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This January, 2020, photograph provided by the Center for Whale Research shows a large male orca, known as L41 or Mega, surfacing in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

David Ellifrit/The Associated Press

A 43-year-old male orca known as L41 has gone missing and may be dead, further depleting the endangered population of southern resident killer whales that live off the B.C. coast.

The Center for Whale Research, a non-profit organization in Washington State that has been monitoring the whales for over four decades, said in a report last week that the disappearance is concerning.

“Given his age and that he looked a little thin in our January 2019 encounter, we fear he may be gone and will consider him missing unless he shows up unexpectedly in an upcoming encounter.”

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The death of L41 would bring the total number of endangered southern resident whales to 72. The dwindling numbers have been dangerously low for a while now, due to an increase in marine traffic and pollution as well as a decrease in their primary food source, chinook salmon.

Dr. Andrew Trites, director of the University of British Columbia’s marine mammal research unit, said that males will often separate from their pods, so L41 could just be further away from his group.

However, it’s “unusual” he wasn’t spotted and since the average lifespan for a male orca is about 30 years old, “there’s a very high probability that he’s dead,” Dr. Trites said. L41’s age means he probably wasn’t really contributing to his pod in terms of hunting for food, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be missed.

“It’s still a loss and every loss hurts.”

According to Dr. Trites, a bigger loss to the southern resident whales would be females, whether they are of reproductive age or they are grandmothers. To survive, the population needs more females.

The whales live in a matriarchy. The older females lead and teach their pods. Half of the L-pod is made up of female orcas, but only three of them are calves that will eventually shoulder the burden of producing more offspring.

“There's your future right there.”

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L41 is leaving behind a legacy. He and another whale have fathered a majority of the orcas since 1990. L41′s death, though, may solve a problem, Dr. Trites said.

There’s been a problem of inbreeding among the southern resident families. The two males have been breeding with their daughters and their nieces. Within such a small population, L41’s genes are represented too much in the pod, which causes “serious problems,” Dr. Trites said.

But it’s still sad news, “as any of us can relate to [like with] family members, no matter how old they are, they all die too soon.”

However, the Center for Whale Research also noted there is some good news within the pod: The centre confirmed that an orca calf born last year, L124, was seen again. The whale’s gender is still unconfirmed but its presence brings hope to the pod.

“They aren’t out of the woods yet by a long shot,” Dr. Trites said.

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