facts – that science has shown that Granny, more than likely, is not 105 years old. I’m very sorry if sharing the facts upsets you.

      Yes, the admins of this blog support SeaWorld. It may be different from the wild, but that is not a bad thing.

      Two orcas have reached 50 in captivity. However, that’s not a terrible number considering that captivity has only been around for approximately 50 years. Orcas at SeaWorld are living longer with each new generation, and I believe other orcas will live to be 50 or older.

      SeaWorld is not dead. Orca training is not dead. You have not informed me of anything that I said that is false. We may be bullied into silence, but we will not disappear and we will not stop fighting for the actual welfare of the animals we love. Have a nice day.

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    2. For a killer whale today to be over 50 years old, it has to be born before 1966.
      You know when the first commercial killer whale capture happened? 1967. Only a very small number of whales ever kept were born before 1966, and of those, two are still alive, or 9%. Even starting with the 1960s and 70s, when the facilities and practices were frankly deplorable.
      You know how many wild killer whales reach age 50? Less than 3%. So even with the 60s and 70s being what they were in killer whale care, captive whales did three times better than their wild relatives.

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  2. True enough, however that still doesn’t mean that that SeaWorld’s claim of 20-30 years as being the average age is correct. Corky will be turning 50 years old this year and Sea World would like you to think that she is well past the average age for a killer whale, rather than only now reaching average age. Lolita also will only be reaching 50 this August.
    And so far the oldest captive born whale only lived to 25 (Kalina). Katina at SeaWorld Orlando has outlived four of her seven calves (none of which died in infancy, which would have been relatively normal). The simple fact is they don’t live as long in the captivity as they do in the wild.
    I’ll completely grant you that the anti-captivity side exaggerate a few things (PETA’s false claims on how A.I. is carried out is cringe worthy) but SeaWorld is no better, worse in many cases.
    It’s encouraging that SeaWorld has stopped breeding their orca but they still have a long way to go.

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    1. We did not say it did. We believe SeaWorld has room for improvement and that SeaWorld needs to be more honest.

      The oldest captive born whale is currently Orkid, who is 27. Average ages have been improving over the years, and while they do not match up to wild ages currently, we believe they will.

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      1. True, forgot about Orkid, and for that matter Kayla. It’s been a while since I’ve sat down and calculated out their current ages.
        I hope you’re right and that SW’s husbandry improves enough for that to be the case. It’s just that it wasn’t that long ago when we many whales that should have been in their primes (Taku, Sumar, Kalina) all within a few short years of each other.

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    2. Corky is the oldest killer whale in her NRKW pod. The next oldest is A24 Kelsy who was born in 1967. A24 Kelsey has given birth 9 times, with only 4 alive at present.
      A41 ? 1981-1981.
      A45 Sutlej 1983-2001. Dead at 18
      A49 ? 1985-1986. Less than a year.
      A53 Scylla 1988-1995. Dead at 7.
      A58 Surf 1992-1995. Dead at 3.
      A64 Schooner 1995. 21 years old.
      A71 Magin 1999. 17 years old.
      A78 Toba. 2003. 13 years old.
      A93 Cypress 2009. 7 years old.
      So A24 Kelsy is almost 49 years of age, has had 9 calves, with the oldest being only 21 years old. 4 died at less than 7 years of age and the 5th was 18. Sound familiar?

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    1. Sorry it took us so long to reply. 🙂

      On page 549 of the study (using the given page numbers), the chart lists J1’s mother as “unsampled”. After writing the post and seeing your comment, I realized that they didn’t necessarily sample J2, and so the study doesn’t necessarily prove that J2 is not J1’s mother. So I emailed Mike Ford at the email address at the top of the document to ask, and he confirmed that J2 was sampled, which confirms that J2 is not J1’s mother. If you want to see the actual email, let me know and I can forward it to you.

      Thanks for the question!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. There are many factors that make it almost impossible for us to calculate the “average” age of an orca in the wild. How many calves are born each year and how many die? We just watched 8 out of 10 calves near Seattle die this year. Are those factored in the way we factored in infant mortality into the “average” ages of people in the Middle Ages in Europe, dropping the number into the 20s when people still could live to be over 100. I have the same problem with “elephants’ rights” activists. “Elephants live 60 years in the wild!” Do you know what the average age of an elephant is in Thailand? 2.

    As the saying goes, “Lies, damned lies and statistics.”

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    1. Average age can and has been determined for wild whales. The longest running study on wild killer whales stated in the late 1960s early 1970s when the first photo-identification were done. That’s over 40 years of research, with some whales having already been adults when the study started (safe to assume any adults were 10+ years at the time studies started). Infant mortality is factored out when calculating average ages (whales not surviving their first year aren’t counted) but that’s true when calculating average age for any species, infant mortality is ALWAYS high in the wild. Anyone wanting to make a true comparison between wild and captive ages would remove calves dying before one year from the captive born list too (though unfortunately most anti-captive groups don’t, making their argument weaker).
      Statistics don’t lie, you just have to understand what you’re looking at. It’s people’s interpretations of statistics that can sometimes be questionable. Such as SW’s paper on orca lifespan when they projected life expectancy 50 years into the future. I would love for their overly optimistic predictions to be true but so far history is against them. The only whale in their collection to have hit 50 so far is Corky.

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