Saying Goodbye to Ken Balcomb, Whale Scientist and Defender

Renowned field scientist created extensive data base to identify and track whale species, advocated over decades for their protection from U.S. Navy and other powerful interests.

Ken Balcomb III

Ken Balcomb III

Credit: Imaginary Forces

It’s hard to imagine that whales have ever had a better friend than marine scientist Ken Balcomb III, who died at the age of 82 in December.  It isn’t just that he studied them for decades.  He fought for them, he defended them against powerful adversaries, and, in the case of beaked whales in the Bahamas and killer whales in the Pacific Northwest, he knew each of them personally.

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 none.  When they were threatened, he refused to be silent.

A number of us at NRDC were privileged to work with him during the past more than two decades—not just incidentally but in sustained defense of the species to which, over the years, he devoted his study and advocacy most intensely.  In doing so, we relied heavily on his expertise, guided by his first-hand observations in the field, and grateful for his willingness time and again to take a stand in the public arena in defense of marine mammals under anthropogenic assault.

On behalf of NRDC and its millions of members and activists, we will never forget Ken Balcomb—or the animals he fought so hard to protect.  In the following paragraphs we recall some of his work—and our work together—relating to two specific threats: (1) military sonar and the impacts of undersea noise to whales and other marine species and (2) the lower Snake River dams and their impact on the Southern Resident orcas. 

1. The U.S. Navy and Undersea Noise (Joel Reynolds)  

Over decades Ken Balcomb came to know by sight all of the beaked whales he studied in the Bahamas and orcas he studied in the Salish Sea, creating an identification data base that documented their existence, their numbers, their familial relationships, and ultimately—tragically—their decline in the face of human threats.  He forced the U.S. Navy to concede the harm to marine mammals caused by its high intensity active sonar, and more than any single individual he elevated that harm from a military secret to an issue of global environmental concern.  As described in detail in the prize-winning best-seller War of the Whales (Joshua Horwitz (Simon & Shuster (2014)) and highlighted in the Emmy-winning film Sonic Sea (Discovery Channel 2017), this became a major focus of Ken’s adult life.

Ken Balcomb and NRDC’s Joel Reynolds at Smugglers Cove

Ken Balcomb and NRDC’s Joel Reynolds at Smugglers Cove

Credit: Imaginary Forces

I first met Ken when we appeared on a panel together at the Press Club in Washington, D.C. in early May 2000.  He was the main act in a press conference focusing on the deadly impacts of sonar on marine mammals and, in particular that day, on the Navy’s causal role in a mass stranding of beaked whales in the Bahamas on March 15, 2000.  In the wake of secret military training exercises using mid-range sonar in Grand Bahama Canyon, Ken had definitively documented the beaching, just feet from his winter research station at Sandy Point on Abaco Island, of the beaked whales he had been studying for over a decade.  On that day in March the entire population died on the beaches or disappeared as the direct result of an excruciating acoustic exposure that they couldn’t escape.

Ken Balcomb attempting rescue of stranding beaked whale, Sandy Point, Bahamas (March 15, 2000)

Ken Balcomb attempting rescue of stranding beaked whale, Sandy Point, Bahamas (March 15, 2000)

Credit: Diane Claridge

Despite intense pressure from scientific colleagues at the U.S. Navy and National Marine Fisheries Service to stay silent, Ken chose to act.  He not only spoke at the Press Club, but he agreed to be interviewed for a 60 Minutes segment on the stranding, featuring videotape he had taken of the event and subsequent forensic analysis of the heads of several of the deceased animals. Three years later, in May 2003, when a Navy destroyer used its sonar while traversing the Haro Strait in Puget Sound—by remarkable coincidence within sight of Ken’s summer home and research center at Smugglers Cove on San Juan Island—he again video-documented the intense sound and its devastating effects, this time to orcas and harbor porpoises. 

Over the years he became the lead witness in successful lawsuits filed by NRDC and others against the Navy and NMFS challenging the issuance of permits for various types of active sonar, from global deployment of low frequency active sonar to more geographically focused use of mid-range sonar, the principal submarine detection system of militaries around the globe.  Based on his marine mammal expertise and his stint as a sound surveillance officer in the Navy, he argued that testing and training with this technology could be done more safely, with greater care in its timing and location to avoid harmful acoustic exposure of marine mammals.

He was undeterred by the fact that his advocacy on behalf of marine mammals cost him in professional relationships and government funding of his research.  He was determined to get to the bottom of the mass strandings that were occurring on his doorstep and elsewhere—and he did.  Eventually the Navy conceded not only its role in the Bahamas stranding but, more widely, the role of mid-range sonar in strandings documented by scientists around the world

When in 2004 Congress directed the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission (“MMC”) to convene a federal advisory committee to investigate the impacts of and recommend solutions to the impacts of anthropogenic sound on marine mammals, Ken was among the scientific experts invited to join, along with policy experts from NRDC, the oil industry, and the Navy.  That contentious three-year process and the MMC’s final report to Congress in 2007 were a direct result of his first-hand documentation of acoustic harm to marine mammals and the oceans.

Ken Balcomb, with NRDC’s Michael Jasny and Joel Reynolds, at UW Burke Museum screening of Sonic Sea

Ken Balcomb, with NRDC’s Michael Jasny and Joel Reynolds, at UW Burke Museum screening of Sonic Sea

Credit: Chip Houghton

Ken had a singular positive impact on NRDC’s decades-long campaign to shine a light on the growing threat of ocean noise—through litigation, administrative advocacy, activism, film, and media. Relentlessly, he chose the defense of whales and other marine mammals over his personal self-interest. For this—and for his decades of painstaking scientific research—he has been and will remain an inspiration to anyone who has ever been captivated by their magic and unique majesty.

2. Snake River Dams and the Southern Resident Orcas (Giulia Good Stefani)

For 46 years, Ken Balcomb counted the Pacific Northwest’s Southern Resident killer whales. But Ken’s renowned annual Orca Survey was always about so much more than the numbers. Ken spent thousands of hours on the water amidst the K, L, and J pod orca matriarchal families and amassed the most intimate study of any population of whales on the planet.

Year-round Ken and his Center for Whale Research team faithfully documented the arrival, movements, births, deaths, and behaviors of the Southern Resident orcas. Much of this work was done from Ken’s front porch on the west side of San Juan Island.

Ken Balcomb on his front porch on San Juan Island

Ken Balcomb on his front porch on San Juan Island

Credit: Peterson/Hawley Productions, producers of the film Dammed to Extinction

Because of their proximity to shore, this population of orcas was the one targeted in the late 1960s and early 1970s for capture, with almost 40 animals snatched and 13 more killed in the span of a few terrifying years: the orcas were sent around the globe to be put on display at marine amusement parks. It was shortly after the captures that Ken’s watch began, and without his titan commitment to these orcas, we would have never understood the joys or ongoing troubles of the Southern Residents.

Ken understood that orcas have culture, complex relationships, playful spirits, and deep family bonds long before the entire planet tuned into the tragedy of J35 (or Tahlequah) and her tour of grief: the mother orca traveled for 1,000 miles with her dead newborn calf on her nose. He shared his observations of their innerworkings and with little more than a boat, camera, and well-positioned front porch, inspired a community to know, love, and fight for the orcas.

Ken’s research formed the basis for the orcas’ being listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2005, and Ken taught us all that while the orcas face a barrage of daily threats, the paramount stressor for the Southern Resident orcas is a shortage of their prey: Chinook salmon. The orcas are rapidly starving towards extinction. “No fish, no black fish,” he said.

L95 (or Nigel), a 20 year old male Southern Resident orca that died from a fungal infection.

L95 (or Nigel), a 20 year old male Southern Resident orca that died from a fungal infection.

Credit: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, Photo taken under Federal Permits NMFS 15569 / DFO SARA 388

Ken spoke truth to power. I heard him testify at numerous public hearings and meetings that the root of the orcas’ decline is four salmon-killing hydroelectric dams on the Snake River. It is the shortage of salmon, Ken explained, that compounds all other stressors. And it was Ken that was reporting on poor body condition, orcas with peanut-shaped heads from starvation, and lost orca pregnancies.

Ken traveled to inland Idaho to visit the salmon strongholds the orcas depend on. It’s in the cold mountain streams of Idaho and northeastern Oregon that life begins for some of the region’s fattiest and most nutritious spring Chinook salmon. Ken understood that for his whales to weather summer in the Salish Sea and bring their pregnancies to term, they needed to fill up in the spring on Columbia Basin salmon.

Giulia Good Stefani, author, on Center for Whale Research vessel

NRDC's Giulia Good Stefani on Center for Whale Research vessel

Credit: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

In 2018, Ken served on Governor Inslee’s Salmon Orca Task Force, and he spoke forcefully about the need to breach the Snake River dams. He wore the cause on his T-shirts. If he didn’t know that his years were numbered then, he certainly knew that time was running out for the orcas.

For years Ken said, “I’m not going to count them to zero — at least not quietly.” And Ken did live to see some movement towards breaching the four dams he worked so hard to bring down.

In 2022, NOAA Fisheries admitted in its Rebuilding Interior Columbia Basin Salmon report that removing the lower Snake River dams is an “essential” step to restoring Columbia Basin salmon populations; Sen. Murray and Gov. Inslee from Washington State released a joint report finding that replacing the dams was possible; and the Biden Administration committed to development of a “durable long-term strategy to restore salmon” in the Columbia Basin to healthy and abundant levels. But Ken would be the first to point out that these are only words. The dams are still there. For the orcas, the clock still ticks.

The tally today is 73 orcas, just a fraction of their historic numbers. With the passing of Ken this past month, it feels as though that number should drop again. For anyone that witnessed his boat in the water amidst the animals he loved so dearly and knew by sight and heart has long understood that Ken and the orcas weren’t just scientist and subject—they were family. And Ken was never just interested in how we save the orcas. He saw how the orcas might save us.

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