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article imageOp-Ed: Orcas return to San Juan; oldest member shatters captivity myth

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By Elizabeth Batt     May 16, 2013 in Environment
Friday Harbor - The Center for Whale Research announced yesterday that all of the Southern Resident J pod whales had returned safe and sound to the San Juan Island region of Washington. The oldest member of the pod is J2, affectionately named Granny.
The Southern Resident orcas returned to their spring and summer feeding grounds "to hunt their preferred fish, Chinook Salmon," said Candace Calloway Whiting at Seattle Pi. Accompanying them as always, was Granny, the legendary matriarch of J Pod who is believed to be over 100 years old.
Granny continues to thrive
Granny's history is a spectacular one. Monika Weiland of Orca Watcher gives a fascinating account of how the orca's birth year was calculated and describes what the elderly female may have witnessed during her lifetime:
She was alive before we humans knew anything about killer whales, back when fishermen and even the Navy would shoot at orcas or use them for target practice. She lived through the capture era, when she was netted up along with the rest of her pod while dozens of her family members were taken into captivity or killed during the capture process.
Tokitae (Lolita) is the only surviving orca from approximately 58 orcas taken from Puget Sound.
Tokitae (Lolita) is the only surviving orca from approximately 58 orcas taken from Puget Sound.
Piotr Domaradzki
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From the same waters but a world away in Miami Seaquarium dwells Tokitae, more commonly known to the public as, Lolita. Toki is also a Southern Resident whale whose mother is still believed to be alive. According to the Orca Network:
Lolita was captured on August 8, 1970 in Penn Cove, Whidbey Island. She was one of seven young whales sold to marine parks around the world from this roundup of over 80 orcas conducted by Ted Griffin and Don Goldsberry, partners in a capture operation known as Namu, Inc.
By 1987, Tokitae was the only survivor of an estimated 58 orcas that had been taken from Puget Sound.
Why is this important?
A simple comparison between Toki and Granny delivers stark comparisons between the lives of wild orcas and those in captivity.
Granny is over 100 years old and evaded capture, Tokitae, is less than half J2's age and did not.
According to Stefan Jacobs of OrcaHome.de, an old newspaper article references that Tokitae was pregnant a few times when she was still together with her mate Hugo, but never delivered a live offspring. Granny on the other hand was photographed triumphantly returning with J30 (named Riptide), her great-granddaughter.
The Orca Network describes Tokitae's environment as a pool measuring 35' wide -- significantly undersized for a killer whale who is about 22-feet in length and weighs 8,000 pounds.
Granny's environment is unrestricted. She can travel 100 miles in a single day, eating whenever she is hungry. Tokitae however, must perform several shows per day for food rewards and meals.
Granny often babysits the youngest members of her pod who travel together, twenty-six members strong.
Tokitae lives alone and has done for the past 30+ years since her mate Hugo died in March 1980.
The captive myth
If one visits any marine park that holds captive orcas, all of them will attest that killer whales live
A spy hopping Southern Resident killer whale off San Juan Island  Washington.
A spy hopping Southern Resident killer whale off San Juan Island, Washington.
NOAA Public Library
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long, healthy lives in captivity. Industry sources also suggest average longevity for orcas is around 20-25 years in the wild (Sea World, 1989). Other researchers however, suggest 30 years for males and 50 years for females.
Sadly, captive statistics are woefully abysmal. Stefan Jacobs correlated the stats for the Center for Whale Research. Current as of Feb. 25, 2013, Jacobs reports:
Of the 158 captive killer whales that have died, more than 2/3 didn’t make it past 10 years in captivity. Less than 30 orcas survived more than 20 years in captivity. Average time in captivity has improved steadily over the decades, but is still very low.
The average time in captivity for all captive born whales is just 7 years and 9 months said Jacobs. For wild-captured orcas, it is nine years.
J2 has smashed all wild statistics; while she may be an exception, Granny is living proof of how long orcas can live if left alone in their natural environment.
As we rejoice in the matriarch's safe return to Washington waters let us not forget her captive brethren. Corky, an estimated 46-year-old orca, is about the same age as Tokitae and resides at SeaWorld San Diego.
Given Jacobs' report on the average age at death for captive orcas, Corky and Tokitae -- like Granny, are exceptions to the rule. Both of these cetaceans must bear an incredible will to live, but not even their 'combined' ages can match Granny's wild centennial years.
It is a fact we would do well to remember as we welcome J Pod home.
To learn more about the Southern Resident pods returning to Washington State waters, visit the Center for Whale Research.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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More about orca jpod, Lolita, Killer whales, Southern resident killer whales, Tokitae
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