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Dr. Kenneth C.
Balcomb III

We will carry you ​in
our hearts forever.
On December 15, 2022, Center for Whale Research (CWR) founder and longtime leader Kenneth C. Balcomb III died. He was surrounded by family and loved ones in his final hours. Ken was 82 years old.

Ken, a pioneer and legend in the whale world, was more than just a scientist. He was a North Star, a guiding light which illuminated a path for tens of thousands to follow. His deep-rooted love and connection to the whales and their ocean habitat inspired others to appreciate both as much as he did. His groundbreaking ORCA SURVEY study, which detailed and documented the lives of the Southern Resident killer whale/orca population in the Pacific Northwest’s Salish Sea, was a testament to his dedication. It determined that the Southern Residents needed more food abundance in a healthy habitat to survive, a message he continually heralded to the world—“No fish, No Blackfish.” [No Chinook salmon, No Southern Resident orcas].


Ken’s Southern Residents orca research began in 1976; it is the longest study of this population. His goal was for the Center for Whale Research’s scientific studies to continue for 150 years, provided there were whales to study. All of us at CWR share Ken’s vision and mission to preserve and protect the magnificent Southern Resident killer whales. He often said about the critically endangered Southern Residents: “I’m not going to count them to zero, at least not quietly.” The Center for Whale Research’s board of directors and staff are dedicated to continuing Ken Balcomb’s life’s work.

Thank you for everything, Ken. We will carry you in our hearts forever.
Learn more about Ken Balcomb's life's work and impact
  • READ the Memory Board postings below to get a true sense of Ken Balcomb’s effect on the world.

  • READ the December 2022 the WHALE Report, Ken Balcomb Remembered, to appreciate Ken’s work commitment and efforts on behalf of the Southern Resident orca community.

  • READ what Ken Balcomb’s brother and CWR Board Chair Howie Garrett said on the Orca Network website.

  • SCROLL through the Photo Gallery below for a snapshot of Ken Balcomb’s life studying, monitoring, educating about, and advocating for the orcas of the Salish Sea.

the WHALE Report
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The Kenneth C. Balcomb III Legacy Fund (formerly Memorial Fund) will carry his five decades of orca research and advocacy forward for years. Ken’s Southern Residents orca study began in 1976 and is the longest study of this population. One of Ken’s goals was for the Center for Whale Research’s (CWR) scientific studies to continue for 150 years. The CWR board of directors and staff shares Ken’s vision and mission to preserve and protect the magnificent but critically endangered Southern Resident orcas. Your LEGACY FUND donation will support CWR’s ongoing research, education, and conservation efforts.​

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KCB Photo Gallery
Memory Board

Dr. Kenneth C. “Ken” Balcomb III 
Memory Board

This memorial board was created to share your messages and memories of Ken. The Memory Board does not permit uploaded photographs. Please send pictures to Thank you.

Comments (235)


KCB tribute.

I think Ken would say he dedicated most of his living years to documenting Southern Resident orcas and doing whatever he could to help them survive. And that led him to do all he could to protect and restore salmon. But the best way to talk about Ken is to let him speak for himself. From February 2022, when Ken knew his remaining days were few.

Ken majored in philosophy at UC Berkeley before he settled on zoology and transferred to UC Davis for his degree. Maybe he decided nonhuman animals were more interesting and could lead to more interesting work than human philosophies. Somehow he seems to have learned the value of having values, of moral integrity, of walking your talk, except Ken didn’t really talk about his values much. When he saw a job, a task, a challenge, that he thought needed to be done, or when he envisioned one, when he dreamed up a great idea, he just did it. He had compassion for all living things. He certainly was committed to doing the right thing for whales and the natural world. And he always tried to do the right thing for people to the best of his ability.

He was a visionary ahead of his time, who created projects and missions in his imagination, and made them realities. And he met whatever challenges he found, head-on. That’s how his ethical gyroscope worked.

If you get out of the Navy for instance, and you have two job offers that are both huge challenges, but both also once in a lifetime opportunities that you can’t refuse, one, to conduct a population survey of southern resident orcas for NOAA and the other to do a photo ID study of humpbacks on a three masted barkentine in the North Atlantic, you do both. And he did. For more than a dozen years.

If you incur the wrath of the marine park industry and NOAA, for accurately counting the whales in the southern resident population, you continue to accurately count the whales in the southern resident population anyway.

If you see an old empty building in Friday Harbor that would be great place for a whale museum, you make it into a whale museum, or if you see another empty storefront by the ferry landing, you dream up and build the Orca Survey Outreach Office. Ken imagined and built whale information centers all over the world.

He also did all the mundane work that had to be done for the big projects to function.

If you have a fleet of old boats and vehicles that all need to be serviced constantly, new batteries, new tires, restarted, winterized every year, you do it.

If the producers of a Hollywood movie about a whale stuck in a tank in Mexico City ask you to help find a better home for that whale, you find a way to get that whale back home to his actual native habitat. Kelley and I were right alongside Ken the summer of 1993 while he researched every possible aspect of how to return a whale to its ocean home. He compiled a comprehensive bibliography, and a list of every release of every whale or dolphin that had ever been released or escaped from captivity.

He talked to every marine park owner, trainer, or capturer he could find. Of course he already knew every scientific finding about Orca biology and natural history and had thousands of hours on the water with Southern Residents, observing every move they made and reviewing thousands of hi res photos.

So he applied that knowledge to that mission and got the job and immediately got removed from the job, but the job as he described it eventually got done, except for finding Keiko’s mom.

And if there’s a So Resident orca stuck in a tank in Miami and you know you can design a way to bring her home safely because you know she’s a resilient survivor and her natal habitat and her family will feel familiar and be therapeutic for her, you say that, for her, knowing that will definitely incur the wrath of the park industry.

If a dozen beaked whales wash up on beaches at your feet in the Bahamas and you see that the Navy is doing sonar exercises and you put it all together because you worked in Navy acoustics and those beaked whales were the subjects of your study so only you can tell that story, you tell that story.

If the Navy also blasts sonar in Haro Strait as you watch and listen, while J pod scrambles for safety in shallow water, again at your feet, you tell that story.

If a lonely young male from L pod is lost in Nootka Sound and you know you can bring him back to his family safely just by leading him home but first you have to ask permission from people who don’t understand how to relate to an orca, you ask anyway. Even though you don’t expect an answer.

If a three year old female southern resident has her brains blown to mush by some kind of underwater detonation synchronous with navy training exercises, you tell that story. With your T-shirt if necessary.

If you have to sit through three contentious years of Marine Mammal Commission meetings with oil executives and Navy officers to show your first-hand documentation of acoustic harm to marine mammals, you speak up at those meetings. The final report to Congress in 2007 was a direct result of his testimony.

If satellite tags are injuring and possibly killing Southern Resident orcas you may use the data but you have to tell that story.

Ken’s advocacy on behalf of whales cost him professional relationships and government funding.

But if four dams on the Snake River are killing fish that are desperately needed by Southern Residents so they can bring their babies to full-term and nurse them to become reproductive adults, you tell that story. Again, on your T-shirt if necessary.

If you have to sit through days of meetings at the Orca Recovery task force even though you’re not well, to try to tell the story that SR orcas are starving and the main thing they need is more chinook salmon, you sit through it and say it. And some of the governor’s recommendations actually did promote salmon habitat restoration and protection.

If you know deep in your soul that these orcas are episodically unable to find enough food, and that lack of sufficient chinook salmon in their foraging habitat is the single most important thing for everyone to understand if we hope to ever bring them back to good population health, you tell that story. “No fish, no blackfish,”.

To say Ken spoke truth to power is an understatement. He spoke truth to everyone.

If the removal of two dams and restoration of the Elwha river provides a glimmer of hope to return salmon to the abundance needed for southern residents to survive, you tell that good news story, even if you have to document it from the bank of the Elwha to tell it.

Ken chose the defense of whales and natural ecosystems over his personal self-interest. It was his mission, his job, his sacred obligation. Ken didn’t talk about why he did it much because others might not understand and wouldn’t see the job as sacred like he did, he just did it.

If you see that our whole industrial global society needs to shift its thinking from an economic, human-centered view of the world to a more spiritual, ecological realization that we humans depend on a healthy functioning natural world for life itself, you try to say that in the best way you can.

About a year ago Ken hired Michael Weiss to be the new CWR Chief Scientist, and he tapped Darren Croft to steer the ship, and he asked John Ford and John Durban to be science advisers for CWR and he and the board made me vice-president, and he talked at length about his vision for CWR and for the Balcomb big salmon ranch.

He talked to a lot of old friends in his final months, planning the future or just making shopping lists.

Ken envisioned, built, maintained and managed Orca Survey, a continuous, complete demographic and behavioral study of Southern Resident orcas, since 1976, and he left the Center for Whale Research in good shape, and in good hands to continue doing research, education, and conservation for these whales. Good job Ken, thank you.

Then he went down to the Elwha to watch the river flow.

Howard Garrett - Ken's brother


I am saddened to hear about Ken. I did not get a chance to meet Ken or know him personally but have followed his work and dedication to whales since maybe the age of 7.

Thank you Ken for inspiring me, for your dedication to whale research and for fighting for the Southern Residents.

My condolences to his family, friends and Center For Whale Research.

Njai Kenon


I just read about Ken's passing. I spent the summer of 1979 working with Ken and others studying Orca's from their base on San Juan Island. From there I went to Hawaii working under Dr. Louis Herman studying Humpbacks and training dolphins. I would run into Ken every now and then over the years and always looked forward to seeing his smile.

I left whale research and recently retired as a fire chief but take great joy in telling fire cadets I still teach that I used to be a whale researcher. I thank Ken for that.

Rest easy my friend.

Loren Davis


After 20 years of outfitting and guiding kayak tours in whale country I was bitten by a tick and spent 20 years with undiagnosed Lyme disease. That illness kept me close to home, lack of money inspired growing my own food. Years later, at a whale conference, when asked what to do to support Orca, Ken said "grow your own food, that's where we use the most energy". He affirmed that how we choose to live affects all the life around us, especially the top of the food chain charismatic mega-fauna. Thank you Ken.


I met Ken balcomb at thieves bay .when they had a thing talking.about orcas and the different orcas and the story about the different orcas in my book.he signed my book in 2016

Sorry for your loss I will remember him.

He was very friendly and very nice.

Condolence to the centre of whale research.



I was extremely interested in marine life growing up in the 80's and 90's when I was about 11 I decided I wanted to be a whale researcher. I had seen every documentary and interview with Ken and I was so inspired by him. I was so lucky to become one of his Earthwatch volunteers in 1997 on San Juan island and in Abaco in 1998 and he let me come back the following year. He inspired and made such a profound impact on my life. I saw my first wild Orca's on his Boston Whaler one very early August Morning and it changed my life in such a positive way. He believed any normal Joe could help save J,K,L pods-as a young wanna be marine biologist that was so rare and weighed gold. I cannot imagine the Southern Residents without Ken and vice versa. I will help continue his legacy how I can, Ken may not be here physically anymore but he's with the whales and he always will be. Thank You Ken for inspiring and giving me and so many students and people a shot to do whale research and learn from you. You were one in a million. Sending my love to the CWR Team, Howie, Susan, and Kelley and his family. Shanna Newell


I met Ken in the spring of 1985 during a semester at sea from college, in the Dominican Republic, studying humpback whales in their breeding grounds. We were aboard the Rambler out of Puerta Plata through Oceanic Research and Education Society? (It went belly up the next year!) But Ken was a great teacher and instilled in all of us a deep love for whales, the ocean, saving the whales, etc.... Feeling fairly aimless after college, I contacted Ken and asked him for a job, any job. He said sure, and I moved out to Friday Harbor in 1986 to assist Binny Haenel and Ken (though he was in San Fran working on Humphrey the Humpback rescue/release) that summer into the fall on the population count Ken began with Michael Bigg so many years before. We had an absolute uproarious time all summer; later that winter I house sat for Ken and Prentice Bloedel, taking care of their dogs, Prentice's cat Columbine and his dog Coupe, and whatever assortment of pets Ken had at the time. It was a wonderful, idyllic period in my life; for a girl from Connecticut to move out to Smugglers Cove Road and partake in all the glory that that part of the island held was truly transformative. San Juan island will always be a magical place for me, thanks to Ken for allowing me to come and live there in an old trailer in the yard. I am so sorry to hear of his passing and hope he was at peace. Sending my heartfelt condolences to Kelley and the rest of Ken's family. Best, Sarah Maloney, Portland, Maine.


Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. AMEN


I'm deeply saddened to hear about Ken, can't seem to find the words to express how devastating it is to lose such a wonderful human being!! Although I did not know him personally, he will forever hold a special place in my heart and in the hearts of all who knew and loved him. My condolences to his family. Hopefully, Ken's dedication, love, for the Orca's and the ecosystem will live on!!!


Stephanie Sorenson

CWR Member


We are sorry and you will be miss. Personally I didn't know him but he's with god now. We will miss you


Your Orca Helper

Camila Ortega

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