Ken Balcomb, researcher who helped end the captivity of killer whales, dies

Ken Balcomb, a researcher who spent nearly five decades studying the charismatic and endangered killer whales of the Pacific Northwest, whose findings helped end their capture for display in marine parks in 1970s, he died on a ranch on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

Surrounded by friends, Balcomb died Thursday at age 82, according to the Center for Whale Research, the organization he founded. The center bought the ranch along the Elwha River two years ago to protect the spawning grounds of Chinook salmon, which are the killer whales’ primary food.

The cause was prostate cancer, the Seattle Times reported.

“Ken was a pioneer and a legend in the whaling world,” the center said in a message posted on its website. “He was a scientist with a deep-rooted love and connection to whales and their ocean habitat. He inspired others to appreciate both as much as he did.”

Balcomb first worked as a whale biologist for the federal government in 1963, after graduating from UC Davis. He served in the Navy during the Vietnam War as a pilot and oceanographic specialist.

He began his life’s work with killer whales in 1976, and his research two decades later helped raise alarm that the whales were starving for lack of salmon, which was the basis for his 2005 listing under the Endangered Species Act.

In the 1960s and 1970s, dozens of whales from the Pacific Northwest were captured for display at theme parks such as SeaWorld. At least 13 killer whales died in the attacks, and the brutality of the captures began to spark public outcry and a lawsuit to stop them in Washington state.

The whaling industry argued that there were many killer whales in the sea and that some could be caught without threatening the species. The Canadian and American governments tried to conduct surveys to get a better idea of ​​animal populations.

Orcas in Puget Sound, west of Seattle.

Orcas in Puget Sound, west of Seattle.

(Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

Following the lead of Canadian researcher Michael Bigg, who pioneered the use of photographic identification of individual killer whales by the shape of the white “saddle patch” on their dorsal fin, Balcomb established in 1976 a annual whale survey.

Although Bigg’s findings had been questioned, Balcomb confirmed that only about 70 killer whales remained in the Pacific Northwest, after about 40% of the population was taken into captivity or killed during raids.

Balcomb continued the survey each year, following the orcas with his binoculars on a boat, photographing them and building family trees of the three southern resident orca pods.

Even after other researchers lost interest in the whales in the 1980s, Balcomb persisted, said Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist with NOAA Fisheries who first met Balcomb in 1976.

Balcomb founded the Center for Whale Research, with little financial support. He documented the population’s recovery in the mid-1990s to 97 whales before its sudden collapse to fewer than 80 in the following years, a decline Balcomb observed that set the stage for orcas to endangered.

“I don’t think we would have known if it hadn’t been for Ken,” Hanson said. “He laid the foundation and contributed significantly to the understanding of these animals that we have today. We simply wouldn’t be where we are without Ken’s research.”

An eccentric and sometimes gruff scientist with a gray beard and weathered appearance, Balcomb had a decided devotion to whales, with their bones displayed around his home on San Juan Island in the washington state On a stereo, I often heard the clicks and whistles of whales passing through underwater rigs sunk into the kelp beds.

He advocated breaking four massive dams on the Snake River to restore salmon habitats, and had little patience with politicians who failed to act to save the whales. “I won’t count them to zero, at least not silently,” he often said.

He served the Governor of Washington. Jay Inslee’s Orca Recovery Task Force in 2018, but he refused to sign off on its final recommendations, saying they wouldn’t do enough to recover the whales.

One of Balcomb’s most public fights involved not killer whales, but beaked whales. He was in the Bahamas in March 2000 when a beaked whale ran aground in front of him. It was one of 17 marine mammals, mostly whales, stranded in the Bahamas that day. After trying with other people to save as many as they could, he cut off the heads of two whales that died and froze them for study; he suspected they had been blown out of the water by military sonar exercises taking place offshore.

Another scientist performed necropsies and CT scans and found that the whales had bled into their ear canals. When federal officials weighed in on the cause of the strandings, Balcomb held a press conference in Washington, DC, and spoke out, blaming the use of a new generation of anti-submarine sonar technology.

He also accused the Navy and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of downplaying the damage the sonar caused to whales in Washington state.

“Ken was not shy about making his feelings known, based on the information he had gathered and seen,” Hanson said. “He used to know what we were doing or not doing with the whales.”

In 2020, the Center for Whale Research purchased a 45-acre parcel on the Elwha River called the Big Salmon Ranch, where dams had been removed and Chinook salmon had returned to spawning grounds that had been inaccessible since the beginning of the 20th century

“I was kind of tired of telling the story of the decline of the whales, of the decline of the fish,” Balcomb said. “I want to be on the good side of a story.”

Balcomb is survived by his son, Kelley Balcomb-Bartok; grandchildren Kyla and Cody Balcomb-Bartok; and brothers Howard Garrett, Scott Balcomb and Mark Balcomb, the Seattle Times reported.

Garrett and his wife, Susan Berta, run the Orca Network, a nonprofit advocacy organization based on Whidbey Island.

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