RIP J34 ‘DoubleStuf’, 1998-2016

J34
J34, DoubleStuf, in October 2016. Photograph by Captain Ian Roberts, SpringTide Whale Watching.

Last week, I was sitting in a meeting with a fellow whale researcher when he received some bad news: a dead Killer Whale had been found in northern Georgia Strait. The stranding team coordinator sent some photos of the poor animal, and my heart leapt into my throat when I saw the telltale signs on the whale’s saddle patch: this was a mature male, and he was a resident. Using current photos and an online guide, we were able to make a positive identification of the body: it was J34, a Southern Resident nicknamed DoubleStuf. He is survived by his extended family of J pod, including his mother, J22, and his little brother, J38, who turned 13 this year.

This news has left me and many members of the local whale watching community shaken and upset. J34 was 18 years old, in the prime of his life. I have been watching him since he was a little nine-year-old squirt swimming along next to his mom. I have to admit that I still think of him as a juvenile, and am always shocked to remember that he is now a fully-grown mature male, with a six-foot tall dorsal fin and measuring around 21 feet (about 7 meters) in length. His bizarre-sounding nickname comes from an inside joke: J34’s mother, J22, is nicknamed ‘Oreo‘. ‘DoubleStuf‘, her first calf, was named after the type of Oreo cookies with extra cream filling. When DoubleStuf’s little brother came along, the naming tradition was continued: J38 was nicknamed ‘Cookie‘. This themed naming scheme for a matriline is unusual, and I always have a lot of fun explaining it to our guests as we watched this small family of three hunting, playing or travelling together.

In the past few summers, some of my favourite encounters with Southern Residents were of DoubleStuf and Cookie playing and hunting for salmon together near the shore of San Juan Island. DoubleStuf’s fin made him easily recognizable, with a small blunt notch missing from its trailing edge. He was a devoted older brother – I don’t remember the last time I saw him without Cookie nearby. He always had lots of energy, engaging with Cookie in ‘breach-offs’ where the two brothers took turns leaping into the air, seemingly in an effort to outdo one another. At 18 years old, DoubleStuf was sexually mature and could be seen in the company of females from other pods. It is hard to prove paternity in killer whales without genetic testing, since all offspring remain with their mother, but it is possible that DoubleStuf was a dad as well.[[67

J38 and J34
J38 Cookie (left) with big brother J34 DoubleStuf. The two were rarely seen far apart, often travelling together even if their mother J22 Oreo was further away. Photo by Center for Whale Research.

DoubleStuf was a joy to behold, and he died far too young. Male Killer Whales in this population can live into their forties under good conditions, and although the average lifespan of Southern Resident males has dropped in recent years, eighteen is very young by any account. The cause of death is under investigation by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and is still uncertain. The current leading cause of death among adult killer whales in our community is complications arising from food shortage. While DoubleStuf’s body appeared to have a decent layer of fat stored up when he was found, he was reported a few times this summer as looking rather thin. Preliminary reports found ‘blunt force trauma’ to DoubleStuf’s head and neck, but it is unclear whether this is what killed him, or if the damage is the result of a previous injury. A more detailed analysis of the remains is necessary to arrive at a proper conclusion, and we are still awaiting test results on toxicity, stress hormones, and other clues that will tell us what happened to DoubleStuf in his final days.

DoubleStuf is the fifth member of J Pod and the second mature male in the Southern Resident community to pass away in 2016. After the ‘baby boom’ of 2015 and the arrival of three new calves in J Pod, this family has had a hard year, losing a newborn in January of this year and a beloved matriarch, J14, in late summer. In October, J28 (Polaris) and her ten-month-old calf J54 went missing. Their deaths were assumed to be related to food scarcity: Polaris was seen looking sickly thin in the weeks before her disappearance, and her dependent calf likely also died of starvation once he could no longer nurse. With the death of DoubleStuf in December, J Pod has now lost one-sixth or 17% of its total population in 2016. A sixth whale, a mature male in L Pod, was found deceased in March of this year as well. L95 (Nigel) was found dead of a fungal infection introduced by the attachment of a satellite tag. There were signs that Nigel had a compromised immune system, which has been seen before in starving killer whales.

J28, Polaris with newborn calf, J54
J28 Polaris and her newborn calf, J54. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, from Center for Whale Research

Whether DoubleStuf’s death was due to infection, food scarcity, a tragic accident, or some other cause is unclear at this time. What is certain is that his untimely passing has dealt another serious blow to a population at risk. The loss of a reproductive-age male is troubling because there are currently only around 15 males in our resident population that are or will soon be capable of producing offspring. Research shows that Southern Resident males don’t typically start fathering offspring until their mid-twenties, even though they are physically mature at around 15 years old. Our males are dying before they have a chance to pass on their genes to the next generation, which means that inbreeding and low reproductive rate are serious concerns for the Southern Residents. Combine these losses with females that are not getting adequate food to provide for themselves and nurse their young, and we have a recipe for disaster. Researchers agree that our killer whales need salmon, and they are not getting enough.

As 2016 draws to a close, the whale watching community in Victoria is united through the loss of yet another beloved friend who was taken from us too soon. I hope you will join us in hoping for a brighter year ahead for our Southern Resident Killer Whales.

Kat Nikolich, M.Sc.

Naturalist, SpringTide Whale Watching