A whale's tale

Whale watchers mourn the suspected death of a matriarch of the seas

Perhaps it is fitting that the last sighting of the elderly matriarch was just after Midwinter's Day. When it comes to orcas, the best data available to whale scientists on the Pacific north-western coast of North America is from their observations at sea. Lummi, thought to be 98 years old and the leader of a family group known as "K pod", was last spotted in Puget Sound near Seattle on 23 December last year.

Orcas, or killer whales, if you really want to annoy aficionados of the species, are thought to live in particularly stable social groups in this region. Up to five generations, taught and led by an ageing female, have been observed living and hunting together, ensuring social continuity.

The matrilineal pods have developed a sophisticated vocal system to communicate with and guide one another. This is partly thanks to the great ages that many of the females reach; males usually die decades earlier.

Now Lummi herself has disappeared and is presumed dead. As she and the 18 members of her extended family went out to sea last winter on their almost unknown winter travels, researchers could only wait until they returned to resume study. In June, K pod was finally sighted in offshore waters with a new calf, but without its oldest, most experienced member.

Erin Heydenreich, of the Centre for Whale Research in the San Juan islands of Washington State, said that Lummi's last photograph at the centre, showing the two distinctive notches in her dorsal fin, had been tinted grey in mourning. There is a slim chance she could still turn up - that perhaps she had, for some reason, decided to join other family groups in the region for a short period - but as the summer wears on it seems unlikely.

"It's not uncommon not to have seen her, but when K pod returned to inland waters on 3 June Lummi was not observed with the rest of them. That was the first time we thought she may have died over the winter," she said.

It is impossible to be certain of Lummi's age. The whale, which was named after a local native community, was over 60 when marine biologists started putting orca family trees together in the late 1970s. "That she was the oldest whale among our orca populations made her important," said Heydenreich.

K7, Lummi's scientific name, was among the first whales photographed when recording began 30 years ago. She was found to be well beyond reproductive years by then, Heydenreich also said, and helping her own offspring with their calves.

K pod, like the and J pods, which also live in the region, travels up and down the coastline between California and Vancouver Island. They are known collectively as the Southern Residents. K pod was severely damaged by whalers and by three decades of zoological capture to fill the pools of marine parks. Unlike orca groups in other parts of the world, it remains on the endangered species list. Its survival so far is thanks, at least in part, to Lummi.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.