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The Whale Man

Ken Balcomb has spent a lifetime immersing himself in the giant mammals' world. Now he's convinced Navy sonar is driving them to their deaths.
The Mystery of the Killing Sound

Courtesy LA Times
Barry Siegel,
Times Staff Writer

Ken Balcolmb near his home on San Juan Island in
Washington state with the skull of a Cuvier's beaked whales

There it was, an apparition rising from the depths. some 40 feet from shore, directly in front of Ken Balcomb's doorstep in the Bahamas, a Cuvier's beaked whale bobbed in the water. It faced the sand, its belly stuck on the bottom, its flukes moving up and down. Balcomb took one look and shouted for his wife. This was a whale in trouble, but he couldn't help thinking: This was also like winning the lottery.

He'd spent his life studying whales, trying to envision their impenetrable world. The shy, deep-diving beaked whales mesmerized him most of all. They were legendary mysteries, the least known of all the whale families, one of the least known of all mammals. Scientists imagined them mainly from bones scattered on isolated beaches. Balcomb often dreamed of finding even one bone. Now he had a live beaked whale within his reach on Abaco Island.

He had more than that: Word soon came that other whales were beaching up and down the shores of the Bahamas. Here was an exceptional mass stranding involving marine mammals spread across 100 miles. Too wide a range, Balcomb realized, to be a natural event. For these whales to flee their habitat, something severe must have hit them. An enormous wall of sonar sound, Balcomb guessed--the ear-splitting screech of the U.S. Navy's submarine-detection system.

He knew much about Navy sonar. Although it wasn't readily apparent from his bushy gray beard and sockless Birkenstocks, Balcomb was an ex-Navy pilot. For six years, he'd manned Navy listening posts, following Soviet submarines through a worldwide network of hydrophones. On the tense day the United States pulled out of Vietnam, he'd tracked the Soviet fleet as it went to sea. He well understood the need to detect silent submarines manned by rogue nations. Yet he also well understood that marine mammals had been dying near naval sonar exercises.

Whales or national defense? Balcomb had no bent for addressing such public policy issues. He shrank from current events and human affairs, finding them too heavy, too cantankerous.

Now, though, there was no avoiding public policy. In the sea before him, the stranded beaked whale splashed its flukes on the water, vainly trying to swim.

If he witnessed a mass murder, it occurred to Balcomb, he couldn't stand silent. Something else occurred to him: Finally, you had to make a choice.

Those few scientists who spend their lives watching whales often are affected in profound ways. Some come to feel they're eavesdropping on a grander world. Some end up believing that whales aren't so different from us, that our bloodlines long ago were one. Some decide that whales are among the most highly perfected forms of life ever to dwell upon this planet.

At times, scientists sense that the whales they're watching are gazing back with equal curiosity and equal care not to frighten or harm. Other times, they see great meaning in whales at play, whales hunting, whales standing by their sick. There are stories of whales swimming side by side with injured mates, carrying them across the sea with their flippers. There are stories of whales bearing drowning dogs to shore on their backs. There are stories of whales displaying fierce intelligence, grieving for dead offspring, manipulating human observers. The tale of the captive killer whale named Skana gets told as often as any: After giving the right answer 2,400 times to vision tests, Skana suddenly began giving the wrong answers. Rote performance bored her; she was demanding something new.

It's not hard to see why certain scientists long to follow whales as they plunge into an utterly alien world. How unlike ours must be their existence, they muse. What are these diving animals doing with such large, complex, oxygen-consuming brains? Might they be using them for something entirely different than humans do? Might they somehow be communicating emotions directly, stripped of language? Might they be capable of telepathy? Might they be another sentient species, fellow citizens of a vast commonwealth?

As it happens, Ken Balcomb squirms at such questions. He wants to make it clear that he's not among those who study whales for the "soul and spirit" of it all. In fact, he's wary of the "woo-woo" that saturates much of his professional world, "the whole whale thing," the "soft, kind, teddy-bear view of whales." He is after data and hard facts. A beached whale, however dismaying, offers the promise of a fresh specimen--a chance to study and learn.

Only reluctantly does Balcomb allow that 40 years among the whales have, at times, left him moved and wide-eyed. Yes, he says, it is quite something to watch closely knit matriarchal families stay together for decades. It is quite something to see grown children still swimming by their mother. It is quite something to see three commingled generations diving in unison.

It's also quite something--"pretty damned weird" is how Balcomb puts it--to witness whales' abiding concern for human beings. Caught one morning in deep fog off Washington state, Balcomb had to plot a course on compass bearings across the treacherous Strait of Juan de Fuca. He didn't relish a blind passage, but home that season was on the other side. Ten minutes into his journey, a band of orcas, or killer whales, converged tightly around his Boston Whaler. They stayed with him for two hours, swimming slowly, nearly touching the boat, guiding him until the fog cleared. They had to know he couldn't see his way, Balcomb decided. He felt as if he were part of their pod. What amazed him most was their acceptance of him, their lack of malice against a member of a species that had long exploited them.

In the end, Balcomb can't help but believe that whales have achieved a more harmonious relationship with their world than man will ever know. Yes, he says: He would choose whales over humans, if it came to that.

He'd choose, for one, the scratched and bleeding whale that drifted now in the shallows of Abaco Island, looking mystified.

Seldom had fate beached a whale before such a knowing witness. Ken Balcomb marveled at this living dinosaur. It was 8:15 a.m. on March 15, 2000. Southerly winds roiled the sea; blood in the water tempted sharks.