SAN JUAN ISLAND, Wash. - Baleen hangs from the walls in Ken Balcomb’s house where others might display prints or paintings. Where some people keep coasters and coffee table books, he keeps an intact orca skull. Instead of cloth placemats he uses laminated photos of dorsal fins.
Strewn about Balcomb’s sunroom are the bones of a beaked whale that washed up on a Hawaiian beach where he was stationed as a naval officer in the early 1970s. They’ve been stored in a wooden crate for over 30 years but he’s now starting to reassemble them in the shape of their former living self. Some vertebrae hang by steel wire across the windows – strung out like giant Christmas lights replicating the natural curve of a swimming mammal’s back. A yellow sticky note reads “work in progress”.
“A bunch of the guys buried it,” Balcomb recalls, “and then I heard about it and me and my dog went out and scoured the beach for a good area and then finally she picked up on the smell and we dug it up and here it is.”
Balcomb has never stopped searching — and looking out — for whales. That lifelong pursuit has Balcomb raising hard questions about an institution that was once a big part of his life: The U.S. Navy. He’s pushed hard for an investigation into what caused the death of a young female orca. Although Balcomb has questioned whether Navy testing or training led to the whale’s death, he speaks with loyalty to the military branch he once served.
“I was in the Navy. I love the Navy. It’s a great organization,” Balcomb says.
He says he joined the Navy during the Vietnam War in no small part because he wanted to be near the water and the marine mammals he loves. Soon the men he supervised found out that they could get in good with the boss if they reported sightings of whales alongside their reports on submarine action.
But for the past 36 years Balcomb has trained his eyes on the watery horizons of Puget Sound, documenting the movements of one of the most endangered populations of whales on earth.
There are just about 86 southern resident killer whales left. Unlike transient killer whales, resident killer whales eat fish almost exclusively – preferring chinook over other salmon species. They are divided into different families or pods. J, K and L pod are the groups that call Puget Sound home. And to the people around the sound these whales are regarded as both celebrities and neighborhood pets.
But very few know these whales as well as Ken Balcomb does.
We go downstairs from his living room to the offices of the Center for Whale Research, which he runs from the lower level of his home on San Juan Island. Balcomb pulls up the iTunes window on one of the office computers and starts clicking through unlabeled audio files. First some Bob Dylan comes up accidentally. One click down and the rough static of an underwater recording comes scratching and rushing out of the speakers. And then, the wall of white underwater noise is punctuated by the pings and wails of orcas.
“Nope. Those are transients, not residents,” Balcomb says dismissing the audio after listening for two seconds at most.
The sounds that he plays next seem identical to the previous ones, to an untrained ear, but Balcomb’s face lights up – as though he were listening to a voicemail from an old friend.
“The high mewing sound is K Pod. I can hear the occasional mewing in the background. You hear that little whistly sound? That’s common in L Pod.”
And L Pod is the family that’s been on Balcomb’s mind a lot lately. In February a 3-year-old female washed up dead on the Washington coast. Ken Balcomb has some of her earliest baby pictures – as any proud parent would.
“She was just extremely vivacious - a vigorous active and cuddly whale,” Balcomb smiles. “She was just always wrapping around mom and playing with her and her brother so we …” he pauses. “You hate to get a strong attachment because you don’t want to be anthropomorphic or anything but she was definitely a little sweet animal.”
Balcomb observed L112 (or Victoria, as he named her) regularly in Puget Sound during the first years of her life. “And then the next I heard of her she was getting a postmortem on Long Beach, Washington.”
When the dead orca was found in February she showed signs of trauma –- with evidence of hemorrhaging and bruising on the right side of her head and part way down that side of her body.
Balcomb and others in the whale research community believe the use of sonar or explosives in Naval testing and training exercises may be to blame. Those suspicions have not been confirmed and the Navy has denied using any explosives or sonar during the time when the orca died.
This man’s reputation in the orca research community and his devotion to the southern resident killer whales makes him a force to be reckoned with says Deborah Giles, a Ph.D. candidate at UC Davis who has studied orca behavior in the San Juans since 2005.
“Whatever in the world might have happened to her [orca L112],” Giles says, “nobody can ignore Ken because he does have that recognition worldwide. Anybody within the whale world knows his name. Anybody within the killer whale world relies on him to some degree.”
This week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is expected to release the necropsy report from L112. But no matter what’s in the report, Ken Balcomb says he won’t stop pushing until he has a satisfactory answer to the question of how L112 died.
“We don’t have to know today what happened, what we have to do is remember this incident, remember the evidence, analyze it carefully and I’m determined to find out [what happened].”
Ken Balcomb has been monitoring this population of endangered whales since the 1970s. The death of L112, like the deaths of others in the past, is a blow.
Last year J1, also known as “Ruffles” because of the shape of his 6-foot-long dorsal fin, died at about 60 years old. Balcomb knew that iconic whale well enough to identify his call from all the other resident orcas.
Some people put stickers on their car windows with the names of loved ones who have passed away, Ken Balcomb’s license plate is “J1 RIP”.