Dr. Darren Croft
Center for Whale Research Executive Director
We are delighted to announce that Dr. Darren Croft has officially joined the Center for Whale Research (CWR) as Executive Director. Darren has extensive experience in leadership and management and worked closely with the Center for Whale Research’s founder, Ken Balcomb, for over a decade. They were friends and collaborators, sharing a passion for understanding and protecting the natural world, particularly the Southern Resident orcas (SRKW) and their habitat. Along with other Center for Whale Research staff, they produced twenty (20) co-authored scientific publications together in world-leading international science journals. Darren was instrumental in securing four research grants totalling over $2 million from the United Kingdom (UK) government to support SRKW research and conservation.
The CWR Board of Directors and Staff are thrilled that Darren is on our team as the new Executive Director. His long association with the Center for Whale Research, accomplishments in the animal behavior academia, and established working relationships with Ken [Balcomb] and the existing CWR staff make him perfectly suited to lead our organization’s day-to-day operations. We are very pleased to have Dr. Croft onboard.
— Howard Garrett, Center for Whale Research Board Chair, October 2023
Center for Whale Research founder Ken Balcomb (left)
and Dr. Darren Croft.
More about Dr. Darren Croft
Darren completed his B.Sc. in Biology (1996-1999) and a Ph.D. in Behavioural Ecology (2000-2003) at the University of Leeds (United Kingdom). In 2006, he was appointed as a lecturer in Animal Behavior at the University of Bangor (UK), where he taught an M.Sc. course in marine mammal behavior. In 2008, Darren moved to the University of Exeter and was promoted to full Professor of Animal Behavior in 2016. At the University of Exeter, he has been Director of Research and Deputy Head of Department while also holding key leadership and advisory roles at national and international organizations (e.g., Chair of the Research Grants Panel for the Fisheries Society of the British Isles and Advisory Board positions with Elephants for Africa in Botswana and the Centre for Integrative Biology of Toulouse). His research has focused on the ecology and evolution of group living, publishing over 150 scientific papers and two books.
For over a decade, his joint work with the Center for Whale Research has examined how social factors contribute to survival and reproductive success in the Southern Resident killer whales. Global media regularly features his research. For example, BBC Radio 4 produced a documentary, “The Menopausal Whale,” based on Darren’s joint work with the Center for Whale Research (aired three times due to its popularity). Working with TED-Ed, Darren and CWR Research Director Dr. Michael Weiss produced a short educational video based on their orca research (viewed over 1.6 million times). Darren is passionate about orca outreach and education; in 2019, he helped install a virtual reality (VR) exhibit at CWR’s ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center in Friday Harbor, which allows visitors to virtually join the research team on a data collection encounter with killer whales.
Darren is married with two children. He and his family enjoy spending time in natural places surrounded by wildlife.
Dr. Darren Croft Q & A
Question (Q). How did you become involved with orcas, Ken Balcomb, and the Center for Whale Research (CWR)?
Answer (A). Dr. Darren Croft (DC): I first became involved with Ken and the Center for Whale Research in 2006 when I was teaching a course in marine mammal behaviour at the University of Bangor (UK). I was in my office when I heard a knock at the door, and Emma Dade (née Foster), an M.Sc. student at the time, asked if we could talk about a possible topic for her research project. I did not realize it then, but that conversation would have a profound impact on my life and would fundamentally change my career. Emma had previously spent time with Ken at the Center for Whale Research as part of the Earthwatch program. She had her heart set on doing her M.Sc. research project on social behaviour in the Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW). She shared with me the wonderful stories about the whales and Ken. At the time, ORCA SURVEY was in its 30th year, and it was just incredible to think of all the data that Ken and the amazing staff and volunteers at the Center for Whale Research had collected over three decades. It did not take much to convince me: Emma did her M.Sc. research project under my supervision in partnership with the Center for Whale Research. This partnership was the start of a long and very productive collaboration. Emma went on to do a Ph.D. with me in partnership with the Center for Whale Research before taking up a position with Natural England (UK). My involvement with the Center for Whale Research has grown and evolved. Over the years, Ken and I developed a friendship based on mutual trust and respect, and we discussed at length the importance of the long-term monitoring of the SRKW and how this and the Center for Whale Research would continue long into the future.
“I was in my office when I heard a knock at the door, and Emma Dade (née Foster), an M.Sc. student at the time, asked if we could talk about a possible topic for her research project. I did not realize it then, but that conversation would have a profound impact on my life and would fundamentally change my career.”
Q. It’s hard to imagine the pressure of succeeding Ken as the Center For Whale Research’s Executive Director after his 47-year leadership reign. What are you feeling?
A. DC: I was approximately six months old when Ken had his first encounter with J-Pod in 1976. I often remind myself of this fact: ORCA SURVEY is nearly as old as me, and the data collected so far represents an entire working lifetime. When Ken founded ORCA SURVEY, he did so with the mission of following the Southern Resident orca population for at least one generation. Given that females in the population may live for approaching 100 years, Ken could not achieve his mission in his lifetime. It is a tremendous honor to have the opportunity to guide the Center for Whale Research on its journey toward this goal. Yes, there is pressure, but it is eased by the fact that Ken left a very clear mission and an amazing team of highly skilled and dedicated staff and volunteers who are all committed to continuing the incredible work started by him nearly half a century ago.
Dr. Darren Croft and the late Ken Balcomb (1940-2022).
Q. It’s been a year since Ken Balcomb died. If you and he sat down today for a chat, what would you say about the organization he founded five decades ago? And what would you say about the Southern Resident orcas’ future?
A. DC: First and foremost, I would say thank you—thank you for the decades devoted to the study and conservation of the SRKWs and the wider ecosystem. The legacy Ken left to science and broader society is just incredible. When he started ORCA SURVEY nearly five decades ago, he could never have imagined the questions we can now address with the long-term data set he and the Center for Whale Research staff and volunteers collected over the decades. The thing about long-term individual-based population studies is that there is an additive effect, and the longer they continue, the more we disproportionately learn from them. In terms of the future, I would reassure Ken that we will do our very best to continue the mission he started nearly half a century ago. As long as the Southern Resident killer whales swim in the Salish Sea, the Center for Whale Research will be crucial in tracking the population and how it responds to current and future ecological challenges.
Q. You helped create a TED-Ed animation video in December 2018 titled The Amazing Grandmothers of the Killer Whale Pod. It’s had 1.6 million worldwide views, attracting 15,000+ questions about orcas. The fascination with orcas continues to be intense. Do you see this interest continuing?
A. DC: It is not that long ago that killer whales were depicted as “extremely ferocious” and were feared. In Western society, our understanding of killer whales has been transformed thanks to the long-term individual-based studies of killer whales, and they are no longer feared as they once were. The more we learn about killer whales, the more our fascination with them grows. For example, there are remarkable similarities between our own species and killer whales, and we have a tremendous amount to learn from them. There are over 5,000 species of mammals, but only in a handful do females go through menopause and stop reproduction before the end of their natural lifespan. We share this trait with killer whales and a few other toothed whales. Working with the Center for Whale Research, we have shown that a key mechanism by which females help their group is by sharing ecological knowledge of when and where to find food. Just as in our past, before we had books and Google, knowledge was stored in individuals and elders in society were central in decision-making because they had experience acquired with age. These and other findings resonate with our society and help fuel our fascination with killer whales and their complex social world. So, I think our fascination with killer whales will continue to grow as we learn more about their incredible lives and behavior.
December 2018 TED-Ed animation video titled The Amazing Grandmothers of the Killer Whale Pod. It’s had 1.6 million worldwide views, attracting 15,000+ questions about orcas.
Q. The Center for Whale Research board and staff say they will honor Ken’s three wishes for CWR’s future:
Maintain the ORCA SURVEY through 100 years
Spread orca education far and wide
Participate in conservation steps in the Southern Resident orca (SRKW) habitat.
What do the coming few years look like in fulfilling these wishes?
A. DC: The Center for Whale Research has a very exciting future ahead of it, and as the longest-running study of the behavior and ecology of the SRKWs, it has a fundamental role to play in informing the management and conservation of the population.
ORCA SURVEY is approaching its 50th year, which is just incredible, and it is one of the longest individual-based studies of a wild mammal population anywhere in the world. The methods and approach for photo identification are well established, and the primary aim for ORCA SURVEY data collection is to continue the photo-identification database recording behavior and all births and deaths in the SRKWs. But, the organization will still be innovating. For example, in 2018, the Center for Whale Research’s Aerial Observation Studies began, which is transforming our understanding of the behavior and complex social lives of the Salish Sea orca population. We are always keeping a close eye on how we can harness new technologies. I am particularly excited about recent developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and how we may harness this for research and conservation.
In terms of education, one thing the COVID-19 pandemic taught us is just how connected we are as a global society. The pandemic spread led to innovation in how we connect socially, leading to video calls across the world with just the click of a button. There is tremendous potential to harness these technological developments to share our education programs far and wide. We are developing online education materials based on our SRKW research findings and translating them to highlight their significance in the conservation of the Southern Residents.
In terms of conservation, Ken made a huge leap forward in safeguarding a section of Washington State’s Elwha River. The 45-acre property—now known as Balcomb BIG SALMON Ranch—borders both sides of the river and is in the middle of the recovering Elwha Valley habitat, a critical spawning area for multiple salmon species, including Chinook salmon (the main prey species of the SRKWs). While at Balcomb BIG SALMON Ranch in September, Howard Garrett, Chris Pinney, and I were lucky enough to watch salmon spawning in the river on the property. It was incredible to see the restoration of the river happening before our eyes. As part of the property stewardship, we started rewilding the property this summer. Our initial focus has been to remove the old stock fences that were preventing the free movement of elk and deer. Allowing these grazing animals access to the ranch will help to maintain biodiversity—their grazing will help to maintain the meadows, which in turn supports a diversity of insects and birds. We are just starting the rewilding journey at Balcomb BIG SALMON Ranch and documenting and sharing the recovery of the property and wider ecosystem. The Elwha River represents a prime example of how nature can recover; we just need to give it the opportunity.
Q. Does CWR have the resources to achieve this bold vision? What are the critical needs?
A. DC: The most valuable resource that the Center for Whale Research has is its people, from the incredible staff and dedicated volunteers and supporters to the board of directors. That is not to say that other resources are not important. A critical need going forward is a new research boat. The current research vessel, a Boston Whaler, is 40 years old and needs replacing. The on-the-water needs of a research vessel have changed over the last four decades due to the evolving operations on the water (e.g., Aerial Observation Studies) and changes in the orcas’ residency patterns. We require a new research vessel that allows the CWR team to navigate over a wider area and cope with a broader range of sea conditions. The Center for Whale Research’s new research boat, manufactured by Life Proof Boats, has been designed specifically for our future research needs. We are currently fundraising to cover the research vessel cost. We have made good progress, but there is still a way to go. I encourage people to get on board and help secure this research necessity: a safe, stable, and rugged research vessel that will serve us for decades to come.
CWR research team members: Dr. Darren Croft; CWR Research Director, Dr. Michael Weiss; and ORCA SURVEY Lead, Dave Ellifrit.
Q. The Center for Whale Research is, first and foremost, a research organization, but it does much more through its education, conservation, and advocacy efforts. How do these areas tie together to benefit the gravely endangered Southern Resident orcas and best assist their survival struggles?
A. DC: At the heart of the Center for Whale Research is the data that it collects and the research that it does with this data. This work is crucial to inform the management, conservation, and recovery of the Southern Resident orcas. But science in a vacuum is pointless—we must share and communicate our findings and act where we feel there needs to be action. Ken Balcomb was a pioneer in sharing the knowledge he gained about the SRKWs, from leasing billboard signs along the I-5 highway calling for dam removal to establishing the ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Office in downtown Friday Harbor. When it was clear to him that protecting salmon habitats was vital to saving the Southern Residents, Ken took bold action to acquire Balcomb BIG SALMON Ranch to help restore and protect critical salmon habitat. The Center for Whale Research will continue what Ken started all those years ago. Research will drive our activities, but we will use it to inform our outreach, education, and conservation and take actions to benefit the SRKWs.
Q. CWR has always cooperated with other scientists in their quest to understand better whales and dolphins, which was the case in its initial collaborations with the University of Exeter. The result has been numerous studies and published scientific papers led by University of Exeter grad students, the resulting knowledge shedding new light on Salish Sea orca behaviors and their primary needs. Some of these students have moved into careers as “orca scientists” (e.g., CWR’s new Research Director, Dr. Michael Weiss, is a University of Exeter graduate). Several more University of Exeter students have completed their orca studies or are working toward their doctorate, and they have or will carry their work to other locations, uncover exciting new things about orca life, and spread the word about the Southern Residents’ troubles. Can you comment on this?
A. DC: Collaborative science is often where the really exciting science happens. We can make significant advances by bringing together people with different expertise to address major research questions and challenges. The Center for Whale Research will continue to do this. In my university life as a professor, it is likely that the biggest impact I will have is by supporting others in their education and research journey. If you think about it, there are only so many hours in the day that I can work, but if I can help support tens or even hundreds of students to fulfil their goal of working in research and conservation, then the ripple effect is tremendous. The Center for Whale Research has an important role to play here—as an organization that provides a training ground for interns and research students—who will take their skills and experience and apply them to new problems. And they will share their findings and the plight of the SRKWs far and wide. We are excited to work with two new graduate students starting their studies in partnership with the Center for Whale Research this year, sharing their educational journey.
“We are just starting the rewilding journey at Balcomb BIG SALMON Ranch and documenting and sharing the recovery of the property and wider ecosystem. The Elwha River represents a prime example of how nature can recover; we just need to give it the opportunity.”
Dr. Darren Croft shot this video during a September 2023 work visit to Balcomb BIG SALMON Ranch with CWR Board Chair Howard Garrett and Chris Pinney.