This is Granny

Or you can call her J02!

I don’t have much of a relationship with a particular animal until I know its name.

Living where I do, I’d always been aware of the pods of Orcas being studied in the Southern San Juan Islands, and I’d heard of a very old female named Granny. Over the years when I was not focused on whales, I assumed she had passed away. Later, during a visit to the Friday Harbor Whale Museum I learned Granny was still alive and was startled when tears sprang to my eyes. I was moved then and am still to see she is going strong, seen as recently as October 3rd by a citizen scientist.

The Power of Naming

Think about a kid who gets to name the kitten or puppy during those first few days. A pretty special thing.

Individual orca names are used in different ways by scientists and conservationists. As an artist, I get to benefit from the experience of both groups. I learn from the objective information of the scientists and cheer on the actions of the conservationists.


When scientists gather information to understand how animal groups work, they are trained not to get emotionally involved. They try not to add human feelings and motives to the behaviors they describe (anthropomorphizing) nor to interfere in their normal life like rescuing prey from predator.

Among the Southern Resident Orcas they have identified individuals in three major pods by the details of dorsal fins and white patches. Check out that signature half-moon notch in Granny’s dorsal fin above. It has taken researchers long hours of observing and photographing whales as they surface to trace out family relationships. They’ve learned how pods are based on based on the females (matrilineal). and that Granny is the elder of J pod. Her scientific name is J02.


Activists trying to improve the lot of vulnerable animals count numbers and conditions of various species over time. They work hard to mobilize folks against identified threats.

They understand the how an animal with a well-known name can highlight threats and motivate the public for change. In the marine mammal world, Lolita and others are well-known, and many whale centers offer you the chance to “adopt” a named whale. Sadly, you’ve probably heard some of the uproar when a lion, memorably named Cecil, was killed by a trophy hunter.


As an artist, I can create images of generic whale species as I’ve done in much of my early work. Recently, with my shift in focus to this particular whale, Granny, I spend more time searching out the visual details that make her an individual.

Some say that’s a mark of good art, whether in paintings, books, or movies: telling an individual story in a generic or universal way.

As I work on the piece above, I am thinking of “Granny” and delighting that she is still with us. Without thinking about it, I apparently emphasized that signature notch in her fin with extra dense stitching. I can tell you I was not at all thinking of J02.