Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan remembers the life and influence of pioneering orca researcher Ken Balcomb.  

I am still adjusting to the world of killer whales without Ken Balcomb. Ken, who died Dec. 15 at age 82, was a constant presence throughout my career as an environmental reporter. His presence inspired many others among the so-called “killer whale community,” made of experts, observers and those who simply love and follow the stories of our beloved orcas.

Ken, who I called the dean of killer whale research, founded the Center for Whale Research and established an amazing 46-year record of every birth and death among the Southern Resident orcas. This demographic record, which lists the sex, age and individual characteristics of every single whale, is essential to our understanding of how close to extinction these whales have become.

Few, if any, wildlife populations throughout the world have been studied so thoroughly, thanks to Ken and his dedicated teams of researchers. They and a growing cadre of other experts have studied the Southern Residents month after month, year after year, in all kinds of weather. This will be Ken’s official legacy, and his life’s work will go on. But when I say that Ken has been a constant presence, I am talking about his knowledge, his intuition and — shall I say? — his stubborn persistence in many issues related to the health and vitality of whale populations, particularly the Southern Residents.

In my work, I talk to all kinds of scientists about various subjects. Killer whale experts typically focus on specific issues, from genetics to acoustics to the orca’s place in the food web. While preparing to write about a topic, I talk to the best experts and read their published reports. When I think I understand enough, I am ready to write. And yet, I can’t tell you the number of times that I have felt the need to make one more phone call — to Ken.

Whether he agreed or disagreed with a line of thinking, or even if he had no opinion, he would almost always add some new idea or broaden my perspective, doing so in the kindest way. It may be selfish of me, but that’s my personal relationship with Ken — established through hundreds of phone calls — that I will miss the most. I suspect that many others have had their own unique connections with him, based on the wide diversity of scientific papers that include his name in the list of authors.

Through the years, I wrote a lot about the births and deaths of many individual killer whales. Ken, in his low-key way, was always excited about newborn calves, and we both enjoyed talking about the prospects that young females might eventually increase the overall population. Unfortunately, many young whales did not live that long.

Deaths among the older orcas rarely came suddenly, unless a body was discovered, because a “missing” whale is not a sure sign of mortality. Instead, a “presumed” death would be announced when the close-knit family was observed multiple times without the presence of an orca that should have been there. When a death could be announced, it was Ken’s call to make. He would often share his fond memories of the deceased whale — including interactions with other whales along with personality traits that he observed.

Beyond births and deaths, Ken was involved in many hot topics that I reported on through the years. The stories are too numerous to recount them all, but I would like to take time to share some of my reporting that became enmeshed with Ken’s life work.

Early years shape the future

Kenneth C. Balcomb III was born in Clovis, N.M., on Nov. 11, 1940. He grew up in Albuquerque, N.M., and Carmichael, Calif. As a youngster, he loved animals and eventually turned that interest toward a career, graduating from the University of California, Davis, in 1963 with a degree in zoology.  During those early years, Ken participated in research for the U.S. government. One of several jobs included examining and taking tissue samples of dead whales processed at commercial whaling stations on San Francisco Bay.

“As a youth, I frequently wished that I had been born sooner so that I would have had the opportunity to see the vast number and variety of cetaceans that our forebears had systematically decimated since before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution,” Ken wrote in personal note accompanying a biography in the 2010 edition of the journal Aquatic Mammals.

Early in his career, Ken Balcomb spent a portion of each year studying humpback whales aboard the Regina Maris, a sailing ship built in 1908 and used for a time by scientists and students affiliated with the Ocean Research and Education Society. The vessel took Ken to the Caribbean in the winters as well as to Newfoundland and Greenland for a portion of each summer. He called it a “fairy tale” experience. Photo: Wikimedia Commons  (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1967, during the Vietnam War, Ken enlisted in the Navy and became a pilot, followed by work toward an eventual doctoral degree at UC, Santa Cruz. He returned to the Navy, where he became an acoustic expert involved in SOSUS, the Navy’s ultra-secret Sound Surveillance System.

“In my office, I could listen to whale sounds underwater from thousands of miles away!” he wrote. “It was like being sent to magic class and then being required to perform said magic from remote shore locations about which I was sworn to keep secret.”

A year after leaving the Navy, Ken began his work on killer whales in Puget Sound in 1976 — just one month after the last commercial capture of orcas for public display. Working for the National Marine Fisheries Service, he employed orca-identification techniques developed by Canadian researcher Mike Biggs. Ken was able to develop a census count of 68 whales still living among the J, K and L pods, which had been depleted by about 40 percent during the commercial capture of orcas for marine parks. (See CWR, “Orca Survey”) At the same time, Ken was studying humpbacks and other whales on research expeditions to various parts of the world.

My connection with Ken began with brief phone conversations when I would hear reports of whales swimming down through Central Puget Sound, beginning sometime after I became a reporter for the Kitsap Sun in 1976. This occasional reporting took on a new dimension in October 1997, when 19 orcas from L pod spent an entire month in Dyes Inlet between Bremerton and Silverdale. The public interest became intense. Thousands of people came from distant places to view the orcas from shore day after day. About 500 boats were counted in the inlet during one sunny weekend. For a time, orcas became my full-time job, and they have remained a major interest and emphasis of my reporting.

I met Ken Balcomb in person when his team showed up to identify the whales in Dyes Inlet. His son, Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, had arrived days earlier to observe the situation. Kelley and another young orca researcher, Jodi Smith, were concerned that the whales might be stuck in the inlet, because the orcas kept approaching and then turning back from the Warren Avenue Bridge — their only escape route.

Ken wasn’t too worried about the whales, saying they would leave when the salmon were no longer available. He was due to fly out to his winter research station in the Bahamas, so he left Kelley and Jodi to figure things out. The two became my first teachers in all things orca. Their daily updates became ongoing news stories, and I shared with readers what I learned about the individual whales and their families, their matriarchal social structure, their vocalizations to find food and to communicate with each other, their preferred foods, and much more. A summary of these adventures in Dyes Inlet, including the orcas’ dramatic departure, is still available online from the Kitsap Sun. See “The Arrival: Orcas leave their mark” and “The Departure: Orcas take their leave.” Also a day-by-day timeline of events.

Population decline brings worries

In retrospect, the 1997 visit to Dyes Inlet corresponded with a peak in the Southern Resident population and the beginning of a decline. It had taken 20 years for the population to rebuild to 98 whales following commercial captures for marine parks. From 71 whales in 1976, the number was up to 98 in 1995. From there, however, the population declined dramatically, back to 78 in just six years. My communications with Ken increased, as he started to report a breakup of large orca groups into smaller ones as well as changes in their travel patterns.

In February of 2000, about 50 orcas — including the Dyes Inlet whales — were spotted in Monterey Bay in Northern California. They had never been known to travel that far from their home waters, but Ken said it was likely that they were on a quest for their preferred food, Chinook salmon. Chinook were in short supply in Puget Sound, as acknowledged with a placement on the Endangered Species List.

The tail of a killer whale splashing water as it swims.

Southern resident killer whales. Photo: Candice Emmons/NOAA Fisheries under federal permit (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The following spring, Ken announced that six orcas failed to return with their families to Puget Sound and were presumed dead. That was the greatest death toll for any year to that point.

“They may have had a lean period sometime in the winter,” Ken told me. “We know they had gone down to California. They may have been on a desperate run to find food, and the energetic cost may have been more than they could afford.”

Kelley said everyone involved with the whales was feeling the loss. “They are, on the one hand, the subject of our scientific study,” he said. “But, individually speaking, we’re losing our friends.”

Added Ken at the time, “These are amazing creatures, and they’re right at our doorstep. If we can’t make an ecosystem that’s fit to support them, then something is wrong with us.”

In 2000, based on census data from Ken’s organization, an environmental group requisitioned a population viability analysis (PDF 354 kb) for the orcas, supporting a petition to list the Southern Residents under the federal Endangered Species Act. (The population was listed as “endangered” in 2005.) The analysis concluded, based on current trends, that the whales would be extinct within 300 years — and that time period was considered optimistic, given specific social characteristics of the whales (Kitsap Sun, Nov. 16, 2000).

More recently, Robert Lacey of Chicago Zoological Society worked with Ken and others to produce a new population viability analysis with various assumptions about future conditions.

“The population is fragile, with no growth projected under current conditions, and decline expected if new or increased threats are imposed…,” the report says. “Prey limitation is the most important factor affecting population growth. However, to meet recovery targets through prey management alone, Chinook abundance would have to be sustained near the highest levels since the 1970s.

“The most optimistic mitigation of noise and contaminants would make the difference between a declining and increasing population, but would be insufficient to reach recovery targets. Reducing acoustic disturbance by 50% combined with increasing Chinook by 15% would allow the population to reach 2.3% growth.”

Extinction is very real

In 2017, Ken told me that it is time for people to face the prospect of that the Southern Residents may go extinct, a harsh but realistic future. This issue had been creeping up on me, but it’s something that is hard to face. The risk of extinction weighed heavily on Ken, who had a clear sense for the population dynamics and actual probabilities of survival.

We had come through a brief optimistic period that some called the “baby boom,” in which eight orca calves had been born in a year. Ken related this to an upturn in salmon runs during their prenatal period. But within two years, three of the six calves born in J pod were reported missing and presumed dead. Some called it a “baby bust.” Meanwhile, two orca moms — 23-year-old Polaris (J-28) and 42-year-old Samish (J14) — died near the end of 2016, followed by the loss of Granny (J-2), the revered matriarch of all the clans who held a special place in Ken’s memory. Doublestuf (J34), an 18-year-old male also died before the end of that year.

A growing number of studies revealed the importance of the food supply to the health and successful reproduction of the orcas. (Check out my 2016 article in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.) Ken was hoping to see a rapid turnaround in the salmon populations through government action.

“This population cannot survive without food year-round,” Ken wrote in a news release. “All indications … are pointing toward a predator population that is prey-limited and nonviable.”

Signs of decline, as he saw them, involved population size, birth rate, foraging behavior and body condition.

“Our government systems steeped in short-term competing financial motives are processing these whales and the salmon on which they depend to extinction,” he wrote. “If something isn’t done to enhance the SRKW prey availability almost immediately …extinction of this charismatic resident population of killer whales is inevitable in the calculable future.”

I followed Ken’s declaration with a piece in my “Water Ways” blog, quoting experts, looking at relevant studies, and examining political realities.

By 2016, Ken had become a strong advocate for removal of four dams on the Snake River. Nine years earlier, in 2007, he had signed onto a petition with five other prominent killer whale scientists, all advocating dam removal, as described in The Christian Science Monitor.

“The science is clear that removing four federal dams on the lower Snake River is needed to avert extinction of the Snake’s four unique salmon populations,” the scientists wrote.

In October 2016, the death of a 23-year old orca mom named Polaris (J28) was especially heartbreaking. She was still nursing her 11-month-old son Dipper (J54) at the time of her death. Although Dipper’s sister and aunt did their best to care for the young orphan, no other lactating females moved in to provide milk, and so Dipper died too (Water Ways, Oct. 30, 2016).

During a waterfront press conference, Ken read a personally penned obituary for Polaris — and he came out stronger than ever for dam removal. (His speech comes about five minutes into this Facebook video of the news conference.)

“I get a little emotional about this,” Ken said during the event. “I’ve been trying to hold myself back and not speak out, but I see it now. I’ve seen enough dead whales. I know that none of us really want that. We want future generations to have the same beautiful background (in Puget Sound) with whales swimming by.”

Navy sonar and threats to whales

I was visiting the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island during the spring of 2000, when Kelley asked me if I had heard about a sonar incident in the Bahamas. I had not heard anything, so I sat down on the porch with Ken to get the full story. It would be the first of many stories I would write about whales and sonar. Ken’s work with acoustic systems while serving in the Navy gave him a rare insight and a unique perspective on the dangers of high-intensity sound.

As I described in my first news story about the Bahamas event, a deafening noise echoed through the underwater canyons in the Bahamas on March 15, 2000, causing beaked whales to flee up onto dry land. These deep-diving whales, normally elusive and mysterious, don’t normally approach the shore, so it was a shock for Ken to see them lying on the beach.

“It was the first of a lifetime — a live stranding of a beaked whale,” Ken told me, describing the whale that came ashore near his house on Abaco Island, the base of his beaked whale research.

Ken and his crew rescued that whale and three other beaked whales that day by pushing them back out into the water. The next day, they followed reports of other stranded whales to obtain tissue samples from six dead beaked whales. (One more was later added to the list of dead whales.) Ken suspected that military exercises in the area were to blame, but the dead whales would eventually tell their own story.

"Ken was a gentle fighter, with an exceptional impact. He spoke softly but with a force fueled by his painstaking scientific research and his unimpeachable integrity.  He had uncommon courage, humility, and a passion for whales that was second to no one." — Joel Reynolds, Natural Resources Defense Council

Bleeding and bruising were found in and around their inner ears, but the whales but were otherwise in good health, reported Darlene Ketten of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, who quickly performed necropsies for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Later, in 2003, sonar was implicated in the deaths of 10 beaked whales in the Canary Islands near Africa. In that case, an international team of scientists theorized that the sounds of sonar frightened the whales into surfacing, causing gas bubbles to burst from their tissues. The condition was likened to “the bends” in human divers who surface too quickly.

Concerns about the effects of sonar on killer whales, dolphins and other marine mammals continued to grow. In May of 2003, sonar from the Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Shoup seemed to cause a stampede of killer whales and dolphins in the San Juan Islands. The noise was so loud that whale watchers miles away from the ship were able to hear the sound pinging through the hulls of their boats, as I reported in the Kitsap Sun.

“They should have a regulation that prevents them from operating this equipment in confined waters,” Ken said at the time. “They have strict regulations about when they can turn on radar, but they don’t have rules about sonar.”

The Navy did issue special orders about operating sonar in Puget Sound. But an investigation, completed two years later, found that while the Shoup’s sonar was loud enough to affect the whales’ behavior, it was not loud enough to cause permanent, or even temporary, hearing loss, as I reported in the Kitsap Sun.

When I called Ken for a response, he reacted quickly and bluntly, saying the Navy missed the most important part of his concern.

“The thing that gripes me about this whole subject,” he said, “is that the argument has been drafted in the form of whether there is hearing damage. It’s like it’s an industrial job problem — disregarding the observed fact that these animals are fleeing from sources of sound. They are trying to get away, and they are stranding and dying. It is irrelevant whether they had hearing loss if they are dead.”

In 2005, the Natural Resources Defense Council, led by attorney Joel Reynolds, sued in federal court to compel the Navy to take greater precautions in its use of sonar. Over the next 10 years, the case went through temporary settlements, new legal challenges and constitutional conflicts. Finally, in an out-of-court settlement in 2015, the Navy agreed to avoid sonar use in significant foraging areas in California and Hawaii and to take other measures to reduce the use of sonar around marine mammals (Water Ways, Sept. 17, 2015).

As of today, “the Navy’s environmental review, planning and mitigation for sonar exercises have been significantly improved,” Joel told me in an email. “Yet there is more that can and, under the law, should be done.”

Much of this story is told in an engaging book “War of the Whales” by Joshua Horwitz, who weaves together well-told biographies of both Ken Balcomb and Joel Reynolds along with the Navy’s side of the story. I interviewed the author and provided my take on the book, which Ken himself agreed was thorough and accurate, perhaps to a fault.

“He (Josh Horwitz) kept asking over and over the same questions,” Ken told me, somewhat amused when I asked him about the book. “I didn’t know if he had confused notes or what.”

After Ken’s death, I asked Joel for a comment, knowing that the two had spent much time together, particularly as Joel learned about the technical aspects of whales and sonar in preparation for his legal arguments.

“Ken was a gentle fighter, with an exceptional impact,” Joel wrote in an email. “He spoke softly but with a force fueled by his painstaking scientific research and his unimpeachable integrity.  He had uncommon courage, humility, and a passion for whales that was second to no one.  

“He forced the U.S. Navy to concede the harm to marine mammals caused by its high intensity active sonar,” he added, “and more than any single individual he elevated that harm from a military secret to an issue of global environmental concern.”

Springer here, Luna there

In early 2002, I called Ken to ask what he thought about reports (Orca Network) of a young orca wandering through the waters near Vashon Island, often hanging out in the ferry lanes. Ken had been out with researcher Mark Sears, based in in West Seattle. From Mark’s small boat, Ken was able to get a general assessment of the whale’s physical shape, which included a severe skin condition, and to make recordings of her vocalizations.

At the time, nobody knew what to make of the situation. A lone orca away from its family was not something that experts had experienced. As I discussed the situation with Ken, he dropped another giant surprise on me. He told me that another young orca had been hanging out alone in Nootka Sound along the northwest side of Vancouver Island in Canada.

Both whales were soon identified, and both were far away from their homes, almost as if they had traded places. Needless to say, this was big news, and it started a new round of adventures. Springer (A73) — the one found in Puget Sound — was a two-year-old Northern Resident killer whale from British Columbia and Southeast Alaska. Luna (L98) — the one found in Nootka Sound — was a Southern Resident from our area and about the same age. Luna was one of the whales presumed dead during the boom-and-bust period reported the year before.

In fact, Luna had been staying in Nootka Sound since July 2001 and was known to local residents in the town of Gold River. Whale experts with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans eventually arrived, and, with the help of Ken and his associates, identified Luna that November. Out of concern for Luna’s welfare, they did not say anything until January 2002 — when Springer was found in Puget Sound. Luna’s reappearance was a joyous occasion, considering that he had been on the list of the dead.

Ken became an adviser to government officials in the treatment of both whales and in discussions about rescues to get them back with their families. Luna’s mother was still alive. Springer’s mother was deceased, but close relatives, including her grandmother and several cousins, were still around.

Separate stories of Springer and Luna were told in a multitude of newspaper and magazine articles, even books and movies. It would be hard to describe all the scientific haggling, political intrigue and excitement that surrounded these two young whales.

PHOTO-rescue team captures springer-NOAA fishers-700x400-Landscape.jpg

A rescue team captures Springer. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

In the end, Springer was captured and nursed back to health at NOAA’s Manchester research lab on the Kitsap Peninsula. In July 2002, she was transported by boat some 300 miles, through Puget Sound and along the east side of Vancouver Island to Hanson Island, where she was released. She quickly integrated back into her family groups. Today, Springer has two offspring of her own, Spirit (A104), born in 2013, and Storm (A116), born in 2017.

For Luna in Nootka Sound, two options were under consideration. Ken had proposed a “soft” plan to get Luna accustomed to specific boats and then lead him out to the Pacific Ocean in the spring of 2003, hopefully at a time when his family was swimming by. Luna might even be escorted down the west side of Vancouver Island and kept in a pen until his family arrived in familiar waters. The “hard” plan, which became the chosen course, was to capture Luna and transport him by truck to the south end of Vancouver Island to wait for his family.

One difference between the two whales was that Luna appeared to be healthy, while Springer appeared to be in a declining state. Another key difference was the involvement of a band of native people who lived on Nootka Sound and had a spiritual connection to Luna. Mike Maquinna, chief of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht Band, told me that his people believed transport by truck would be disrespectful, and they could not tolerate the possibility of Luna ending up in an aquarium (Kitsap Sun, Oct. 10, 2003).

As the plan for a hard capture neared fruition, Ken continued to call for a soft approach. He also expressed disappointment in the Canadian government’s clumsy handling of the situation with the First Nations people.

“The way they are going about this is totally nuts,” he told me. “The bureaucrats mean well, but he (Luna) is going to arrive down here on the Fourth of July, the busiest part of the boating season. I would say, ‘Thanks, First Nations, you keep that whale by your village, and by fall we’ll figure out a way to get him down here.’”

Still, the capture attempt moved forward with truck transport in the plans, because it was considered quicker and safer than traveling through the open ocean. I witnessed the attempted capture up close, serving as the only U.S. reporter in a “pool” with three Canadian reporters and photographers. Because of space limitations, the Canadian government permitted only the pool reporters on the dock where a net pen had been constructed. As we watched, Luna entered and escaped from the pen several times, moving too fast for people to close the gate. He eventually swam away.  (Kitsap Sun, June 23, 2004).

A few days later after the capture attempt, high-level Canadian officials acknowledged the concerns of the First Nations people and postponed the capture to an uncertain date (Kitsap Sun, June 25, 2004). I continued my reporting on uncertain plans to rescue Luna into 2005, when Ken insisted that his soft-rescue plan was still valid (Kitsap Sun, Aug. 7, 2005). But a renewed rescue never got off the ground.

In March of 2006, Luna was killed when struck by the propeller of a 104-foot tugboat, which had entered Nootka Sound to take refuge from a storm (Kitsap Sun, March 11, 2006).  

L112’s mysterious death

Excitement was running high in the killer whale community in February 2009 after three new orca babies were born into the Southern Resident community (Kitsap Sun, Water Ways, March 5, 2009). Two more calves would be born before the end of that calendar year. Of those five, four are still alive today: Moby (J44), Se yi chn (J45), Cousteau (L113) and Star (J46). (See Orca Network, births and deaths).

But, sadly, one female orca born early in the year barely made it to the age of 3. Designated L112, her body washed up on the Long Beach Peninsula in Southwest Washington, where she was found on Feb. 11, 2012.

The discovery came just five days after killer whale observers reported high-powered sonar pings in the San Juan Islands, later traced to a Canadian Coast Guard ship conducting military exercises in the Strait of Juan de Fuca (Water Ways, Feb. 11, 2012). People wondered immediately if sonar was to blame for the death of L112, but the story soon became tangled in numerous details, some relevant, some not.

For example, on Feb.7, one day after the sonar incident, some members of K and L pods were spotted in Discovery Bay between Sequim and Port Townsend. Since killer whales had never been reported in that area before, some people suspected the whales may have gone there to escape from the loud sonar. But it appeared that L112 and her family were not in that group. So was L112 nearby at the time or somewhere in the Pacific Ocean?

In case you’re wondering, I called this whale “L112” rather than a given name, as I normally do. The Whale Museum has always named the whales to give them a more human connection, while most researchers use the alpha-numeric designation. But in 2010, during some kind of disagreement over research with the Whale Museum, Ken named a handful of whales himself. I did not want to choose between Ken’s name, “Victoria,” or the Whale Museum’s name, “Sooke” — and “Sooke/Victoria” seemed unwieldy — so I just stayed with “L112” (Water Ways, Aug. 25, 2010).

Soon after L112 was found dead, a necropsy suggested that she died of “blunt force trauma,” such as a glancing blow from a boat or an attack from another large animal. Her skull was frozen for further study, including the use of a CT scanner to help reveal internal injuries from an acoustic source, such as sonar.

Based on the necropsy — including observations of massive bleeding in her ears — Ken decided that L112 likely died from a blast, perhaps related to explosive charges set off during military exercises. He based this opinion on his experience in the Navy and the Bahamas, along with evidence from other dead whales that had been recovered.

Canadian officials later revealed that “underwater charges” were used by the Canadian frigate HMCS Ottawa on Feb. 6 as a part of anti-submarine exercises. At the time, the Ottawa was operating in the Pacific Ocean on the Canadian side of the border — and this was 200 miles from Long Beach, where L112 was found five days later.

Experts working on the case suggested that the young whale was likely killed near the Columbia River and carried by currents north to Long Beach. Vocalizations from members of K and L pods had been recorded on hydrophones in California, south of the Columbia River, as well as in Westport to the north during the days leading up to the discovery of the body. Currents were said to be in the opposite direction needed to carry a dead whale from where those military exercises had been held.

Was it a blast or a blow to the head that killed the whale? I asked the question, but it was never really answered with the evidence available (Water Ways, May 16, 2012).

The final expert report, issued two years later by the National Marine Fisheries Service, involved the work of 15 experienced marine mammal experts, but Ken was not among them. The report concludes: “While the extensive evaluations were all consistent with blunt force trauma from a collision or blow being the cause of death, the exact type or source of the traumatic injuries (what struck the animal) remains unknown. Blast injury cannot be ruled out, but appears unlikely based on the gross and microscopic findings, gas analysis, advanced diagnostic imaging, and remoteness of naval activities to the proposed area where death may have occurred.”

Still convinced that L112 died from some sort of explosive, Ken was dissatisfied with the report. He addressed the issues, point by point, in his own report, as I summarized in Water Ways, March 6, 2014.

In response to the issue of distance, Ken raised the prospect that L112 might have been killed by a blast in Canadian waters and carried south by relatives. He cited two studies in which killer whales had been known to support and even transport dead family members.

“I consider the evidence presented in the NMFS report to be selected and filtered to depict a preferred hypothetical scenario, rather than one that may be more realistic,” Ken wrote in a letter to NMFS asking the agency to reopen the investigation.

The official files of L112 remained closed, but I continued to seek documents from the Navy and other U.S. agencies through the federal Freedom of Information Act. I eventually received dozens of emails and other documents related to the investigation, which I discussed with Ken, but none shed new light on the subject.

Then in July and August of 2018, a new orca story captured the hearts of people across the country and called attention to the plight of Southern Resident killer whales. Tahlequah (J35), a 21-year-old female, gave birth on the morning of July 24, but the baby lived less than an hour. For the next 17 days, the grieving mother carried the dead calf through the water, covering an estimated 1,000 miles (Center for Whale Research). This story of a mom’s devotion made news across the U.S. and even in other countries.

Tahlequah’s travails served to raise old questions about the death of L112. Ken told me that people need to rethink their positions if they believe it is not possible for a whale to die in Northwest Washington and end up in Southwest Washington, even when currents are running in the opposite direction. We now have a better idea what a grieving orca mother can do, but we still don’t know what killed L112 (Water Ways, Aug. 11, 2018).

Scarlet and the question of human intervention

Scarlet (J50), the first calf born during the “baby boom” of 2014-2016, probably was never truly healthy, according to Ken. The undersized calf got her name from the red slash marks observed on her body soon after birth. The marks were presumed to be “rake marks” from the teeth of a “midwife” whale who assisted with the birth in December 2014 by pulling the calf from the birth canal, according to Ken.

Initially, there was some confusion about the mother. Scarlet was swimming close to a 43-year-old whale named Slick (J16) as well as Slick’s 16-year-old daughter, named Alki (J36). At first, Ken thought Slick might be too old to be a mom, but soon she and Scarlet were found to be acting like a mother-daughter pair.

For the first three years of Scarlet’s life, whale observers were delighted with the new baby, as sightings of her were frequently reported to Orca Network.

“Tonight we had the most amazing encounter with the J16’s traveling through Boundary Pass,” wrote a naturalist in June of 2015. “It’s no surprise that the one claiming all the attention was none other than little six-month-old J50. I’ve never seen a baby breach so much! Likewise, J52 has also started breaching and engaging in lots of social activity. Those two are going to have so much fun growing up together.”

Things seemed to be going well for Scarlet until the spring of 2018, when observers grew alarmed that young Scarlet was growing thin and acting lethargic. By July, her condition was being described as “emaciated.”

By early August, an international team of biologists, led by the National Marine Fisheries Service, began discussing a possible intervention. Researchers were able to take biological samples from Scarlet’s breath and from feces scooped out of the water, but they could not identify a cause of her illness. She was given a shot of general antibiotics through a dart, and experts considered giving her a shot of deworming medication.

The question of how far to go with medical intervention became acute. Should the whale be captured and nursed back to health in a net pen, where marine mammal experts could assess and treat her condition?

Veterinarian Joe Gaydos with SeaDoc Society told me that he would recommend such actions only if Scarlet became separated from her family with no hope of being reunited on her own (Water Ways, Sept. 12, 2018). Later, Joe posted a “what we learned” document on SeaDoc’s website.

Ken was advising against a capture. “A capture is not only going to be stressful for the little whale,” he said, “but if she starts doing some distress calling, will that distress her mom and her sister and others? And what if they come to help her?”

Although Scarlet struggled to keep up with her pod, she was never really far enough away to be considered alone. And suddenly she was gone. The last reported sighting was Sept. 7. She had lived longer in her condition than many thought she would.

NMFS launched an unsuccessful search to see if Scarlet could be found alive or if her body could be recovered.

Given the uncertain future for these critically endangered Southern Resident orcas, the debate continues about whether or not to intervene in the future, as I described in an article in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. In that piece, I made a point of connecting Scarlet to Springer, the latter receiving medical care but under different circumstances.

“These whales have amazing fortitude,” Ken said in an interview for that article. “They can do super-hero things, but they can’t do them if they don’t have food. That’s the only real answer.”


Clockwise from top left: 1) Mountain gorillas. Photo: Andries3 (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/andriesoudshoorn 2) J pod Southern resident orcas – Photo: Miles Ritter (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/mrmritter/42903242165 3) Scientists collect orca breath samples. Photo: Pete Schroeder 4) Hawaiian monk seal. Photo: Karen Bryan/Hawaiian Institute of Marine Biology (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/papahanaumokuakea/38322932854

This three-part series explores opportunities and challenges of using medical interventions to save Puget Sound's southern resident orcas from extinction. Part 1 looks at how scientists might treat endangered southern resident orcas that face starvation and risks of disease; Part 2 considers how veterinarians have intervened with other animals in the wild, and how this might apply to orcas in Puget Sound; and Part 3 explores a federally approved vaccination program designed to ward of a deadly virus among endangered Hawaiian monk seals.

The long-term remedy, almost everyone agrees, is to increase the supply of salmon, preferably by increasing natural spawning and the healthy growth of species preferred by the whales. Ken continued to blame humans for past actions related to dams, overfishing, pollution and development and for failure to take bold actions to correct these problems.

“Watching J50 during the past three months is what extinction looks like, when survival is threatened for all by food deprivation and lack of reproduction,” Ken wrote on his website in response to Scarlet’s death.

To the end, Ken was realistic about the future of the orcas, according to his brother Howard Garrett, who operates Orca Network with his wife Susan Berta. Whether the whales survive as a species depends on the actions of the people who live in this region, he said, and the welfare of people depends on how we treat the natural systems.

“He was saying that the ecosystem must be our highest value,” Howie told me. “We need to prioritize nature above all and participate in the miracles all around us.”

On his death bed, Ken was determined to see the Center for Whale Research live on, and he spelled out three major functions: research, education and conservation. Howie and others are working to organize the center to carry out Ken’s final wishes.

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

About the author: Christopher Dunagan is a senior writer at the Puget Sound Institute.

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