Explore the Pacific Northwest

Salish Sea Scholar

Explore the Pacific Northwest

Orca Intelligence with Ken Balcomb

Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Resesarch

Nobody knows about the orcas that live in the waters of Northern Puget Sound better than Ken Balcomb. Balcomb has been studying the animals since the 1960s, and was one of the researchers responsible for launching the catalog of photo identifications that is still used to trace lineage today. He’s the founder of the Center for Whale Resesarch and co-founder of The Whale Museum, both on San Juan Island. The Whale Museum, open daily in Friday Harbor, features information about orca family trees, local whales and research efforts. 

What’s so special about the orcas we see in the waters around the San Juan islands?
For starters, they’re what we call residents—they live in the area pretty much all year long. That doesn’t mean they stay in one place; instead they move around north Puget Sound, going where they think they can find food. But there are three distinct family groups that call the area home, and they’re ours.

What makes family groups different?
They’ve got different lineage, for one. Over time they have gathered into tribes, much like people did. We’ve tried to catalog that with our photo IDs, and we’ve got a pretty good sense of recent lineage for all three resident pods. What’s also fascinating to me is that their vocalizations have distinctive dialects, also like people. You can tell them apart just by listening.

Where are good spots in Northern Puget Sound to see whales from shore?
Lime Kiln [Point State Park] and American Camp [both on San Juan Island]. Those are still the best and most reliable places in the United States. [In British Columbia] the Victoria waterfront also is wonderful; you can go and sit at Ogden Point [nearly a mile south of the Inner Harbour] in summer months and the whales will swim by several times a week.

How are the whales doing?
While 2015 was great, with a number of new babies, we have now seen two poor years since then for the Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) population. No new babies and several deaths due to food shortages [they rely on salmon]. With no young salmon found in NOAA research trawling in 2017 and no improvement forecast for spawning salmon to return to the area, the future of both salmon in our region and SRKW looks bleak. 

—Written by Matt Villano