In early May, I meet Balcomb in his cluttered yard on San Juan Island. He's trying to find the source of a leak on his Boston Whaler. His wood-framed house, which also serves as headquarters for his Center for Whale Research, sits perched atop the rocky shores of the Haro Strait, a popular orca hangout; Balcomb says he sees them about 80 days a year from his deck. Inside, there's gear all over the place—spotting scopes, cameras, tool kits—from a recent expedition to California. In the middle of it all, on a table, sits an enormous killer whale skull that he picked up in Japan in 1975, when he was a flier and oceanographic specialist for the U.S. Navy.
Balcomb, of medium build, with a ruddy, sun-baked face and a salt-and-pepper beard, has been carefully photographing, cataloging, and observing the Puget Sound orcas—also known as the Southern Residents—since he was contracted by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 1976 to assess the impact of the marine-park captures. Many people assumed there were hundreds of orcas around Puget Sound. After identifying each individual killer whale by its markings, Balcomb found that there were just 70 left.
Since then, he's become the Southern Residents' scientific godfather, noting every birth and death, and plotting family connections. The population, he says, is now at 85 orcas, but he won't know for sure until they show up this summer. Talking on his sun porch, Balcomb stresses that one of the most important things to know about killer whales like Tilikum is that, in the wild, they live in complex and highly social family pods of 20 to 50 animals. The pods are organized around the females. The matriarch is usually the oldest female (some live to 80 or more), who has a wealth of experience and knowledge about where food can be found. Within the pod, mothers are at the center of smaller family groups. Males, who can live to 50 or 60 years, stay with their mothers their entire lives and often die not long after she does. According to Balcomb, separation is not a minor issue.
The Southern Resident population is made up of three distinct pods. Each pod might travel some 75 miles a day, following the salmon, and vocalizing almost constantly to keep the entire group updated on who's where and whether there are fish around. Killer whales are highly intelligent. They coordinate in the hunt, share food freely, and will help an injured or ill member of the pod stay on the surface to breathe. Most striking is the sophistication of their dialect. Each family group within a pod uses the same vocalizations, or vocabulary, and there are also shared vocalizations between pods. Balcomb says he can usually tell which pod is about to turn up simply by the sounds he hears through a hydrophone.
The social and genetic connections that bind orcas in the wild are intense. There's breeding between the Puget Sound pods. Sometimes they'll all come together at once and go through a distinctive greeting ceremony before mixing. But they will have absolutely nothing to do with the genetically distinct, transient killer whales that sometimes pass through their waters. (Transients travel in much smaller groups over vast distances and mostly feed on marine mammals instead of fish.) "When you get born into the family, you are always in the family. You don't have a house or a home that is your location," says Balcomb. "The group is your home, and your whole identity is with your group." Aggression between members of a pod almost never occurs in the wild, he adds.
Puget Sound is small enough that Balcomb used to run into Goldsberry from time to time. Despite their differences, the two men would talk killer whales, drink Crown Royal, and trade stories. Today, Goldsberry, 76, lives about 100 miles away, in a small, ground-level condo near Sea-Tac Airport. His only water view is of a man-made lake, and when I go to see him he's busy drilling a walrus tusk that's been made into a cribbage board. Goldsberry has a square head, with close-cropped white hair. His health is fragile and he has an oxygen tube clipped to his nose. But he still has the beefy arms of a waterman, and he appears unmoved by the controversy of his hunting days. "We showed the world that killer whales were good animals and all of a sudden people said, 'Hey, leave these animals alone,'" he says, sipping a mug of vodka and ice. "I had to make a living."
Goldsberry has mostly kept his mouth shut about his work for SeaWorld and doesn't much like talking to reporters. "I'm only speaking with you because those idiots out there, mainly the politicians, want to release all the killer whales," he growls. "You might as well put a gun to the whales' heads." He spends the next couple of hours telling me about his cowboy days in the orca business: how he helped build the global trade, how he kept one step ahead of Greenpeace and activists, and how he battled the media, dropping one TV newsman's camera into the water, asking, "I wonder if this floats?"
Goldsberry says he always got the resources he needed to keep the killer whales coming, and developed relationships with other marine parks around the world, which would often hold killer whales for him, many of which would eventually end up at SeaWorld. (Balcomb calls it Goldsberry's "whale laundry.") "I would go into SeaWorld and say, 'I need a quarter of a million' or 'a half-million dollars,' and they put it in my suitcase," he says with a grin. "It was good, catching animals. It was exciting. I was the best in the world. There is no question about it."