A tribute to Ken Balcomb and his 40 years of research on killer whales

An open letter from me to Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research, on the 40th anniversary of the research organization:

Ken,

Congratulations on 40 years of superb research regarding the killer whales of the Salish Sea and their relationships to all living things. Your unprecedented work has helped us all understand the behavior of these orcas and how quickly their population can decline — and sometimes grow. I admire your steadfast efforts to find answers to the mysteries of these whales and to push for efforts to protect them.

On a personal note, your willingness to take time to explain your findings to me as a news reporter will always be appreciated. The same goes for Dave Ellifrit and all your associates through the years.

I was fascinated with the blog entry posted on Friday, which showed the log book you began compiling during your encounters with killer whales on April 8, 1976 — the very first time you described these animals after forming the organization. The distant words on the page demonstrate how much you — and the rest of us — have learned, and it demonstrates that good research is a matter of step-by-step observations. I hope everyone gets the chance to read these pages, and I look forward to the next installment in the blog.

Thank you for your dedication, and I look forward to many more years of reports from you and your associates at the Center for Whale Research.

With highest regards, Chris.

Balcomb

The Orca Survey Project began on April 1, 1976, under a contract with the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct a six-month survey to figure out how many killer whales lived in Puget Sound. Ken was able to use an identification technique developed by Canadian biologist Mike Bigg. By identifying individual orcas, researchers came to understand each of their families, their lives and even their unique behaviors — which I would call “personalities” for want of a better term.

Speaking of personality, if I’m not reading too much between the lines, I see Ken’s scientific perspective mixed with his fondness for the animals in the first log entry about mooring the boat and staying the night in Port Townsend:

“In the evening, we went for a hike into town for dinner and a few beers with the local folks at the Town Tavern. We spread the word and handout of the ‘study’ to all who would receive them. Most folks were takers, but a few were concerned as to which side we were on. People imagine sides of the killer whale controversy — mostly leave them alone, or catch them to show to the folks from Missouri. Our description of a killer whale study by photo technique seemed to sit well with all ‘sides,’ though there were a few skeptics, I’m sure.”

I actually looked over many of these pages from Ken’s log a number of years ago, but for some reason they take on new meaning now as we look back over 40 years of research and realize how far we’ve come in understanding these killer whales — not forgetting how much more we have to learn.

The following log book entry appears to be a description of the first direct encounter Ken experienced from a boat at the beginning of his study on April 8, 1976, as he came upon K and L pods off Dungeness Spit near Sequim.

“We cruised toward the large group of whales, first at 2300 RPM and then reducing to about 2000 RPM as we approached to within ½ mile of the whales. It was very apparent that the whales were initially concerned with avoiding us. They dove and came up several minutes later a good long distance astern of us, toward Port Angeles. We turned and proceeded toward the large group again and, at a distance of about 400 yards, they porpoised briefly and dove again for several minutes.

“Both we and the whales did not behave calmly for the first hour of the encounter. Rain was spoiling our opportunities for photographs, getting our cameras all wet and dampening our spirits. Even at slow speed and with patience, we did not closely approach the group of 25 whales, so we started toward a smaller group a little farther offshore.

“By 10:05, things seemed to have calmed down considerably. By maintaining 1050 RPM and taking slow approaches, we were tolerated by one male in company with a female and a calf about 11 ½ feet. The main group of 25 whales calmed down immediately and resumed a leisurely dive interval of about one minute to one min. 50 seconds down, still proceeding westerly.”

Remember that this was only months after the final capture of killer whales in Puget Sound. (See account from Erich Hoyt for PBS Frontline.) What were the intentions of this boat approaching them? In time, these whales came to realize that Ken and his crew would do them no harm.

If only they could know how much human attitudes around the world have changed over the past 40+ years.

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