Another southern resident orca, L41, is feared dead, according to the Center for Whale Research.
The whale, born in 1977, was not seen during an encounter with its family by the center’s researchers on Friday. Because of his age, and the fact that he was thin when he was seen a year ago, “we fear he may be gone and will consider him missing unless he shows up unexpectedly in an upcoming encounter,” the center reported.
If L41 remains missing, that would bring the population of southern resident orcas to only 72, the second-lowest since the center first began its population census 45 years ago. There were 71 southern residents in 1976 at the end of the capture era, when a third of the pods were taken for sale to aquariums around the world.
L41 was an important whale in the southern resident families. He and one other whale, J1, fathered most of the calves born to the pods since 1990.
The orcas are struggling for survival against three main threats: lack of adequate food, particularly chinook salmon; vessel noise and disturbance by boats; and contaminants.
Known as Mega, L41 lived up to his name. He was a classically beautiful orca bull, with a towering dorsal fin, rising straight without a waver from his back. Big and powerful, he was easy to spot and the only adult male left in his immediate family. A nick on the trailing edge of his dorsal made him easily identifiable, along with his massive size, from a long distance.
“Even if he didn’t come out of the water so you could see his saddle patch, he was easy to recognize,” said Deborah Giles, research scientist for University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology and research director for nonprofit Wild Orca. Together with J1, nicknamed “The Man” by whale watchers, the two fathered most of the calves in the J, K and L pods. J1 was born in 1950 and died in 2011.
L41’s mother died in 2000, and it is unusual that he lived for so many years without her. Males are provisioned by their mothers preferentially, and are eight times more likely to die in the first year after losing their mother. But L41 remained close with his sisters, and persisted, Giles said.
“He was just a really big personality, and a big whale, and of course he was an important member of his family,” Giles said. “I am going to miss seeing him.”
L41 fathered 21 orca babies with 11 different females, according to genetic research published in 2018 in the scientific journal Animal Conservation.
Lead author Mike Ford, director of the conservation biology division at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, found that L41 and J1 between them fathered 37 babies in all three of the southern resident pods. That indicates there is genetic interchange between the pods, but that males also mate with females in their own pods.
The number of breeding whales in the population has ranged from 12 to 53 over the past 40 years, the analysis found. Ford and his co-authors also learned that the breeding success of male killer whales increases with age, with a median age of fatherhood by 31.
The southern residents are dominated by females that lead tight-knit family groups, and it is believed it is the females that do the choosing when they mate. They tend to choose larger and older males, and after J1’s death, L41 was the oldest and biggest of all the southern resident males. He weighed an estimated 10,582 pounds, depending on his body condition.
Researchers were surprised to learn that just two whales had fathered so many young. “It’s pretty extreme, you have a couple of males producing a lot of offspring,” Ford said in an interview. The small number of breeding whales in an already small population does raise concern about inbreeding. The research documented instances of close inbreeding in the population, between parent and offspring, and between siblings.
The limited number of breeding whales among the southern residents puts the pods at greater risk of extinction than their numbers alone would indicate.
John Durban, senior scientist at Southall Environmental Associates, said drone photo surveys documented that L41 was declining in condition between 2016 and 2018. “A decline across consecutive years was of some concern, but at that point he was still within the condition range we have measured him to be in over the years,” Durban wrote in an email.
Mega was not surveyed in 2019, Durban said, but “L pod matrilines that we did image and measure were in relatively poor condition compared to recent years, so this is consistent with that general pattern.”
Jeff Hogan, founder and director of the nonprofit Killer Whale Tales, said he hated breaking the news to the elementary school kids he works with, teaching about science and orca conservation. “To think of being on the west side of San Juan Island and we will see L pod go by and he won’t be there? That is a seismic shift.”
Others are still holding out hope. “I’m not buying it,” said Hobbes Buchanan, a former whale-watch boat captain and one of L41’s many admirers. “He may have wandered off to do his own thing, and will come back. I am totally just not giving up.”
A certain bright spot is L124, the new calf first reported in January 2019 and seen many times by center researchers last week, looking well. It is an important milestone for an orca baby to live past its first year.