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"Man is but a strand in the complex web of life"

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Balcomb waded out through a falling tide. The stranded whale had a rotund body, 17 feet long, with a short, thick beak. It was more brown than gray, with assorted scars and marks, probably caused by tussles with other whales. Its skin felt smooth and cool. Its breath smelled normal; if ill, it would have horrible halitosis. Lethargy appeared to be its only problem. That, and the fact it pointed to shore. This whale was seriously disoriented.

Balcomb began trying to push it out to sea, using its dorsal fin as a pivot in his hand. With each wave he pushed farther, but the whale kept making big left turns, heading back to the beach. For an hour they both persisted, turning and circling. Cheers rose from onlookers when the whale finally swam off.

Soon a fisherman passed by, saying there was another Cuvier's beaked stranded at Rocky Point. Then a neighbor brought news that a third Cuvier's had beached 400 yards to the north. Balcomb and his helpers were able to escort one out to sea. The other sat high on the sand. They wrapped it in wet towels, waiting for the rising tide. Balcomb thought it looked weak as it swam off.

Greece. That's what occurred to him. There'd been a number of strandings near naval exercises since a new generation of sonar emerged in 1963, but scientists had never proven a connection--the whales always sank or decomposed before they could be examined. Of the six multi-species mass strandings involving beaked whales, a May 1996 event in Greece's Kyparissiakos Gulf, near a NATO "acoustic trial," had been the most closely studied. Spurred by a local biologist's report, an international panel of experts had convened to determine its cause. As usual, though, they had no fresh specimens; with the tourist season starting, Greek authorities had quickly buried the decomposing carcasses. An acoustic link, the panel concluded, "can neither be clearly established nor eliminated."

They needed proof this time, Balcomb realized.

The first person he called was an old grad school classmate, Bob Gisiner, the marine mammal program manager at the Office of Naval Research in Washington, D.C. "Save the tapes from all the Navy's listening stations," Balcomb urged. He also said, "I'm going to try to get the ears out."

Better to cut off the whole head, Gisiner advised. Cut off the heads, put them in a freezer.

By then, reports of strandings were coming in from around the Bahamas, 16 in all, including one spotted dolphin, two minke whales and 13 beaked. Balcomb had before him one of the largest multi-species strandings ever recorded. Seven of the beached mammals were dead or dying; the others--along with the entire local community of 35 Cuvier's--would swim away and never be seen again.

On the second day, Balcomb cut off a beaked whale's head. On the third day, he cut off another. Both went into the freezer at Nancy's Restaurant, down the road on Sandy Point. Hours later, Balcomb took to the air in a small plane. He saw what he'd expected: U.S. Navy warships plying the waters around the Bahamas.

Of all the many obstacles the Navy has encountered in trying to deploy a new generation of anti-submarine sonar, Ken Balcomb is surely the most exasperating. Although much remains in dispute about him, it's fair to say he is not much given to the art of casual conversation. He approaches the task of talking to people warily, as if being pulled away from another world. It's hard for him to keep his attention focused unless the dialogue involves topics that consume his interest. He stays on his feet, in constant motion. His shirt pockets bulge with disorderly clumps of notes, phone numbers and business cards, many connected to people he can't quite place. Days go by when he leaves phone calls and e-mail messages unanswered. Sometimes he forgets to turn on his answering machine.

Always, Balcomb is waiting for the whales. At his ramshackle summer home on San Juan Island in the Pacific Northwest, his eyes fix on the sea. When the whales arrive, he is gone, rushing for his Boston Whaler, eager to commune among them. In his 60 years, he's kept company more with these whales than humans. Even on land, they fill his world. From his stereo speakers, connected to hydrophones sunk in kelp beds outside his window, come the clicks, chirps and whistles of passing pods. Whale bones crowd his every shelf and counter. On the coffee table sits a beaked whale's skull; on the piano, a killer whale's.

Balcomb's lifework can be found downstairs in a basement office, in notebooks full of charts and family trees. He has identified and chronicled the evolving history of every orca that swims off the state of Washington--80 to 100 in all. Year after year, he has followed them in small boats, watching with binoculars, photographing profiles of their individually distinct dorsal fins. He knows each whale's age and health and behavior patterns. He knows each whale's grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, offspring. He knows when there's been a birth and who's the mom--a newborn swims by the eye of its mother the first two weeks, then by her pectoral fin.

Yet it's the mystery that most fascinates Balcomb--what can't be known of mammals who inhabit the depths and comprehend their world mainly through their extraordinary hearing. Here are animals whose ancestors reversed evolution 50 million years ago, withdrawing from land, returning to their origins in the sea. In the turbid dark, where light travels poorly and sound easily, they adapted by altering the way they hear. Whales typically have three times a human's auditory nerves and one-tenth a human's optic nerves. Scientists believe sound illuminates the opaque for them; sound lets them spread far apart in search of food; sound connects them, converting the vast sea to an enormous living room. Even as a youth in Sacramento, the thought of whales called to Balcomb and wouldn't let go.

He attended college and graduate school--UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz--at the dawn of an era when scientists such as Jane Goodall were forsaking labs to study chimpanzees in the wild. The notion seized him, then deepened when he began to work at a whale research station on the Northern California coast. He realized he didn't want to dissect whales and study their parts under a microscope. He wanted to observe these animals free on the open ocean.

That meant chucking what others regarded as a recognizable plan for life. Out went his intent to finish graduate school in zoology or marine biology. Out also went his first wife, who thought she'd married a budding veterinarian. When his draft board came calling he joined the Navy, yet still he communed with marine mammals. Despite his flight training, he found himself posted to a submarine listening station on the Washington coast, where he detected humpback whales singing thousands of miles away. He corralled his Navy mates, persuading them to heed these animals. Even though vast distances separated the humpbacks, he believed they must be hearing each other. Why else would they be tracking each other that way? He knew they were hearing; they had to be hearing. The listening station provided Ken Balcomb a course in magic.

He ended up reenlisting, and might have stayed forever in the Navy. He left in 1975 mainly because a particular captain was making his life miserable. Also because something in his soul had started saying, this can't be just a hobby, I've got to follow the whales.

Within a year he'd joined a handful of other pioneers in identifying all the orcas off the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. Soon he was teaching on a research vessel, co-writing books and launching a small museum. Later he married a Bahamian and began alternating seasons, studying assorted marine mammals at her home on Abaco Island, killer whales at his on San Juan.

None of this brought in much money. Balcomb paid a price for living outside the box. He ended up being ousted from his whale museum by a skeptical board of directors. There were times