World's Oldest Known Orca Dies At 105
She took care of her family for decades — and will be so missed.
Granny, the beloved wild orca believed to be the world's oldest, has passed away.
Also known as J2 to researchers, Granny was estimated to be up to 105 years old. While the cause of her death is not known, she reportedly hadn't been seen with her family for several months.
"We knew this day would come, and each year that she returned with [her family] ... brought us closer to this inevitable moment," the Center for Whale Research (CWR) wrote on Facebook when announcing her death. "With heavy hearts we have to say goodbye to yet another southern resident, perhaps the most loved and known to all and the oldest orca to date: J2 also known as Granny."
Granny became something of a symbol in recent years for critics of SeaWorld to rally around. Granny was the matriarch of the southern resident killer whales (SRKWs), a three-pod family group that spends much of its time off the Washington coast. The SRKWs are famous for losing much of their family to SeaWorld and several other marine parks in the 1970s, when an entire generation of baby calves was captured and shipped off to captivity.
Just a few of those calves - Granny's likely relatives - are still alive today, including Lolita, a 49-year-old orca at Miami Seaquarium who has the dubious honor of being both the oldest orca in captivity and the orca with the smallest tank in the U.S. She hasn't seen another orca since her tank mate, a male named Hugo, died in 1980.
While SeaWorld orcas often die in their teens or younger - SeaWorld has claimed that female orcas live an average of 29 years and have a maximum life expectancy of 50, though the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says they can live to be 100 - Granny's longevity has often been held up to blow those claims out of the water.
But while the elderly orca never knew about the role she played outside the ocean, she held an even more important role within her family.
Ever since SeaWorld decimated the SRKW population by removing an entire generation from the family group, the orcas have been struggling to bounce back - compounded by more recent challenges, like the fact that their favorite food, Chinook salmon, are at dangerously low levels, and that the whales are contaminated with several environmental toxins. The population is currently endangered.
Granny's existence likely played a large part in their continued survival. Orcas, along with short-finned pilot whales, are one of the only two nonhuman animals who undergo menopause, because female orcas are valuable to their families for much more than just their reproductive capabilities - "grandmother" orcas lead their pods, and play important roles in finding food, educating younger orcas and directing travel.
"We have now seen J2 thousands of times in the past forty years, and in recent years she has been in the lead of J pod virtually every time that she has been seen by anyone," Kenneth C. Balcomb, executive director for CWR and a researcher who has followed Granny for decades, said. "Who will lead the pod into the future?"
Unfortunately, Granny's death is just the latest in a string of sad announcements to come from the pods. Late last month, J34, an 18-year-old male, washed up dead - researchers believe he may have been hit by a boat. In October, a young mother passed away, and her calf died shortly after.
But CWR and others are determined to keep fighting for the family - and make sure Granny's living legacy survives for many years to come.