Erich Hoyt, who has spent most of his life studying whales,
returns to Puget Sound in October for talks in Olympia, Tacoma and
I enjoyed interviewing Erich last year before he visited this
Water Ways, May 3, 2014.) We talked about the ongoing capture
of killer whales in Russia, where government officials refuse to
learn a lesson from the Northwest about breaking up killer whale
families and disrupting their social order.
“Much of the rest of the world has moved on to think about a
world beyond keeping whales and dolphins captive,” Erich wrote in a
blog entry. “Not Russia. Not now. It’s all guns blazing to make
all the same mistakes made years before in other countries.
“Of course, it’s not just Russian aquarium owners and captors,”
he continued. “China, too, is about to open its first performing
killer whale show, and Japan aquariums continue to go their own
way. There are people opposed to captivity in Russia, China and
Japan, but they are not in the majority.”
Erich’s talk in Olympia on Oct. 10 is titled, “Adventures with
orcas in the North Pacific.” He will speak again on the topic the
next day in Tacoma. On Oct. 13, he goes to West Seattle to speak on
“Ants, orcas and creatures of the deep.” For details and tickets,
go to Brown Paper
The three talks are produced by The Whale Trail, an
environmental group, in partnership with local sponsoring
organizations. Donna Sandstrom, founder and director of The Whale
Trail, said Erich comes to Puget Sound after the births of five new
orcas in J, K and L pods. This provides five more reasons to
restore the Puget Sound killer whale population, she said.
“The collaborative nature of the Orca Tour demonstrates our shared
commitment to restore salmon, reduce toxins and create quieter
seas,” Sandstrom said.
Among other things, The
Whale Trail is known for promoting shoreside viewing of whales
to reduce interference with their activities. The group maintains a
map of the best places to watch whales from shore.
With the approval of Kitsap County, the organization has erected
a new sign at Point No Point Lighthouse Park near Hansville, a good
spot to watch all kinds of wildlife. The sign offers specific
information about Point No Point as a viewing site and provides
tips for identifying marine mammals.
The Center for Whale
Research has posted aerial photos of the new orca calf and her
mother. The pictures, taken as part of a research study, were shot
from an unmanned hexacopter (drone) from an altitude of more than
100 feet, as required by permits and protocols of the research
Researchers are using the unmanned aircraft to help assess the
health of killer whales and other marine mammals and to keep track
of their population and behaviors. The researchers are from NOAA’s
Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Vancouver Aquarium Marine
Science Center. They are operating under permits issued by the U.S.
and Canadian governments to cover both sides of the border.
I first discussed this new aerial technique in “Water Ways”
nearly a year ago, when Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries
Science Center told me that unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, hold
great promise for learning about killer whales. The small aircraft
can get great shots from overhead without the cost and disturbance
of large manned helicopters. Read more and watch a nice video of
the project on
“Water Ways,” Oct. 16, 2014.
The research so far has shown that UAVs can be used to gather
valuable information about marine mammals. I found a conversation
on video between researcher John Durban and NOAA science writer
Rich Press to be especially informative. They talked about how to
spot a fat and healthy orca versus one that was emaciated and
apparently on the edge of death. Finding a pregnant orca was not as
hard as I thought it might be. Check out
NOAA Fisheries’ website and the video above.
Small unmanned aircraft also can be used to count and assess the
condition of gray whales on their annual migration along the West
“We can’t put a gray whale on a scale, but we can use aerial
images to analyze their body condition—basically, how fat or skinny
they are,” John Durban said in a story about the gray whale project
NOAA Fisheries’ website.
In other news about the newborn orca, naturalist Jeanne Hyde has
posted a report of her experience, including photos. Jeanne was one
of the first to spot the new calf. Read what she has to say on her
“Whale of a Purpose.”
“We went out yesterday with the mission of checking up on J39
who was seen earlier this week with a fishing lure hanging out of
his mouth. As of yesterday we were able to determine that his new
found accessory was no longer attached. Whether he swallowed it or
it fell out on it’s own, we may never know. He appeared fine
yesterday, and was behaving normally.”
Killer whale experts will be closely watching J-39, a
12-year-old male orca named Mako, to see how he manages to get
along with fishing gear caught in his mouth. So far, he does not
appear to be injured.
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said it is likely
that the young orca swallowed a fish on the end of the fishing line
and may have swallowed the hook as well. It appears a white flasher
— a type of lure — is still attached to the line just outside the
Ken said killer whales often swim in and around fishing gear,
though he has never seen a whale with a fishing lure dangling from
“I don’t think it is a major issue to their survival,” he said.
“They are pretty tough.”
Assuming the fisherman who lost the gear was fishing legally, it
would be a barbless hook, which might allow it and the flasher to
come loose. Ken said it might be helpful for the fisherman to come
forward to describe the setup on his line.
Ken said a male orca designated L-8 was found to have a large
mass of fishing gear in his stomach when he was examined after
death in 1978. The fishing gear was not what killed him, however,
Ken said. The whale was caught in a gillnet and drowned. (Today,
the articulated skeleton of that whale, named Moclips, is on
display at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor.)
NOAA Fisheries, which has responsibility for managing marine
mammals, has hired the Center for Whale Research to locate and
observe J-39 to see whether he is free of the fishing gear or has
trouble getting enough food. Experts will look for a depression
behind the blowhole to see if the whale is losing significant
weight. The condition is called “peanut head” because of how the
“We need to see what the whale’s condition is and if it gets
peanut head,” Ken told me.
Howard Garret of Orca Network said he has not heard of any
recent sightings J-39 or J pod, one of the three groups of killer
whales listed as endangered. A photo taken Saturday near False Bay
(west side of San Juan Island) was provided to Orca Network by
Barbara Bender of All Aboard Sailing. Orca Network forwarded the
information to NOAA Fisheries.
Lynne Barre, chief of the Protected Resources Branch in NOAA
Fisheries’ Seattle office, said the following in a news release
issued this afternoon:
“We’re obviously very concerned about the lure and how it might
affect J-39’s feeding and behavior. We appreciate the reports from
whale watchers who first noticed this and we will work with our
partners on the water to watch J-39 carefully.”
It appears too early to decide whether a direct intervention
would be helpful or advisable, but I wouldn’t rule it out as a last
resort. NOAA Fisheries officials are hoping the fishing line will
come loose on its own, but they will use any new observations and
photographs by the Center for Whale Research to consider options
for helping the animal.
Meanwhile, in other orca news, Saturday will be Orca Network’s
annual commemoration of the killer whale captures 45 years ago,
when more than 100 orcas were herded into Whidbey Island’s Penn
The younger orcas were sent to marine parks throughout the
world. By 1987, all but one had died in captiivity, but the one
survivor — Lolita — still inspires an effort to bring her back to
her native waters.
Saturday’s commemoration will be from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Penn
Cove and Coupeville Recreation Hall. Speakers include John
Hargrove, author of “Beneath the Surface,” David Neiwart, author of
“Of Orcas and Men,” and Sandra Pollard, author of “Puget Sound
Whales for Sale.” Music includes the Derik Nelson Band.
The day’s events will be followed by an evening ceremony
involving the Sammish Tribe. For details and ticket info, visit
L-84, a 25-year-old male orca named Nyssa, has been carrying a
satellite transmitter for more than two months now, allowing
researchers to track the movements of Nyssa and any whales
traveling with him.
Nyssa, the last survivor of his immediate family, tends to stay
around L-54, a 38-year-old female named Ino, and Ino’s two
offspring, L-108 (Coho) and L-117 (Keta). Often, other members of L
pod are with him, and sometimes K pod has been around as well,
according to observers.
The satellite tracking is part of an effort to learn more about
the three pods of Southern Resident killer whales, which are listed
as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. That means they
are headed for extinction without changes that increase their rate
The Navy, which has long been training off the West Coast, has
been supporting some of the research in hopes of finding ways to
reduce inadvertent harm from its active training in that area,
Since L-84 was tagged on Feb. 17, the whales have been generally
traveling up and down the Washington and Oregon coasts. At various
times, researchers — including biologists from Cascadia Research —
have been able to get close enough to collect fecal samples from
the whales and scales from fish they are eating. The goal is to
determine their prey selection at this time of year. Chinook salmon
are their fish of choice, but they will eat other species as
Winter storms and waves create challenging conditions to study
the whales, but the satellite-tagging program has helped
researchers find them, said Brad Hanson, who is leading the study
for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
Brad told me that he is thrilled that the satellite tag on L-84
has remained in operation so long, allowing more and more data to
be collected. Satellite tags are designed to fall off after a time,
and the compact batteries will eventually run out of juice.
“This is the latest (in the season) that we have had a tag on a
Southern Resident,” Brad said. “Who knows how long it will last?
The battery will probably make it until the end of May, and the
attachment looked good the last anyone saw the tag.”
The research is not just about figuring out where the whales
travel, Brad said. It is about finding out which areas are
important to them.
While tracking the whales by satellite, the research is being
expanded with the use of acoustic recording devices deployed in key
locations along the coast. The goal is to find ways to track the
whales with less intrusion. But how does one know where they are
located during periods when the whales go silent — sometimes for
days at a time? Those are the kind of questions that researchers
hope to answer by correlating the acoustic and satellite data
together, Brad said.
With Navy funding, 17 recorders are now deployed along the
coast, including one recorder many miles offshore to pick up whales
that get out into the deep ocean.
“We have certainly reduced a lot of the mystery,” Brad said.
“The main issue — and what the Navy is interested in — is how they
mitigate for marine mammal presence.”
Knowing that killer whales can be silent, the Navy has largely
relied on visual sightings to determine the presence of the
animals. During high waves, that may not be a reliable method of
detection. The answer, based on tracking the whales, could be to
move the training operations farther offshore — beyond the
continental shelf, since the Southern Residents appear to rarely go
out that far.
The Southern Residents are among the most studied marine mammals
in the world, yet it is not entirely clear why their population is
not recovering. An upcoming effort will begin to look at whether
new information about the health condition of the whales can be
teased out of existing fecal and biopsy samples or if new methods
of study are needed to assess their health.
Meanwhile, raw data from various studies continue to pour in,
challenging NOAA researchers to focus on specific questions,
complete their analyses and share the findings in scientific
reports. According to Brad, ongoing staff cutbacks makes that final
step even harder than it has been in the past.
Offshores are a mysterious, little-understood group of orcas
that roam the West Coast. They are related to the more familiar
resident and transient killer whales, but they are genetically,
physically and socially distinct. The name “offshore” sort of tells
the story; they often remain miles off the coast, out of sight and
out of mind for most researchers as well as the public.
Scientists cannot tell us if their population is increasing or
decreasing, though it appears to be generally stable. It is not
clear whether human activities are disrupting their behaviors. And
without good data, these animals remain in a kind of limbo status,
while the highly studied Southern Residents of Puget Sound remain
solidly on the Endangered Species List with widespread concerns
about their welfare.
While it is true that regulations protecting Southern Residents
also protect offshores to a degree, more studies are needed to
ensure the future of these unique orcas. As the new recovery
strategy points out:
“Offshore killer whales face both anthropogenic and natural
threats, limitations or vulnerabilities, including reductions in
prey availability; contaminant exposure from prey; spills of
substances harmful to the marine environment; acute and chronic
acoustic disturbance; physical disturbance; interactions with
commercial fisheries and aquaculture; direct killing; climate
change; disease agents; fixed dietary preferences and natural
decreases in prey supply; inbreeding depression; tooth wear; and
mass stranding or natural entrapment.
“The small population size and typically large groupings of
offshores makes the population particularly vulnerable to
Offshores were first identified in Canadian waters in 1988.
Since then, they have been confirmed in about 240 sightings in the
U.S. and Canada, and their population has been estimated at roughly
300 animals. Although the full extent of their range remains a
mystery, they seem to have moved to inland waters more frequently
in recent years. The report notes:
“Although it is thought that their seemingly recent presence in
inshore waters may reflect a shift associated with oceanographic
conditions and/or distribution of prey, the data are also
confounded by gradually increasing survey effort and public
Like the resident killer whales (Southern and Northern
Residents), the offshores appear to be primarily fish eaters, with
a specialization in eating sharks. They are known to prey on
Pacific sleeper sharks, blue sharks, North Pacific spiny dogfish,
chinook salmon and Pacific halibut — with sharks making up a
significant portion of their diet.
Sharks are a good source of the fats needed for the high
metabolism of orcas, but sharks live longer and tend to contain
more contaminants. Consequently, offshores tend to have higher
levels of PCBs and other contaminants than salmon-eating residents.
Studies have revealed that PCB levels appear to be closer to those
of transient orcas, which eat marine mammals. Offshores have
significantly higher concentrations of DDT and PBDEs (toxic flame
retardants) than either residents or transients. From the
“A high DDT to PCB ratio is found in offshores, characteristic
of waters and sediments off the California Coast, where DDT
comprises a more significant portion of contaminants and where prey
may be exposed to elevated concentrations of contaminants relative
to higher latitude waters; this shared characteristic ratio is
thought to be an indication of offshore killer whales’ frequent
occurrence off California.
“There are many sources of these persistent substances, often
from urban and agriculture runoff, along the West Coast of North
from urban areas is especially troubling in California, where
offshores are regularly sighted in the winter, often near large
“Of particular concern is offshore killer whales’ apparent
targeting of the liver of at least one of their preferred prey, the
Pacific sleeper shark. The liver is a lipid-rich meal, but is also
a reservoir of heavy metals. All three shark species known to be
consumed by offshores have a high mercury content, likely
increasing the severity of heavy metal consumption and accumulation
in offshore killer whales.
“Killer whales are thought to have evolved the ability to
detoxify heavy metals such as mercury; however, it is unknown
whether detoxification in offshore killer whales functions
effectively enough to deal with their apparent diet preference for
livers from intermediate-to-high trophic level prey, and exposure
to an elevated contaminant environment.”
While shark populations along the West Coast appear to be stable
at the moment, the number of sharks may have been greater
historically, according to the report. In addition, basking sharks
may have been an important prey source historically, and a steep
decline in basking sharks may have affected the offshore orca
One of the greatest risks to the offshores is a spill of oil or
other harmful substances. Killer whales have no sense of smell and
make no apparent effort to avoid spills. The report notes:
“As described previously, the threat of oil spills and
discharges holds risk for offshore killer whales, due to their
grouping behavior. With multiple current proposals involving
increased marine transport of petroleum products and other
hazardous substances to and from British Columbia, an increase in
large vessel traffic (e.g. tankers) in these waters heightens the
risk of potential spills of substances harmful to the marine
environment, and to offshores and their prey.”
Another significant risk is disease among offshore killer
whales. Their high toxic loads can reduce their immune response,
and their highly social nature increases the risk of disease
exposure. According to the report:
“This highly social nature heightens the risk of rapid,
pervasive infection and pathogen dispersal throughout the entire
population… With an extensive geographic range adjacent to many
large urban centers and intensive agricultural activity, offshore
killer whales are exposed to numerous sources of emerging pathogens
particularly near river and runoff outlets, where concentrations of
infectious agents may be introduced into the marine
Offshore killer whales also are known to have extreme tooth
wear, probably caused by their preference for eating sharks with
their sandpaper-like skins. In some cases, teeth are worn to the
gum line, which could open a route of exposure for infection.
Other risks include noise generated from human operations,
including military sonar and seismic surveys, as well as chronic
noise from shipping operations. Because of the close grouping among
offshores, noise is likely to disrupt their feeding and social
The Canadian report articulates recovery strategies, primarily
focused on learning more about the needs and threats to offshores —
including studies on their population and cultural attributes, prey
availability and toxic exposure, and response to various types of
In the U.S., offshore killer whales are protected under the
Marine Mammal Protection Act, but they have not been provided any
status (PDF 493 kb) for additional protection or focused
L-84, a 25-year-old male killer whale named Nyssa, continues to
transmit his location and that of his traveling companions who keep
moving north and south along the West Coast, going as far south as
Here’s a quick update, going back to when the orca was first
A satellite transmitter was attached to L-84 on Feb. 17 by
researchers from NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center during a
research cruise focused on the Southern Resident whales. Since
then, the orca — often see with whales from K and L pods — moved
south past the Columbia River into Central Oregon before turning
back north on Feb. 21.
On Feb. 25, the researchers were following the whales in the
research vessel Bell M. Shimada off Westport in Washington when
another group of L pod whales showed up. It was at that time that a
new calf was spotted with L-94, a 20-year-old female named
The whales headed south and reached Tillamook Head in Northern
Oregon on Feb. 27, then they turned north and reached La Push in
Washington on March 1. For the next eight days, the whales moved
back and forth in the north-central areas of the Washington Coast
before moving south to Grays Harbor on March 12.
On March 13, they began an excursion to the south, reaching the
Columbia River on March 14, Cape Falcon on March 15, Depoe Bay on
March 16, Coos Bay on March 18, and the California border on March
At that time, marine mammal researcher Jeff Jacobson, based in
Northern California, caught up with the whales and confirmed that K
pod and a portion of L pod remained with the tagged whale L-84. The
whales kept moving south to Cape Mendocino (south of Eureka,
Calif.) on March 22 (Sunday), before turning back north, reaching
the Rogue River (just north of the Oregon state line) on
The tracking effort provides information about the whale’s
travels and where they may be catching fish. Work from research
vessels often involves collecting fecal samples and pieces of dead
fish to identify what the whales are eating during the winter and
I admit I’m little late to the party, since this video was
posted on NOAA’s
Facebook page three days ago., Still, I wanted to show it to
those of you who may not be closely following the killer whale
research. At the end of this video, researchers Brad Hanson and
Candice Emmons talk a little bit about their work.
It’s all about the data when it comes to critical habitat for
the Southern Resident killer whales, or so they say.
Researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center have
piled up a lot of data this year, which could be just what is
needed to expand the endangered orcas’ critical habitat from Puget
Sound and the inland waterways out to the open ocean along the West
NOAA announced in
today’s Federal Register that the agency would consider
expanding critical habitat, as allowed by the Endangered Species
Act, and possibly make other changes to the designation over the
next two years. What is needed, the agency said, are more data.
On Dec. 28, a satellite transmitter was attached to J-27, a
24-year-old male named Blackberry, who was tracked as J pod moved
about from the Strait of Juan de Fuca up into the Strait of Georgia
until the tag came off on Feb. 15. The following day, a new
satellite tag was attached to L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nysso.
K and L pods were tracked out to the ocean and down the coast to
A research team led by Brad Hanson aboard the vessel Bell M.
Shimada has kept track of J pod, then K and L pods since leaving
Newport, Ore., on Feb. 11. According to the latest report from the
researchers, K and L pods traveled south last week to the Umpqua
River in Central Oregon, where they abruptly turned north on
The whales continued north on Sunday, sometimes 10 miles
“We observed a lot of surface active behavior throughout the day
— lots of spy hops — and at one point we observed numerous whales
repeatedly breaching over a several-minute period,” according to
notes from the cruise.
The researchers observed no apparent foraging for several days
and the whales remained quiet, with the exception of a several-hour
period shortly after the breaching episode. As of yesterday
morning, they were still off the Oregon Coast and heading
The tracking data and up-close observations from this year’s
cruise appear to fill in some major data gaps — especially for J
pod, whose winter movements were not well known, according to NOAA
In 2012, the first tag deployed on the Southern Resident allowed
the researchers to track J pod, but only for three days before the
tag came off. In 2013, a tag on L-87, which frequently traveled
with J pod, provided 30 days of data about J pods movements in the
Salish Sea, particularly in the Strait of Georgia (where they spent
a lot of time this year).
Another tag in 2013 allowed K and L pods to be tracked along the
West Coast all the way to California.
Sightings from land and shore, along with acoustic recordings of
the whales also are included among recent findings.
We won’t know until 2017 if NOAA has amassed enough data to
expand the critical habitat to coastal regions, perhaps as far as
Northern California, as proposed in a petition filed in January of
last year by the Center for Biological Diversity. For the decision
announced today in the Federal Register, the data are not enough.
This is how it is stated in the notice:
“While data from new studies are available in our files and have
begun to address data gaps identified in the 2006 critical habitat
designation, considerable data collection and analysis needs to be
conducted to refine our understanding of the whales’ habitat use
and needs. Additional time will increase sample sizes and provide
the opportunity to conduct robust analyses.
“While we have been actively working on gathering and analyzing
data on coastal habitat use, these data and analyses are not yet
sufficiently developed to inform and propose revisions to critical
habitat as requested in the petition.”
In addition to the geographic areas covered by the killer
whales, the agency must identify the ‘‘physical or biological
features essential to the conservation of the species.’’ Such
features include food, water, air, light, minerals or other
nutritional requirements; cover or shelter; sites for breeding; and
habitats protected from disturbance.
Once specific areas are identified for protection, the agency
must make sure that the value of protection for the killer whales
outweighs the economic costs and effects on national security.
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.)
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.