Dances With Killer Whales: A Conversation with Ken Balcomb

Ken Balcomb

Ken Balcomb stands on the deck of the Center for Whale Research on the western shore of San Juan Island. For more than three decades, Balcomb -- and later, other researchers -- has kept track of the killer whales that swim the Salish Sea.

These are examples of the photos killer whale researchers use to tell the whales apart.

Researchers give each animal an alphanumeric designation, indicating their pod (J, K, or L) and their individual number.

L87, Left Side

L72, Right Side

K21, Left Side

J42, Right Side

J14 Left Side

Note that the photos are labeled as being of the animal’s right or left side. Researchers use shape and color variations in the white “saddle patch” across the back — as well as the shape of the dorsal fin, including nicks, cuts or scars — to identify each whale.

Possibly the best-known residents of the Salish Sea are the orca whales that call these waters home. In this installment of our series “Reflections on the Water,” KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty travels to the San Juans to talk with Ken Balcomb, who heads the Center for Whale Research and was one of the first researchers to study the local killer whales.

Click to listen to the story

Liam Moriarty: We’re sitting out here on the porch of the Center for Whale Research on the west side of San Juan Island.

What are we looking out at here?

Ken Balcomb: The water mass out in front of us here is Haro Strait. That’s the main thoroughfare for the southern resident killer whales, and the transient killer whales, for that matter. I came here because the whales were here. This is Mecca.

Liam: You spend a lot of time around these animals.

Ken: Um hmmm.

Liam: I know that anthropomorphizing is like one of the cardinal sins of scientists; thinking of them as more than animals or thinking of them as people in some sense. All the time you’ve spent around them, do you see something other than just specimens of a species out there? What’s your experience of these animals?

Ken: I’m humbled in their presence, that they’re not only very aware of all the things in the ocean; they’re aware that I’m curious about them, and they’re just as curious about me. That’s pretty neat.

Liam: When you started studying them up here, what led up to that?

Ken: Well, in 1976 I was asked to count up all the killer whales in Puget Sound and Southern B.C., to report to the federal government. There were captures of these whales in the 60s and early 70s for marine parks; a few of them for research. There was some concern – we don’t really know how many are here so we don’t know how many we could catch.

Liam: I would think if you’re going to count animals in the wild, we have to start being able to tell one killer whale from another. How do you do that?

Ken: Well, we take very good photographs of the dorsal fin and the so-called saddle patch, the pigment area on the back, and we look for nicks and scratches and marks and patterns.

It’d be kind of like going through your – I went to a high school where we had 900 kids and you know, you have an annual album – they’re all different. Well, same with whales.

Liam: The southern residents are officially endangered. What are we dealing with there, do you think?

Ken: Well, they eat salmon. Salmon are their preponderant dietary item. Not only that, but Chinook salmon. Wild salmon stocks, particularly Chinook stocks, are all pretty much predicted to be extinct by the year 2100.

Fish farming is sort of the way that Canada is kind of going. On the U.S. side, we don’t have as many fish farms. But we all enjoy electricity and dams have obviously been a major factor in reducing the habitat available for wild salmon.

Liam: Another possible contributing cause is pollution both in the waters and in the prey.

Something else that’s been looked at as a possible contributing factor is vessel noise. These are animals that rely on sound to navigate, to hunt, to communicate. What do you see in that area?

Ken: I had the good fortune of spending eight years in the Navy. We monitored the ocean noise, listening for submarines, documenting the various levels of sound produced by all kinds of things. And ambient noise in all of the oceans is increasing due to manmade noise of vessels.

It would be like if we were – you know, we’re visual animals. And if the birds would start using strobe lights and everything that they did was strobing us –

Liam: That could get confusing, couldn’t it.

Ken: Well, yeah; just think. Well, that’s probably about as good an analogy as we can make. Some other creature starts using strobes and it’s always flashing and we can’t see anymore.

Liam: It’s always sort of occurred to me that it’s amazing that they seem to bear us no malice, because certainly they have reason to.

Ken: That’s always amazed me too from day one. In ’76 when we started the study, they had just stopped the captures, and not only were we feeling like we were just accepted in the whale pods but what’s even more amazing is they’re getting more friendly. I mean, they certainly have no problem recognizing not only our boat but our faces and our presence.

They’ll come over and show us the babies. They know we want to take a picture of the new babies.

Liam: Really.

Ken: Yeah; really. I’m convinced that these new mothers out here, when they see Orca Survey coming along, they know that we’re there to get a picture of the new baby. They’ll put ‘em right up against us.

Liam: Show ‘em off.

Ken: Show ‘em off; yeah.

Liam: That’s amazing.

Ken: Yeah. You could say that’s anthropomorphizing but look at the pictures. They’re showing them off.

Click below and listen to a collection of killer whale calls made by Southern Resident orcas

Courtesy of the Center for Whale Research

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