Update 7/31:  K21, Cappuccino sadly “presumed dead”

The last sighting of K21, Cappuccino was on Wednesday July 28 when the marine mammal specialists monitoring him—from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO)—had to leave at dark. He was last seen in Race Passage off the southern tip of Vancouver Island.

Despite extensive searches over the following days, sadly he has not been found again. Paul Cottrell of DFO’s Marine Mammal Unit said in an interview that, “K21 is presumed dead from as yet undetermined causes, which could include starvation or a chronic disease such as cancer — or both.”

Media inquiries should be directed to Dr. Deborah Giles.

What’s Going On?

On Tuesday July 27, members of all three pods of the Southern Resident killer whales returned to the Salish Sea, following an abnormally long summer absence, due to lack of Chinook (King) salmon in these waters. K21—also known as Cappuccino—was observed the following day, apparently alone and in extremely poor health.

Who is K21?

K21 is a 35-year-old male, born in 1986 to K18, Kiska. His mother sadly died in 2004 and by 2012 he was the only surviving member of his family. He usually travels with two other K pod whales, K16 Opus and her son, K35, Sonata.

Why is this Important?

K21 is one of only 17 members of K-Pod, the smallest of the three pods of this endangered population, totaling 75 whales. In fact, this population is smaller now than when they were added to the Endangered Species list in 2005.

Aged 35, K21 had reached the average life-expectancy for male fish-eating orcas. Yet transient orcas in the same waters may live 10 years longer. The difference? Food supply. Transients hunt marine mammals, whose populations are plentiful. K21 and his extended family rely on ever-decreasing Chinook.

What was K21’s Condition?

Scientists from DFO were able to spend time observing K21. He was found to be lagging significantly behind the K pod members he travels with, appearing lethargic. He was followed until dark, and has not been sighted since. His current status is unknown, but he is now presumed deceased after no further sightings.

DFO scientists reported symptoms of severe “peanut head“, a condition commonly associated with ill-health and malnutrition in these whales, and in recent years has nearly always resulted in the death of a Southern Resident.

Shockingly, his huge dorsal fin had also collapsed. This can be caused by injury, but stress and illness can contribute. According to researchers in a study looking at this rare condition in wild orcas, they note that in mature males like K21, collapse may be “due to the unique height of male dorsal fins and the loss of fibrous connective tissue caused by age and starvation.”

Further Evaluation

Scientists—including Wild Orca’s Science & Research Director, Dr. Deborah Giles— had hoped to further evaluate K21’s condition. He was severely malnourished, with a collapsed dorsal fin. That is certain. But why this has happened cannot be known for sure. He may have been injured, had an infection, or a combination of several factors.

Had he been re-located, attempts could have been made to further evaluate his condition through non-invasive health monitoring, such as collecting fecal (poop) or breath samples, together with observation from vessels, or by drone. Without these samples, we are restricted to the observations of his physical condition, which unfortunately cannot tell the story of how he came to be in such ill health.

However, what is certain is that there’s been no net-increase in this endangered population since the 1980s. Insufficient Chinook salmon is a major factor in the lack of successful pregnancies, and malnutrition makes them susceptible to disease, and the impacts from pollution, noise and disturbance.

At Wild Orca we believe it’s essential to address the root cause of the decline of this endangered population. To save these whales, we must save the Chinook salmon they need to survive.

How Can I Help?

Speak Out

One of the best ways to help is to speak out, especially by writing letters and making phone calls. Our action guide will show you how; each action has sample letters or comments, making it quick and easy to take meaningful action.

Give

Your donations help us inform and motivate the public to support these whales and take action. We can then act as a voice for these whales at public meetings, and in conversations with policymakers. We think this combination of top-down and bottom-up pressure is the best way to influence those who have the power to make the changes necessary to save these whales from extinction.

Act

There are many ways to make a difference in our daily lives: by considering the salmon we eat, the products we buy, how we treat our lawns, or commute. By considering harmful products or activities that can pollute our air and waterways, we can help prevent contamination of these whales’ environment, and food sources.

Together we can make a difference

Bold, decisive actions are needed now to save these whales from extinction. Your voice and support can make a difference. Thank you!

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More Questions & Answers

Lifespan varies between sexes in orcas; females can outlive males by as much as 20 years. Several female Southern Resident killer whales have lived to a presumed age of 80+ but only one male is known to have lived beyond 50 (J1, Ruffles).

Over the last several decades, the lifespan of Southern Resident killer whales has likely started to decline, due to a lack of Chinook salmon upon which they depend. Malnutrition can result in severe health issues, including reduced reproductive success, compromised immune systems, and sadly a shortened lifespan.

New research suggests that the average lifespan for female residents is mid-50s, and mid-30s for males. Bigg’s killer whales—hunting mammals in the same waters— are likely to live up to 10 years longer, likely due to their prey being more abundant.

When orcas lose weight, they lose fat from their blubber and if prolonged, this can eventually lead to a pronounced depression behind the blowhole, a condition known as “peanut-head”, as the head looks like an unshelled peanut.

Such extreme weight loss can be caused by malnutrition due to food shortage, or as result of an infectious disease, leading to lack of feeding. In wild mammals, the most commonly recognized cause of weight loss is food shortage.

Orcas have a thick layer of blubber, and peanut-head typically indicates advanced illness, or prolonged lack of food. Therefore, it’s considered a reliable indicator of emaciation and poor body condition. Individuals who have been identified as being in poor condition have a higher probability of dying than individuals who have not.

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