Spotted: Granny, the 103-Year-Old Killer Whale and Her Family

Granny, the world's oldest known orca, has been spotted again. At 103-years-old, she is the matriarch of a killer whale community known as the "J-Pod."

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Granny, the world's oldest known orca, has been spotted again. At 103-years-old, she is the matriarch of a killer whale community known as the "J-Pod." Granny was seen earlier this week leading the pod in their journey from California to the Strait of Georgia, off Vancouver Island. This is the first time Granny has been seen since March 3. Captain Simon Pidcock, captain of Ocean EcoVentures Whale Watching, said Granny was "looking very healthy," a great sign at her age.

Granny's age was calculated in an unusual way. She cannot be tagged and studied like other, younger and smaller animals. Instead, her age was determined by studying life cycles. The Wire spoke with Michael Harris, Executive Director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association and a filmmaker. Harris explained, "We have been conducting studies since the 1970s, and they came up with a plan based on the reproductive cycle of the female [to determine age]. They first give birth when they are, on average, 14. They become post-reproductive around 40, and their offspring stay with them the whole life, so that's how we calculate it."

Granny's pod is the "most intensively studied population of orcas in the world and has the oldest members." Harris calls the J-Pod "quite a paradox." It's whales are among some of the oldest in the world, but "there are only about 80 members, and they have a big problem with [a lack of] fish out there. Despite all the things [humans] have done, we do have an 85-year-old whale out there and 103-year-old Granny." 

The 103-year-old and 85-year-old whales are two of the oldest in the world. Whales in the wild live much longer than those in captivity. In the wild, male orcas tend to live to be between 40 and 50. However, "the oldest orca that ever lived in captivity, and it was a male, he was 29." This is also unusual because, as a rule, female orcas outlive male orcas in the wild.

Activists like Harris have helped to reduce the capturing of wild orcas; there are only two Pacific Northwest whales left in captivity who were taken from their pods. "We stopped the capture period in 1975 [in the United States] so they went elsewhere for captures. There were six confirmed Russian orcas captured last summer. The captures still go on. There are Icelandic captures."

For the orcas that are captured, organizations like Harris' want to bring them back into the wild and assimilate the whales with their original pods. "There is a long history of releasing dolphins into the wild, and orcas are the largest dolphin," explained Harris. "There are definitely plans and volumes of scientific opinion that believe it can be done. If the law passes in California that prohibits captive breeding and performance of orcas, then you will see a lot more people looking at the plans that are out there, and the science that is out there, that says orcas can be rehabilitated and released back into populations."

As for the orcas who were born in captivity, they have no pod to go back to. Instead, Harris believes these orcas can have a simulated pod experience, "For orcas who were born in captivity, we do want to reconnect them with their pod but there is not that wild family with them to reconnect. The best case scenario is a life of dignity and a life of community, even if its simulated."

Spotting Granny at the ripe old age of 103 may help to convince legislatures that orcas can have healthier and much longer lives in the wild and therefore should not be held captive or prevented from re-assimilation.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.