On the afternoon of October 28th, the Center for Whale Research officially announced that a member of the southern resident killer whale population, a 24-year-old female with the scientific designation J28 (also known as Polaris), had passed away. This is particularly sad and concerning news in view of the low number of reproductive females in this endangered population.
The event is doubly tragic because in early 2015 J28 had given birth to a son, J54 (also known as Dipper). J54 was still nursing at the time of his mother’s death, making his chance of survival virtually zero. The last sighting of J54, which occurred a week ago, suggested he had not been adopted by another lactating female and that he needed assistance to remain at the surface of the water. He is now missing and presumed to be deceased.
Researchers are now calling on the public to help locate the carcass of J28, and possibly J54. J28 was last seen in mid-October travelling west at the eastern entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Researchers estimate her death occurred sometime between October 16 and 18, so it is possible her carcass has washed onshore in that vicinity. J54 was last spotted about a week later in the same area near the eastern entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. If you are on or near the water in that area please keep a lookout, particularly along shorelines, for these two individuals and alert Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s B.C. Marine Mammal Response Network at 1.800.465.4336 as soon as possible. Please note the body will already have started to decompose and may be upsetting to look at.
While the news of J28’s passing is certainly concerning, it is not completely unexpected. In July she was visibly thin and continued to deteriorate over the next few months. Scientists hope that by examining J28’s carcass they can gain invaluable information, including a proximate cause of death and reproductive history – key data that could help aid recovery efforts for the remaining members of the endangered southern resident killer whale community.
The loss of J28 and J54 is especially troubling because only 80 southern resident killer whales remain. Under threat from food scarcity, vessel disturbance and marine pollution, the population is listed as endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. Action to mitigate these threats is needed to save the population, although with such low numbers, some researchers believe the population will never be able to recover.
To learn more about southern resident killer whales, the threats they face and how you can help please visit the Vancouver Aquarium’s Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program website. Read the Center for Whale Research’s obituary for J28 here.