J2 Granny Photo by Caroline Armon
Wise Elder Matriarch J2 Granny
1911 – 2016 female
My first profound encounter with J2 Granny happened early in my career, as a Marine Naturalist on the Salish Sea. It’s summer in the year 2000. I’m standing behind a group of people on the tour boat’s side-deck as we watch Granny’s family of 4 generations swim north up San Juan Channel. Part of my job is to interpret the behavior of these Orca for the group of tourists onboard. An elder woman standing in front of me shares that she is the same age as Granny, and is also a great-grandmother. Standing next to her is a young woman, a new mother holding her baby. The baby starts to cry and the great-grandmother and I reassure the flustered mom, who is worried the baby is bothering other people, and is about to take the baby into the boat cabin when Granny leaves her family and swims up next to the boat, right below us. She slowly spy-hops raising her head out of the water and slowly turning, gazes at each of us, straight into our eyes. Then she slowly sinks back down into the water and swims back to her family. Time stops, freeze-frame moments. I don’t remember if the baby stopped crying, we were all stunned. The depth, the awareness, the sentient being we shared eye contact with in Granny’s soulful eye is indescribable, beyond words, an unforgettable encounter that endeared Granny to me and all. I wish I too could echolocate: send and receive three dimensional photographic and x-ray-like information, as Granny can. I can only imagine her perception of us humans. She recognized the distress in that crying baby, she came and comforted us. It was a dream come true for that other great-grandmother, and an extraordinary story for that baby who is now grown up. Granny responded to a natural sound of universal communication. It was an interspecies connection that still inspires my advocacy.
I have so many memories of Granny leading her family, J-pod, and all the pods — she was the matriarch of the clan of Southern Resident killer whales. She was often with the first group of whales sighted. On one perfect July day, sunny and warm, tall ships sailing in San Juan Channel, there were reports of Orca in Rosario Strait. As we approached the strait, a thick marine fog lay on the water and reduced visibility. We heard the powerful breathing of the whales echoing long before we saw them. The sun melted the fog and there were Orca everywhere the eye could see. It was a super-pod: the entire clan, 85 whales at that time, spread out in families and groups. That summer day J1 Ruffles appeared to be in the lead of the clan as they swam south along the eastern shores of Lopez Island. Then Granny surfaced in front of Ruffles and took the lead. Approaching the end of Lopez, the super-pod had to decide whether to continue south, or make a right turn into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and head west. Matriarch Granny turned right and all 84 whales followed her.
Granny seemed to give Ruffles his space as he would often be out in mid-channel while Granny and her grandchildren would be close together near shore. Another beautiful, scenic summer day, we were drifting in calm waters while J-pod families leisurely swam down Boundary Pass. As we observed a steady stream of whales, I remember wondering: where were Granny and Ruffles? She wasn’t with the first group. Then we saw she was at the end of the J-pod stream by herself, and Ruffles was another mile behind all by himself. As Granny was passing us, she abruptly turned around and sped swam back to Ruffles. He joined her and they both rapidly swam side by side, leaving a whale wake, until they caught up with the rest of J-pod. Powerful and agile, looking like the dolphins they are. (Science classifies orca as the largest member of the dolphin family, all these common and scientific names can be so confusing.) We definitely sensed Granny’s in charge, she was the clan eldest.
In the autumn of 2014, while at Lime Kiln Point State Park, we watched Granny leading the way once again, traveling north scanning Haro Strait for salmon. She turned back south and dove playfully, turning upside down and rolling around in the bull kelp beds near shore by the lighthouse. Did Granny feel the wonder from all of us by the lighthouse, absorbed by her presence? Or did she come by to grace the bride and groom and their guests sitting mesmerized on the rocks? Delaying their wedding ceremony until Granny continued on her way.
Granny heard, felt, touched, saw, and knew more than any other Southern Resident Orca. She had so much experience, awareness of ocean life, and history to share and teach her clan. She witnessed being shot at, captures and deaths of her relatives and community members, declining salmon, declining habitat, toxins in the water, and increasing noise, all impacting their lives and their acoustically oriented world. Yet she still breached and played in her last years, shared salmon with her family in her last days, lives on in the 5 generations and community she was part of, and our memories.
Monumental Matriarch, J2 Granny leading her family