Long after the peak of the 2015 whalewatching season is over, one of my special memories will be of Ken Balcomb, the guru of killer whale research in the Salish Sea, excitedly punching the sky with both arms at the news that killer whales had been sighted ahead.
Ken has spent thousands of hours with the southern resident killer whales whales over the span of 39 years of field research. Yet the thrill of expectation, of seeing old friends and learning new things about them, never wanes.
On June 27, for the second year in a row, Ken shared his knowledge and passion for these whales with passengers aboard an Eagle Wing boat, this time on Goldwing. XX diehard whale geeks (including crew Casey and Brett) came along for the ride, which was also a fundraiser for the Center for Whale Research that Ken heads.
First stop: Pedder Bay
Our sun-drenched five-hour adventure began with a cruise along the shoreline past Esquimalt toward Albert Head, where we stopped at Pedder Bay, a sleepy inlet with a dark history.
During the heyday of the orca “gold rush” in the 1960s and ‘70s, almost 50 killer whales were kidnapped from BC and Washington State waters and hauled off to marine parks. Pedder Bay was the site of four of those captures.
In 1970, 1973 (twice) and 1975 a total of 15 whales were corralled in Pedder Bay. Seven of them went to marine parks (where most died within weeks or months), one died in the nets and the rest were released.
“We now know that within a 10-year span, they caught every resident killer whale two or three times,” Ken told us. Yet no one knew how many killer whales there were on the coast. Everyone assumed there were thousands. But they were wrong.
In the face of mounting public protest, the Canadian government tasked marine biologist Mike Bigg to determine killer whale numbers along the coast. His count, repeated over several summers, indicated 200 to 300.
In 1976, the US government contracted Ken, a marine biologist just out of the Navy, to conduct the first census on that side of the border. Using identification techniques pioneered by Bigg, he counted a grand total of 70 whales in what we now know as the southern resident killer whale population.
Killer whales ahead!
“It took the population about 10 to 15 years to recover from the captures,” Ken told us, as the radio crackled with news that some residents were westbound off Jordan River. We had a long way to go, so after a glimpse at a mother humpback and her baby, we set off in gentle swells to catch up with the orcas.
Usually, the residents follow the Canadian coastline as they make their way to the western entrance of the strait. But this day, they were closer to the US side. “This is close to where I saw my first southern resident killer whales ever, back on April 6, 1976,” Ken grinned. It was the day that changed his life.
That day was the genesis of Orca Survey, a long-term study of the population dynamics, social structure and individual life histories of the southern resident killer whales. In 1985, Ken established the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island.
Orca Survey —which now involves dozens of researchers, students and volunteers—keeps exhaustive photo ID records of all southern residents and their travels, and monitors human activities around them.
The whales were very spread out and the swells had increased in size, making it challenging to see who was there. Ken scanned the horizon. He was on a mission—nine L-pod whales had so far not returned to inland waters this year. Were they in this group?
The first whale we saw was the big male Blackberry (J27. We knew that most of J-pod was back east at San Juan Island. So who were the others that we could see in the distance on either side of us?
Minutes later, Crewser (L92) glided by. Score! He was one of the “missing” whales! Then came a female we unfortunately couldn’t identify due to a bad angle and too much shadow. It was possibly Racer (L72), another one of the missing. A nearby boat driver said he’d seen another “missing” whale, Fluke (L105), further over. The plot thickened.
I have no doubt Ken would have happily stayed out there until dusk to search, but it was time for us to turn back.
No fish, no blackfish
On the way home, we discussed fish. Chinook salmon in particular. Lack of these is the biggest and most urgent threat facing this endangered population. Resident killer whales depend on chinook, which make up more than 90 per cent of their food at this time of year.
Yet chinook stocks have plummeted by 90 per cent since the 1980s due to overfishing and other human activity.
As a result, the whales must work harder and travel further to find enough to eat. Their dietary traditions are so strong, they won’t switch to another mainstay fish. And the research clearly shows that when chinook stocks tank, whales die.
Ken estimates that at least six million chinook are needed in the system to sustain the whales, which consume about 600,000 fish a year. And hatchery fish are not the answer, he says. We must save the wild stocks.
“These whales are the best indicator we could have for the state of our marine environment,” he says. “But they won’t be here in the future if we don’t take immediate heed and deal with the wild salmon issue.”
Sobering words. And galvanizing. It’s up to all of us to exert pressure on our politicians to take action. The future of these magnificent whales depends on it.
For more information on the Center for Whale Research and how you can help the whales, visit www.whaleresearch.com
Update: As of this posting, four of the “missing” whales have been seen. We’re still waiting, not so patiently, for the other five.