One of the oldest matriarchs of an orca pod with ties to the Puget Sound has not been seen for eight months and is presumed dead, whale researchers said today.
Lummi, a great-grandmother estimated to be in her late 90s, was the leader of the eight-member K-pod, which considers the Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca its home waters, said Ken Balcomb, senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor.
Researchers have tracked the pod since 1976, and Lummi, also known as K7, was the head orca even back then, he said.
The social hierarchy of orca pods is structured around a matriarch who makes all the decisions, he said. And that role goes to the most senior female.
While there is no specific date of her birth, "[Lummi] was clearly old when we began the study 32 years ago," he said. Her daughter will likely take the helm.
Lummi has been missing since December 2007, but her death won't be officially confirmed until the end of the year, Balcomb said. That's when the center will remove her from the catalog of living whales.
When the K-pod was first spotted this spring, she wasn't there. Researchers then had a hunch she had passed on, considering her age.
"She was going to die sometime, but it's tragic any time," Balcomb said.
Orcas are suffering in general because of a salmon shortage, he said.
"We're seeing a huge change in their behavior," he said. "The whales are rarely coming to the inside waters now. It's like going to a grocery store that's empty."
After observing the orcas for more than 30 years, he said, it's painful when one of them dies.
"They are like family members," Balcomb said. "But there is a life span of all things. What's going to be interesting to find out is how the rest of the pod gets along without her."
The Center for Whale Research has a page with more info and pictures here.