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K40 Raggedy

K40 Raggedy ~ c.1963-2012 Photo and story by Monika Wieland Shields

K40 Raggedy was part of my first-ever “close encounter” with the Southern Residents. It was July 2001 and my parents and I were aboard the Bon Accord on a whale-watch trip out of Friday Harbor. We met up with a superpod near Open Bay, and the boat had been shut off for an hour as we watched groups of whales in every direction intermingling with one another and spyhopping, tail slapping, and breaching. Three whales suddenly popped up aiming for the boat and I slid down off the roof of the Bon Accord, video camera in hand. As K18 Kiska, her son K21 Cappuccino, and likely daughter K40 Raggedy circled the boat I could look directly down and see them underwater. Raggedy surfaced directly in front of me and the video recording captured my sixteen-year-old voice, shaky with excitement, exclaiming, “I got wet from the spray! Oh my God!” Needless to say Raggedy had a special place in my heart from that moment on, but she would remain a whale full of many more questions than I ever got answers.

Why is she K40?

From the get-go I wondered how we had a whale numbered K40 when there were, at the time, no whales K35 through K39. It turns out this is because she, along with the rest of her family group, were originally designated as L-Pod whales. Before 1977 they were always seen with L-Pod. Then, between 1977 and 1981 they started being seen with Ks, and after 1981 were almost always seen with Ks. Michael Bigg suspected they might be Ks due to their acoustic call types, and in 1986, coinciding with the birth of K21 Cappuccino into this family group, the switch from L to K was officially announced, the only time any Southern Residents have had their pod designation changed. Raggedy's family was our first clue that matrilines are probably more stable than pods, as we've seen other whales and groups of whales seemingly shift pod associations for both short and long lengths of time.

Why was her fin so ragged?

Raggedy’s name came from the five notches on the trailing edge of her dorsal fin. While it’s not uncommon for Southern Residents to get notches in their fins, we know very little about how they acquire them, and that remains true in Raggedy’s case. While Bigg’s killer whales may acquire some of their scars from their marine mammal prey fighting back, that wouldn’t be the case for the fish-eating Southern Residents. While some theorize entanglement scars might be a possibility, the whales do often rough-house with each other as evidenced by the rake marks from orca teeth they often have on their bodies. It’s possible these notches come from play or even discipline from other whales, but we will never know for sure how Raggedy got her notches.

What’s her relationship to the rest of her family?

While there is a genealogy written out for Raggedy’s sub-group of K-Pod (the K18 and K30 matrilines), it seems the mother-offspring relationships have never really been clear as the family associations were reorganized several times. What is known is that, despite living to be nearly 50 years old, Raggedy was never seen with a calf, leading to speculation that she was probably infertile. Unlike other females without offspring of their own, I never saw Raggedy babysitting or playing with calves of other whales. This always led me to wonder if it was possible that maybe she never wanted offspring if she didn’t have the natural mothering instinct.

30+ years after Raggedy’s sub-group was first misidentified as part of L-Pod they have remained somewhat “rogue”, clearly K-Pod whales by their acoustics and dominant associations but still sometimes breaking off for weeks or months at a time to travel with J-Pod, L-Pod, or even off on their own. After the death of K18 Kiska in 2004, Raggedy and Cappuccino were the only remaining members of this sub-group, but they then seemingly recruited K16 Opus and her son K35 Sonata to their wandering ways.

Raggedy went missing in during the summer of 2012, leaving the adult male K21 Cappuccino as the only living member of their family group and essentially sealing their matriline’s fate of eventual extinction. Cappuccino is one of the rare males to find a way to survive after losing his close female relations, with a continuing solid bond with Opus and her son. As a male now in his 30s, I’m hopeful that even if there are no more female members of their matriline, he will still ensure their line continues on into the future by fathering calves of his own. Every time I see Cappuccino I think about Raggedy, the whale who was his closest companion for the 8 years following his mother Kiska’s death. That is how I will always remember her: right beside the towering fin of Cappuccino, one of the easiest whales to identify regardless of the conditions due to her one-of-a-kind dorsal fin.

1 Comment

Jun 16, 2021

I would have loved that wonderful experience that you had and hearing you squeal! I remember my girl's reaction the first time we saw the Residents. It was delightful and inspirational. These whales have given many heartwarming memories to cherish for a lifetime. Thank you for sharing!

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