Ken Balcomb documenting whales in the late 1980s (Photo: Courtesy Center for Whale Research)
Ken Balcomb documenting whales in the late 1980s

Is It Too Late for the Southern Resident Orcas?

Researcher Ken Balcomb has spent more than half his life studying the iconic killer whales of Washington’s San Juan Islands and raising awareness about their struggle for survival. Now he may have run out of time.

He still watches from the house. The west side is a wall of picture windows, with a deck that runs its length; a railing leans toward the water with anticipation. Yet what hangs in the damp Northwest air is dread. Instead of counting who is there, he’s looking for who is missing. The Southern Resident killer whales still come by, and sure, people get excited about one here and a couple there, and every so often they all come together, but it’s not like it used to be. There are 74 individuals left, mostly males and non-reproducing females. There are a handful of babies, but most of them won’t make it.

Ken Balcomb, 80 but still rugged, is wearing a brown plaid shirt open like a jacket, an “Orca Freedom Concert” T-shirt, and jeans with a chunky brass-buckled belt sporting a Native killer whale motif. He resembles a gentle bear, all back and shoulders and a face covered in a thick beard. It’s the face of someone who has spent most of his life on the water. Like the warmth of a log fire, the stories he’s collected take some encouragement and are slow to get going, but if you stay awhile, there’s nothing like them. It’s the summer of 2020, and we’re at the Center for Whale Research, which is also Ken’s house. The 1960s cedar-shingled bungalow sits on a grassy clearing just up from the high-tide line of Haro Strait on the northwestern edge of San Juan Island in Washington State. 

Not one for small talk, Ken starts clicking on computer files displaying killer whale fins. “So here we have J26, right side and left side. Well, it’s J26, but it’s not a catalog-quality picture, so we’ll just use this to confirm that he was here today.” This is called proof of presence.

Proof of presence is slim these days. When I was a researcher here 21 years ago, these whales spent almost every day from May through September around the San Juan Islands. Since then sightings have become fewer and fewer. This summer the Southern Residents didn’t appear until July; they stayed 24 days, then left for the whole of August, coming back for only a few days in September. 

“I’m going to sell the house. Or rent it out,” Ken tells me. “I don’t want to be here. It’s unlike the past.”

He points to a poster behind me. Covering two walls are large-format versions of the ID catalog, family trees for all the individuals in the Southern Resident killer whale population. There are two kinds of boxes on the poster—ones with photos of fins and ones without. The ones with fins show whales that are still alive. The ones without show a name, date of birth, and date of death.

 “Look at all the frickin’ tombstones,” he says. 

Every year researchers prune the catalog of who is missing and who is dead. On the poster Ken’s pointing to, I see five fins and 22 empty boxes. “There is zero possibility of reproduction in here,” he says. “They are all males and a post-reproductive female. That’s nothing. That’s not going to grow.”

He points to another poster and another fin, a 46-year-old female. “She had her last calf ten years ago, and before that—there, see?—a whole bunch of them in a row died.” There are three photos of living offspring, then four tombstones: born in 2000 and last seen in 2001, born in December 2002 and missing one month later, born in June 2005 and missing later that summer, born in August 2008 and missing later that month. The two living daughters have had only one surviving calf each, and both are male.

“We can go through this whole thing,” he says, waving his arms at all the posters, “and there’s only a few potentially reproductive females for the future. I’ve told the government folks that for the next 20 to 30 years you have no chance of an increased population—I mean a seriously viable population.”

This is a jarring beginning to my conversation with Ken, at odds with my nostalgia for being back at the Center for Whale Research and my optimism for a population of killer whales that I sometimes watch from the park at the top of my street in Seattle.

Ken photographing whales in 2020 (Photo: Courtesy Center for Whale Research)
J40 in front of the Center for Whale Research (Photo: Courtesy Center for Whale Research)

Ken is one of the greats. He is among the first generation of whale researchers. He has spent the past four decades studying the Southern Resident killer whale population of the Pacific Northwest and has shared his house, his yard, his run-down cars, his boat, his beer, his data, his equipment, his enthusiasm, his time, and his ideas with scientists, students, volunteers, and killer whale lovers all over the world. 

Ken never followed a well-defined academic career path. There’s been no office with his name on the door, no promotions, no pay raises, no prestigious publications, no institute, no health insurance, and no ambitions beyond learning and sharing as much as he can about whales. As a teenager, he walked the vast and wild beaches of Point Reyes, California, searching for whale bones. After earning his bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of California at Davis, he worked as a volunteer researcher tagging gray whales in Baja California and then landed a job as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist dissecting whales at a commercial whaling station in the Bay Area. 

During the Vietnam War, he spent eight years in the Navy, five as an oceanographic specialist. His job was to listen for Soviet submarines through an extensive network of hydrophones, but he also listened for whales. When he was 30, he entered a graduate program at the University of California at Santa Cruz to study marine mammals, but he quit during the first year to sail on the tall ship Regina Maris and study marine mammals in the field. Onboard he researched humpbacks in the North Atlantic and taught marine biology to students from Harvard and the University of California. 

In 1976, Ken started counting killer whales (also called orcas from their Latin name, Orcinus orca) in the waters of Washington and British Columbia for a one-year government contract. In the 1950s and 1960s, the whales were commonly shot by fishermen who saw them as a threat to salmon populations. Then during the sixties and early seventies, 50 killer whales were taken and sold to marine parks. The captures were brutal. They involved repeated roundups using bombs, aircraft, and chase boats, and at least 12 whales died—some were tangled in nets and drowned, and others were shot with harpoon guns. The government wanted to know how many were left. Ken was hired to verify or disprove the research of Canadian biologist Mike Bigg, who was counting killer whales in the waters around British Columbia for the Canadian government. Mike had figured out that he could identify each killer whale from a photo of its unique dorsal fin and saddle patch—the grayish crescent at the base of its fin. Individual photo ID was a game changer. Instead of estimating population size, Mike and Ken could count every individual. 

In 1972, Mike discovered—and Ken later verified—that three separate populations of killer whales regularly ranged the coastal waters of British Columbia and Washington: the Northern Residents, the Southern Residents, and the Transients (later renamed Bigg’s whales after Mike, who died in 1990). The three populations do not breed or socialize with each other or use the same vocalizations. They are genetically and culturally distinct. 

Ken’s work focused on the Southern Residents, and his 1976 count revealed that there were only 71 individuals left—far fewer than everyone expected and few enough that captures in Washington waters were banned. The government census was a one-year thing, but Ken’s curiosity about these magnificent animals had set in for the long run. In the 1980s, he founded the Center for Whale Research and cobbled together funding through donations and the sale of buttons and T-shirts. Later he financed the operation by hosting paying volunteers from Earthwatch, the environmental-travel organization. The CWR enabled decades of research that tracked the uncertain recovery for this population of killer whales.

After the captures stopped, the population grew. By the mid-1990s, it was up to 98 animals. But the impacts of removing so many young animals would reverberate well beyond the 1970s. By the late 1990s, there were signs of trouble. By 2001, numbers had dropped to 78 individuals. In 2005, the Southern Residents were listed by Fish and Wildlife as an endangered population. Less than a year later, Haro Strait, the waters around the San Juan Islands, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Puget Sound were designated as critical habitats. Presumed threats to their recovery included lack of prey, vessel disturbance, and toxin pollution. Despite their protected status, their numbers continued to decline, and now the Southern Residents’ lasting existence is at stake.

Ever since Ken took a photo of a young male, J1, on April 16, 1976, he has maintained an up-to-date catalog of sightings and life history for every individual in the population. (Nowadays the individual whales are known to many by their nicknames—Ruffles, Granny, Tahlequah, Blackberry, Eclipse, and Star—as well as the alphanumeric descriptors that Ken and Mike assigned to them. Here I use the alphanumeric names, because that is how Ken talks about them.) The ID catalog underlies all the research that has been carried out on the Southern Residents, from acoustics to genetics to biometrics, and this population has become one of the most well-studied populations of marine mammals in the world.

There are three pods of Southern Residents—the J’s, K’s, and L’s. Each is made up of a few small families that usually travel, feed, and spend most of their time together. Mating and socializing occurs between and within these three pods. They feed almost exclusively on salmon, predominantly Chinook. Killer whales are long-lived animals. Females reach sexual maturity by their early teenage years and males not until their early twenties. Five of the Southern Residents from Ken’s first year of working in Haro Strait are still alive today, all females. Like people, female killer whales survive well past their reproductive years. When J2 died in 2016, she was estimated to be somewhere between 74 and 105 years old. The killer whale grandmother is the matriarch; she and her sons, daughters, grandsons, and granddaughters live together as a family unit for their whole life.

Ken has known almost all of the Southern Residents since they were born. He has watched them grow up and learn to catch salmon; he has watched them celebrate births and grieve deaths; he has watched them spy-hop, belly flop, tail-lob, fin-slap, and breach; he has watched them bear young of their own and become grandmothers and new matriarchs.

J1 heads off into the sunset on March 3, 2009.
J1 heads off into the sunset on March 3, 2009. (Photo: Courtesy Center for Whale Research)

When I worked at the Center for Whale Research, I slept in a tepee in Ken’s yard. Other researchers slept in tents, camper trailers, or bunk rooms in the house, which was more field station than home.

On my first night, I woke to the sound of killer whale blows. Unlike many sounds that could wake you while sleeping outside, exhaled air bursting out of blowholes is unmistakable. I got up and stood barefoot on the grass. I couldn’t see them, but I could tell they were right there—drawing their breath from the same air that I drew mine.

Today I pull into Ken’s driveway with reminiscence. I recognize the plum-colored 1960s Chevy Suburban (called Port) parked near the gate and the vintage Silver Streak trailer that is now penned in by knee-high grasses. The ramshackle outdoor kitchen still stands among the hemlock, the yellow “Danger: Men Cooking” sign hammered into a post. But the view is wider and more open to Haro Strait and the Olympic Peninsula than I remembered. And the chicken coop is gone, the vegetable garden is gone, the tepee, the slackline, the volleyball net and the volunteers and researchers from all over the world are gone. The property is as beautiful as ever but quiet, empty of activity, reflecting the vacantness in Haro Strait.

I’ve followed the Southern Resident story. I’m up-to-date on the latest science. I’ve seen drone pictures revealing the telltale signs of starvation: a skinny “waistline” just behind the skull, known as a peanut head. I know that hormone levels measured in scat samples reveal stressed-out and physically compromised animals. I know that there are not enough females and that they are dying young, too young to replace females who are now too old to reproduce. I know that calf mortality is high and the number of full-term pregnancies is low. I know that the Southern Residents’ fat harbors high loads of toxic PCBs—pollutants long ago banned but accumulative and persistent in the orcas’ bodies as they age. I know that when food is scarce, these poisoned fat stores enter the whales’ metabolic system, that mother killer whales draw on these fat reserves to produce milk for their calves, and that pregnant females pass these toxins on to their fetuses. I know that in 2016, six whales died. I know that each whale needs 20 Chinook salmon per day to survive, and I know that they are barely getting that, because from British Columbia to California, wild Chinook runs are also in trouble. The Southern Residents used to cruise through their range feeding from one Chinook run to the next. But river dams, overfishing, habitat degradation, and competition with hatchery fish have radically depleted their primary food source and in some cases have decimated seasonally critical Chinook runs. In the places where adult Chinook still return to rivers to spawn, they are fewer, younger, and smaller than they used to be—and none are allocated for the Southern Residents in fisheries’ management plans.

I know that, compared with the days when I slept in a tepee on the west side of San Juan Island, living out my dream as a killer whale researcher, the Southern Residents are in trouble, and we’re running out of time. I know that when enough die, it will be over. But I didn’t know that time might be now.

Ken and a group of onlookers in 1990 with L10 (Photo: Courtesy Center for Whale Research)
Ken whale-watching very early on in his career (Photo: Courtesy Center for Whale Research)

On December 4, 2014, near the town of Comox on the inland coast of Vancouver Island, fishery biologist and resort owner George Bates tied a rope to the pectoral fin of a dead killer whale floating with the tide and towed the body to shore. From photographs of her left saddle patch, which clearly showed three white scratches, Ken knew before he headed up there that the dead whale was J32.

J32 was an 18-year-old female who’d had a tough start in life. When she was two, her mother died, and her grandmother and uncle took over her care. But in the span of two years, they each died, too. All of these family members died young. It was J32’s young aunt, her only surviving relative, who nurtured her to adulthood. J32 was last seen alive north of San Juan Island on November 29, 2014.

The day J32’s body was found, Ken took the ferry to Victoria and drove north to Comox to attend the necropsy, which would be performed the next day by a veterinary pathologist with British Columbia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Fisheries. Ken had known J32 since her birth and had watched her every summer from the porch of his home. I wondered what that day was like for him.

“She was a real pretty specimen,” he says. (I’m not sure if he means she was pretty before or after her body became a specimen.) Although he was not part of the official necropsy team, in photos from the scene, I can see his brown plaid shirt among those who were working on the dead whale laid out on the blue tarp.

From the necropsy report that Ken wrote and posted on the Center for Whale Research website: Regrettably, and without obvious warning, J32 died in early December 2014 with a near term fetus disintegrating in her uterus ... the gross observation that J32’s blubber layer was relatively thin and dry of oil is consistent with inadequate diet for an extended period, and there was very little fecal material in the intestines....” 

The Southern Residents are in trouble, and we’re running out of time. I know that when enough die, it will be over. But I didn’t know that time might be now.

Ken watched and recorded video as the ovaries were cut out and packaged up for later analysis in Vancouver. In the left ovary he saw a “great big corpus luteum” (endocrine tissue, “what you’d expect given that she had a fetus,” Ken says), and he saw the corpus albicans (scar tissue) of at least one prior pregnancy. The right ovary didn’t have anything (“which they usually don’t”). So from one dead fetus plus scar tissue from one prior pregnancy, Ken knew that J32 had experienced at least two failed pregnancies in her short life.

When the whales starve, their pregnancies fail. Southern Resident females used to give birth once every five years, just like females in other killer whale populations. But their average birth frequency has dropped to about once every ten years. In 2017, University of Washington researcher Sam Wasser and his colleagues published a study that suggested why. Analyzing levels of reproductive hormones in scat samples from the Southern Resident females, they found that 69 percent of pregnancies are unsuccessful and about a third of these fail relatively late in gestation or immediately postpartum, when the energetic cost to the mother is especially high. Their research points to nutritional stress (read: not enough Chinook salmon) as the leading cause of pregnancy failure. The year J32 died, there were 78 Southern Residents. Twenty-eight months had passed without a successful birth. To lose J32 and her unborn calf was a big blow. More from Ken’s necropsy report: “The critical point for [the Southern Residents’] recovery may already have passed. I hope not, but it will soon pass if we do not take immediate action.” This he wrote in 2014.

There were five successful births in 2015 but none in 2016. None in 2017. One in 2018, and one in 2019. In 2020, several females were conspicuously pregnant, yet there were only two successful births. One of the calves is male, and the gender of the other is unknown. There have been no calves born in K pod since 2011. There are 21 reproductively capable females left, but only ten of these have had successful births in the past ten years. 

From Ken’s report, it’s clear that to him J32 was more than a reproductive female: “With that nurturing from grandmother and auntie, including perhaps a little milk, J32 made it through her infancy and into her teens to be a very vivacious young whale, full of energy.”

I ask Ken which whale has been the hardest to lose. 

“L112.”

L112 was a female born in February 2009, the second calf for her 18-year old mother, L86. Over the previous decade, most of the whales born in L pod were males. L112 was one of the few females and a crucial individual for that pod as well as the Southern Resident population.

Ken took the first baby snapshots of L112 when she was about six weeks old off the coast of Victoria. It is typical for calves to stay close to their moms for their first three years, but Ken describes the intimate relationship between L86 and L112 as special. They were constantly touching each other with tokens of fondness.

Ken talks about L112 as my father-in-law talks about his young grandkids. He describes her as a healthy, athletic, and spry young whale. “She’d breach and carry on! And having her dead—killed like that—was a real tragedy.”

J2 and J1 in 2009
J2 and J1 in 2009 (Photo: Courtesy Center for Whale Research)

L112’s body washed up on the shore of Long Beach, Washington, on February 11, 2012. She was just three years old. It was gray and rainy when two men from Hill Auto Body and Towing Inc. arrived to haul her body away. “I think we can winch it up in the trailer,” says one of them in video footage taken at the scene—as if she were a broken-down Toyota Corolla. The men stand around the truck as they operate the hydraulic levers. As the line goes taut, the tip of L112’s tail fluke carves an arc in the wet sand. When the men finish, L112 lies on a green tarp on the back of the flatbed.

Her body was taken to the nearby Cape Disappointment State Park, where a team of biologists and volunteers performed the necropsy. The website for Cascadia Research (one of the nonprofits participating in the exam) shows a photo of this beautiful young whale lying oddly in the muddy grass at one of the campsites, with a fire pit and picnic table in the background. The volunteers and biologists wear orange and yellow waterproof bibs and jackets and dark brown rubber boots. They mill about behind the whale, setting out plastic bins and plastic bags and vials and knives on foldout white tables. They put on latex gloves. There is a large blue Coleman cooler that is not for their lunch. The young whale, which seemed so small in the water, looks huge on the ground. Her mouth is fixed in a gruesome grin that shows 12 of her teeth on the left mandible, and her tongue is black and swollen with death. 

In the executive summary of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Technical Memorandum NMFS-NWFSC-133 Wild Animal Mortality Investigation: Southern Resident Killer Whale L-112 Final Report, the authors concluded that “blunt trauma to the head and neck is the prime consideration for the cause of mortality. Despite extensive diagnostic evaluation, the cause of the head and neck injuries could not be determined.”

Ken tells me, “I have no doubts about what happened to her. But very few others think that I am right.”

“What do you think happened?”

“Well, I pretty much know what happened.”

Ken explains that L112’s death coincided with a Canadian naval exercise off Vancouver Island. Five days before L112’s body was found, the Royal Canadian navy’s HMCS Ottawa was using sonar and detonating explosions to simulate an attack. These activities occurred within the designated critical habitat of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Area 3 (the Strait of Juan de Fuca). However, the warship and the whale’s death are considered unrelated—at least in the official report: “Sonar and small underwater explosive activity was confirmed by the Royal Canadian Navy … but no marine mammals were observed during the training activities.”

The Ottawa’s explosions and sonar were picked up by marine-mammal-detecting research hydrophones located in the area in the dark winter hours, around 4:30 A.M.—a time when it would have been hard to see or “observe” marine mammals. Eighteen hours later, the hydrophones detected L-pod calls.

After the necropsy at the Cape Disappointment campground, L112’s head was chopped off, loaded onto a truck, frozen, and shipped to Friday Harbor Laboratories on San Juan Island. Ken was present as an observer for the cranial dissection. “Half her brain was liquefied, and half wasn’t. It was a high-energy blunt-force trauma,” Ken says. The NOAA report and the scientists who led the dissection concluded that there was not enough data to suggest the source of the blunt-force trauma, but Ken maintains that the naval explosions killed L112.

“Could the injuries have happened after she died, during transport perhaps?” I suggest.

“There are no credible arguments that the trauma was incurred postmortem, and there was no external sign of a ship strike. The conclusion of everybody is that L112 died from blunt-force trauma. The issue is from what source.”

The authors of the NOAA technical memorandum continue the paragraph that rules out the connection between the Ottawa and the whale as follows: “The naval activities occurred approximately 340 kilometers to the north (downwind) of the stranding location, making blast injury as a result of explosive detonations from the exercise an unlikely contributor to the stranding.” And later in the report, they conclude: “This multi-disciplinary investigation could not determine the source of the blunt trauma, despite gathering and evaluating all available information on the whales, the environment, and human activities.”

Ken tells me that the hardest thing for him to deal with emotionally is the dismissal of effort and understanding. “If we don’t really know, then we don’t have to address it. And that’s where you want to stay? No! Let’s find out,” he says. “What do we really know? We know she was there, we know that the Ottawa was there, and we know they were using sonar and setting off bombs.”

We also know that in March the Southern Residents (and in particular L pod) typically head to the mouth of the Columbia River—15 miles from where L112’s body was found—to coincide with the largest spring Chinook run in the region. We know the mother-daughter bond was tight. We know killer whales grieve.

It would take a healthy adult whale about two days to swim from where L pod was heard on the hydrophones to where L112’s body was found. L112 was estimated to have died four to ten days prior to the stranding. That means that L112 died between February 1 and February 7. The Ottawa was detonating explosions on February 4, 5, and 6.

Ken believes that the blasts from the Ottawa killed L112 and that the mother pushed her daughter’s body as she and her family swam south for food. It wouldn’t be the first time a killer whale mother had pushed a dead calf. In 2018, J35 pushed her dead calf for a staggering 17 days and 1,000 miles. But if Ken’s theory is correct, it would be the first record of a mother killer whale pushing a three-year-old; at 12 feet long, a calf of this size would be a significant burden. It’s hard to imagine. However, before 2018, a mother pushing a newborn for 1,000 miles would also have been hard to imagine. 

Ken tells me that the reaction to his hypothesis was, “‘Bullshit, you’re off your rails!’ No one wants to know that our government killed her or that their government killed her.”

In Ken’s written response to the NOAA’s technical memorandum on the matter, he ends with: “These comments are dedicated to L86 and L112, the most overtly affectionate mother/offspring pair of whales that I have ever seen. Rest in Peace L112, we miss you.”

Since the time of L112’s death, only one new female calf has joined L pod. When L112 died, there were 85 Southern Residents. When I talked to Ken last summer, there were 72. Since then, two new calves were born. Ken says when the number reaches 70, he’s outta here.

J32 breaching in 2013
J32 breaching in 2013 (Photo: Courtesy Center for Whale Research)

I feel like the hero is about to put down his sword—even though Ken would never consider himself a hero or a fighter. 

He tells me that his job is just to gather facts. He has spent his life gathering facts about whales. Here are some facts: The Southern Residents have lived here longer than us. They are logwood black and bone white. Even though we see their iconic image leaping off bread packets, travel mugs, frozen salmon fillets, Frisbees, billboards, beer bottles, and chocolate bars, they are dying. The whales are dying from starvation, ship strikes, blunt force trauma, noise pollution, toxic pollution, failed pregnancies, failed births, and what scientists call “a failure to thrive.” We’ve lost 38 individual killer whales since 2010. And that doesn’t count the failed pregnancies or dead neonates that we never got to see. There are not enough reproductive females for the population to grow, and there are not enough Chinook salmon for the existing whales to thrive.

The Southern Residents pulled through the shooting era and pulled through the capture era, but if Ken is right, they will not pull through the conservation era. They are long-lived animals, so they will still be here—yet they will be gone. 

I’m having a hard time hearing Ken when he tells me, “We’re at the point—we’re past the point—of no return.” I’m caught somewhere between denial and grief.

I don’t like the idea of Ken’s tenure on the west side of San Juan Island coming to an end. Knowing he’s there is a comfort to me. While I’m making dinner, he’s still fighting. If he lays down his sword, it shifts a burden of responsibility. Don’t our heroes need to keep fighting?

Perhaps. But perhaps they also need to tell it like it is. I think that’s what Ken is doing now. And I’m uncomfortable. I’m afraid of what will happen next. I’m afraid that he’s right. Or wrong. I’m afraid of the policy ramifications, the environmental backlash. I’m afraid of the loss. Or maybe when it comes to telling it like it is, what I’m really afraid of is that nothing will happen.

Since I visited Ken last summer, the U.S. Navy was granted permission for seven years of training activities along the West Coast, including within the Southern Residents’ critical designated habitat. The environmental-impact assessment estimates an “incidental take”—defined as harm, harass, or kill—of up to 51 Southern Residents. Approval was granted despite harsh criticism. 

As Ken and I talk, I feel like I’m struggling to accept a prognosis while he is writing the eulogy.

“Did you ever think it would come to this?”

“Oh, I never thought it would come to this.”

There’s sorrow in his voice. He reveals that he’s “already having portions of empty feelings with these guys”—the kind of empty feelings he experienced when his parents died 20 years back. And he admits that it’s hard being the bearer of bad news. 

The Southern Residents pulled through the shooting era and pulled through the capture era, but if Ken is right, they will not pull through the conservation era. They are long-lived animals, so they will still be here—yet they will be gone.

What really saddens him is what the next generation won’t get to enjoy. “People go to Lime Kiln”—the whale-watching lookout—“and get all excited when they see a whale go by,” he tells me. “But jeez, you should have been here when we saw 87 whales go by and they’d be jumping and carrying on. That was excitement! I’d like to be more optimistic, but the math just doesn’t work. We’re not leaving the campsite better.” 

We’re not losing orca populations worldwide, but we are losing this one. And according to Ken, “The Southern Residents are the indicators for a healthy Pacific Northwest ecosystem,” so I guess we’re losing that, too. What he wants to leave future generations with now is the story of the Southern Residents. As the stories of lost tribes are told, so the stories of the lost Southern Residents will be told.

He tells me a story about the early years on the west side of San Juan Island, a story about feeling accepted by the killer whales. “From me to you, and to your shoe and to this wastebasket, and over here and over there,” he gestures all around the two of us in the research shop, “there would be 30 or 40 whales just resting with you, with the boat in the middle.” He laughs inwardly as he remembers and explains that, you know, he’d have to leave sometimes to go off and do something else, but they’d all come over and gather around the boat again as if to say, Hey! Where’d you go? They would show off their undersides, and they would show off their babies. Heck, sometimes they would even leave Ken to babysit, like the time mom J4 left her new little one with a few other youngsters playing in the bow wave of Ken’s 31-foot boat while she and the adults went to feed. “I miss going off into the sunset with whales lined up on both sides. When they were just going the way we were going, like we were the point whale. And we all just went to Nanaimo!”

As I listen to Ken’s stories, I realize how different the world looks when you have 45 years of observations at your back. I wonder how many other veteran scientists are out there looking back with a perspective that my children and I will never have. This long view feels precious. I want to see what Ken sees. And I don’t want our conversation to end.

“What will we lose if we let the Southern Residents go extinct?” I ask.

“Our minds.”

Lead Photo: Courtesy Center for Whale Research