Killer Whales in Washington State: Serial Problems

We were just chatting in Ken Balcomb’s kitchen when out of the computer speakers’ white-noise static came a single whistle that stopped all conversation. They were coming!

Ken Balcomb Photo: Carl Safina
Ken Balcomb
Photo: Carl Safina

Moments later the kitchen was full of squeals, squeaks, whoops, buzzes—. At the windows with our binoculars, we confirmed that a familiar group of “resident” or fish-eating killer whales was now in view.

We got into the Center for Whale Research boat and headed out for a closer look, pausing off Pack Point as several killer whales were looking unusually active, arching their backs, diving steeply, seeming in a hurry about whatever had their attention below.

Killer Whales  Photo: Carl Safina
Killer Whales
Photo: Carl Safina

It’s one of the whales’ favorite local salmon-hunting spots. But all the real action was out of view below.

These are “residents,” the fish-eating kind.  Different from the other day’s mammal-eating “transients” and probably they’re different species. There are probably at least 5 species, maybe even 8 species, of killer whales in the world. Here off Washington State there are residents and transients, and in the North Pacific there are also “offshores” who seem to specialize on sharks and are also different genetically.

It’s amazing that we don’t even know how many species there are of such huge and recognizable creatures. But we do know how to threaten them.

Salmon depletion has really hurt the resident killer whales’ infant survival, and the 80 whales of the 3 fish-eating resident pods in this region are designated endangered. My host Ken Balcomb worries that the population may be doomed. After 40 years of work, he carries the burden of that worry. He has twice said to me that he wants to be positive but that the one thing that would help—which would be letting the salmon recover—isn’t being done and doesn’t look likely; the fishermen are too committed to squeezing what they can out of the fish and the agency people are too locked into process and relationships. There’s also too much logging, too many dams, pollutants—and Navy war games involving loud sonar and live bombs whose blasts have killed killer whales.

I saw photos of a 3-year-old female killer whale, L-112, a.k.a. Victoria—a “sweet little whale,” said Ken—who’d been a favorite of whale-watchers here, very playful and acrobatic. She was found dead, hemorrhages all over her head, earbones blown off their attachments, blood in her ear canals and eyes. The near-certain cause of death was a Navy bomb dropped—as part of a training exercise—right into the whales’ living room.

Female Killer Whale Photo: Carl Safina
Female Killer Whale
Photo: Carl Safina

But I, too, want to be positive. Just across the strait, in Canada, the resident whales’ numbers are increasing a bit. That means there’s hope. But they do need abundant fish. Food is key. We have to leave enough. We can’t take it all. We need to let salmon recover. Then the whales can recover,  too. After all, when this place teemed with salmon, it also teemed with whales.

Male killer whales have big fins Photo: Carl Safina
Male killer whales have big fins
Photo: Carl Safina

So from California right up through Alaska, where salmon-dependent killer whales roam, do what you can to ensure the future of abundant salmon. Oppose the salmon-snuffing Pebble Mine proposal in Alaska. And help fight back on Navy war games. Search for the keywords: fight pebble mine. And also search for: fight navy sonar.

You can also get informed by reading the government’s recovery plan <>, for the “resident” whales I was seeing.


Meet the Author
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.