Thank You Ken Balcomb – Friend to Orca Whales


Years ago, I had the opportunity to spend time with Ken when I participated in an Earthwatch Expedition. He involved us in surveying whales as we rode Zodiacs along the western shores of San Juan Island. He was a gracious host, openly sharing his knowledge and love for our unique pods of Orca.
Thank you, Ken, for all you did for many of us beyond the Orca.

Lynda V. Mapes   and  Isabella Breda  – Seattle Times staff reporters.
Ken Balcomb, chronicler of the southern resident orcas, dies at 82

“Just a couple of miles away in the waters off Sequim, Ken Balcomb saw the orcas.

They were headed toward his white research vessel, emblazoned with black letters spelling “Killer Whale Study.”

It was the morning of April 8, 1976. Balcomb, on a one-year contract for the National Marine Fisheries Service, was working to count the orcas that frequent the Salish Sea. Through a film camera and neatly printed notes, he documented this first encounter. Until then, researchers knew little of this endangered population.

But now more is known about the southern residents than any other group of marine mammals in the world — thanks in large part to Balcomb and the organization he founded, Center for Whale Research.

The champion of the southern residents and leader in efforts to save them from extinction, Balcomb died Thursday at 82 of prostate cancer.

While he will be most remembered for his work with the southern residents, Balcomb’s career cut a wide swath: from tagging whales in the North Pacific Ocean for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to serving as an oceanographic specialist for the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War, all while co-authoring dozens of scientific papers along the way.

He graduated from the University of California in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in zoology, and a special interest in cetaceans, according to the Smithsonian Institution Archives, which led to a doctorate in marine biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Balcomb for more than four decades closely observed the J, K, and L pods that frequent Puget Sound. His orca survey, begun in 1976, became the standard for tracking the southern residents, based on a photographic record of the unique markings, or saddle patches, on each of the whales.

He knew nearly every member of the southern resident families from birth.

Watching the steady decline of the orcas he worked so hard to save was wrenching for Balcomb, who never got to see some of what he most cared about come to fruition, chiefly rebuilding runs of Chinook salmon, the orcas’ main food source. 

“Offered up a world of stuff”

Born Nov. 11, 1940, Balcomb’s career spanned the transformation of the public’s attitude toward killer whales.

For thousands of years, Coast Salish people have held orcas in high esteem. But to many nonnative newcomers, they were feared. Some fishers shot them on sight. They were regarded as a vermin species to be at best avoided, and whenever possible, exterminated.

In the ’60s and ’70s, they were rounded up with helicopters, seal bombs, harpoon guns and speed boats for aquariums around the world.

Balcomb spent his career working to shift that mindset, said Elizabeth Dunne, director of legal advocacy at Earth Law Center. He tried to help show humans’ intrinsic relationship with the creatures through his own compassion, she said.

It was Balcomb and other early pioneers of the research, including Canadian scientist Michael Bigg, who established just how small the orca populations are, as well as the different types of orcas and their home ranges.

His most sophisticated instrument was a camera — and his intimate knowledge of the whales. He once said he thought the southern residents knew him, or at least the sound of his boat, the Chimo — named for one of the first captive orcas.

Balcomb conducted annual surveys, which chronicled a steady recovery of the southern residents after the closure of the hunts, building hopes the families might recover to what is believed to be a baseline of about 120. Instead, beginning in the 1990s, the whales declined, with some increases along the way, to today’s low of 73.

“We recognized from 1976 that, wow, this is a phenomenal opportunity to not only count every whale in the population every year but to look at the dynamics: the birthrates, the death rates, the social dynamics and you know, it has offered up a world of stuff,” he said in an interview this fall after his team’s latest census.

“I’m quite proud of what we’ve done,” Balcomb said, “please pass it on.”

“Inspiring people”

Balcomb’s Center for Whale Research was the epicenter of activism and the survey, with volunteers from Earthwatch, the environmental nonprofit, camped in the yard and filling every corner of his San Juan Island home. The center became an incubator that inspired and launched a generation of scientists and researchers, some of whom today remain at the forefront of the field.

That cadre of researchers carrying on the work today is one of Balcomb’s most important legacies, said John Durban, who like many researchers working with the southern residents got their start with Balcomb.”

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