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Just because it seems impossible doesn’t mean it is.

Fortunately for the endangered Southern Resident orca community (SRKW), their most vocal ally stays focused on what’s possible to save the species from extinction.

Ken Balcomb communicating via VHF marine radio aboard a CWR research vessel.

Ken Balcomb keeps his attention directed on what’s doable. He always has.

The Center for Whale Research’s (CWR) founder and senior scientist spends part of his day, every day, acting to save the gravely endangered Southern Resident orca community from vanishing.

In between directing CWR’s 45-year long ORCA SURVEY study of the Southern Resident orcas and the organization’s outreach and education efforts, Ken advocates for specific government actions to save the iconic whales.

A rebel with a worthy cause

During his lifetime as a cetacean researcher and conservationist, Ken Balcomb has been labeled as many things:

  • Maverick—for taking on the U.S. Navy

  • Philanthropic—for turning his oceanfront San Juan Island home into the CWR’s offices and frequent bunkhouse

  • Selfless—for answering the same orca questions from the public and media over and over, year after year

  • Contrarian—for sticking to his view that increasing Chinook salmon stocks is the only way to the save Southern Resident orca population

  • Visionary—for acquiring Big Salmon Ranch, riverfront property along the recovering Elwha River (post-dam removals)

  • Relentless—in his pursuit of the politicians and bureaucrats and others who can reverse the declining salmon stocks.

This is but a sampling of the favorable and not-so-nice names he’s been called for his often anti-establishment positions and actions—each for the sake of the salmon and the Southern Resident killer whales, species of paramount significance to a healthy Pacific Northwest ocean habitat.


We all have to take to heart and let our leaders know: Hey, this isn’t acceptable to just talk about it; you’ve got to do something.

CWR's Ken Balcomb


Ken Balcomb starts the ORCA SURVEY

From the late 1960s through the mid-70s, orcas (killer whales) were captured and displayed in marine parks. A botched attempt to kill an orca for use as a sculpture model led to the “discovery” that the whales weren’t indiscriminate killers but docile and intelligent animals, capable of learning. Almost overnight, the world’s attitude toward “killer” whales changed.

There was a common misperception that thousands of orcas inhabited the regional waters around Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The Canadian government wanted to determine the truth. The United States government’s NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) decided to follow the lead of their neighbors to the north—wanting a count of the newly-defined Southern Resident killer whales in the Greater Puget Sound area of Washington State.

So, in April 1976, ORCA SURVEY began.

Watch this 13-minute video of Encounter #1 (April 8, 1976),

narrated by CWR’s Ken Balcomb, reading his handwritten logbook entry.

Forty-Five Years of ORCA SURVEY Research

During the past five decades, the Center for Whale Research team has conducted long-term, observation-based studies of orcas in the Salish Sea. Over time, field staff has collected reams of detailed demographic data about the Southern Resident orca population, including annual photo-identification images of all members of the SRKW community. CWR has recorded details about the animals’ behavior and ecology (including their geographic location and time), their social behavior, and their foraging patterns. And they’ve cataloged all births and deaths.

The ORCA SURVEY dataset continues to provide unprecedented insights into orca biology and ecology.

Discoveries in the early years of ORCA SURVEY influenced orca research and other fields of marine mammalogy around the world. Center for Whale Research scientists helped pioneer the technique of cetacean photo-identification, now considered a standard method for identifying free-swimming cetaceans around the globe. Distinguishing individual orcas led to discovering different orca types dissimilar to the Southern Residents’ diet, behaviors, and social structure. CWR’s involvement in orca and other international cetacean studies has resulted in close to sixty published papers. (See a complete list of these at

Positive Change as a result of ORCA SURVEY

It was apparent early in Ken Balcomb’s and his colleagues’ work—through individual whale identification—that there were far fewer orcas than previously thought, leading the U.S. government to put a stop to all captures. In subsequent years, the detailed information about the Southern Resident orca population derived from CWR’s long-term studies supported population management decisions in the United States and Canada: the Southern Residents were listed as endangered in Canada in 2001, receiving the same designation in the United States in 2005.

As a result of Ken’s passion and commitment to the close-knit Southern Resident orca population, tens of thousands, if not millions of people worldwide, are now educated about the fish-eating Southern Resident orca population. And who knows how many found their calling, following him into the world of animal science and conservation.

Right and left side ID photographs of J16 in 2021, as seen in the

ORCA SURVEY Southern Resident Killer Whales ID GUIDE.

Orca Photo-Identification

Unique saddle patch markings and dorsal fin shape allow Center for Whale Research staff to identify individual orcas. The whitish-grey saddle patch differs from whale to whale in shape, size, color, and scarring, and the whale’s dorsal fin varies in shape and size, often with distinctive nicks and scars. These individual identification elements allow CWR to accumulate a precise annual census of the population, accounting for every whale yearly.


Which orcas are related? What’s the age and gender of the whales? CWR’s ORCA SURVEY ID GUIDES answer these questions. Three sections in the guide represent the three pods in the Southern Resident orca community: J, K, and L. Each section begins with a matrilineal chart depicting who is related to whom, followed by left and right side photographs of each whale grouped by family. The dual photos include the orca’s number designation (e.g., J16), birth year, and immediate family members. The guides are available to Center for Whale Research MEMBERS as one of their membership benefits.

Cover of the 2021 ORCA SURVEY Southern Resident Killer Whales ID GUIDE

and the J Pod marline chart.


Ken Balcomb’s and the Center for Whale Research team’s commitment to the endangered Southern Resident orcas persists today. CWR’s scientists, staff, and volunteers continue studying the SRKWs while also informing decision-makers about the best policy choices they can institute to recover these top-predator marine mammals. The message is always the same: A greater abundance of wild Chinook salmon in a healthier ocean environment is by far the orcas most critical need.

In addition, CWR continues to pour their hearts and souls into educating thousands and thousands of people about orcas every year at the ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, Washington.

CWR’s Orca Photo-ID Specialist, Dave Ellifrit, showing ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center guests a photo ID chart (left) and ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center Manager, Katie Jones, leading a talk about orcas.


Ken Balcomb has given an exorbitant amount of time, energy, and spirit to studying, educating, and advocating for the, now gravely endangered Southern Resident orca community.


“Just because it seems impossible doesn’t mean it is.”

Is it possible to save the Southern Resident orcas from extinction? If you answered YES (and we agree), what do you do now?

Don't stop acting at the end of Orca Action Month 2021!

As we close out Orca Action Month 2021 and through the remaining six months of this year and into 2022, we need you to keep fighting for what’s POSSIBLE . . . Ken Balcomb and the CWR team WILL!

Here's what you can do

Urge U.S. regional and federal elected politicians and government bureaucrats to take immediate steps to improve Salish Sea/Pacific Ocean habitat to benefit Pacific Northwest Chinook salmon and the Southern Resident orcas. The biggest bang for the buck toward achieving this goal comes from removing unproductive hydroelectric dams, particularly the Lower Snake River dams.


Rational fish recovery and management are way down the list for political and public attention right now, and the recovery issue is too tangled up in polarizing self-interests.

We at the Center for Whale Research have been only asking for what the whales need, for gosh sakes. It is disingenuous for political leaders to state that the Southern Resident orcas' extinction will not be tolerated while at the same time bowing to interests and continuing practices that make their survival impossible.

The orcas must eat to survive, just like people.”

CWR’s Ken Balcomb


Contact one or more of your elected representatives this week, asking that they take steps IMMEDIATELY to begin the Lower Snake River dam removal process (see TAKE ACTION at for names and contact information).

A colleague of CWR’s, writer Steven Hawley—half of the filmmaking team behind the award-winning documentary DAMNED TO EXTINCTION and author of the book Recovering A Lost River—wrote to several officials in June outlining why the Lower Snake River dams need to come down. His letter is an excellent source of talking points (dowload below) to assist all of us when contacting our politicians and bureaucrats. Since unique messages (emails, social media posts, and letters) are more likely to be read, use the content in Steven’s letter to assist you in crafting yours.

Steve Hawley Letter
Download PDF • 415KB

In the award-winning documentary DAMNED TO EXTINCTION and his book Recovering A Lost River, author Steven Hawley provides a reasonable justification for removing the Lower Snake dams to benefit Chinook salmon and the Southern Resident orcas.


Are you a Center for Whale Research MEMBER? Membership donations provide financial support to our organization, helping us continue our five decades of scientific studies while speaking out on behalf of the Southern Resident orcas.


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