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T-46, an orca off the Pacific Northwest presumed dead, leaves behind a mighty legacy

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The great matriarch who once swam through the waters around Vancouver Island with her children and grandchildren is now believed to be dead. She was the orca known as T-46.

JARED TOWERS: T-46 was a good-looking killer whale.

SIMON: That's Jared Towers, a research technician with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. He's also with Bay Cetology, a nonprofit conservation organization.

TOWERS: She was a big female. She had a very distinct dorsal fin. She had two notches. They were quite prominent in the trailing edge of her dorsal fin - and a unique saddle patch, unique eye patches. She was very easy to recognize, even from a distance.

SIMON: Jared Towers has followed T-46 for years. He is also possibly the last person to have ever seen her. It happened about a year ago near Alert Bay, British Columbia, where he lives and works. He photographed T-46 and her pod for about an hour.

TOWERS: Lots of surface-active behavior - breaches, spy hops, tail slaps.

SIMON: But while her family has been seen several times since then, the matriarch hasn't been with them. And that's why T-46 is presumed to be dead. She was at least 58 years old. Jared Towers says she leaves behind an impressive legacy.

TOWERS: She had eight kids that we know about, 15 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Keep in mind that any offspring that her sons would have sired, we wouldn't know about because they'd be born into other pods. So it's quite likely that she had more grandchildren.

SIMON: T-46 increased the orca population. She also played a part in preserving it. Back in her younger days, 1976, she was one of several killer whales who were chased and captured in Puget Sound. Collectors intended to sell the orcas to SeaWorld.

TOWERS: There was a lot of media attention. There was a lot of public outcry. And as a result, these whales were set free. And also as a result, the live capture of killer whales in Washington state was outlawed.

SIMON: Jared Towers says because T-46 had a long life, researchers were able to learn more about orcas just by following her and her family over decades.

TOWERS: We know how productive, you know, a killer whale can be throughout its life. We know more about the range and distribution of this population in thanks to her and her offspring. And we also know how information gets passed on down through the generations because we can see how her offspring, who have dispersed and had their own families, choose to make decisions based on what they learned from their mother.

SIMON: Jared Towers says that usually when a matriarch like T-46 dies, the orcas left behind split off to join other pods. But he says, so far, the family she left behind seems to be sticking together. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.