Ken Balcomb, researcher who helped finish captivity of orcas, dies

Ken Balcomb, a researcher who spent practically 5 a long time learning the Pacific Northwest’s charismatic and endangered killer whales — and whose findings helped finish their seize for show at marine parks within the Seventies — died at a ranch on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

Surrounded by buddies, Balcomb died Thursday at 82, in accordance with the Heart for Whale Analysis, the group he based. The middle purchased the ranch alongside the Elwha River two years in the past to guard spawning grounds of Chinook salmon, which is prime meals for orcas.

The trigger was prostate most cancers, the Seattle Instances reported.

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

Balcomb first labored as a whale biologist for the federal authorities in 1963, after graduating from UC Davis. He served within the Navy throughout the Vietnam Struggle as a pilot and oceanographic specialist.

He started his life’s work with orcas in 1976, and his analysis 20 years later helped elevate alarm that the whales have been ravenous from an absence of salmon — which shaped the premise for his or her itemizing in 2005 beneath the Endangered Species Act.

Within the Sixties and Seventies, dozens of Pacific Northwest whales have been caught for show in theme parks equivalent to SeaWorld. No less than 13 orcas died within the roundups, and the brutality of the captures started to attract public outcry and a lawsuit to cease them in Washington state.

The whale-capture trade argued that there have been many orcas within the sea, and that some might be caught with out threatening the species. The Canadian and U.S. governments sought to conduct surveys to get a greater sense of the animal populations.

Orcas in Puget Sound, west of Seattle.

(Elaine Thompson / Related Press)

Following the lead of Canadian researcher Michael Bigg, who pioneered using photographic identification of particular person orcas by the form of the white “saddle patch” by their dorsal fin, Balcomb in 1976 established an annual survey of the whales.

Although Bigg’s findings had largely been doubted, Balcomb confirmed that there have been solely about 70 remaining orcas within the Pacific Northwest — after about 40% of the inhabitants have been taken into captivity or killed throughout roundups.

Balcomb continued the survey annually, following the orcas along with his binoculars in a ship, photographing them and establishing household timber of the three pods of Southern Resident killer whales.

Even after different researchers misplaced curiosity within the whales within the Eighties, Balcomb persevered, mentioned Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist with NOAA Fisheries who first met Balcomb in 1976.

Balcomb based the Heart for Whale Analysis, with little in the best way of economic assist. He documented the mid-Nineties restoration of the inhabitants to 97 whales earlier than its sudden collapse to fewer than 80 within the following years — a decline that Balcomb noticed and which shaped the premise for orcas getting endangered standing.

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

An eccentric and generally gruff scientist with a grey beard and a weathered look, Balcomb had a single-minded devotion to the whales, with their bones displayed round his San Juan Island residence in Washington state. On a stereo, he usually listened to the clicks and whistles of passing whales by way of underwater units sunk in kelp beds.

He advocated for the breaching of 4 huge dams on the Snake River to revive salmon habitats, and he had little persistence for politicians who dithered reasonably than act to save lots of the whales. “I’m not going to count them to zero — at least not quietly,” he usually mentioned.

He served on Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s orca restoration job power in 2018 however refused to signal its closing suggestions, saying that they wouldn’t do sufficient to get well the whales.

One in every of Balcomb’s most public fights concerned not orcas, however beaked whales. He was within the Bahamas in March 2000 when a beaked whale stranded itself in entrance of him. It was one in every of 17 marine mammals, principally whales, stranded within the Bahamas that day. After attempting with others to save lots of as many as they may, he reduce the heads off two whales that died and had them frozen for research — he suspected they’d been pushed from the water by navy sonar workouts occurring offshore.

One other scientist carried out necropsies and CT scans, and located that the whales had bleeding of their ear canals. When federal officers demurred about the reason for the strandings, Balcomb held a information convention in Washington, D.C., and spoke out, blaming using a brand new era of anti-submarine sonar expertise.

He additionally accused the Navy and NOAA the Nationwide Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of enjoying down the hurt that sonar induced the whales in Washington state.

“Ken wasn’t shy about making his feelings known, based on the information he had collected and seen,” Hanson mentioned. “I regularly got an earful about what we were or were not doing with regard to the whales.”

In 2020, the Heart for Whale Analysis bought a 45-acre parcel on the Elwha River referred to as Large Salmon Ranch, the place dams had been eliminated and Chinook salmon had returned to spawning grounds that had been inaccessible for the reason that early twentieth century.

“I was getting kind of tired of telling the story of whales declining, of fish declining,” Balcomb mentioned. “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 Instances reported.

Garrett and his spouse, Susan Berta, run the Orca Community, a nonprofit advocacy group primarily based on Whidbey Island.