Orca Chronicler Ken Balcomb Dies at 82

Ken Balcomb saw the orcas just a few miles away in the water near Sequim. They were going toward his white research boat, which said “Killer Whale Study” in black letters.

It was April 8, 1976, in the morning. Balcomb was working for the National Marine Fisheries Service on a one-year contract to count orcas in the Salish Sea. He kept track of this first meeting with a film camera and neatly written notes. Before that, scientists didn’t know much about this endangered species.

But thanks to Balcomb and the organization he started, Center for Whale Research, we now know more about the southern residents than any other group of marine mammals in the world.

Balcomb died Thursday at the age of 82 from prostate cancer. He was a leader in the fight to save the southern residents from extinction and a leader for their cause.

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Most people will remember him for his work with the southern residents, but he did a lot of other things in his career. For example, he tagged whales in the North Pacific Ocean for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and was an oceanographer for the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. He also co-wrote dozens of scientific papers.

The Smithsonian Institution Archives say that he got a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of California in 1963. He was especially interested in cetaceans, which led him to get a doctorate in marine biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Balcomb has watched these J, K, and L pods, which are often seen in Puget Sound, for more than 40 years. His orca survey, which he started in 1976, is now the standard way to track the southern residents.

This is because he took pictures of the saddle patches, which are unique markings on each whale, and kept a record of them. He had known almost all of the people who lived in the south since they were born.

Balcomb was heartbroken to see the orcas he had worked so hard to save slowly die off. He also never got to see some of the things he cared most about come true, like rebuilding runs of Chinook salmon, which the orcas eat.

“Offered a lot of stuff”

Balcomb was born on November 11, 1940. During his career, the public’s view of killer whales changed. Coast Salish people have had a high opinion of orcas for a very long time. But many newcomers who were not from the area feared them.

Some fishermen shot them as soon as they saw them. People thought of them as pests that should be avoided at best and killed whenever possible.

In the 1960s and 1970s, they were captured for aquariums all over the world using helicopters, seal bombs, harpoon guns, and speed boats.

Elizabeth Dunne, director of legal advocacy at Earth Law Center, said that Balcomb worked his whole life to change that way of thinking. She said that through his own kindness, he really tried to show how people are connected to animals in a natural way.

Balcomb and other early researchers, like the Canadian scientist Michael Bigg, found out how small the orca populations are and what types of orcas there are and where they live.

His camera and his deep knowledge of whales were the most advanced tools he used. He once said that he thought people in the south knew him or at least knew the sound of his boat, the Chimo, which was named after one of the first orcas to be kept in captivity.

Balcomb did annual surveys that showed how the southern residents slowly got better after the hunts stopped. This gave people hope that the families might get back to what is thought to be a baseline of about 120. Instead, starting in the 1990s, the number of whales has been going down, with some small increases along the way, to a low of 73 today.

“We recognised 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.”

A source of motivation for others

The survey and activism were centered around Balcomb’s Center for Whale Research. Volunteers from the environmental nonprofit Earthwatch camped in the yard and filled every room of his San Juan Island home.

The center became a place where many scientists and researchers got their start. Some of them are still at the top of their fields today.

John Durban, who, like many researchers working with southern residents, got his start with Balcomb, said that the group of researchers who are still doing the work is one of Balcomb’s most important legacies.

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