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.
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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.