[Video by Fred Horn]
The grim news about K21 came in the immediate wake of a brief but rapturous reappearance in the Salish Sea by the Southern Residents on the afternoon and evening of July 27. All three pods in the population—the Js, Ks, and Ls—were recorded by scientists at the unusual gathering, which came steaming around the southern end of Vancouver Island mid-afternoon, and then frolicked—breaching, spyhopping, tail-lobbing—for several hours up and down the western side of San Juan Island.
The appearance delighted whale observers in the islands, who have been starved for the orcas’ presence: For some of the pods, it had been long weeks since being sighted in the Salish Sea waters; J pod had been absent for 108 days. But it was only a brief respite; the next morning, the Southern Residents were seen heading back north around the west coast of Vancouver Island.
However, Cappuccino did not appear to be among them. Scientists from the Center for Whale Research photographed the orcas from shore during their brief visit, taking census information, and later noted: “Members of all three Southern Resident pods, including K21’s closest associates, were photographed by CWR staff from the shore of San Juan Island on the evening of July 27; however, K21 was not located during this time.”
The next day, a whale-watch operation based in Sooke, British Columbia, reported that it had seen K21—and the news was dire.
Yesterday evening at approximately 5pm we received a call regarding a badly emaciated killer whale that had been spotted in Race Passage [off the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca]. The whale was identified as K21 (Cappucino), the last surviving member of the K18 matriline.
K21 is/was badly emaciated. His dorsal fin was flopped over to the side and he could barely swim against the flooding current flowing through Race Passage.
The photos accompanying the Facebook post were shocking. In some shots, his dorsal fin—normally six feet tall—was not even visible. Worse, he clearly exhibited a severe case of “peanut head”—a shrinking of the tissue behind the skull that usually indicates malnutrition or disease.
The post went on to describe K21 struggling to maintain any forward momentum in the powerful current, and when the whale watchers left him, he was battling the tides alone. Later, a listening station picked up members of his clan making vocalizations as they apparently returned in search of their companion: “This morning at 4:30am, members of K pod were heard on the hydrophone located at Sheringham Point,” it reported. “These animals likely returning to check on the status of their lost traveling companion.”
These kinds of conditions are universally considered a death sentence for orcas among the scientists who study them. “The images from July 28 indicate that K21 would likely not survive much longer,” reported the Center for Whale Research. “Without any resightings since July 28, it is very likely that K21 has since passed.”
Since he was 35 years old, K21’s death was not a surprise: The average age of males in this population has shrunk in recent years to 30, and he was the oldest male in the Southern Resident population. As orca scientist Monika Wieland Shields of the Orca Behavior Institute observed on Facebook:
K21 is a 35 year-old male who has been without any living immediate family members since the loss of his presumed sister K40 Raggedy in 2012. He has been “adopted” by K16 Opus, with whom he regularly travels. The average life expectancy of a male resident killer whale is about 30 years. It’s never easy to lose one of these whales, but it’s even worse when they aren’t living a complete life. K21 at least had that.
Moreover, it’s not at all clear that the cause of K21’s death was necessarily malnutrition or a lack of salmon. The other members of the Southern Residents, including his K pod companions, all have appeared to be generally in excellent health in the past year, and seemed so during the July 27 incursion as well. At least one calf has been born into the population in the past year, and reports from fishermen off the western coast of Vancouver Island—where the whales are believed to have been spending most of their time—indicate plentiful prey with large and substantial runs of Chinook salmon.
The cause of K21’s condition could be any of a number of threats, from plastic ingestion to disease to a lingering condition. Or it could simply be age-related. Because his body has not been recovered, we’ll never know for certain. As Wieland Shields remarked: “The images of K21, shared on social media by someone who observed him, did not show any obvious visible signs of an external injury such as a ship strike. While clearly malnourished, we cannot say for sure what contributed to his severe physical decline—illness, lack of food, or most likely some combination of factors.”
Nonetheless, his death came as a shock to the orcas’ many defenders, particularly those who have been battling to have the salmon runs on which they depend restored to health—the dearth of which is widely recognized as the chief cause of their declines. More than that, K21 was a well-known and widely recognized whale, beloved for his antics and playful behavior.
One former naturalist commented on Twitter that she was “devastated to hear this” in part because of a personal connection she had made with the charismatic orca years before, when she had worked as a naturalist aboard a boat in the San Juans.
“When I was pregnant with my son, he spyhopped in front of me, swam away, and came back alongside the boat, and raised up his dorsal fin to my outstretched hand.” It was, she said, “one of most powerful moments of my life.”
I myself had a close encounter with K21 in 2008. He spyhopped me a short distance from the kelp bed where I had parked my kayak to avoid being in the way of K pod and other whales as they approached me in Haro Strait. It was my first experience looking into the eye of a wild orca, and it was life-changing.
“While K21’s condition is heartbreaking, we celebrate his life as a story of flourishing under adversity,” commented CWR’s Ken Balcomb in a public statement. “Males born in the Southern Resident population have an estimated average lifespan between 20 and 30 years, and few Southern Resident males reach K21’s age of 35.
“In the years after his mother died, K21 was at even greater risk, but he endured and maintained a close social relationship with his sister and, later, his adopted family, the K16s,” he continued. “K21 is one of the most well-known and iconic members of the Southern Resident community. His broad dorsal fin and bright, open saddle patch make him distinct even from great distances. We grieve for his pain and the loss his death would represent for the Southern Residents.”
The reasonable long view of K21’s death, however, does not tell everything. His death at 35 also tells us that the window has regressed for the survivability of Southern Resident orcas. At one time, there were a number of over-40 males in the SRKW population, most famously J1 Ruffles, the orca who became iconic in part due to footage of him that appeared in the film Free Willy, and who passed away in 2010 at the age of 59.
There are no more J1s in the SRKWs. The oldest males in the population are now J26 Mike and L85 Mystery, both born in 1991 and just turning 30.
That shifted window tells us how steep the SRKWs’ decline has become in recent years, particularly since the 2015-16 wave of deaths made globally famous by a young female who mourned her calf’s death by pushing it about on her rostrum for 18 days. The public outcry the situation generated forced Governor Jay Inslee to address the problem, which he did by creating a state commission tasked with finding solutions.
The results from the task force so far, have been a mixed bag at best. While it has proposed a number of band-aid solutions, including restrictions on whale watching that are of dubious utility and effectiveness, it has relentlessly avoided the big gorilla on the table: Restoring the whales’ traditional primary prey, namely, the Chinook salmon runs coming out of the Columbia River, which have been destroyed primarily by four low-energy dams on the lower Snake River.
The dams have been a football in the political culture wars of the past several decades in the Northwest, with Republicans in eastern Washington hunkered down in their defense—though they have notably been joined in those efforts by the state’s two Democratic senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell. As a result, politicians like Inslee face an upstream tide when it comes to marshaling the political will needed to restore Columbia salmon.
Nonetheless, Inslee was inspired to issue a lengthy statement responding to K21’s death, suggesting that he understands that it’s a powerful signal that the time for political hand-wringing has long since passed:
“K21’s struggle highlights just how important it is that we all continue to do our part to give these iconic and beloved whales the best chance of survival. The whales need space from boats. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) issued an emergency rule last week requiring commercial whale watching boats to stay a half mile away from K-21, who is now presumed deceased. If you’re boating in Puget Sound, please be Whale Wise and keep your distance to give orcas the opportunity to feed, travel and socialize. Thank you to NOAA for announcing an expansion of the Southern Resident orca critical habitat designation to the coastal waters of Washington, Oregon and California today.
“It is time for big, bold changes in how we look at salmon and orca recovery. The Southern Resident orcas are suffering from multiple threats, including a lack of food, which is primarily Chinook salmon, and as keystone species, the orca and salmon are telling us to do better in protecting our waters. While we have done some transformative work recently, we must do more. The health of our salmon and the Southern Resident orcas are irreversibly intertwined and the recovery of one hinges on the survival of the other.
“Despite progress, too many salmon runs are on the brink of extinction. We have to look at the roles of hatcheries, hydropower, habitat and harvest. It is time for transformative clean water infrastructure for salmon and people, time to make major advancements in salmon habitat, including fixing fish passage barriers, and time to address climate resiliency in all the work we do. This also highlights the critical importance that the Federal Infrastructure package can play in salmon and orca recovery in our state.
“We have a once in a generation opportunity to make a difference so that we do not lose Southern Resident orcas from our state. To be from the Northwest is to know salmon and orca as part of our landscape and our shared heritage—and we must dedicate ourselves to their protection.”
Good words. They may be too late for K21. But the fate of the remainder of the national treasure that is the Southern Resident Killer whales will depend on whether action follows them.