J19 Shachi 1979 female
Story By Monika Wieland Shields
When I first got to know Shachi, she had no living offspring and was going on ten years without having had a documented calf. I probably would have given her long odds at becoming the next matriarch of J-Pod, but in hindsight, some of the clues were there. She certainly associated with some of “the greats”, including the undisputed matriarch J2 Granny, the oldest Southern Resident male and prolific father J1 Ruffles, and her likely grandmother J8 Spieden. I can only speculate what knowledge Shachi may have learned over the years from these J-Pod elders.
Shachi’s life changed forever in the summer of 2005 when she gave birth to J41 Eclipse, one of the few calves known to have been born in the Salish Sea. I remember so clearly hearing the reports over the radio from whale-watchers in Rosario Strait: “There was no calf here yesterday, right? There’s definitely a calf today!” A couple days later when J-Pod came north past Lime Kiln on one of those glassy-calm early mornings, I had one of my most memorable whale encounters of all time. Granny, Ruffles, and Spieden in the lead, followed by Shachi with little Eclipse in tow. Right in front of my perch on the rocks, Shachi gave three tail slaps while her still-wrinkly pink calf popped to the surface beside her.
That encounter would cement Eclipse and Shachi as my favorite Southern Residents, and I would have so many unique encounters with them in the future. They’re the two whales who circled the kelp bed my kayak was rafted up in a few years later, for one. I was also fortunate enough to be on the water the day Shachi’s first grandchild was seen. Eclipse, who was later determined to be the youngest Southern Resident mother on record, was only ten, so at first we assumed J51 Nova was another calf born to Shachi after a ten-year gap! Nova would surface sandwiched between mother and grandmother, and there’s no doubt that he was well cared for by both as he started to grow up.
When Granny passed away in 2016, everyone had a guess as to who would take her place as the leader of J-Pod. J16 Slick was the oldest living female, but was also often a bit of a rebel, breaking her family group off from the rest of the pod, and wasn’t, at least in my observation, a strong associate of Granny’s. For me, the new matriarch would be indicated by which whale would be in the lead when J-Pod went north up Haro Strait. Granny was symbolic in this regard, sometimes being a mile or more ahead of everyone else. We always joked that her attitude was, “I’m going to the Fraser, the rest of you can come or not,” and that firmness of purpose was always enough to get the rest of the whales in line to follow her lead. Other whales would often waffle back and forth, looking uncommitted to going north, but if Granny went, the rest would eventually follow.
In 2017, Slick and Shachi were both in that role of “first whale up Haro Strait”, so it wasn’t immediately clear to us who the new matriarch would be, and for all we know it was up for debate among the whales, too. But in the years since, it has more clearly become Shachi who is out in front, though her sway over the rest of the pod is still not as strong as Granny’s. At times, Shachi will do the “Granny thing” and head north with a purpose on her own. But when the rest of the pod doesn’t follow, milling around on the west side of San Juan Island instead, she invariably doubles back. I remember one occasion in the summer of 2020 when she was the only whale to pass me at Lime Kiln going north, while the rest of the pod were visible only as occasional blows to the south. She made it maybe a mile north of the lighthouse before breaching a couple of times – an unheeded call to the rest of the pod? An act of frustration? - before flipping south herself and swimming with purpose back to rejoin the other whales. Later that month she decided to go north regardless, but J-Pod ended up splitting into three groups, with only 8 whales following her all the way through Active Pass! Perhaps it takes a while, even within J-Pod, to earn the respect commanded by Granny.