2017 Audio - Gold

“Granny,” the oldest known killer whale, was estimated to be over 100 years old when she died. She was featured in the documentary by reporter Victoria Gill and producer Andrew Luck-Baker on menopause among female killer whales, who stop having babies in their 30s or 40s. Researchers want to know why the whales have such long post-reproductive lifespans and what their experiences may mean for short-finned pilot whales and humans – the only other mammalian species known to undergo menopause. The matriarchs among the killer whales lead from the front, helping their pod mates, including the adult males, find food. Research suggests that adult males may depend on the matriarchs for their survival. If a mother dies, the risk of death for her sons is about eight times higher in the following year. There also is evidence of a “grandmother effect” on the survival of younger members of the few remaining human hunter-gatherer societies. Judges praised Gill and Luck-Baker for telling a fascinating tale about whales in a lively manner, putting the listener in the boat with scientists as they went about their work. “The team took full advantage of its medium, with whale noises, gurgling water and entrancing word-pictures that made me feel as though I were swimming along with Granny and her offspring,” said Kathy Sawyer, a freelance science writer who formerly was with The Washington Post. “This project was a labor of love and this is a real endorsement of the aim of our program – to tell a beautiful story that ignited our curiosity about the natural world and about ourselves,” Gill said. “I hope this award might draw attention to what could be lost if the amazing group of orcas ─ that still hold so many fascinating secrets ─ are not protected.” Luck-Baker agreed: “My one regret is that we did not have sufficient time in the documentary to cover in greater depth the real extinction risk faced by this special population of orca, a small and diminishing clan of animals which can still teach us much about our own lives.”