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J49 T'ilem I'nges – Family Ties

J49 T'ilem I'gnes born 2012 male. Story by Katie Kirking. Photo, J49 T'ilem I'gnes and J37 Hy'Shqa, by Amanda Colbert

For most of her life, my grandmother wanted nothing to do with the ocean. We never knew exactly why but learned not to push. Despite the fact that she wasn’t a fan of the ocean in which they swam, our love for the Southern Residents and passion for saving them rubbed off on her. When she moved to a nursing center just a few blocks from me that happened to have a top floor gathering area with a perfect spot to watch for orcas in the Bainbridge ferry lanes and in Elliot Bay, she decided she would come with us to that top floor spot to see what she could see. We taught her some of the tell-tale signs to watch for and eventually spotted some orcas with her (thanks to the Orca Network’s spotting network!). We were watching from a distance, but it’s fair to say she was hooked. She kept abreast of the developments with the whales and celebrated every birth. She made sure the staff at the nursing center knew about the Southern Residents and had a chance to look for them when they were in the area. When J49 was born, we adopted him for her 93rd birthday and it was love at first sight. Referring to him as “my baby whale,” she shocked her entire family by requesting to move to a window bed in a room that had a peek-a-boo view of the water when one next became available, allowing as how the ocean was growing on her and she needed to keep an eye on her baby whale. Soon, her wish was granted. We outfitted her with binoculars and kept track of whale sightings, always letting her know when she had J pod heading her way, and much of the time being able to race over and watch for whales with her. We actually saw Southern Residents on a number of occasions from her room and it was magical every time. We were really too far away to get good IDs, but we always made sure she knew when J49 was part of the pod in the area. She “saw” her baby whale on a number of occasions. Whether or not it was actually J49 or not is debatable, but we always celebrated with her and the pure joy evident as she would excitedly recount the various tell-tale signs of whales in the area she had seen during the day before we arrived was absolutely heart-warming.

My grandma loved all of the Southern Residents, not just because her granddaughters did, but because the role of grandmothers within the family structure of the pods was so much like our own family. She always said a grandma’s job was to watch over and guide her family. That’s precisely what she did for our family, and as far as she was concerned J49 was a part of that family too. In her final weeks, J pod headed our way and we were able to watch our orca family with my grandma one last time. It’s unlikely my grandma was able to see much during that special encounter, but she knew the whales were there and perhaps I’m foolish to think so, but it felt like J pod might just know there was a human grandma who loved them a great deal and wanted to see her baby whale one last time. J49 will always be special to my whole family-the little whale who did the impossible and turned a woman who disliked the water for her first 93 years into one who loved watching the ocean and looking for her baby whale throughout the final 5 years of her life. No human and perhaps no other whale could have accomplished the same.

Katie Kirking


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