Killer whales are one of the most familiar forms of marine life, but in the wild they are increasingly rare.
Off Port Angeles, Washington, a team is turning whale watching into a science. For the past 45 years, Ken Balcomb has cruised the waters of the Pacific Northwest, leading the Orca Survey, a long-term photographic identification project focused on what is known as the resident killer whale population. of southern Puget Sound.
At the age of 35, Balcomb worked for the National Marine Fishery Service and was responsible for counting the number of whales left after the practice of capturing killer whales for marine parks intensified in the 1960s and 1970s.
“A lot of people didn’t think we could find them,” Balcomb told CBS News’ Michelle Miller. “And then even my boss didn’t think that if we found them, we could tell them apart.”
This impossible task was made possible thanks to photo-identification techniques developed by a Canadian marine biologist. He turned Balcomb’s hundreds of thousands of photos into a scientific database.
“At that time we had photographs, thirty-five millimeter images. That was a real key,” Balcomb said.
The results of the investigation? There are only around 70 orcas left in the strait, with a staggering 40% of the population having been taken captive or killed in an attempted capture.
Balcomb’s findings would help end the killer whale trade in the Pacific Northwest. But the orca’s man-made problems didn’t end there.
“In the late 1980s the whales stopped following their usual pattern and basically they weren’t coming to Puget Sound twice a month anymore, they were being fished out,” Balcomb said.
A depleted food supply is a persistent problem for whales today and significantly inhibits their ability to reproduce.
“It’s our indicator, a leading indicator, the canary in the coal mine kind of thing,” Balcomb said. “If we lose the ball on wilderness, humans aren’t going to last very long after that.
In response to what he has already witnessed, Balcomb founded the nonprofit Center for Whale Research to study whales and use their findings to promote conservation.
Balcomb said orca sightings were a weekly occurrence in the same waters decades ago. Orcas have been in the area for thousands of years, but finding a single orca is hard to do now, as they don’t appear.
It’s a sad situation that Balcomb is working to change, not at sea, but about 8 miles upriver, bordering Olympic National Park.
The Elwha River is an essential part of Balcomb’s operation and essential for killer whales.
“It will bring the salmon back to a pristine state where there will be plenty of food for the whales,” he said.
“What happened to the salmon?” Miller asked.
“Well, on this river there was a dam,” Balcomb said. “So we had a dam about two miles south of us, and no fish passed that dam for 100 years.” The population of Chinook salmon has dropped from about 30,000 per year to almost zero.
In an effort to restore the river’s ecosystem, Congress authorized the removal of the Elwha Dam in 1992. After two decades of planning, the largest dam removal in US history began and has was completely removed in March 2012.
“So now that the dams have been removed, it’s starting to come back. And we want to celebrate that and, you know, let the world know that’s how you do it, reclaim the ecosystem,” Balcomb said.
He went further. In October 2020, at the age of 80 and unemployed, his Whale Research Center purchased a 45-acre ranch bordering both sides of the waterway, where the majority of remaining Chinook salmon spawn. A private donor helped fund the $7,000 purchase.
The salmon have returned to the region. Last year, 7,000 chinook salmon were counted in the area, but Balcomb thinks it will take 20 to 25 years to bring the salmon back to their original numbers. For now, the few fish spotted are a sign of hope.
“Oh, it’s like, they’re back. Nature is coming back,” Balcomb said. “That’s how it is. It’s worth it. Money doesn’t matter, you know? It does,” he said.