Remembering Ken Balcomb and his extraordinary life with killer whales

Share

I’m still adjusting to the world of killer whales without Ken Balcomb. Ken, who died Dec. 15 at age 82, was a constant presence throughout my career as an environmental reporter. His presence inspired many others among the so-called “killer whale community,” made of experts, observers and those who simply love and follow the stories of our beloved orcas. Ken, who I called the dean of killer whale research, founded the Center for Whale Research and established an amazing 46-year record of every birth and death among the Southern Resident […]

As winter approaches, salmon and orcas are still a commanding presence

Share

With salmon and orcas still on the move and facing ever-changing weather conditions, I thought it might be time for a brief update to my blog post of Nov. 21. At the time of the last report, the Puget Sound region had gone through a 13-day dry spell, which followed a period of brief and limited precipitation. Low stream flows were making it tough for chum and coho salmon to go upstream when they should have been at their peak of spawning. Many unfortunate fish were dying before they could […]

Low rainfall leads to an odd and changing year for salmon, killer whales and people

Share

It has been an interesting year for observing the behavior of Southern Resident killer whales, chum salmon and humans in the Puget Sound region. Weather played a significant role. Two weeks ago, all three pods of endangered orcas spent four days together in Puget Sound, something we have not seen in years. Chum salmon, which the whales feed upon in the fall, appeared to be on a stop-and-go migration schedule because of the unusual rainfall pattern. And, as always, the activities of people must be noted within this ecological context. […]

Lawsuit seeks to block Southeast Alaska troll fishing to increase salmon for orcas

Share

How much should Alaskan fishing be curtailed to provide more food for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales? It is an important question, enmeshed in conflicting federal priorities and provoked by a lawsuit brought by Wild Fish Conservancy, a Seattle-based conservation group. A federal court ruled in August that the National Marine Fisheries Service had violated the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act in its approval of salmon harvests in the Southeast Alaska troll fishery. That fishery harvests Chinook salmon originating from streams as far south as […]

Killer whale census shows another down year, with three deaths and two births

Share

Three deaths and two births. Over the past year, the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population has declined by a total of one, according to the annual census report submitted yesterday by the Center for Whale Research. Now the number of whales in all three pods stands at 73, down from 74 last year and declining from 98 animals the past 25 years. The births of J59 last February and K45 in May have been widely reported, along with the death of the much-loved K21, a 35-year-old male named Cappuccino. […]

New orca calf confirmed amid serious health concerns and actions to protect the whales

Share

A surprise visit by K pod on Saturday near Vancouver Island led to the official confirmation of a new orca calf born into the Southern Resident killer whale community. The new calf, designated K45, is the second baby born to the Southern Residents this year, as recorded by the Center for Whale Research, which maintains the official census. For K pod, this is the first confirmed calf to be born since 2011. The youngster was first reported on April 28 by a fishing guide cruising off the Oregon Coast. The […]

Salmon study sparks controversy

Share

Occasionally, this space includes reports and essays from guest writers on the subject of Puget Sound ecosystem recovery. Biologist and author Eric Wagner has this look at the controversy surrounding a recent study of salmon numbers in the Salish Sea.  By Eric Wagner A couple of weeks ago, the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences published a research article from the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia (UBC). The article, first-authored by a hydroacoustician named Mei Sato, looked at the abundance of Chinook salmon during […]

Orca census shows some improvement, but many whales still die before their time

Share

The annual census of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales, submitted yesterday to the federal government, shows three births and one death from mid-2020 to mid-2021. Along with the new census report, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research sadly confirmed the death of L47, a 47-year-old female named Marina, who has been apparently missing since early summer. Marina was last seen by CWR biologists on Feb. 27 in Swanson Channel, north of the San Juan Islands, Ken told me. She was later missing from observations by Canadian biologists […]

Do we know enough to do anything about all the seals and sea lions in Puget Sound?

Share

Scientists have known for years that Chinook salmon are important to southern resident orcas, but Chinook are not the only fish the whales eat. At the moment, chum salmon are returning to Puget Sound, and recent orca sightings suggest that the whales may now be feeding on chum. Harbor seals also eat Chinook salmon, but also chum, coho and other fish. They seem fond of smaller fish like herring and juvenile salmon. Oh, what a tangled food web we weave… Can we really say that seals are stealing the lunch […]

Orca census: One death in January, but no births were reported until September

Share

UPDATE, Oct. 6 The newest calf among the Southern Resident killer whales was officially designated J58 after being seen alive and healthy on Sunday. The calf is the offspring of J49, a 15-year-old female named Eclipse who has one surviving calf, J51 or Nova. Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research had been withholding the official designation until CWR staffers could be sure the newborn had survived and was healthy. In Sunday’s encounter off San Juan Island, CWR staffers Dave Ellifrit and and Katie Jones reported, “Both J41 and […]

Absent orcas: Most of the whales simply are not around to be counted at this time

Share

UPDATE, JULY 3: Two new reports worth checking out: Center for Whale Research Encounter #31 Orca Network Whale Sighting Report, July 2 —– “So far, no new babies to report.” That’s the latest word from Ken Balcomb regarding the southern resident orcas, the three pods of endangered whales that once frequented Puget Sound but lately seem hard to find. July 1 marks the date of the annual killer whale census, a project carried out by Ken and his fellow researchers at the Center for Whale Research. Each year, Ken accounts […]

Harvest managers setting this year’s salmon seasons struggle to find ways to help orcas

Share

As state, tribal and federal salmon managers work together to establish this year’s fishing seasons, they have not forgotten about the needs of Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales. In fact, new documents related to the southern resident orcas describe an investigation looking to find ways to reduce fisheries at certain times and locations that might get the whales more food. And yet it appears that nobody has figured out a way to help the whales by reducing salmon fishing. Annual negotiations to establish seasons and quotas for commercial, tribal and […]