Subject: Killer Whale: Orca Obsession (fwd)

Mike Williamson (
Tue, 7 Oct 1997 13:15:03 -0400 (EDT)

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue,  7 Oct 97 13:52:00 GMT 
Subject: APN--Orca Obsession

APN--Orca Obsession

>From mythic `blackfish' to Oregon's Keiko, killer whales fascinate

 Associated Press Writer
   FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. (AP) -- In one legend from coastal Indians,
orca was created by a great hunter who carved a "blackfish" out
of yellow cedar and commanded it to kill his wicked in-laws.
   Orca tore the men to bits and returned to the Tlingit man,
Natsalane, who then ordered the sleek animals never again to prey
on humans. And, to this day, orca doesn't eat people. Indeed, the
Tlingit people of southeast Alaska consider the creature a
custodian of the sea.
   Yet orca, the oceans' top predator, has been feared and revered
throughout history. Short for the Latin term Orcinus orca, its name
now sometimes substitutes for "killer whale," a once popular
phrase even though the animal is actually in the dolphin family.
   In many American homes, the best-known orca is Sea World's
pleasing Shamu or the lovable Keiko, star of "Free Willy" movies.
Orca's popularity is no surprise to researcher Ken Balcomb, who has
devoted 20 years to separating killer-whale fact from myth.
   His base, the Center for Whale Research, sits on a bluff
overlooking Haro Strait, amid the San Juan Islands scattered
between the coast of northwestern Washington and British Columbia's
Vancouver Island.
   It's still a thrill for him to see the glistening
black-and-white orcas swim past. "We all run down the hill to see
them," Balcomb says. "To me, the world appears healthy and
complete when we have whales and eagles and wonderful wildlife to
   Balcomb's center is supported by Earthwatch, based in Watertown,
Mass. The nonprofit program matches scientists doing exciting field
work with volunteers willing to pay to share the experience.
   The center gets high marks from Washington Secretary of State
Ralph Munro, a whale activist himself.
   "It's plowing new ground consistently in breaking down all the
myths that have existed all these years," Munro says."These guys
are hunting the truth."
   Balcomb's project offers the charms of orcas frolicking in
family "pods" as they chase schools of salmon heading inland to
   Orca acrobatics can be breathtaking. Adults, which range from
18- to 32-feet-long, soar from the water in splashing, body twists
called "breaching." In "spyhopping," they pop their heads and
torsos up from the waves.
   From a distance, orcas look quite similar, but Balcomb says no
two are alike. With practice, center staff and volunteers learn to
identify individuals by the shape and size of their dorsal fins and
the scars there, and by the coloring and patterns of the saddles.
   Tracking pods nearby, crews have made thousands of photographs
of gray saddles and dorsal fins -- as tall as 6 feet in males. Three
pods inhabit the protected inshore waters of Georgia Strait and
Puget Sound, a 300-mile stretch of the Pacific. Since 1976, the
center has developed family trees for the pods' 95 whales.
   Photographing the whales can be a mix of chaos and exhilaration.
   On one sunny summer day, Balcomb wielded the camera while his
colleagues, Rhonda Claridge and Sean McNamara of Telluride, Colo.,
grabbed a picture-ID chart. Could they recognize any of the whales,
some swimming by at 30 mph?
   "L-41!" says Claridge, Balcomb's sister-in-law. The chart
identifies L-41 as a male born in 1977, son of L-11, a female born
in 1957 ---- a classification that identifies pods as matriarchal.
   From Balcomb's work, along with that of a handful of others,
significantly more is known about range, longevity and population
dynamics than just 20 years ago.
   Public attitudes toward whales have changed dramatically as
people learn more. Indeed, Munro notes, marine circus parks may be
victims of their own good public relations, as an increasing number
of children and adult visitors want to see orcas remain free.
   "People who learned to love whales at Sea World are saying,
`Hey, there's got to be a better way,'" Munro says.
Even now, schoolchildren are raising money to send Keiko to his
native Icelandic waters. Rescued from a too-small, too-warm tank in
Mexico, he resides at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Ore.
Here in Washington, elementary school students have petitioned for
the return of Lolita from the Miami Seaquarium, where she has lived
since 1970.
   Munro and his wife, Karen, became orca defenders in 1975, after
seeing a whale capture on Puget Sound.
   "We were just appalled by what we saw," he recalls. "It was a
huge mess. It was probably one of the most dramatic things I've
ever witnessed in my life."
   Munro and such politicians as Slade Gorton, then state attorney
general and now the state's senior U.S. senator, began using
litigation and legislation to protect Washington's orcas.
   About the same time, in 1976, Balcomb began his work here. By
then, a decade of whale captures for aquariums and parks had
significantly reduced the area's population, believed to be 100 to
110 at its peak.
   The National Marine Fisheries Service gave Balcomb a one-year
contract to determine how many orcas were in the Puget Sound
region. Following the lead of Canadian researcher Mike Bigg,
Balcomb set up a photo-identification project. He counted 68 to 71
orcas for the government. Then, he continued the work
independently, selling buttons and T-shirts, and holding a paying
job in winter to keep afloat in summer.
   Throughout the 1980s, Balcomb and Bigg collaborated on the basic
science of orcas. Bigg, who has since died, concentrated on
northern pods along the coast of British Columbia and Balcomb took
the southern pods along the Washington coast.
   In 1987, Earthwatch persuaded Balcomb to open his work to their
   With fundamental information about pods in hand, Balcomb wants
to explore the effects of human encroachment. Of particular
interest is the explosion of whale-watching cruises in the San
Juans. In 1976, only Greenpeace made an occasional voyage. Today,
at least 70operators cruise the area.
   On Haro Strait, betwewhole thing."