Granny's 100-plus years in open waters is in stark contrast to the time SeaWorld whale Tilikum spent in captivity

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Along with SeaWorld’s Tilikum, the world lost another notable orca whale this week.

Granny, believed to be as old as 105, is missing and presumed dead.

Officially know as J2, but affectionately known as Granny, this killer whale was likely the oldest living orca. According to the Chicago Tribune, researchers first identified Granny and her Pacific Northwest-based pod in 1976, and determined her age based on the whales she swam with, including her children. By their estimate in 1976, Granny was at least 45 years old, but was most likely closer to 76. Regardless, whale researchers had been following her ever since, until she went missing last autumn.

“Perhaps other dedicated whale-watchers have seen her since then, but by year’s end she is officially missing from the population, and with regret we now consider her deceased,” wrote Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research in San Juan Island, Washington.

Granny is proof that killer whales live long beyond their reproductive years. As one of the three animals (orcas, humans and short-finned pilot whales) that go through menopause, orcas are a special species. A recent BBC documentary showed that killer whales take on a new role when they pass their reproductive prime, often leading their pods, especially in times of food scarcity.

In her golden years, Granny could still keep up with the rest of her pod, swimming hundreds of miles some weeks to help hunt for fish. This long life in open water is in stark contrast to the world of SeaWorld orcas like Tilikum. The infamous orca spent almost all of his mere 36 years in captivity, stuck in a small tank and trained to perform for years before becoming ill with a bacterial infection and passing away.

Of course, wild orcas face their own stresses, including food shortages and pollutant exposure, but none are as persistent and all-consuming as those that captive whales endure. And while SeaWorld provided Tilikum with top of the line care, that arguably doesn’t compare to the physical and mental benefits of being out in the open ocean, able to communicate and engage with your own kind in the way you choose.

Two famous whales, two very different lives and a powerful example of what captivity means for an orca: not just a potentially shorter life, but a less enriching one, as well.