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Pioneering whale researcher and advocate Ken Balcomb has died

Ken Balcomb
Elaine Thompson
Ken Balcomb, senior scientist at the Center for Whale Research (CWR), talks about the declining population of endangered orcas that frequent Washington state waters during a news conference on Oct. 28, 2016, in Seattle. Balcomb, a pioneering whale researcher who devoted the past five decades to studying the Pacific Northwest's charismatic and endangered orcas, died Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022, according to the organization he founded. He was 82.

A ‘Godfather’ of whale watching and conservation has died.

Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, was 82. Balcomb kept track of the population of southern resident orcas starting in 1976. His pioneering photo-identification work provided individual profiles of all the whales in the three endangered pods – J, K and L.

He spoke with KNKX (formerly KPLU) in 2014 about a then-new federal report on the state of those whales, who he monitored constantly, through underwater microphones - that he could hear from speakers near his desk.

KNKX Interview: Ken Balcomb says chinook salmon are key to saving endangered orcas
Published June 26, 2014

In his later years, Balcomb became a passionate advocate for salmon conservation and dam removal on the Lower Snake River. He said more than anything else, what the orcas need to survive is more food.

In earlier years, he documented the effects of navy sonar on orcas. During the Vietnam era, he was a commissioned US Navy pilot and oceanographic specialist.

He died surrounded by family at the Center for Whale Research’s Big Salmon Ranch above the Elwha River.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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