Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has confirmed that
Paul Pudwell of Sooke
Whale Watching located the five missing killer whales that have
not been seen in U.S. waters this year. The whales were spotted
July 15 off Sooke, B.C., which is west of Victoria on Vancouver
Paul was able to get pictures of all five whales suitable for
identification by Ken and company.
By my reckoning, this should account for all the Southern
Residents. While four new orca babies are thriving, we have had
just one death to mourn over the past year. That brings the
population to 82, up from 79 last year at this time. That number
includes Lolita, a Southern Resident being kept at Miami
Seaquarium. For a full accounting of the population, see
Water Ways, July 1 and
Water Ways, July 7.
And would anyone like to write new words to an old song that we
could use to invite the last five orcas to the party in the San
Juan Islands? (Read on for details.)
I reported last week in
Water Ways (July 1) that nine Southern Resident killer whales
had not yet returned to the San Juan Islands this year. I’d like to
update you with the news that four of the nine have now been seen,
so we’re just waiting for the final group of five.
Dave Ellifrit, Lauren Brent and Darren Croft with the Center for
Whale Research did an amazing job Sunday tracking down 65 killer
whales in and around Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands.
Meanwhile, Ken Balcomb photographed another 11 from the porch of
the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. Read Dave’s
report of the encounters on the center’s website, listed as
Encounter Number 59.
“Due to forest fires in several different places in British
Columbia, there were dark clouds coming out of the northwest which
made the sun red and the lighting a weird shade of brown-yellow.,”
Dave reported in his notes. “A little after 0930, we left the L
group and headed about a half mile north to a male who was foraging
by himself. This was K21 and we saw him actively chase a salmon
before he headed off to the west.”
The four “missing” whales spotted for the first time this year
in inland waters are known to travel together. As I reported in
last week’s blog entry, the groups of orcas have grown smaller and
more spread out, apparently because their prey — chinook salmon —
are not arriving together in significant numbers.
The latest four arrivals are Racer (L-72), a 29-year-old female,
and her son Fluke (L-105), an 11-year-old male; Ballena (L-90), a
22-year-old female; and Crewser (L-92), a 20-year-old male. Ballena
is Crewser’s aunt, and they are the last two members of what was
once an extended family.
Yet to arrive to the party in the San Juans is a group known as
the L-54’s. Some of you might remember a sitcom from the early
1960s about two New York cops, Toody and Muldoon. Anyway, the name
of the show was “Car 54, Where Are You?” and it had a catchy
(See YouTube) that featured prominently the title of the
It just occurred to me that we could rewrite the words to the
song, which would ask the question: “L-54, where are you?” If
anybody wants to take this challenge, I’ll post your new words on
As for the group itself, L-54 is a 38-year-old female named
“Ino.” She is closely followed by her 9-year-old son, L-108 or
“Coho,” and her 5-year-old daughter, L-117 or “Keta.”
Also traveling with the L-54 family is L-84, a 25-year-old male
named “Nyssa.” This orca is the last surviving member of what was
once called the L-9 subpod.
Another lone male, L-88 or “Wave Walker,” is 22 years old. He is
the last surviving member of what was once called the L-2 subpod,
and he now travels with the L-54’s as well.
This group — presumably all five — was last seen in March in the
western end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and in February in the
Pacific Ocean near Westport.
Ken tells me that NOAA Fisheries funds his census work for
exactly 42 days, and the funding has now run out with more work to
be done. His nonprofit organization is continuing the search for
the “missing” whales mainly with contributions, including
memberships. See “SupportingThe
Center for Whale Research.”
With the disbursed pattern of orcas in recent years, some
changes are needed, Ken said. Perhaps he can get some additional
funding to search for the whales later in the year, travel to
coastal waters or contract with researchers already working in the
Another option is to provide an annual list of the whales
identified in inland waters when the 42 days of funding runs out,
he said. That idea would not allow a complete census each year, but
the whales would eventually show up and could be counted at that
time. That’s the system used for counting Northern Residents in
upper British Columbia, Ken said, noting that researchers up north
often don’t see all the orcas in any one year.
Increased funding for research projects, including census
counts, could come as a result of the new
“Species in the Spotlight” campaign launched this spring by
NOAA. The Southern Residents, listed as endangered under the
Endangered Species Act, are among eight well-known species
considered at the greatest risk of extinction.
Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries,
statement when announcing the new campaign:
“Of all the species NOAA protects under the ESA, these eight
species are among the most at risk of extinction in the near
future. For some of these species, their numbers are so low that
they need to be bred in captivity; others are facing human threats
that must be addressed. If we act now with renewed commitment and
intensified efforts, we can help these species survive and
The other seven “Species in the Spotlight” are Gulf of Maine
Atlantic salmon, Central California Coast coho salmon, Cook Inlet
beluga whales, Hawaiian monk seals, Pacific leatherback sea
turtles, Sacramento River winter-run chinook salmon and California
Coast white abalone.
The campaign, which ends next May, will follow a detailed
five-year plan to be unveiled in September.
A census of the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is due
today, and it appears that the total population of the three
Southern Resident pods is 82, up from 79 last year at this
But that’s not the end of the story, because two small groups of
orcas have not been seen recently — so a final count must wait,
according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, which
conducts the annual census.
The three Southern Resident pods, well defined years ago, are no
longer the same, Ken told me. The tendency the past few years is
for the whales to split up into smaller groups of one or more
families, known as matrilines. Immediate families tend to stay
together, but larger groupings such as pods and subpods are
becoming less certain.
“They’ve decided to mix it up,” Ken said. “This is definitely
different. If we were trying to determine pod structures right now,
we couldn’t do it. It’s all mix and match.”
The Center for Whale Research records the annual census on July
1 each year and reports it to the federal government by
Four orca births can be reported since the last census was
J-50 a female calf born to J-16, named Slick, last
J-51 a male*
calf born to J-41, named Eclipse, in February
L-121 a male*
calf born to L-94, named Calypso, in February
J-52 a female
male calf born to J-36, named Alki, in March
*Update: Sexes not confirmed by Center for Whale
Research, and J-51 likely a male. (See comments.) I’ll update
These were the first births among Southern Residents to be
reported since August of 2012. Some people see these newborns as a
hopeful sign for the future of the population, which is listed as
endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
So far, one death has been confirmed over the past year. That
was J-32, an 18-year-old female named Rhapsody, who was found dead
on Dec. 4 floating near Courtenay, B.C. The young whale was
pregnant, and experts believe that the death of the fetus inside
her body could have led to her death as well. For more details ,
see Water Ways from
Dec. 7 and from
While there is no reason to believe that any other deaths have
occurred over the past year, nobody can be sure, at least not until
the last two groups of whales can be observed. If any animals are
truly missing after their family groups are carefully observed, we
could see one or more whales added to the death list.
In all, nine whales have not been seen this spring or summer
since returning to the San Juan Islands. One of the two groups of
whales was spotted off the Washington Coast in February, when all
the whales were present. One of the uncertain groups was reported
yesterday near San Juan Island, but I have not heard whether any
“missing” whales were identified.
Since the census report is not due until October, there is time
to see whether any more whales have died this past year. If any
more deaths are identified, the researchers will need to make a
judgment about whether the death occurred before or after the July
1 census cutoff. We can certainly hope that all the whales will be
Ken suspects that the pod groupings are becoming less distinct
because of the changing pattern of available prey, primarily
chinook salmon. When large schools of wild chinook head back to the
rivers, killer whales can work together to herd the fish and gain
Ken says hatchery chinook may not school together as much as
wild chinook, so the advantage goes to smaller groups of orcas if
the majority of salmon are from hatcheries.
“The prey field has changed for them,” he said. “Back when we
named the pods, the bulk of the fish were wild, and they were
coming through in pulses. All these fish were related and from the
same river system. Now with the hatchery program, there are less
pulses and the fish are more spread out.”
The chinook also are much smaller than they used to be, he said,
so it takes more effort to get the same nutritional benefit.
The Center for Whale
Research, now in its 40th year, conducts its census work in
Puget Sound under a grant from the National Marine Fisheries
Service. The grant is fairly limited, so the center began offering
memberships a few years ago to raise money for additional
This year’s membership drive is nearly halfway toward its goal
of 750 members, with 329 members signed on as of yesterday. An
individual membership costs $30 a year. For details and special
member benefits, go to “Supporting the
Center for Whale Research.”
In a related development, Ken recently took a trip into Snake
River country in Eastern Washington, the source of upstream habitat
for many of the salmon that come down the Columbia River. His
experience and what he has learned about the Snake River dams has
placed him among advocates for dam removal in this hotly contested
“Until recently, dam removal was against my conservative
“In truth, already well known to others but not to me, these
four Snake River dams are obsolete for their intended purposes and
are being maintained at huge taxpayer expense for the benefit of a
very few users. Plus, they are salmon-killers in a former river
(now a series of lakes) that historically provided spawning and
rearing habitat for millions of chinook salmon…”
“The technological fixes for the dams have not improved wild
salmon runs, and there is nothing left to try. As a nation, we are
dangerously close to managing the beloved Southern Resident killer
whale population to quasi-extinction (less than 30 breeding
animals) as a result of diminishing populations of chinook salmon
upon which they depend…
“Returning the Snake River to natural condition will help salmon
and whales, and save money. Please do not wait until all are gone.
Call or write your representatives today!”
A newborn orca calf in J pod extends the ongoing baby boom for
the three Southern Resident pods, but it also rekindles a debate
about motherhood — namely who is the mom of J-50 and now J-52.
The new calf is the fourth to be born since just before the new
year. Three of the young ones are in J pod and one is in L pod,
bringing the total population of the three pods to 81 — or 82 if
you count Lolita in Miami Seaquarium.
Orca observers and researchers are rejoicing about the new calf,
which was spotted yesterday by whale watchers near Galiano Island
in British Columbia. Jeanne Hyde, a naturalist with Maya’s Legacy
Whale Watching, had been observing what she thought was a
3-month-old orca designated J-50. The young whale was traveling
with J-16, a female named Slick.
“I thought to myself, ‘There’s mom and the baby,’” Jeanne
reported in her blog, Whale of a Purpose.
“But then right in front of us and about 25 yards behind mom and
the baby, another baby surfaces! That’s when I told Capt. Spencer
(Domico), ‘I think there are two babies here!’”
The one alongside J-16 turned out to be a newborn, no more than
a few days old, as indicated by fetal folds still evident on its
skin. Now J-16 appears to have two calves about three months apart.
Of course, that is not possible, given their normal gestation
period of 15 to 18 months.
If you recall, there was considerable discussion about whether
J-16 was the mother of J-50 after the calf was born in late
December. Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research surmised
that J-16 was actually the grandmother who was babysitting the new
calf. Ken suggested that the December baby might actually be the
offspring of J-36, the 16-year-old daughter of J-16. See
Water Ways, Jan. 22.
At age 43, J-16 would be the oldest whale known to give birth,
since this age is normally associated with menopause.
After several weeks, it appeared that J-36 was never really
involved with the baby. Dave Ellifrit, Ken’s close associate, wrote
this in his notes following one encounter:
“While all the J16’s traveled together, J36 was consistently the
farthest of the group from J50, so whatever doubts remained about
J16 being the mother are about gone.”
That sealed the deal for many folks, but Ken was not convinced.
While the evidence pointed to J-16 being the mom, there still was
the matter of the “rake marks” on the back of the baby — most
likely caused when an adult whale used its teeth to pull the
newborn from the birth canal, Ken said. If the 16-year-old needed
help in giving birth, her own mom was the likely one to do it.
Now, the observations of J-16 with two calves leads Ken to
return to his earlier speculation, though he admits that the truth
may not be known without genetic evidence. But if the new baby,
designated J-52, remains with J-16, then J-52 (not J-50) would be
her likely offspring.
Here’s a possible explanation: After J-36 gave birth in
December, it became clear that she could not care for the baby, so
J-16 took over. If J-16 was pregnant at the time, she could have
been lactating and the baby could thrive on her milk. J-36 would
fade into the background. If the new calf spotted yesterday came
from J-16, then she could be nursing both babies, and we’ll have to
see how that works out.
Ken recalls that in 1999, L-51, a female named Nootka, had a
baby that died of starvation as an infant. Nootka died shortly
before her calf, and a necropsy showed that the mom had a prolapsed
uterus and was unable to nurse. Perhaps the calf could have
survived if a nursemaid had been available.
I asked Ken if the two new calves might actually be twins, and
he noted that some deceased females have been found with two
fetuses inside them, but he has never seen what might be considered
Ken told me of a story from his first year of identifying
individual killer whales and starting his annual census of their
population. It was 1976, and both Ken and Mike Bigg, a Canadian
researcher, counted a total of 70 whales. (This followed the
capture period when many orcas were taken to aquariums.)
“We had seen one female who was sometimes with one calf and
sometimes with another,” Ken told me. “We assumed it was the same
calf. It wasn’t until late in the winter of that first year or the
following spring that we realized three were two calves — so there
were really 71 whales.”
Is it possible that this week’s brief sighting of a newborn with
J-16 was nothing more than her being attentive to the needs of
another female whale or its baby?
“We know they are extremely care-giving,” Ken said, adding that
orcas, like humans, tend to pay a lot of attention to the new ones.
Over the next days and weeks, the pattern of care-giving could
indicate who belongs to whom — or maybe the mystery of the moms
Another newborn orca in J pod was reported this evening by the
Center for Whale Research, adding a touch of optimism for the
endangered Southern Resident killer whales.
This morning, researcher Dave Ellifrit and volunteer Jeanne Hyde
heard calls from J pod picked up on a hydrophone on the west side
of San Juan Island. The went out in the center’s research vessel to
observe the whales at a “respectful distance,” according to a
That’s when they spotted the new orca calf, designated J-51,
which was being attended by the presumed mother, J-19, a
36-year-old female named Shachi. Also nearby was Shachi’s
10-year-old daughter, J-41, named Eclipse.
“The newest baby appears healthy,” according to the observers,
who said the whale appeared to be about a week old.
For the past two weeks, J pod has been in and out of the Strait
of Juan de Fuca, but ventured farther into the inland waters this
morning. The observers also spotted J-50, the young calf born the
last week of December, who was with her family.
Naturalist Traci Walter posted a new video
on YouTube showing both the new J pod calves.
“Today was pretty amazing to be out there with J pod,” Traci
commented on her YouTube page. “We knew of the new calf J50 that
was first sighted December 30, 2014. Today was the first day J51
was seen! Enjoy the footage! Please note, this footage was taken
with a 600 mm zoom lens while abiding by whale watch regulations.
The new calf brings the number of whales in J pod to 26, with 19
in K pod and 34 in L pod.
Meanwhile, the NOAA research vessel Bell M. Shimada continued on
its way into Puget Sound on its annual cruise to observe the
Southern Residents. The ship was passing Port Angeles about 11 p.m.
tonight. For background, see
Tuesday’s Water Ways blog.
The young killer whale born into J pod three weeks ago still
appears to be doing well, according to Dave Ellifrit of the Center
for Whale Research, who observed the calf when her pod came through
the San Juan Islands on Monday.
In his written notes, Dave said the calf, designated J-50, was
staying close to J-16, a 43-year-old female named “Slick.”
Meanwhile, Slick’s daughter, 16-year-old J-36 or Alki, remained
some distance away.
Uncertainty has surrounded the question of whether J-16 is the
mother or the grandmother of the new calf. If she’s the mother, it
will be the first time that an orca over 40 has been known to give
birth, at least among the three pods that frequent Puget Sound.
“While all the J16’s traveled together, J36 was consistently the
farthest of the group from J50, so whatever doubts remained about
J16 being the mother are about gone.”
Ken Balcomb, who founded the Center for Whale Research, was not
with Dave during the encounter. Ken agrees that current evidence
points to J-16 being the mom, but he is still not totally
“I’m staying open,” he told me. “J-16 is certainly the primary
There remains a little matter of the “rake marks” on the back of
the baby orca — most likely caused when an adult whale used its
teeth to pull the newborn from the birth canal. A 16-year-old
female might need some help during delivery, Ken explained, and the
grandmother was the likely one to assist. Such help probably would
not be needed for an older mom, he said.
I thought that the proof of motherhood would come when we knew
who was nursing the baby. While nobody has directly observed any
nursing behavior over the past three weeks, the baby is fattening
up and staying near enough to J-16 to allow such things to
But Ken says it is possible that J-16 could be lactating — even
if she is the grandmother. It’s happened in older pilot whales, he
“It is not beyond the realm of possibility that a grandmother
could play the nurse-maid role,” he said.
There will be no certainty about the lineage, he said, until
genetic testing is performed, and that could take years — assuming
the calf survives. Such tests could come as the result of fecal
sampling or a skin biopsy performed by approved researchers
following the whales, he said.
Meanwhile, since the calf was born, J pod has been moving around
the inland waterways and well up into the Strait of Georgia in
Canada, as revealed by a satellite transmitter carried by J-27, a
24-year-old named Blackberry.
A couple times in the past two weeks, the whales went through
the Strait of Juan de Fuca and into the Pacific Ocean. But each
time they quickly turned around and came back,
Last night, Mark Malleson of Prince of Whales, a whale-watching
company, observed J pod along with K pod spread out in the Strait
of Juan de Fuca near Sheringham Point near the south tip of
Vancouver Island, according to his report posted on Orca Network’s Facebook
So far today, I have not heard any more reports, and the next
satellite data won’t be available until later.
The succession of maps on this page shows the travels of J pod
since they touched the outer coast 10 days ago. (Click on the
images to enlarge.)
The title of the book “War of the Whales” comes from the
“cultural war” between the Navy, which is primarily interested in
national security, and environmental advocates trying to protect
whales, according to author Joshua Horwitz.
“You have these two groups that care about the whales but for
different reasons,” Josh told me in a telephone interview. “One
group is trying to save the whales; the other is trying to get a
leg up on the Cold War.”
As I described yesterday in
Water Ways, “War of the Whales” is really several stories woven
into an exquisitely detailed narrative. I found the biography of
Ken Balcomb, who served in the Navy, especially compelling within
the full context of the Navy’s involvement with marine mammals.
Horwitz was successful in interviewing retired Navy officers,
who explained anti-submarine warfare and put the Navy’s viewpoint
“I have a lot of respect for the Navy,” he said. “None of these
guys are villains. This is a totally different story from
‘Blackfish.’ The Navy is a lot more complicated.”
While SeaWorld, the subject of Blackfish, and other aquariums
exploit marine mammals for commercial purposes, the Navy has our
national interest at heart, Josh said, adding that some Navy
officials failed to understand the full implications of the harm
they were doing.
“They hate to see their reputation sullied as good stewards of
the environment,” he noted. “They do care, and it almost tears them
up that they have gotten a black eye.”
Through a series of lawsuits, the Navy was forced to confront
the effects of its testing and training exercises with sonar, Josh
“I think the Navy has come a long way on what they do on ranges
on our coasts,” he said. “They are taking the process much more
seriously now. But they still aren’t doing that on the foreign
New lawsuits have been filed by NRDC based on potential impacts
to marine mammals, as revealed in a series of environmental impact
statements dealing with the effects of Navy training.
“I really do feel that it is important to keep the pressure on
the Navy and the government on all fronts,” Josh said. “There is a
limit to what the courts can do. And there are enough good actors
inside the Navy.”
One lawsuit, which Horwitz followed closely in “War of the
Whales,” focused on violations of environmental and administrative
law — until the Navy pulled out its “national security card.” The
U.S. Supreme Court seemed reluctant to put a hard edge on its
ruling, thus allowing uncertain security threats to trump potential
harm to marine life.
Josh contends that responsible parties from all sides should sit
down together and work out reasonable procedures for Navy training.
They should include exclusionary zones for the deployment of sonar
and live bombing in areas where whales go, at least during times
when whales are likely to be there.
More could be done with computer simulations to train Navy
personnel, he said. The other armed services are doing much more in
terms of simulating and responding to conditions that may be
encountered in real life.
“I have heard from well-placed people in the Navy that there is
room for vastly increasing the amount of simulation training,” he
“We know you can’t land an aircraft on a carrier (with
simulation), but if you can reduce the amount of live training, it
would be a win for everybody,” he added.
Simulations would not only reduce the impact on the marine
ecosystem, it would reduce the Navy’s cost of training, its use of
energy and its overall carbon footprint.
One thing is for sure, he said. Government oversight into the
Navy’s operations is nothing like the oversight into private
business. The National Marine Fisheries Service is so outgunned by
the Navy in terms of “political muscle” that the agency is
relegated to approving practically anything the Navy wants to do.
“I hope that comes through in the book,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Navy has developed the technology that could help
quiet commercial ships and reduce the noise and stress on marine
life throughout the world, he said.
“The Navy could take the lead and wear the white hat and save
the ocean from noise pollution,” Josh told me. “When you mitigate
for noise, the pollution goes away. It’s not like plastic pollution
that will still be there for a very long time.”
At the start, Horwitz was not sure what kind of story would
develop. It began with a meeting with Joel Reynolds, the lead
attorney for NRDC. At the time, Josh had just taken his 13-year-old
daughter on a whale-watching trip to Baja, Mexico. Like many of us,
he got sucked into one whale story after another, and he came to
learn about the Navy’s long and complicated relationship with
Horwitz has been involved in the publishing industry since the
1990s. He calls himself a kind of “midwife” for new books, which
involves putting writers together with characters who have a great
story to tell. He initially planned to “package” the story of the
whales by working with a professional journalist, but his wife
encouraged him to forge his passion into a book of his own.
Josh had co-written a handful of books in his life, including
some children’s books, after he graduated from film school at New
York University. But this was the first time he had tackled a
project with the breadth and depth of the story that became “War of
the Whales.” The project took seven years to research, write and
craft into a full-length, hard-bound book. Now, a paperback version
is in the works.
During the early part of the project, Josh continued part-time
with his publishing business. Over the final two years or so, he
devoted his full effort into the writing and follow-up research. To
pay the bills, he supplemented his publisher’s advance with money
raised through The Ocean Foundation.
By the time the writing was done, several editors who originally
expressed interest in the book were no longer in the business, he
said. As luck would have it, one interested editor had risen in the
ranks to publisher and was able to help him complete the project
and get the book into print.
Josh and his wife, Ericka Markman, live in Washington, D.C.,
with their three daughters, ages 20, 18 and 13.
In the book “War of the Whales,” author Joshua Horwitz reveals,
in exquisite detail, how Ken Balcomb played a central role in
showing how Navy sonar was killing and injuring whales around the
Ken, who we know as the dean of orca research in Puget Sound,
has not been alone, of course, in the quest to get the Navy to
better protect marine mammals. Horwitz introduces us to a variety
of people, each with his or her own interest in saving the
Frankly, I was surprised at how much I learned from the book,
given that I have been covering these same issues as a reporter for
many years. What really gained my admiration for Horwitz was how he
was able to weave scientific and historical aspects of the story
into a gripping tale that reads like a detective thriller.
I consider this book to be several stories woven into one.
First, there are the personal biographies of two key players in
this conflict with the Navy. The lives of Ken Balcomb, of the
Center for Whale Research, and Joel Reynolds, of the Natural
Resources Defense Council, became intertwined with each other after
the NRDC sued the Navy over its use of sonar around whales.
Next, we are given the history of the Navy’s sonar technology,
developed to track stealthy submarines. We meet many of the Navy
officials involved, including some who became emotionally involved
with marine mammals, flipping to the other side, as Horwitz
The Navy has long controlled much of the research involving
marine mammals — the original models for sonar. At times, whales
and dolphins were even trained as military combatants, with mixed
Last, but not least, we are shown the legal arguments related to
environmental law versus the need for national security. As a
result, we see how the Navy has become more open today about the
risks to whales from its testing and training procedures.
Horwitz paints intimate portraits of many of the characters,
especially Balcomb, the biologist, and Reynolds, the lawyer. He
sees the pair coming together from different backgrounds and
uniting in their effort to protect the whales against the Navy’s
single-minded approach to national security.
“Ken was such an extraordinary character,” Horwitz told me in a
telephone interview. “He was a reluctant activist. Activism wasn’t
The story begins in the Bahamas, where Balcomb was doing
research when a mass stranding of beaked whales took place,
practically at his doorstep. Navy sonar had been suspected of
killing whales in other areas of the world, but Balcomb was able to
secure fresh tissues — essential evidence to understand how their
injuries were caused by sound waves. Balcomb also observed that the
Navy was conducting exercises in the Bahamas at the same time, and
he made the connection to the dead whales.
From there, other researchers and policy officials became
involved, but Balcomb kept pushing to keep the incident from being
swept under the rug.
“Ken’s investment was immediate,” Horwitz explained. “One night
the Navy just plowed through and decimated this population of
We learn from the book about Ken’s serendipitous life. As a
young biologist, he collected whale lungs for research by going to
a commercial whaling station still operating in California. He
later signed onto a research crew as a dishwasher, but his skills
with a shotgun earned him the lead job of tagging whales.
Balcomb joined the Navy during the Vietnam War and became a
pilot. A series of circumstances led him into Fleet Sonar School
and the Navy’s highly secretive Sound Surveillance System, or
SOSUS. At the same time, his compatriots in graduate school became
some of the top marine mammal experts for the Navy and the National
Marine Fisheries Service. His later interactions with these folks
revealed something about their past and present positions in
Horwitz ties all these pieces of the story together in a
compelling narrative that kept offering me new and surprising
tidbits of information. It took the author seven years to complete
“He kept asking over and over the same questions,” said Ken,
somewhat amused when I asked him about it. “I didn’t know if he had
confused notes or what.”
Horwitz was seeking an extraordinary level of precision and
accuracy, so that his telling of this true and controversial story
could not be assailed.
Balcomb said he could find no errors, except for the conscious
decision by Horowitz and his editors to describe two overflights by
Balcomb in the Bahamas as a single event.
Most surprising of all was the account from Navy officials,
whose story about underwater warfare has rarely been told, except
perhaps in novels by Tom Clancy and others. Horwitz said
active-duty military officials were no help to him, but he got to
know retired Admiral Dick Pittenger, who opened doors to other
“He (Pittenger) was a total career Navy guy, but he was
skeptical about the way the Navy was handling some of these
matters,” Horwitz said, noting that the admiral spent days helping
him understand anti-submarine warfare.
Pittenger wanted the story told right, and he must have been
satisfied with the result, since he offered this comment in
promotional materials for the book:
“‘War of the Whales’ is an important book about a major
post-Cold War problem: the often conflicting goals of national
security and environmental protection. The author presents this
very complex and multidimensional story with great clarity.
“I’m certain that no one who has been involved with this issue
will agree with everything in this book (I don’t). But the topic
is, by its nature, so emotionally charged and controversial that I
doubt anyone can read it without a strong personal response. The
importance of this book is that it tells the ‘inside’ story to the
wide reading public in a compelling way.”
In my mind, Horwitz did a remarkable job of capturing the
relevant facts for this complicated story. He then seamlessly
joined the pieces together into a coherent and dramatic story — one
especially important to those of us living in an area where the
Navy maintains a strong presence among an abundance of marine
Check back to “Watching Our Water Ways” tomorrow, when I will
describe more of Josh Horowitz’s personal views about his book and
what he learned along the way.
Thanks to a baby photo from Jane Cogan, the newest killer whale
in J pod has been identified as a girl, according to Ken Balcomb of
the Center for Whale Research.
We still don’t know whether the mother is 42-year-old J-16,
known as Slick, or Slick’s 16-year-old daughter J-36, known as
Alki. At moment, the family group, which consists of J-16, her
three offspring plus the new calf, are sticking close together.
“It may take a little time for us to sort it out,” Ken told me,
but the mother should become apparent within a few weeks, if not
sooner, because the calf must be getting milk from the mom. From
all indications, the little one is doing fine.
Initially, the calf was thought to be the offspring of J-16,
because J-36 was some distance away. But now it seems just as
likely that J-16 was babysitting while J-36 got some rest, Ken told
Yesterday, Jane and Tom Cogan of San Juan Island took an
overnight trip up north into British Columbia, where J pod has been
swimming near Texada Island since the beginning of the new year.
Jane sent back a good photograph of the baby’s underneath side.
According to Ken, it is not unusual for mothers to roll their
babies near the surface of the water.
Female killer whales have a more rounded pattern in the genital
area, while males have a more elongated pattern of coloration. A
good photo is all it takes to tell a boy from a girl. For
comparison, see Questions
& Answers at Center for Whale Research website.
I talked to Tom briefly this afternoon. He told me that J-50 was
acting playful at times, like young whales will do, with some tail
slapping and porpoising.
“I would say it looked healthy,” he said. “It was following J-16
a lot of the time, but all of the family was in the area, and they
would group up at times.
“We’ll show Ken our pictures and debrief him when we get back,”
After thinking it over, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale
Researchers says it is likely that J-16 is the grandmother of the
new calf, not the mother.
J-16, known as Slick, could have been babysitting the young
whale when the two were spotted by observers. If so, the mom is
probably J-36, a 15-year-old female named Alki, who was following a
few miles behind at the time.
The pattern of older whales taking care of young relatives has
been seen many times before, occasionally even with newborns, Ken
told me. The mother may have needed some time for rest and recovery
after giving birth, especially if it was a tough delivery, he
The baby had evident scratches, known as “rake marks,” on its
back and dorsal fin caused by the teeth of another killer whale,
Ken said. He believes it could be an indication that the
grandmother assisted with the birth.
Whoever the mother is, the baby’s condition indicates that it
has been nursing, and that’s a good sign.
If J-16 is the mother, she would be the oldest known orca to
give birth among the three Southern Resident pods. If it is J-36,
then the young mom could need help from her own mother.
If J-36 is the mom, then she should be spending most of her time
with her new baby. That could come within a few days or up to a
couple weeks, Ken told me. Observers are making a special effort to
see who is spending time with whom over the next few days.
“This is an interesting little mystery,” Ken said. “If the
whales do their part, we should be able to figure it out.”
Tracking them could be made easier because of a satellite tag
attached to another member of J pod — J-27, a 24-year-old male
named Blackberry. The barbed tag was attached to the whale’s dorsal
fin in open waters about equidistant from Sequim, Whidbey Island,
Victoria and the south end of San Juan Island. Since then, the
whales have moved north into Canada. I’ll soon have a separate blog
post on the tracking study.
A newborn killer whale, reported Tuesday by the Center for Whale
Research, was identified as the offspring of 42-year-old J-16 — the
oldest known orca to ever give birth among the three Puget Sound
“No other female has given birth at over 42 years of age in the
four decades of demographic field studies of the Southern Resident
orcas,” according to a statement from
Orca Network. “J-16 was not expected to be carrying a calf due
to her advanced age.”
It’s odd how the circumstances have worked out. The birth of
this new calf, designated J-50, becomes the first major news story
about the Southern Residents since we heard about the death of
J-32, named Rhapsody. See Water Ways for
Dec. 7 and a later report on
Rhapsody was only 18 years old when she died carrying an unborn
calf. Before her death, experts had high hopes that Rhapsody would
live long and produce many babies. If she had ever given birth
before, her offspring died before they were noticed by
So it is that we have the death of a young killer whale with an
unborn calf and now a new birth to an older whale thought to be
beyond reproductive age. Let’s hope this new baby orca survives,
lives long and contributes to the endangered killer whale
J-16, named Slick, has six known offspring, including the new
baby. Three others are still alive: J-26, a male named Mike, born
in 1991; J-36, a female named Alki, born in 1999; and J-42, a
female named Echo, born in 2007. The deceased offspring are a male
that died at 14 years of age in 2010 and a baby orca that died in
2011 after living about a month.