interview: Ken Balcomb

Ken Balcomb

Senior Scientist, Center for Whale Research / Washington

Ken Balcomb is often recognized as the scientist who discovered that Navy sonar might be responsible for beaching the whales. He has been involved in documenting the population and behavior of orcas, or killer whales, in the Greater Puget Sound since 1976.

What is the purpose of the Center for Whale Research?

We promote and conduct studies of Cetacean (whale, dolphins, and porpoises) species in their natural environments for public education and conservation purposes.

When did it begin?

The Center for Whale Research was incorporated in 1986 by me (Ken Balcomb, III) and Prentice Bloedel, II (a life-long conservationist and biologist) to continue the research of Orca Survey, a long-term demographic study of killer whales in the Pacific Northwest that began in 1976. We had previously created a non-profit organization to found a whale museum AND conduct Orca Survey, but that became too big and political, and non-dedicated to OS.

Can you give us some personal background?

I've had a lifelong fascination with animals, and since college years when I studied Zoology I have had a special fascination with whales, dolphins and porpoises — Cetaceans. Since I graduated in 1963 — excluding for the eight years I spent as an officer in the US Navy around the time of the Vietnam War — I have been working in this field, either for governments or non-profit organizations, conducting field research.

Why is NGO work important?

Often the important field research is outside of government mandate, or not in the budget. NGO’s take up that slack and often do very dedicated work.

Did you have an inspirational figure in your life growing up?

My comparative anatomy professor, Dr. Milton Hildebrand at UC Davis, inspired me to use my mind to not only memorize structural details already known, but also use it to perceive how things work and explore the unknown. One of the inspirational figures for me in Cetology was Dr. Roger Payne, for his perceptive investigation of whale songs; and, another was Dr. Ken Norris for his relentless passion for research. All are teachers in the best sense.

Are there other selfless leaders out there you admire? If so, who and why?

We may have one now, as President, but selflessness is a rare and usually unsustainable trait in modern society. In science, Dr. Mike Bigg was a selfless leader in Cetacean Individual Recognition methodology; but, he died of cancer.

What are some of your biggest frustrations?

I guess the biggest frustration is that I think that we already have a pretty good understanding of the demographic situation facing these whales, vis a vis the human demographic situation (pollution, competition for resources, etc.), and the solution to the looming issue of Orca extinction is to downsize the human footprint on their ecosystem. Unfortunately, most of that involves doing things outside of the usual ways — paradigm shift is the wording used by the majority of salmon biologists who are predicting the extinction of wild stocks of salmon by 2100 if we continue existing ways. Because Orca whales eat salmon for their living, their fate is sealed in the existing scenario. That is pretty frustrating.

What is your operating budget?

$130-200 K per annum, currently for about five months full-time effort of five professional biologists.

What would you do with more funds?

Up until about two months ago, I would have said that we would use additional funds to continue to build an Endowment Fund to finance this research in perpetuity (which we have started); but, now I wonder if anyone could predict how much money should be allotted for Endowment for perpetuity, and where would one keep it? Perhaps maintaining the expertise is more important: Now, I think we would extend the effort to: twelve months per year for two, or perhaps three, full-time professional biologists; maintain five full-time biologists in the May-October most productive season for research; and, upgrade our equipment and vessel capabilities to endure for at least ten more years. We are doing all of this gradually, anyway; but, it is difficult to commit to aspiring young biologists without funding.

What would you consider the Center's greatest accomplishment?

Tenaciously maintaining the continuity and integrity of the Orca Survey database for over three decades, and encouraging the adoption of these whales as Icons of the Ecosystem. People do not shoot them as competitors anymore, but we have to learn to feed them.

What are some things about your organization that you wish people knew?

  • We are a small dedicated organization that does not have dreams of getting any bigger than necessary to accomplish the necessary research (keep the footprint small, since that is also what we are asking of society).
  • The largely volunteer staff personnel are not only passionate about their research, they are also college educated and bright (two PhD’s!) and could easily find other paying work, but choose to be “environmental”, even if that is considered by some to be job-averse. This research is not as easy as it looks — certainly not any easier than many other remarkable human achievements. We build upon what we have done, and we constantly strive for perfection.

What is your dream for the Center for Whale Research?

To be a part of the awareness shift that human society must make that can result in both Orca whales and humans thriving in the Pacific Northwest seven generations from now.

Why is it important to be a selfless person?

When a person accepts that he/she is more complete by being a part of something bigger than oneself (a partner in marriage, a member of society, a member of a species, one of many living things), he/she can share in the bliss that is much larger than the part. It is actually a pretty cheap way of enjoying more by sharing more of yourself. The obverse, being selfish or taking advantage of others, typically leads to repercussions that are painful, so why go that road?

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?

I would change the notion that Man is against Nature to Man is part of Nature.

What do you believe to be the biggest challenge facing our planet today?

Transitioning from the artifice of financial “management” of resources to the reality of ecological survival, with H. sapiens being one of many icon species. I do not think the planet cares if we are among the survivors, but we should.

What do you think will be our planet’s biggest challenge in the future?

Ten years from now, we (H. sapiens varieties) will still be squabbling over money, resources, and belief systems, and today’s biggest challenge will still be there.

Twenty-five and fifty years from now - probably, the same, but a larger “biggest challenge” will be there with less money (value) and resources, and out-of-control belief systems.

A hundred years from now things may settle down with a much smaller, or perhaps no, human population; and, the planet will evolve some very interesting life forms from what is left.

If there is one place or issue out there in the world you could personally explore, what would it be?

I am in the place (Pacific Northwest, North America, Planet Earth), and the issue is to preserve (at least here, while we can, for as long as we can) the health of the natural ecosystem that supports wildlife and human life. The trick in this is to not destroy the fabric of interconnectedness that exists between living things and Earth’s elements, by introducing changes and compounds that cannot be viable in the time frame of normal evolutionary pace. Also, be kind to animals. Stasis is not the goal, nor is Apocalypse — something in between is more like it.

What is the key to living a happy life?

Doing your best, knowing you do your best, and accepting (even hoping) someone will come along, respect that, and do even better. Then retire!

What land mammal would you compare an orca to?

An elephant for its matriarchal, matrifocal sociobiology; for its brainpower and memory; and, for its size.

What is the difference between a "Transient" and a "Resident" Orca whale?

"Transient" killer whales are meat-eaters. They regularly travel several hundred miles hunting for seals, sea lions, and other large mammals. They travel in small packs and, generally speaking, tend not to stay in one area for any length of time, thus the name "transient."

"Resident" Orca whales, on the other hand, eat primarily fish, catching salmon, schooled herring, or even the occasional rockfish. Resident orca whales travel in larger groups and collectively cooperate to locate and catch schooling fish. Local resident Orca whales spend a high percentage of time in the waters of Washington State following the many regional salmon runs, thus the term "resident."

Why are the Southern Residents "more active" than the Northerns, as you said in the film?

I think that Southern Residents have had much more close contact with humans and watercraft than Northern Residents, and have found that humans react with altered behavior and noisy squeals when they conduct percussive and aerial behaviors (tail-lobs and breaches). While these percussive and aerial behaviors are in their normal repertoire, in Southern Residents they are often clearly directed at and exaggerated for the human/vessel presence. These whales are habitual mimics, so once a behavioral trait gets started it persists.

Do you ever feel like the whales are like your children?

No, but sometimes I feel like the mothers are content to let me baby-sit.

How do you identify killer whales?

Killer whales have a ‘dorsal fin’ and ‘saddle’ patch — the grey area behind the dorsal fin — that are distinctive to each individual whale. Whale researchers use detailed photographs of the saddle patch and dorsal fin to identify unique characteristics — including nicks, scratches, and other marks — that distinguish individual whales from each other.

What is the reason for the difference in dorsal fins between males and females?

We now see that adult males and adult females have clearly different roles in a rather complex society and environment. The males are not mates in a lasting sense, but are “momma’s boys” for life. With no “child-rearing” obligations to speak of, their role is more toward food gathering and siring (when required). Food, in this case, involves elusive prey species that typically require herding, corralling, and intimidating. Being big and making a big splash, not to mention being stronger and diving deeper, provides a useful “function” in the extended family while hunting. Form follows function, so big splash paddles (fins, flippers, flukes) are more useful in this role.

How long was it before you realized the extent of the mother-son relationship? Do female offspring also stay close to their mother throughout their lives?

We thought that we would have the lifestyle of this population figured out within five years of beginning the study, but we found that neither gender offspring dispersed from the maternal group in that time. Nor did they in ten years, nor in fifteen, nor twenty. Apparently, they never disperse in the piscivorous societies, and in the “Transient” societies dispersal may be simply an artifact of the size of their range and foraging strategy; i.e., they could be forty miles apart and hunting “together” while we are studying in an area twenty miles across.

How do they hunt?

Killer whales use ‘echo-location’ to locate and capture prey. They produce and emit a rapid sequence of sound pulses that bounce off objects (e.g.: fish, rocks, other whales, etc.), enabling them to find and catch prey, even in the dark.

Why are orcas black and white?

Just as military airplanes are colored light on the undersides and dark on top during wartime -- making them less visible from both above and below -- so too are the whales. Their markings serve as a camouflage to hide their presence when in search of food. In the dark undersea world, the whale’s white areas also tend to create the illusion of much smaller objects, while the black body virtually disappears in the darkness -- allowing the whale to visually appear to be much less of a threat than it actually is.

If an orca were a person, who - or what kind of person - would it be?

An Australian aboriginal for wandering travels and song lines.

How are J1 and J2 doing? Can you give us an update?

J1 is alive and well as of yesterday. He was following a young female last week. J2 is still alive and well as of yesterday.

How long do orcas typically live?

Years ago we calculated the mean lifespan of males at 29.4 years and females at 50.2 years, and maximum lifespan at 50-60 and 80-90 years respectively. These calculations can now be revisited with more data, but they are probably still very close.

How long can an orca hold its breath?

I have timed individual dive durations of some males at 27 minutes, but typically surfacing intervals for several breaths occur four to seven minutes apart. The whales are near the surface for two or three minutes while breathing every twenty to forty seconds; then dive again for four to seven minutes.

Do you see orca babies spyhopping? Is it an instinct or something that they learn?

Baby orcas learn to spyhop by mimicking other whales, usually mom first.

Are the members of the pod used to your boat? Do you think they know you?

I believe that all of the SRKW’s are used to my boat, and many of the whales probably “know” me. That is, they probably recognize my fuzzy face. I am pretty sure that they recognized my dog, Tsuchi, years ago.

Do you agree with Paul Spong that we shouldn't let people (outside of scientists/biologists that are studying them) interact with orcas in nature, in boats?

I do not agree with Paul Spong regarding benign interaction with orcas in nature, mostly because I would not know where to draw the line and I do not think that scientists/biologists are a special class of people. The reality is that millions of people go out on the water in boats for a myriad of reasons, and the interactions will occur ad hoc whether or not we “let” people participate.

I think that it is sufficient that people be aware of the risks to both people and whales by certain types of interactions; that they be courteous; and, that they back off when the whales or an experienced authority indicates they should back off. These whales will bow ride vessels underway, investigate or avoid vessels in their path according to their 3-D whim and abilities, and they will do both the expected and the unexpected at times of their choosing.

Obviously, the shooting, depth charging, circling and netting activities of human behavior are mostly relegated to the past. We should, however, consider the cumulative effects of continuing human behavior toward whales, and do so without bias insofar as possible. At least we should recognize human bias in these situations and evaluate its significance to the whales.

So orcas are not still hunted and captured?

Not in waters adjacent to North America, however there is the possibility of this in other countries.

Who do you think will take over your work eventually?

We have several young PhD candidates and other very dedicated volunteers, but it will take awhile for us to build a funding structure that provides realistic employment opportunities for my successors. I have not been very concerned about security or self in this line of work — perhaps I was simply born with too much curiosity and adventurous energy to restrain, and too little “personality” to protect.