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Granny Bucks the Tide

Granny (J2) excels at kelping! Center for Whale Research photo.
Granny (J2) excels at kelping! Center for Whale Research photo.

Granny (J2) perpetually blows my mind. Granny, of course, is our supreme Southern Resident orca matriarch. Previously, J2’s birth year was estimated to be 1911, but recent genetic testing shows she is more likely of the same vintage as fellow elder matriarch Ocean Sun (L25), born circa 1928. Whether she is closer to 87 or 104, Granny rocks! Discover why Granny rocks at the VHP’s exhibit for Vashon-Maury Low Tide Celebration on Sunday, August 2.

Odin, Nashoba and I have been privileged to visit Granny’s summer domain twice this year. Every June at the Solstice, we make a pilgrimage to Lime Kiln Park/Lighthouse on San Juan Island to perform for the annual Orca Sing concert. In June, we saw all three of the J Pod babies, who so far appear to be thriving.

During an epic mid-July encounter, Granny (J2) guided a mixed matrilines consortium of J14s, J19s, K13s and K14s up Island (north) on a vigorous afternoon flood tide. Many of the slow moving orcas, including J2, were within 40 yards of the Lime Kiln Lighthouse. In the tradition of Ruffles (J1) when he was alive, Granny’s devoted male escort Onyx (L87) was a mile offshore by the whale watching armada. Perhaps it was his turn to divert the boats while everyone else chilled.

Judging by a bird perched on a log swept along in the swift water, the speed of the current was about 8-10 mph. Captain Joe could tell you straight away what that is in knots. Incidentally, Shachi’s (J19’s) daughter Eclipse (J41) has one of the new babies, male J51, who looks robust.

When the killer whales reached Bellevue Point north of the park, they milled for twenty minutes or so and, after a few spyhops, breaches, and tail slaps, they returned to the lighthouse. A group of kayakers loitered at the point, parked in the path of the whales, and I wondered if their presence influenced the direction change.

Some observers marveled at the orcas’ decision to buck the tide and swim against the strong current. Odin and I sat with the interns who are helping Bob Otis with his summer research. One proclaimed, “I hope Lobo (K26) comes into the kelp,” to which I responded, “Call me selfish, but I want to see Granny (J2) in the kelp!” As this week’s photo shows, Granny is a master “kelper.”

Suddenly, under our noses, J2 popped up cork-like from the echoing green depths, in the kelp bed, and inhaled forcefully. The crescent shaped nick in the trailing edge of her dorsal fin was plainly visible. I blurted out, “Hi Granny, beautiful lady!” She looked fit and fabulous, after all.

Likewise, Lobo did not skunk his fans. Lobo (K26) and his mother Lea (K14) were just a few yards farther from shore. Regrettably, they were forced to dive deep to avoid more kayakers parked in their path. Most of the whales skirted the clueless paddlers.

Now, it could be that Granny was merely pursuing a juicy salmon, or luxuriating in the nearshore kelp. Our First Nations ancestors, however, taught us to value the consciousness of killer whales. I am grateful for whatever drew Granny close to us that day at Lime Kiln.

At another park/lighthouse that Granny (J2) likes to visit — Point Robinson -- the VHP will have an educational display at the Low Tide Celebration on August 2. Be sure to stop by our table for Low Tide t-shirts by Tlingit artist Odin Lonning. Listen to the mesmerizing vocalizations – calls, whistles, clicks -- of our killer whale neighbors. Learn how we identify whales. What is marine mammal stranding response? Orca Annie has known Granny and her Southern Resident kin for 23 years. She has some compelling stories.

Please support the work of the Vashon Hydrophone Project (VHP): REPORT LOCAL WHALE SIGHTINGS ASAP TO 206-463-9041, as well as seal pups and sick, injured, or dead marine mammals on Island beaches. Our seal pup season starts in July. Prompt reports to the VHP expedite vital data collection efforts and sustain an accurate record of whale sightings for Vashon-Maury initiated three decades ago by Mark Sears. Send photos to Orca Annie at