Ties that bind

Several “A” clan matrilines in Gordon Channel, near Port Hardy, July 11, 2010.  Photo by Donna Mackay.

Basic facts about orca society, and the glue that holds it together, have been known since the 1970s, when the “photo-ID” work of Mike Bigg and Ian McAskie, & their collaborators, revealed that “resident” fish eating orcas live in family groups that stay together throughout their lives.  Essentially, kids stay with their mums; no-one leaves.  But numerous questions follow.  What happens when mum dies?  What happens when someone is left alone?  Bit by bit, the answers to these questions are emerging, and what we see is a caring society in which everyone has a secure place; and if that place is lost or threatened, societal backups step in to ensure not only the well-being of the individual, but the continuity of the society at large.

Already this year, in what we’ve seen of the orcas who’ve come into Johnstone Strait for their annual fest, we have three striking examples.  One is the continued presence of Springer (A73) who is now 10 years old, and 8 years past her return to family and community in 2002, following the death of her mother and subsequent time alone. Springer is still with her great-aunt Yakat’s family, which she joined soon after her return.  Though she does spend time with her closest relatives, grandmother Kelsey (A24)’s family, Springer is obviously comfortable among the kin who welcomed her so long ago.  Judging from her interest in young babies and their mums (including pregnant females) we think Springer is looking forward to the day when she will be a mum herself.  At that point, as she forms her own matriline, the continuity of her genetic heritage will be ensured.

Another wonderful example is in Scimitar (A12)’s choice of companions after the death of her son Nimpkish (A33) early in 2009.  Scimitar and Nimpkish had taken almost every breath together for many years, as they swam slightly apart from Scimitar’s daughter Simoom (A34) and her growing family.  There can be no doubt about the deep loss Scimitar felt when Nimpkish died; suddenly, she was alone.  At that point, her daughter and the three A36 brothers stepped in to ensure Scimitar’s well being (http://www.orcalab.org/news-archive/orcalab_general/090829.htm).  Today, we see Scimitar still swimming with the A36s, though their numbers have sadly been reduced to two by the recent death of Cracroft (A32).  Scimitar met up with her now numerous offspring briefly when Simoom brought her family into Johnstone Strait 2 days ago, but continued to swim with the (now two) A36 brothers, who are the sons of her close cousin A36 (Sophia).  Clearly, she is comfortable with them, possibly because of their genetic closeness, but also possibly because they are huge adult males, like the sons she has lost.

The surviving A36 brothers, A46 (Kaikash) and A37 (Plumper) with A12 (Scimitar) nestled between them, as she has been since last summer, after her son Nimpkish (A33) died.  Photo by Angela Smith.

Yesterday, we gained another marvelous insight, with the arrival of a “mystery” group of 3 orcas, all small fins, meaning females or kids.  Probably, they came “in” the evening before, when Tsitika’s A30 family arrived.  We heard a few “R” clan calls in Johnstone Strait around 11pm, and from the number of dorsal fins we’d seen, knew that more than the A30s were there.  We had no clue as to who might be making the calls. Then, around noon yesterday, we heard a single “R”-like chirp on our hydrophone in Robson Bight.  A call to the “Cliff” observers (Marie & Leah) followed by a close scan of Robson Bight revealed the presence of initially 1 then 3 small dorsal fins.  The mystery deepened, as there is not an obvious grouping like this in “R” clan, but a call to Jared Towers revealed that DFO’s Graeme Ellis had sighted the matriarch W3 (Nabannah) with R13 & R47 further to the north early in July.  A July 4th email from our colleagues at Cetacealab confirmed this, and later, observations from whale watchers and the “Cliff” lent assurance.  It seems, then, that Nabannah, now 70 years old, and with Scimitar the oldest female in the Northern resident Community, having lost her sons, Grenville (W2) and Klewnuggit (W5), has joined up with some of her closest relatives; and continues her life with them.

How sweet is that?

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