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Mid-June, western shore of San Juan Island, overlooking a cove beside Haro Strait. Partial clearing, low waves sequined by a sharp breeze.

While scanning the seascape from the porch of his home, Ken Balcomb says, "I first got hired by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 1976 just to count the killer whales in the area. I thought, hey, give us two or three years, and we can get all kinds of information about their biology. Talk about optimistic!"

The pods his team studies—the J's, K's, and L's—make up the southern resident community off the Pacific coast. No one yet knows where they winter, although some have been glimpsed off Oregon and as far south as California's Monterey Bay. They were called residents because they always return to chase salmon in the waters of Puget Sound and southern Vancouver Island from early summer through late fall. Within day-tripping distance of greater Seattle and the Canadian cities of Victoria and Vancouver, they may be the most popular, closely watched whales on the planet.

Loudspeakers on Balcomb's walls carry sounds picked up by a hydrophone he keeps permanently deployed off a rocky point to the north. Cocking an ear, he detects the calls of J pod long before we spot spouts. As they near, Balcomb points out the matriarch J2 and describes how he calculated backward from the known ages of her offspring to put her probable birth date at 1911, making her one of the oldest orcas ever recorded. He says, "Think of all the changes that whale has seen."

Year upon year, J2 swam past a spreading human populace that was certain her kind were man-eaters, fishermen who shot the whales on sight as competitors, and, starting in the 1960s, entrepreneurs who captured them live for aquariums and theme parks. Badly depleted before the roundups were phased out in the area in the mid-'70s, the J's, K's, and L's rebounded from 71 individuals in 1976 to 99 by 1995. They have since slipped by about 15 percent and are slated to be listed as threatened in the U.S. this year. Chi-nook, or king, salmon—these whales' favorite food—are listed as threatened in Puget Sound. The fish have been slammed by overharvesting, dams, and pollution, while the long-lived orcas themselves have accumulated worrisome loads of PCBs and dioxins from their prey. These pollutants disrupt mammals' reproductive, immune, endocrine, and neurological systems. Peter Ross, of Canada's Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, British Columbia, says killer whales are the most PCB-contaminated mammals yet recorded. He and others are also alarmed by contamination levels from chemicals in flame retardants used in everything from clothing to computers.

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