Sadness and sentiment – the start of summer 2011

A rare April encounter brought the first hint that the A5 pod might have suffered an unexpected loss. The young adult female, Nodales (A51), was not with her family, though all the A5 matrilines were present.  She and her 2010 baby were both missing.  Denial, and no further sightings of the group until much later, kept faint hope alive.   Perhaps she had just been missed in the stormy seas that day. As Spring rolled on and the whales began to gather further north, there were more disturbing but not entirely confirmed dispatches regarding Nodales. The pod had by then dispersed into smaller groups, so it was still difficult to draw a firm conclusion.  Tension grew and then reality set in as more reports were received.  Nodales’ brother, Surge (A61) was observed travelling with his A5 cousins in the A8 matriline, and Nodales’ oldest, Codero (A85) was sighted travelling with Ripple (A43)’s family.   It became increasingly likely that the family bonds Nodales had nourished had come apart, and that the survivors had found new homes.

I left for the IWC meeting in Jersey UK before the first 2011 summer season arrival happened on July 8th.  The first calls, heard out of sight in Blackfish Sound, led to great anticipation and excitement.  The season had taken longer than usual to get underway. Everyone’s patience, however, was rewarded by a beautifully calm pass-by close to the Hanson Island shore.  Surge was in the lead, just ahead of Havannah, and for a brief moment, hope was renewed that all the previous rumors and reports would prove to be false and Nodales would again swim into view.  Not to be, and the joy of the first season’s encounter was soon tinged with a poignant and permanent sadness.

Nodales had a significant role within the A5 pod, as the anchor to one of the pod’s three matrilines.  This responsibility came to her in 1997, when she was orphaned at 11 years of age.  Her mother Sharky (A25) died unexpectedly, eerily at the same age (25 years) as Nodales when she died 14 years later.  Sharky’s death left Nodales to care for her three year old brother, Surge.  In those early days, the two orphans were often at the tail end of the pod as it travelled, and it seemed as if Nodales was not entirely confident of her place. As time went by, the distance between her and the other pod members shortened, and by the time Nodales had her first baby, Codero, in 2005, she was fully integrated.

In 2002, Nodales had an important part to play in the orphaned Springer’s reintroduction to her community.  Springer latched on to Nodales just three days after her release.  It seemed a comfortable fit and Springer, for weeks afterward, was always at Nodales’ side. Nodales was very helpful to Springer, intervening when Springer attempted to go close to boats, a disturbing habit she had picked up during her isolation in Puget Sound.

A51’s loss, at just 25 years of age, a young female approaching the prime of her life, is another huge blow to the A5 pod, which has already been hit badly over the years we have known them.  The captures that happened in 1968 and 1969 were devastating to the pod, probably taking out one matriline entirely, along with parts of 4 others.  Of the 12 members taken into captivity, just Corky (A16) remains alive.

The release of the adult females A9 (Eve) A8 (Licka) A23 (Stripe) and A14 (Saddle) after the 1969 capture gave the pod a chance at a future.  Its fortunes have waxed and waned in the decades since, with the pod sometimes increasing its numbers, and at other times suffering setbacks.  After A9 died in 1990, her sons A5 and A26 (Top Notch and Foster) travelled together for many years, but when they eventually died, the A9 matriline was lost.  Now, with A51’s death, and the splitting up of Surge and Codero, it looks like another matriline (the A14s) has gone too.  It is possible that Codero is female, but the behaviour we have seen – Codero associating mostly with males – suggests not.

As if to balance the feelings’ scale, we’ve had a wonderful, heart-warming time watching A12 (Scimitar) cruising in and out of Johnstone Strait, snugly sandwiched between the two A36 brothers (Kaikash & Plumper), the threesome looking for all the world as if they’ve been together their whole lives.  Not so, of course, but it is their 3rd year, and now looks like being forever.

Scimitar seemed so bereft after her second son Nimpkish (A33) died in 2009.  They had been such a constant for so many years, following the death of Pulteney (A31) Scimitar’s oldest son, in 1997.  Scimitar and Nimpkish had taken virtually every breath together for more than a decade, so we were immediately concerned for Scimitar when she lost the close companionship of Nimpkish.

Fortunately, Scimitar’s daughter Simoom (A34) intervened, and brought Scimitar close to the Johnstone Strait early in the summer of 2009.   Once there, in a favourite place she had known since babyhood, Scimitar appeared to resume an almost  “normal” life, though alone, hunting and rubbing as she moved back and forth in the Strait, until others arrived.

The ‘others’ were initially Tsitika’s A30 family, which Scimitar joined immediately they appeared, and then, when the three A36 brothers came in too, she switched over to them for company.  The A36s have been a constant in Scimitar’s life ever since, their bond not interrupted even by the sad death of Cracroft (A32) in 2010.  Now, when we think of Scimitar, we think about the A36 “boys” she is with in the same frame.

Meanwhile, Scimitar’s bonds with her offspring undoubtedly remain strong.  Her daughter Simoom (A34) is now a grandmother herself, several times over, making Scimitar a great granny.   Though she doesn’t spend a lot of time with Simoom these days, they do visit occasionally, most recently on July 31st when Simoom brought her growing brood (there are now 8 “A34s”) into Johnstone Strait for a quick tour, and left with Scimitar among them.  The A36 brothers tagged along, of course, and just a few days later were back in the Strait with Scimitar safely lodged between them.  The sight, as they say, was enough to make a grown (person) cry.

Sorrow and joy, such has been the beginning to summertime 2011.

Posted by Paul August 14th 2011

Thanks to Rob Williams & Erin Ashe for their photo of Nodales and her 2010 baby.  Thanks also to Leah Robinson for her photo of A12 with the A36 brothers, as well as for the humpback photo below.

Humpback "Freckles" off CP August 13 2011. Leah Robsinson photo


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