This week, the long-anticipated feature exhibition, Orcas: Our Shared Future, opens at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria. It offers visitors a deep dive into the stories and science that surround the killer whale, or orca—the spirit of BC’s wild coast and the apex predator of the ocean.
Eagle Wing Whale & Wildlife Tours is proud to be a partner of this exhibition!
To coincide with the exhibition opening, we’d like to introduce you to a southern resident killer whale family that is near and dear to our hearts. This family’s story is not an easy one to tell, or to read about. But it needs to be told.
You’ll see why we made this choice when you read on.
The turbulent history of this family over the years reflects many of the challenges this critically endangered population faces as it struggles to share space and resources with an ever-growing human population. On a more basic level, it’s a story of unbreakable family bonds, heartbreaking loss, resilience in the face of adversity—and ultimately, hope for a better future.
The importance of family
Just like us, the southern resident killer whales are the sum of their parts. The 75 whales that make up this salmon-dependent population are divided into three distinct pods — J-pod, K-pod and L-pod —each led by a number of mature females taking on the role of matriarch for their individual families, known as matrilines.
One of these is the J22 matriline, the only southern resident family with its own collective nickname. We affectionately call them “the Cookie Clan!”
The matriarch of this family unit is Oreo (J22), who was born in 1985 and was the third calf born to Tahoma (J10). Through paternity testing we know her father was the beloved and prolific sire, Ruffles (J1). Oreo also had two older siblings: brother Everett (J18) and sister Ewok (J20).
Our story begins in the winter of 1995-96 when Ewok gave birth to her first calf—a daughter known as Rhapsody (J32). It was an exciting time for Oreo and she seemed to enjoy being a first-time aunt, spending a lot of quality time with the newest addition to the family.
Two years later, Oreo gave birth to her own first calf—J34, a male, whimsically nicknamed DoubleStuf. (You can begin to see how this little family earned their famous nickname!)
It’s all about chinook
But in 1998 tragedy struck. At the tender age of 17, Oreo’s sister Ewok disappeared. This left two-year-old Rhapsody orphaned.
Calves have a lot to learn in their first few years about how to be a successful resident killer whale. Who would look after Rhapsody? Fortunately, grandma came to the rescue! After a few encounters, it was clear to observers that Tahoma, an experienced mother in her own right, had taken the youngster under her wing (pectoral fin?).
Assisted by Everett and Oreo—who perhaps provided a little bit of milk on the side too—Tahoma took over Rhapsody’s care and the family carried on.
But tragedy struck again. Tahoma disappeared in 1999 at the relatively young age of 37. Although we’ll never know what happened to Ewok and Tahoma, we do know that losing reproductive-age females is unusual. In a healthy ecosystem, female killer whales should live 80 years or more.
We also know that chinook salmon make up at least 80% of the annual diet of resident killer whales. And that when chinook numbers drop, resident killer whales die. At the time Ewok and Tahoma disappeared, chinook salmon stocks all along the coast had been low for several years.
The reasons for the continuing salmon decline are many and complex, but all point to human activity. Habitat destruction, overfishing, damming of salmon rivers and climate change top the list.
So, with her granny gone, what would happen to little Rhapsody?
In stepped uncle Everett, and the two became inseparable. But then came another blow. In 2000, Everett perished at the young age of 23.
It’s not uncommon for adult male killer whales to struggle in the wake of their mother’s death because the mother-son bond is very strong. Most male killer whales remain by their mother’s side for as long as they live.
Or was there something else going on? Tragic as Everett’s death was, he fortunately washed ashore near Vancouver where a post-mortem could be done. It revealed a massive bacterial infection on his flank for which he appeared to have no immune response. He also had an extremely high level of manmade toxins in his body.
A chronic shortage of chinook salmon is a double whammy for resident killer whales. When a whale can’t find enough food, it burns through its fat reserves, metabolizing blubber where hormone-mimicking toxins such as PCBs are stored. These industrial toxins, which leach their way into the ocean food chain, are known to harm immune and reproductive systems.
Oreo takes over
So, with Everett gone, where did this leave the fractured family? At the tender age of 15, Oreo became the family matriarch and raised niece Rhapsody and son DoubleStuf on her own. It was a daunting task. But raise them she did!
More impressively, the threesome was joined in 2003 by Oreo’s second calf, another male. In keeping with the naming tradition in this matriline, young J38 became known as Cookie! The family of four would remain close for a decade and were never far apart — Rhapsody most often travelling with DoubleStuf, while Oreo cared for her youngest.
Despite the upheaval in her early life, Rhapsody grew up to be an unusually vivacious whale, full of energy and a zest for life. She was especially notorious for her love of breaching. “There she goes again,” was a familiar comment by seasoned observers.
Once she became a teenager, life changed for Rhapsody. She began to spend more time with other females and their calves, perhaps preparing for a bundle of her own. It’s possible she was pregnant in 2011, but if she was she lost it. Then, in the summer of 2014, photos showed a very bulging belly. Rhapsody was pregnant for sure!
Excitement builds for Rhapsody
Everyone rejoiced at the sweet poetry of it all. Here was a beloved whale who had persevered amid so much loss now holding the key to the future of her matriline.
But it was not meant to be. In early December 2014, 18-year-old Rhapsody was found floating dead near Courtenay, BC, on the east coast of Vancouver Island. Inside her was a near-term fetus that had died inside her womb. The baby was a female.
The post-mortem revealed that Rhapsody died from an infection caused by the decaying calf, compounded by chronic malnutrition. Her blubber layer was relatively thin and dry of oil—”consistent with an inadequate diet for an extended period.”
All of Rhapsody’s admirers—and there were many—were devastated. Her loss, which was widely publicized in the news media, put a face and a story to the continuing struggles of this beleaguered population to find the salmon they need to survive and thrive. Studies show a direct link between chronic malnourishment and developmental and reproductive problems.
In a bittersweet twist, Rhapsody and her unborn daughter live on in another form. Their skeletons were donated to the Royal British Columbia Museum and are featured prominently in the new Orcas: Our Shared Future exhibition.
Ship strikes a significant threat
As for the remaining J22s. Oreo, DoubleStuf and Cookie remained a tight threesome. They were often the first whales we looked for to confirm a sighting as J-pod. DoubleStuf’s tall slender fin with its unmistakable indentation almost halfway down was easily recognizable from a distance. He was very popular within the whale watching community.
But in December 2016, 18-year-old DoubleStuf was found floating lifeless near Sechelt BC, north of Vancouver. He died of blunt force trauma consistent with a ship strike. There was also naval activity in the area at the time.
A study of killer whale post-mortems, published in late 2020, concluded that vessel strikes are a bigger threat than previously thought, especially for whales near shipping lanes and human populations—such as the southern residents. Of nine dead southern residents examined in the 10-year study, four died from blunt force trauma suggestive of a ship strike.
Hope for the future
In spite of the odds that seem overwhelmingly stacked against them and the obstacles humans keep putting in their way, Oreo and the southern residents soldier on as they must. Alongside her growing son Cookie, Oreo perseveres, and with her the story of her bloodline.
With a few years of fertility remaining for Oreo, we hope for a new legacy—and a brighter future—for the beloved Cookie Clan. To a large extent, this depends on us. Humans have created most of their problems, so humans need to fix them. Most of all, the whales need chinook salmon.
To find out more about the southern resident killer whales, visit the Center for Whale Research, one of our many partner conservation organizations.
To learn what you can do to make the Salish Sea a better place for Oreo and her kin, visit our website. Your everyday actions can make a difference!
The “Orcas: Our Shared Future” exhibition at the Royal British Columbia Museum runs from April 16, 2021 to Jan. 9, 2022. Through dramatic displays—including three life-size replicas—visitors can explore currents of ecological activism, popular culture and Indigenous beliefs to gain a deeper understanding of how killer whales and humans are inextricably connected.
Join us on one of our tours to learn more about the whales and wildlife of the Salish Sea. Give us a call or book online!
Blog written by Brendon Bissonnette and Valerie Shore, marine naturalists with Eagle Wing Tours.
Published April 15, 2021