Ken Balcomb, researcher who helped end orca captivity, dies

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

Surrounded by friends, Balcomb died Thursday at the age of 82, according to the Center for Whale Research, the organization he founded. The center bought the ranch on the Elwha River two years ago to protect the spawning grounds of the Chinook salmon, which is the main food source for orcas.

The cause was prostate cancer, the Seattle Times reported.

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

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

He began his life’s work with orcas in 1976 and his research helped raise alarms two decades later that the whales were starving due to a lack of salmon – which was the basis for their listing in 2005 under the Endangered Species Act formed.

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

The whaling industry argued that orcas were plentiful in the sea and that some could be caught without threatening the species. The Canadian and US governments attempted surveys to get a better sense of animal populations.

Orcas in Puget Sound, west of Seattle.

Orcas in Puget Sound, west of Seattle.

(Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

Balcomb established an annual survey of the whales in 1976, following the example of Canadian researcher Michael Bigg, who pioneered the photographic identification of individual orcas by the shape of the white “saddle patch” on their dorsal fin.

Although Bigg’s findings have been widely questioned, Balcomb confirmed that there are only about 70 orcas left in the Pacific Northwest – after about 40% of the population was captured or killed in raids.

Balcomb continued the survey each year, using his binoculars to follow the orcas in a boat, photographing them and compiling pedigrees of the three pods of killer whales from the south.

Even after other researchers lost interest in the whales in the 1980s, Balcomb persisted, said Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist at 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 to 97 whales in the mid-1990s, before suddenly collapsing to fewer than 80 in the following years – a decline Balcomb observed and which formed the basis for orcas being listed as Vulnerable .

“I don’t think we would have known if it wasn’t for Ken,” Hanson said. “He laid the foundation for today’s understanding of these animals and made a significant contribution to it. Without Ken’s research, we simply wouldn’t be where we are.”

An eccentric and sometimes gruff scientist with a gray beard and a weather-worn appearance, Balcomb had a single-minded devotion to the whales whose bones were on display around his home on San Juan Island, Washington state. Over a stereo, he would often listen to the clicks and whistles of whales navigating underwater equipment buried in seaweed beds.

He advocated breaching four massive dams on the Snake River to restore salmon habitats, and he had little patience with politicians who hesitated rather than act to save the whales. “I’m not going to count them to zero — at least not quietly,” he often said.

He served on Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s Orca Recovery Task Force in 2018 but refused to sign off on their final recommendations, saying they weren’t doing enough to recover the whales.

One of Balcomb’s most public fights wasn’t about killer whales, it was about beaked whales. He was in the Bahamas in March 2000 when a beaked whale stranded in front of him. It was one of 17 marine mammals, mostly whales, stranded in the Bahamas that day. After working with others to try to save as many as possible, he cut off the heads of two whales that died and had them frozen for study – he suspected they had been driven out of the water by military sonar drills offshore .

Another scientist performed autopsies and CT scans and found that the whales were bleeding in their ear canals. When federal officials objected to the cause of the strandings, Balcomb held a press conference in Washington, DC and spoke out, accusing 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 sonar was doing to whales in Washington state.

“Ken wasn’t shy about disclosing his feelings based on the information he had gathered and seen,” Hanson said. “I’ve heard regularly what we’ve done and haven’t done in relation to the whales.”

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

“I was getting tired of telling the story of the whales and fishes going into decline,” Balcomb said. “I want to be on the good side of a story.”

Balcomb is survived by his son, Kelley Balcomb-Bartok; grandsons 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 non-profit advocacy group based on Whidbey Island.

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