Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

A Whale's Tale

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

A Whale's Tale

Article excerpt

Perhaps it is fitting that the last sighting of the elderly matriarch was just after Midwinter's Day. When it comes to orcas, the best data available to whale scientists on the Pacific north-western coast of North America is from their observations at sea. Lummi, thought to be 98 years old and the leader of a family group known as "K pod", was last spotted in Puget Sound near Seattle on 23 December last year.

Orcas, or killer whales, if you really want to annoy aficionados of the species, are thought to live in particularly stable social groups in this region. Up to five generations, taught and led by an ageing female, have been observed living and hunting together, ensuring social continuity.

The matrilineal pods have developed a sophisticated vocal system to communicate with and guide one another. This is partly thanks to the great ages that many of the females reach; males usually die decades earlier.

Now Lummi herself has disappeared and is presumed dead. As she and the 18 members of her extended family went out to sea last winter on their almost unknown winter travels, researchers could only wait until they returned to resume study. In June, K pod was finally sighted in offshore waters with a new calf, but without its oldest, most experienced member.

Erin Heydenreich, of the Centre for Whale Research in the San Juan islands of Washington State, said that Lummi's last photograph at the centre, showing the two distinctive notches in her dorsal fin, had been tinted grey in mourning. …

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