Photos of J50 Scarlet with Family including mom, J16 Slick
2014 ~ 2018
Story by Andy Scheffler
By now, many of us know that Southern Resident Killer Whales are a unique population of whales, and that they are in a period of overall decline. While their population seems to rise and fall following similar rates in their preferred salmon prey, because the individual whales are well-known and thoroughly documented over the years, their stories seem more akin to the emotional roller coaster we might feel about our own families. It is interesting to note that, among other things, killer whales do possess large numbers of spindle cells in their brains, a cell which is most associated with processing emotions. So the fact that they appear to be tight-knit groups with special bonds and fiercely individual personalities is not just humans anthropomorphising them. Families led by moms, grandmas or even great-great-grandmas stick together for life with their kids, brothers and sisters, sometimes grouping up with aunts, uncles and cousins as well, and engaging in acts of celebration or mourning with the arrival or departure of a pod member.
Back in late 2014, the SRKW population was in a major birth slump, with no new surviving offspring since J49 T'ílem I'nges, who had been born in August 2012. Even more dire, well-loved J32 Rhapsody was found floating deceased in the Gulf Islands December 4 of that year, and inside her, a female calf, also deceased.
But then, like a beacon in the dark, J50 appeared. She was a miracle, she was strength, she was hope, she was joy. Deemed "Scarlet," her birth marked the beginning of a brief prosperous period of SRKW births over the next year, a bonafide baby boom. And she came into the world spunky as can be, a firecracker from the start. The daughter of J16 Slick, already 42 (est.) at this time, putting her right on the cusp of the end of her reproductive years, Scarlet's birth may have been a challenge - she was a miracle. It is known that other orcas may act as sort of 'midwives' around a birthing female, supporting her and helping to push the calf to the surface for its first breath. Whether she was stuck, born upside-down and backwards, or quite what, we will never know, but when she was first spotted, her tiny back was criss-crossed with the scars that reflect her name from the teeth of other orcas who, it is theorized, may have literally grabbed hold of her and pulled her out of Slick - she was strength. It was with great relief that this little whale was observed to be a female, which is important to ensure the SRKWs will have mothers in the future to take over from females like Slick, now perhaps the third oldest of the living wild SRKW population, who are aging out of their calf-bearing years - she was hope. Her playfulness, exuberance and joie de vivre was evident quite quickly as she was spotted frequently playing, cavorting, and jumping clear of the water - she was joy.
She also had a strong and seemingly quite loving bond with her family, especially her big brother J26 Mike. As an adult male, Mike's dorsal fin was the same height as Scarlet was long at her birth, and watching the two of them swim along together, the sheer size difference, the appearance of the protective big brother keeping the curious young calf from getting into trouble was heartwarming to watch. She also seemed to be chummy with her nephew J52 Sonic, born just a few months after she was to J36 Alki (another of Slick's offspring). I remember a day in the summer of 2015 where J-Pod was heading through Active Pass in the Canadian Gulf Islands, when bouncing baby Scarlet was racing about in the current and eventually went towards a bull kelp bed floating just below the surface. Orcas and other whales like to drape the blades and stipes of these big marine algaes over their backs and fins, perhaps delighting in the smooth texture or getting a bit of a scratch from it. Scarlet bit off a little more than she could chew, imitating her bigger, stronger family members this time though, and she seemed to get wrapped up and stuck in the kelp as the rest of the pod continued onwards. Soon her two big sisters circled back to 'rescue' her, both spyhopping on either side of her to help lift her up and out of the kelp, then twisting under her to push her up out of the water to breathe while they somehow untangled her. They all swam on, soon reunited with Slick and Mike, and headed out in the Georgia Strait. I will always wonder what kind of whale 'conversation' was going on among them all that day.
Unfortunately, Scarlet (and Sonic as well) is one of the little whale calves making up the dire statistics of mortality of young SRKW, though she did make it nearly to her fourth birthday. She was a fighter, but her complicated birth and small size may have made her more vulnerable to illness, parasites or malnutrition. A concerted effort was made to treat her in the wild via antibiotics and fish after she turned up looking thin, but unfortunately, these were not successful, and she disappeared a short time later. She is still a symbol of light in dark times, and will always be remembered fondly by anyone who had the absolute privilege and joy of seeing her as the active, spunky, carefree little calf she was. Slick, Mike, Echo, and Alki continue on plying the Salish Sea, hopefully remembering her fondly as we all are.