The Center for Whale Research has reported that L47, a beloved grandmother southern resident killer whale, is missing and most likely dead.
The Washington-based research and advocacy group says L47 — also called Marina — did not appear in its 2021 census and hasn’t been seen since Feb. 27, when she was spotted in B.C.’s Swanson Channel.
Her offspring and grandoffspring, it adds, were observed six times in September without her.
“Her repeated absence meets our criteria for declaring a whale missing and likely deceased,” says the research centre’s Monday news release.
Marina was born in 1974 and would have been 47 years old this year.
The research group calls her “among the most prolific southern resident females,” a record-setter with seven calves that survived long enough to be given an alpha-numeric designation.
When she was last seen, the Center for Whale Research says she did “not appear to be in particularly poor condition.”
Due to limited sightings, however, the Pacific Whale Watch Association’s Erin Gless says L74’s condition hasn’t been well-documented over time.
“Professional whale watchers have not seen her at all in all of 2021,” she told Global News.
“One of the sad truths is that as southern residents are spending more and more time away from the Salish Sea area, we are seeing them less and less.
According to the Center for Whale Research, Marina was also missing from Fisheries and Oceans Canada surveys conducted in the western Strait of Juan de Fuca in the summer.
Because southern resident killer whales live in a matriarchal society in which elder females hold key leadership roles, her surviving relatives now face decreased odds of survival, it says.
“When you lose these mature females, these grandmother figures, you’re losing a lot of that knowledge,” Gless explained.
“What are the best foraging spots? What are the best times of year to go to certain places? That is lost.”
Marina’s presumed death leaves the southern resident killer whale population at 73.
Her three surviving offspring, says the Center for Whale Research, are a young male known as L5 and two adult daughters, L83 and L91.
Her daughters both have sons, and the research group says their increase of death in the next two years has now increased approximately six-fold, “assuming coastwide salmon abundance is at historical averages.”
There is some hope on the horizon, however, says Mark Malleson, a B.C.-based field biologist for the Center for Whale Research.
Three members of the J-Pod are presumed to be pregnant, which could provide a boost to the endangered species’ numbers.
Malleson says he hopes they deliver full-term and are able to find a plentiful supply of their food source, chinook salmon.