When they’re first born, the sex of baby orcas is mostly a mystery to their observers, because it can only be determined by looking at the markings on their bellies in the genital area, which is different for males and females. When Balcomb showed up in his 20-foot research boat—which they all seemed familiar with—the new mothers would bring their babies over to him.
“In the case of mothers and calves, we had mothers and calves rolling up and showing us their undersides,” he told me. “I think they were aware that we were curious about what was going on, and they were aware that knowing what sex a new baby was would be part of what would be interesting to our little monkey minds.”
I know other whale scientists who sometimes accompanied him on his census-gathering tours, and were astonished by the behavior. “They seemed to know that Ken was trying to see what sex the calf was, and they would deliberately bring the calf over to his boat and it would then show him its belly, then they’d go on their way,” one scientist told me. “Damnedest thing I ever saw.”
The photos were the key to everything Balcomb did, and in many ways embody his astonishing scientific legacy. Balcomb did not invent the technique of photo identification as a source of census data for wild animal populations—that honor belongs to his friend and frequent colleague, the late Canadian scientist Michael Bigg. But it was Balcomb who first put it to work in the 1970s, and compiled the astonishing massive database about the Southern Residents piece by piece over the ensuing decades.
I described all this in my book Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us (a book that couldn’t have existed without Balcomb’s work), in a chapter about how certain human beings have played key roles in transforming our understanding of killer whales:
Ken Balcomb is one such advocate. A native of California, Balcomb arrived in the San Juan Islands in the 1970s with a contract from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to collect information on killer whales. Soon he and Bigg were working together to compile a complete census of the Southern Residents, which they completed in 1976.
”Our mandate was just, count ‘em up,” recalls Balcomb. “But within three or four encounters, I saw that it was worthwhile continuing our study, looking at whales growing up, to see how fast they grew up. Basically, it’s like having all the fish in the fish bowl that you can look at.
“I wanted to ask more lasting questions that were of interest to other biologists – how long do they live, how many babies do they have, what is their behavior. And as it turns out, they are a society, with a culture and intelligence.”
Balcomb became enmeshed in the fight to protect the Southern Residents from captures. It was that ‘76 census, showing that only about 70 whales remained in the entire community, combined with Bigg’s similar work with Northern Residents, that led to the shutdown of Washington and Canadian waters to orca captures.
Balcomb stayed on San Juan Island. In 1985, he bought a piece of waterfront property on its western side, a place where whales are frequently seen, back when such homes were affordable, and converted it into his Center for Whale Research (CWR). In addition to his own work conducting a variety of research projects, the CWR, from a two-story house overlooking Haro Strait, with a work lab up the hill, hosted summer-long gatherings of Earthwatch (an environmental organization) volunteers, who would go out on Balcomb’s boats (usually a big trimaran that had been donated to the center years before) to observe whale behaviors, take photographs, and record sounds. In between, Balcomb became involved in a broad range of whale-research and rescue efforts, including dealing with beached beaked and minke whales in the Bahamas and humpbacks in the Atlantic. He’s also played a key role in building orca census records in other parts of the world, notably in southeastern Alaska.
Nowadays, a little grayer in the beard, he is more retiring, content to maintain the annual census of Southern Residents and monitor their well-being with the help of his core team, but there are always projects popping up that need his attention. Over the winter of 2012-13, he spent much of his time pursuing the K pod down to Monterey after National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists successfully satellite-tagged one of its members.
Balcomb liked to describe how the animals shook him out of his scientific training, making him realize that pure data collection misses something essential about them—particularly their astonishing intelligence and the culture it produces—and the wicked sense of humor with which they comport themselves:
Indeed, Ken Balcomb has experienced much the same sort of epiphany in his dealings with the whales themselves: “They always seem to find ways to surprise me,” he says. Mostly, he says he is endlessly impressed by the orcas’ own flexibility and willingness to learn, as well as the depth of their empathy.
“The most amazing stuff was when A73 (Springer) was down in Puget Sound, and Luna up in Nootka Sound. I had gone to see Luna with Graham and John in December, after the marine mammal conference, and he was definitely seeking human contact. Not more than ten days later, Mark Sears called me and said we’ve got this little lone orca down in Puget Sound. I went down there and went out with Mark; the day before when he had seen her, she was playing with a stick, so we boated out there and found that stick. And there was Springer playing with it. After a while Mark would take the stick, and she would respond. I gave her a signal, and she responded in kind by rolling over. When it came time to capture her, she just let us do it. She didn’t fight at all. She was ready for anything that we did.”
He still is trying to grasp the role that killer whales play in their environment: “Maybe they do like the First Nations people thought they did at first –they go out and find the fish and herd them in. And they know enough not to eat all of them. In fact, they only eat about 10 percent of them. They know that it just doesn’t work, if you eat them all. And whether or not they experimented with that eons ago, I don’t know, but certainly in their management of things, they are very, very conservative. They are also conservative in their behavior in that they don’t risk their lives.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some kind of stewardship involved. They’ve been very, very successful for a very long time.”
What remains with him in all his dealings, he says, is their similarities to humans: “They have a sense of humor,” he says. “They play games and are clever. They outwit us and know it. It’s very easy to anthropomorphize with these guys. Because as profoundly different from us as they are, they are also like us in a lot of ways. And that self-recognition is both shocking and inspiring.”
… Balcomb still laughs about how the whales always seemed to know, in the days before digital photography when he was gathering photo-identification information, when he had reached the end of his roll of film. “That’s when they would always do the really spectacular stuff, and you’d never catch it on film,” he says with a rueful smile.
He also became unapologetically passionate in advocating for saving the Southern Residents from their looming extinction:
As far as Balcomb is concerned, all of the salmon-recovery plans on the table fall woefully short of the orcas’ needs, especially if sport and commercial fishing in the Sound continue at their current pace. “There’s a lot of talk now about Puget Sound Chinook recovery—there’s a plan and the goal is for a few hundred thousand fish. From a fisheries manager’s standpoint, if they can get a couple hundred thousand fish, they’d be happy as clams. But that won’t sustain these whales. They can go through that in a summer.”
He often butted heads with people who were the targets of his withering criticism—particularly the whale captivity and aquarium industry, whose practices, he believed, were not only inhumane and cruel but also destructive on a level that the profiteers couldn’t comprehend. He was also frequently critical of federal agencies, particularly those in charge of setting salmon-related policies, especially as those policies increasingly failed to recover the endangered salmon runs that the whales depend on for their diet.
So Ken made a lot of enemies over the years, people who tended to sneer at him as “not a real scientist” because he operated outside the traditional scientific community and was clearly not reliant on corporate sponsorships. I remember the then-director of the Vancouver Aquarium slagging Balcomb when I interviewed him about the ethics of orca captivity (the aquarium had once kept captive orcas and was interested in keeping its options open) as a self-important loose cannon. “Money and ego are the motivating factors,” he said. “The activists shout money, money, money at Wometco and the Miami Seaquarium [the owners of Tokitae/Lolita/Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, the last surviving captive Southern Resident orca]. But Ken Balcomb’s whole living is tied up in shaking these trees and raising money to study this and study that.”
In reality, while Balcomb was constantly shaking trees, he didn’t need to fabricate issues to draw attention to the Southern Residents’ very real plight, or the reality that captivity in small concrete tanks is wildly inappropriate for animals like killer whales. He mostly just had to get the attention of the people in charge of making the decisions around those issues, and of the public at large.
When Balcomb began doing this work in the 1970s, only a handful of people were even aware of the survival challenges the Southern Residents faced even then, and even more acutely now. His life’s work, and that of the numerous colleagues and proteges he inspired and empowered, is reflected in the powerful ongoing work by multiple state and federal agencies, as well as environmental organizations and local whale lovers, to save the SRKWs.
The amazing orca database he created will always be his physical legacy—one that should never be underestimated—and pioneering photo identification as a scientific technique will always be his scientific legacy. But the powerful work of the people he inspires even still will be a legacy greater than anything ever created by his critics.
“His greatest legacy is not helping to conserve these whales or understand them, it is providing and inspiring people like me and the younger generations to keep this going. Conserving these whales and other natural ecosystems are long-term endeavors and we need to cross generations to do it,” Oregon State wildlife professor John Durban told the Seattle Times.
Whale scientist Deborah Giles of Wild Orca credited Balcomb with being her introduction to the Southern Residents, and credits him with inspiring most of the movement dedicated to saving the population.
“When I think about him, tenacious comes to mind,” Giles said. “He’s just somebody that never stopped fighting for the whales, never stopped trying to make sure that the whales’ plight was in the public’s eye and in the minds of the elected officials and our managers that are responsible for recovering these whales, and pushing for these whales to be protected and fighting for their recovery.”