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‘It’s an end of an era’: Nearly 100-year-old orca missing, researchers believe ‘Granny’ has died

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SEATTLE — The iconic killer whale known to many as ‘Granny’ is missing and presumed dead; she is believed to be nearly 100 years old.

It’s been a tough year for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales in Puget Sound.

“Her passing is, of course, a loss,” said Scott West, executive director of Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance. “She was the oldest known orca in existence.”

“This is the matriarch of the best known, most intensively studied population of killer whales on the planet and she was leading the way,” said Michal Harris of the Orca Conservancy.

Granny, also known as J2, has been the iconic orca for generations of whale watchers in the Pacific Northwest.

Observers from the Center for Whale Research, based in Friday Harbor, have not seen her since October; now they believe she has died.

Whale watchers said her instinct helped a struggling community of native orcas survive life in the wild. Granny was usually spotted leading the J pod, including recently born calves.

“None of those likely would have survived had it not been for the extended care without J2,” said Harris.

The Southern Resident killer whale population saw a recent boom of babies.

Harris said eight of the 10 orcas born in 2016 have survived because of Granny’s instinct to lead and teach her pod where to hunt for food. He believes it’s Granny’s DNA that will help a new generation of whales revitalize the pod.

“Some of them can live to be as much as 100 years old,” said Harris. “That’s good genes, that’s hope.”

“It’s an end of an era,” added West.

The Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance is leading a charge that asks federal regulators to create a whale protection zone along the western shores of San Juan Island. The zone would keep commercial and private whale watching vessels away from the orcas –which West says disrupts the animals’ feeding, navigation and communication.

“We’re down to 78, it’s a very tragic situation,” he said. “They’re on the brink of extinction. We have to act and we have to act now.”

The orca population has dropped 20 percent in the past two decades. Researchers believe it’s because of pollution, disturbances by boats and a lack of food. But the Orca Conservancy believes Granny’s life should be celebrated, knowing her resiliency lives on in the remaining 78 killer whales in Puget Sound waters.

“This is not a tragedy,” said Harris. “This is actually something we should celebrate that we have these whales that can live this long.”