The Whale Man

The LA Times
December 9, 2002

The Whale Man
by Barry Siegel

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Ken Balcomb has spent a lifetime immersing himself in the giant mammals'
world. Now he's convinced Navy sonar is driving them to their death

There it was, an apparition rising from the depths. some 40 feet from shore, directly in front of Ken Balcomb's doorstep in the Bahamas, a Cuvier's beaked whale bobbed in the water. It faced the sand, its belly stuck on the bottom, its flukes moving up and down. Balcomb took one look and shouted for his wife. This was a whale in trouble, but he couldn't help thinking: This was also like winning the lottery.

He'd spent his life studying whales, trying to envision their impenetrable world. The shy, deep-diving beaked whales mesmerized him most of all. They were legendary mysteries, the least known of all the whale families, one of the least known of all mammals. Scientists imagined them mainly from bones scattered on isolated beaches. Balcomb often dreamed of finding even one bone. Now he had a live beaked whale within his reach on Abaco Island.

He had more than that: Word soon came that other whales were beaching up and down the shores of the Bahamas. Here was an exceptional mass stranding involving marine mammals spread across 100 miles. Too wide a range, Balcomb realized, to be a natural event. For these whales to flee their habitat, something severe must have hit them. An enormous wall of sonar sound, Balcomb guessed–the ear-splitting screech of the U.S. Navy's submarine-detection system.

He knew much about Navy sonar. Although it wasn't readily apparent from his bushy gray beard and sockless Birkenstocks, Balcomb was an ex-Navy pilot. For six years, he'd manned Navy listening posts, following Soviet submarines through a worldwide network of hydrophones. On the tense day the United States pulled out of Vietnam, he'd tracked the Soviet fleet as it went to sea. He well understood the need to detect silent submarines manned by rogue nations. Yet he also well understood that marine mammals had been dying near naval sonar exercises.

Whales or national defense? Balcomb had no bent for addressing such public policy issues. He shrank from current events and human affairs, finding them too heavy, too cantankerous.

Now, though, there was no avoiding public policy. In the sea before him, the stranded beaked whale splashed its flukes on the water, vainly trying to swim.

If he witnessed a mass murder, it occurred to Balcomb, he couldn't stand silent. Something else occurred to him: Finally, you had to make a choice. Those few scientists who spend their lives watching whales often are affected in profound ways. Some come to feel they're eavesdropping on a grander world. Some end up believing that whales aren't so different from us, that our bloodlines long ago were one. Some decide that whales are among the most highly perfected forms of life ever to dwell upon this planet.

At times, scientists sense that the whales they're watching are gazing back with equal curiosity and equal care not to frighten or harm. Other times, they see great meaning in whales at play, whales hunting, whales standing by their sick. There are stories of whales swimming side by side with injured mates, carrying them across the sea with their flippers. There are stories of whales bearing drowning dogs to shore on their backs. There are stories of whales displaying fierce intelligence, grieving for dead offspring, manipulating human observers. The tale of the captive killer whale named Skana gets told as often as any: After giving the right answer 2,400 times to vision tests, Skana suddenly began giving the wrong answers. Rote performance bored her; she was demanding something new.

It's not hard to see why certain scientists long to follow whales as they plunge into an utterly alien world. How unlike ours must be their existence, they muse. What are these diving animals doing with such large, complex, oxygen-consuming brains? Might they be using them for something entirely different than humans do? Might they somehow be communicating emotions directly, stripped of language? Might they be capable of telepathy? Might they be another sentient species, fellow citizens of a vast commonwealth?

As it happens, Ken Balcomb squirms at such questions. He wants to make it clear that he's not among those who study whales for the "soul and spirit" of it all. In fact, he's wary of the "woo-woo" that saturates much of his professional world, "the whole whale thing," the "soft, kind, teddy-bear view of whales." He is after data and hard facts. A beached whale, however dismaying, offers the promise of a fresh specimen–a chance to study and learn.

Only reluctantly does Balcomb allow that 40 years among the whales have, at times, left him moved and wide-eyed. Yes, he says, it is quite something to watch closely knit matriarchal families stay together for decades. It is quite something to see grown children still swimming by their mother. It is quite something to see three commingled generations diving in unison.

It's also quite something–"pretty damned weird" is how Balcomb puts it–to witness whales' abiding concern for human beings. Caught one morning in deep fog off Washington state, Balcomb had to plot a course on compass bearings across the treacherous Strait of Juan de Fuca. He didn't relish a blind passage, but home that season was on the other side. Ten minutes into his journey, a band of orcas, or killer whales, converged tightly around his Boston Whaler. They stayed with him for two hours, swimming slowly, nearly touching the boat, guiding him until the fog cleared. They had to know he couldn't see his way, Balcomb decided. He felt as if he were part of their pod. What amazed him most was their acceptance of him, their lack of malice against a member of a species that had long exploited them.

In the end, Balcomb can't help but believe that whales have achieved a more harmonious relationship with their world than man will ever know. Yes, he says: He would choose whales over humans, if it came to that. He'd choose, for one, the scratched and bleeding whale that drifted now in the shallows of Abaco Island, looking mystified.

Seldom had fate beached a whale before such a knowing witness. ken Balcomb marveled at this living dinosaur. It was 8:15 a.m. on March 15, 2000. Southerly winds roiled the sea; blood in the water tempted sharks. Balcomb waded out through a falling tide. The stranded whale had a rotund body, 17 feet long, with a short, thick beak. It was more brown than gray, with assorted scars and marks, probably caused by tussles with other whales. Its skin felt smooth and cool. Its breath smelled normal; if ill, it would have horrible halitosis. Lethargy appeared to be its only problem. That, and the fact it pointed to shore. This whale was seriously disoriented.

Balcomb began trying to push it out to sea, using its dorsal fin as a pivot in his hand. With each wave he pushed farther, but the whale kept making big left turns, heading back to the beach. For an hour they both persisted, turning and circling. Cheers rose from onlookers when the whale finally swam off.

Soon a fisherman passed by, saying there was another Cuvier's beaked stranded at Rocky Point. Then a neighbor brought news that a third Cuvier's had beached 400 yards to the north. Balcomb and his helpers were able to escort one out to sea. The other sat high on the sand. They wrapped it in wet towels, waiting for the rising tide. Balcomb thought it looked weak as it swam off.

Greece. That's what occurred to him. There'd been a number of strandings near naval exercises since a new generation of sonar emerged in 1963, but scientists had never proven a connection–the whales always sank or decomposed before they could be examined. Of the six multi-species mass strandings involving beaked whales, a May 1996 event in Greece's Kyparissiakos Gulf, near a NATO "acoustic trial," had been the most closely studied. Spurred by a local biologist's report, an international panel of experts had convened to determine its cause. As usual, though, they had no fresh specimens; with the tourist season starting, Greek authorities had quickly buried the decomposing carcasses. An acoustic link, the panel concluded, "can neither be clearly established nor eliminated." 

They needed proof this time, Balcomb realized.

The first person he called was an old grad school classmate, Bob Gisiner, the marine mammal program manager at the Office of Naval Research in Washington, D.C. "Save the tapes from all the Navy's listening stations," Balcomb urged. He also said, "I'm going to try to get the ears out." Better to cut off the whole head, Gisiner advised. Cut off the heads, put them in a freezer.

By then, reports of strandings were coming in from around the Bahamas, 16 in all, including one spotted dolphin, two minke whales and 13 beaked. Balcomb had before him one of the largest multi-species strandings ever recorded. Seven of the beached mammals were dead or dying; the others–along with the entire local community of 35 Cuvier's–would swim away and never be seen again.

On the second day, Balcomb cut off a beaked whale's head. On the third day, he cut off another. Both went into the freezer at Nancy's Restaurant, down the road on Sandy Point. Hours later, Balcomb took to the air in a small plane. He saw what he'd expected: U.S. Navy warships plying the waters around the Bahamas.

Of all the many obstacles the Navy has encountered in trying to deploy a new generation of anti-submarine sonar, Ken Balcomb is surely the most exasperating. Although much remains in dispute about him, it's fair to say he is not much given to the art of casual conversation. He approaches the task of talking to people warily, as if being pulled away from another world. It's hard for him to keep his attention focused unless the dialogue involves topics that consume his interest. He stays on his feet, in constant motion. His shirt pockets bulge with disorderly clumps of notes, phone numbers and business cards, many connected to people he can't quite place. Days go by when he leaves phone calls and e-mail messages unanswered. Sometimes he forgets to turn on his answering machine.

Always, Balcomb is waiting for the whales. At his ramshackle summer home on San Juan Island in the Pacific Northwest, his eyes fix on the sea. When the whales arrive, he is gone, rushing for his Boston Whaler, eager to commune among them. In his 60 years, he's kept company more with these whales than humans. Even on land, they fill his world. From his stereo speakers, connected to hydrophones sunk in kelp beds outside his window, come the clicks, chirps and whistles of passing pods. Whale bones crowd his every shelf and counter. On the coffee table sits a beaked whale's skull; on the piano, a killer whale's.

Balcomb's lifework can be found downstairs in a basement office, in notebooks full of charts and family trees. He has identified and chronicled the evolving history of every orca that swims off the state of Washington–80 to 100 in all. Year after year, he has followed them in small boats, watching with binoculars, photographing profiles of their individually distinct dorsal fins. He knows each whale's age and health and behavior patterns. He knows each whale's grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, offspring. He knows when there's been a birth and who's the mom–a newborn swims by the eye of its mother the first two weeks, then by her pectoral fin.

Yet it's the mystery that most fascinates Balcomb–what can't be known of mammals who inhabit the depths and comprehend their world mainly through their extraordinary hearing. Here are animals whose ancestors reversed evolution 50 million years ago, withdrawing from land, returning to their origins in the sea. In the turbid dark, where light travels poorly and sound easily, they adapted by altering the way they hear. Whales typically have three times a human's auditory nerves and one-tenth a human's optic nerves. Scientists believe sound illuminates the opaque for them; sound lets them spread far apart in search of food; sound connects them, converting the vast sea to an enormous living room. Even as a youth in Sacramento, the thought of whales called to Balcomb and wouldn't let go. 

He attended college and graduate school–UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz–at the dawn of an era when scientists such as Jane Goodall were forsaking labs to study chimpanzees in the wild. The notion seized him, then deepened when he began to work at a whale research station on the Northern California coast. He realized he didn't want to dissect whales and study their parts under a microscope. He wanted to observe these animals free on the open ocean.

That meant chucking what others regarded as a recognizable plan for life. Out went his intent to finish graduate school in zoology or marine biology. Out also went his first wife, who thought she'd married a budding veterinarian. When his draft board came calling he joined the Navy, yet still he communed with marine mammals. Despite his flight training, he found himself posted to a submarine listening station on the Washington coast, where he detected humpback whales singing thousands of miles away. He corralled his Navy mates, persuading them to heed these animals. Even though vast distances separated the humpbacks, he believed they must be hearing each other. Why else would they be tracking each other that way? He knew they were hearing; they had to be hearing. The listening station provided Ken Balcomb a course in magic.

He ended up reenlisting, and might have stayed forever in the Navy. He left in 1975 mainly because a particular captain was making his life miserable. Also because something in his soul had started saying, this can't be just a hobby, I've got to follow the whales.

Within a year he'd joined a handful of other pioneers in identifying all the orcas off the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. Soon he was teaching on a research vessel, co-writing books and launching a small museum. Later he married a Bahamian and began alternating seasons, studying assorted marine mammals at her home on Abaco Island, killer whales at his on San Juan.

None of this brought in much money. Balcomb paid a price for living outside the box. He ended up being ousted from his whale museum by a skeptical board of directors. There were times when he couldn't predict which of his aging cars and boats would start. There were occasions when he ate roadkill rabbits. With little bent for fund-raising or filling out grant proposals, he still relies on scattered donations and payments from Earthwatch volunteers. His Center for Whale Research, based in his San Juan home, most closely resembles a disheveled flea market.

He'd have it no other way. He is guided, he explains, by a lesson learned years ago in Navy flight school: When you're up there, it's you and the instructor, who says he's not in control, you are, and the plane doesn't care where it goes, what it does. Same with life, Balcomb decided. If you give up control, which most people do, well, that's it. That's everything. Hours after Balcomb cut off and froze the two whales' heads, Darlene Ketten of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution arrived in the Bahamas. She'd been summoned by federal agencies because she was an expert in animals' sensory systems, especially whales' ears. On the beach, she cut into one of the heads. She saw bleeding in the brain case and auditory canal. This wasn't typical death throes or the result of stranding. This was unusual trauma, possibly shared by other nearby whales.

Ketten's hands dripped as she cut. "This tissue," she said, "is a lot bloodier than I'd expect."

Ken Balcomb held a videocamera to his eye, recording her every move. His pulse quickened. Here possibly, he believed, was the first tangible proof that sonar harmed marine mammals. Here also was his chance to learn at the elbow of a master. He marveled at Ketten's knowledge and ability. He saw himself as her assistant. He thought all was "way cool."

They were both voyeurs at heart, trying to imagine the world of whales, but they did so in far different ways. Where Ken Balcomb observed marine mammals at sea, Darlene Ketten studied their anatomy in laboratories, trying to "see" whales' hearing by looking at the design of their ears. He was driven by passion for his subjects, she by intricate structures and the rigors of science. He had no graduate degree; she had a master's in biological oceanography from MIT and a doctorate in comparative anatomy from Johns Hopkins. He was self-employed; she had joint appointments at Woods Hole and Harvard University's medical school.

Two weeks after the Bahamas stranding, past midnight in a Boston lab, Ketten and Balcomb again stood together. This time they were studying a beaked whale's head on a three-dimensional CT scanner. They both saw the same thing–pools of blood in the inner ears and brain case. They both knew they were looking at confirmation of what they'd seen on the Bahamas beach. Despite the late hour, Ketten felt compelled to reach for the phone. "I figure you guys should know we have an unusual case," she told Bob Gisiner at the Office of Naval Research.

Ketten, however, didn't feel ready to offer a conclusion. She understood too well that she occupied a hot seat: Given the Navy's presence in the Bahamas, there'd be lots of people wanting particular answers–and right away.

Instead of obliging them, Ketten first wanted to see the whales' inner ears on the cellular level. No matter her expertise in forensic radiology–if there was more definitive proof, she needed to get it. That's what the Navy and federal agencies would expect. They'd favor hard fact over her surest judgment.

Seeing whales' inner ears isn't easy, though; they're protected by some of the densest bone known. To get to them without inflicting harm, Ketten would have to dissolve that bone gently–an 18-month process. "You're causing me a whole lot of work," Ketten told Balcomb.

His eyes stayed on the image before him of bloody whales' ears. Although Ketten's expertise fascinated him, he didn't think he needed her wisdom to grasp the meaning of this CT scan. Blood in a whale's ear and brain, that wasn't normal. That just wasn't normal.

The Bahamas stranding could not have come at a worse time for the U.S. Navy. Increasingly concerned that it couldn't detect a new generation of nearly silent diesel-electric submarines, the Navy in the mid-1980s had started developing a form of low-frequency active sonar, LFA, that casts a penetrating sonic floodlight for hundreds of miles, saturating the ocean with intense sound. From 1988 through 1994, the Navy had secretly conducted 22 tests at sea. They'd been nearing deployment in 1995 when an obscure article in a technical journal described details of the new system. At the same time, a few sources began to leak information to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. In August 1995, the NRDC wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, asking that LFA be submitted to federal environmental review under, among other laws, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. The Navy had never before felt obliged to jump through such hoops, but it had recently lost another legal battle with this group. Their lawyers didn't want a repeat. In July 1996, the Navy agreed to prepare an environmental impact statement. What followed looked to some in Washington like a paperwork drill. Eventually, the Navy asked the National Marine Fisheries Service for an exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act, allowing it to "harass" a small number of marine mammals during LFA operation. In October 1999, the Fisheries Service gave advance notice of a proposed rule granting the Navy that exemption.

It was just six months later that the 16 marine mammals stranded themselves in the Bahamas. In the early days and weeks, the Navy publicly denied any connection. There'd been anti-submarine warfare exercises in the Bahamas, a spokesman acknowledged, but there was no "evidence or scientific data" in any way linking them to "the unfortunate demise of great mammals." A Fisheries Service preliminary report agreed, saying it was "unable at this time to link the biological damage to a specific source of acoustic energy or pressure . . . . We do not know what caused the animals to strand." In a telephone interview with reporters, Darlene Ketten said the proximity of the stranding and Navy sonar "raises a red flag," but "I'm still not ready to say the Navy did that."

It felt to Ken Balcomb as if a door had slammed shut. Since his night in Ketten's lab, he'd heard little from her or anyone else. Despite requesting an "objective, timely and transparent" inquiry, he could see no progress toward explanations or conclusions.

He'd later say that he developed no dark theories from all this. Yet he did think the Navy and Fisheries Service wanted things to move slowly. He feared that the Bahamas stranding would get buried, that attention would wane if reports were delayed. With appreciation, he began to eye his videocamera. He'd taped the whale strandings; he'd taped Darlene Ketten's necropsies on the Bahamas beach; he'd taped the CT scans in the Boston lab. Now he was glad he had.

In early May, eight weeks after the stranding, Balcomb flew to Washington to appear at a press conference organized by several environmental groups. He stopped first at the Fisheries Service's offices in Silver Spring, Md., where an old grad-school friend, Roger Gentry, headed the acoustical research team. They'd worked together in the field and had stayed at each other's homes with their families, but on this late afternoon, Gentry wasn't in sight. Balcomb showed his videotape instead to several other Fisheries Service officials. As Balcomb recalls it, they were "not pleased." They wished he wouldn't participate in the press conference; they wished he weren't there.

He could see possible repercussions now but didn't care. He owed it to the whales, he believed. How could he know something about whales and not reveal it for their benefit?

At 9:30 a.m. the next day, May 10, 2000, Balcomb stepped to the microphone in the Zenger Room of the National Press Club. He was dressed as usual in casual outdoor clothes. He spoke softly, with little inflection, about "this opportunity to show you firsthand what I saw on March 15 in the Bahamas." He called it "the most unusual event in my life." He played his videotape and distributed copies to reporters. "The main point of all this," he concluded, "is that these animals for the first time were in a fresh enough state where actual damage can be determined. And that's what's going to happen . . . . We will be able to find out what specifically was the bullet that came from the smoking gun." Balcomb had been careful to report only what he'd seen. He'd been calm and rational. He had talked movingly about his passion for beaked whales. Near the end of the press conference, though, he returned to the microphone. "One more thing," he said. "I was proud to be a military officer in defense of our country . . . . But as I see this [LFA] system developing, I'm not even proud to be an American, if we're going to destroy our whales and dolphins like this."

At the Fisheries Service, Roger Gentry couldn't help but flinch. He appreciated his old friend, yet was wary of him. He never knew what Ken might say or do. That made Gentry jumpy. Like Darlene Ketten, he felt squeezed. It was up to his office to recommend whether the Navy should get a permit for LFA.

In early June, three weeks after the press conference, Gentry took Balcomb aside at a joint meeting of scientists and Navy officers in Washington, D.C. Ken was hurting himself, Gentry advised. If Ken wanted to play a central role in the investigation, he had to "cool the rhetoric." He had to start being "more cooperative with others on the team."

Balcomb never did. In the ensuing weeks and months, he kept turning up the pressure. He posted a detailed report about the Bahamas stranding on MARMAM, an Internet discussion group for marine mammal biologists. He posted another on his own Web site. He wrote letters. He sent e-mails. He sat for print and TV interviews. He mailed copies of his videotape to members of Congress. He urged concerned citizens to "contact your Congresspersons."

A fundamental theme drove his insistently public message. According to the Navy, it had been operating not LFA but older mid-frequency sonar in the Bahamas, and at distances and sound levels that scientists considered safe for whales. Yet these levels obviously hadn't been safe. Balcomb thought he might know why. He thought the sonar waves at certain frequencies might have resonated around the whales' ears, causing tissues to tear much as a wineglass will shatter at a particular pitch.

If this resonance theory were true, it would apply equally to LFA as to mid-frequency sonar. And if it weren't true, then something happened in the Bahamas that couldn't be explained. Either way, the Bahamas stranding raised questions about LFA by suggesting scientists knew less than they thought about sonar's impact.

Ken Balcomb hammered at this notion time and again. On one level the response brought him much satisfaction, for he was being heard. On another level, he felt great disappointment. In the aftermath of his press conference in Washington, he began to realize that most of his colleagues were shunning him. They did more than refuse calls and cut him out of the loop. They railed at him and about him. It felt to Balcomb like character assassination.

Ken Balcomb's great transgression had been to go public. This appalled his colleagues, for it violated their fundamental way of doing business. To them, Balcomb had broadcast premature conclusions. He'd also reported on Darlene Ketten's work, which he had no business revealing. He was derailing the dispassionate scientific process, disrupting the private back-and-forth flow of ideas. What's more, he knew better; for all his maverick ways, Balcomb was one of them.

Or rather, he had been one of them, until he began his campaign. Now few wanted to work with him. Some colleagues called him a grandstander, a loose cannon. Some began to question his motives, asking how much news organizations had paid for his videotape. Some questioned his qualifications, pointing out that Balcomb didn't have a doctorate, that Balcomb wasn't a real scientist, that Balcomb had done nothing for 40 years but photo-identify whales. Bob Gisiner at the Office of Naval Research told him that their revered UC Santa Cruz professor Ken Norris would be ashamed of him. Roger Gentry told him he was just plain wrong to suspect a cover-up.

No one expressed more dismay than Darlene Ketten. That Balcomb publicly distributed a videotape of her at work, making preliminary observations as she dissected, drew her wrath. She didn't appreciate Balcomb's releasing information for her, especially while people were clamoring from all sides. "We weren't stonewalling," she'd say later. "People just don't realize how long it takes to get the data together and figure out what we have."

Balcomb's campaign finally created as much of a political problem as a scientific one for his colleagues. Their outrage at him grew proportionately to the pressure brought down on their shoulders. Some 10,000 letters in defense of the whales poured into Gentry's office, many declaring that the very integrity of the oceans and the global ecosystem was at stake. Ketten found herself obliged to give 44 briefings to Congress, the Pentagon, the State Department, the Bahamian government and a blur of federal agencies. The Navy made itself widely heard, both defending LFA's safety and talking of its "immediate critical need." Calls mounted in the Defense Department for a dilution of environmental laws affecting the military and the seas. So did complaints–one from Assistant Secretary of the Navy H.T. Johnson–that submitting to public environmental review was "like giving away your war plan to the enemy." In such an arena, it was folly to act as if the major decisions by federal agencies would turn on scientific data. This debate finally was about competing public interests. Depending on perspective, the absence of clear proof became reason either to deploy or delay LFA sonar. The quarrel bordered on the metaphysical: In the face of limited knowledge, do you hold back or inch forward?

There was an even more fundamental question, rarely voiced: So what if a few whales are harmed by sonar? Many more marine mammals annually are hit by ships, caught in drift nets and blasted by noisy commercial freighters. Laws exist to protect these animals, but like most, they're open to interpretation. Even if scientists could prove LFA harmed whales, some in the country would still find reason to argue for its deployment. "I'm not putting my life on the line for endangered species," one Navy commander declared before a congressional committee. "Sonar allows us to keep our sons and daughters out of harm's way."

No wonder Roger Gentry felt squeezed. For 25 years before coming to Washington, he'd devoted himself single-mindedly to an academic study of the northern fur seal, and he looked now as if he dearly missed those seals. "This is not the role I wanted or sought," Gentry grumbled in the weeks before his office had to rule on the Navy's use of LFA sonar. "I'm basically a field biologist. We're stuck in the middle between competing forces. There's so little science. You have to make educated choices. You can only make educated choices."

In mid-August, 2001, Joseph S. Johnson, the Navy's LFA program manager in the Pentagon, called Ken Balcomb at his San Juan Island home. While shepherding the sonar system through the environmental review process, Johnson had received a number of Balcomb's animated written discourses. Now he wanted to meet this maverick scientist.

Balcomb appreciated the invitation. Being shunned and denounced by his colleagues had upset him. Being cut off from Darlene Ketten had especially hurt.

In truth, for all his eccentric ways, Balcomb was a social creature. He liked attending conferences and talking to scientists. He also liked having contact with the Navy. There'd been moments over the years when he'd considered asking the Navy to take him back. He thought he could help them, thought he could be part of the LFA inquiry from the inside. Yet in recent months, the Navy had also rebuffed him.

Until this day. Here was Joe Johnson saying he wanted to "address your concerns." Johnson wanted to hear Balcomb's story and explain the Navy's. He wanted to show Balcomb that those promoting LFA sonar weren't demons.So what if Johnson's true aim was to defuse a voluble critic? Balcomb didn't care. A thought occurred to him. On Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, not far from his home, the Navy operated a submarine-listening station, a modern version of the type he once manned. "If you ever get out this way," Balcomb told Johnson, "I'd like to see the Whidbey station."

Johnson brought Gentry with him when he came. The equation had changed considerably by the time they arrived. It was Oct. 3, 2001–three weeks after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Balcomb understood the difficulty now of arguing for whales over national defense. Yet he did not feel inclined to back down.

The Whidbey Island naval base sits on a stunning spit of land some 85 miles northwest of Seattle. Dunes rise between the ocean and a squat concrete building that's protected by cameras, guards and a double line of barbed fencing. Balcomb, as usual, showed up wearing jeans, a blue denim shirt and sockless Birkenstocks. Joining him, all in coats and ties, were Gentry, Johnson and Bill Ellison, an LFA acoustics expert. They slid driver's licenses and photo IDs under a window, then followed a long corridor to a conference room. Balcomb sat down across from Johnson and Gentry.

Gentry studied his friend. Balcomb's appearance didn't surprise him. He never dressed for anyone, never changed for people. Gentry himself had been something of a maverick once, way anti-war. Hell, he'd once looked like Ken. Now he worked with the Navy.

For this, he had no apologies. To him, the Navy had acted responsibly after the stranding. They'd taken only 13 days to provide requested information, fast in the Washington bureaucracy. It just didn't seem to Gentry that they'd stalled. He'd failed to convince Balcomb of this because Ken was sitting impatiently in the Bahamas with nothing else to do. Gentry and his colleagues had careers. They were on the Hill, they had a thousand things going on.

Still, Gentry had to admit, he thought Balcomb's course in life enviable. Any scientist would love to do the Jane Goodall thing. Few had the fortitude. It took real courage for Ken to step back and say, I'm not going to be part of the mainstream.

Joe Johnson began. "We want to address any concerns you have about this system," he told Balcomb, sounding collegial. Particularly, they wanted to talk about Balcomb's theory of resonance. On what did he base his calculations? How did he come up with his frequencies? Why did he think LFA would harm marine mammals?

LFA had been Johnson's mission for more than 15 years. Some in Washington likened his role to that of a used-car salesman, although he insisted he was not an advocate but a "technical manager." He'd been there from the start, an engineer focused on making it work. He'd gone on a number of the sea tests. He'd traveled for months at a time. He'd watched his kids grow up in spurts.

Now he was nearing the finish line. In March, the Fisheries Service had published a proposed rule granting the Navy an exemption. Within weeks, the Navy and the Fisheries Service would issue their joint report on the Bahamas stranding. It seemed to Johnson that they had every angle covered. Every angle, perhaps, but Ken Balcomb. An "acoustic holocaust" is what Balcomb had called the Bahamas stranding in a widely quoted public letter to Johnson. "It is probable that all Cuvier's beaked whales were killed by the sonar . . . . I cannot legally or morally support any recommendation to deploy LFA." Balcomb's rhetoric had echoed at three contentious public hearings that spring. In April, there'd been a New York Times article featuring his fears about LFA. In May, there'd been a Bahamas Journal of Science article, a relentless account of the mass stranding by Balcomb and his wife, Diane Claridge.

Johnson wanted to pump this man for information; he wanted to learn his intentions; he wanted to see if they could work together. They began trading calculations, navigating the complicated laws of physics. Here, by all accounts, Balcomb's difficulty with the art of conversation showed itself vividly. He jumbled his sentences in such a way that it sounded as if he didn't believe his own resonance theory. Johnson began thinking he'd managed to diminish this man's concerns. Yet they could reach no resolution, Balcomb finally turned the conversation from science to national security. Why, he wondered, does the military need this LFA sonar?

Johnson offered what Balcomb would later describe as a "non-classified briefing." There is no tape of this exchange, but both remember Johnson talking about the threat from submarines operated by non-allied and rogue nations. Anyone with money can build one, Balcomb learned. Anyone can go down to "WarMart" and buy parts. Lots of nations have done just that. After the United States and Russia, Pakistan had the most subs, maybe two dozen, maybe 40. Korea, Iran, China–they all had subs. You didn't even need an enemy nation. A renegade sub captain could take out a carrier. So could terrorists. If you lose a carrier, you have 5,000 dead.

Balcomb found Johnson's briefing all too convincing. He knew that in 1982, the British Royal Navy established dominance in the Falklands with a single submarine attack that sank an Argentine cruiser. He knew that in summer 2000, during an eight-nation Rim of the Pacific exercise in Hawaii, an Australian sub had slipped by defensive systems and "blown up" a U.S. carrier.

Balcomb felt conflicted. It bothered him that people thought he wasn't being patriotic. He knew whales might have to die during warfare; he just didn't want them to die during training exercises. He looked across at Johnson and Gentry. Somewhere in this building, technicians manned a listening post. "Can I have a tour?" Balcomb asked.

They followed a stairway down to a basement and stepped into a room filled with 10 computer stations. Balcomb looked around with wonder. When they worked listening posts in the 1970s, they sat at consoles with carbon stylus printers that traced wavy lines on smudge paper, like the frequency bands of an electrocardiogram. He recalled the printers' loud noise–jut, jut, jut. Here there was only silence.

They wouldn't let him see submarine movements, so just two monitors flickered. A pair of civilians sat at them, watching whales, part of a cooperative project with Woods Hole. Balcomb saw bursts of energy on their screens, dark areas on lighted backgrounds. Thirty years ago in the Navy, he'd watched whales too, but on the sly. Now you could find public reports about whales tracked by these listening posts. Balcomb had been reading them in recent years with envious interest. Born too soon, he guessed. 

Johnson and Balcomb fell to talking about the Navy. Johnson, it emerged, had worked at listening posts too. They knew a few of the same people. Balcomb thought, I could have had his job if I'd stayed in the Navy. I could be in his shoes.

Then it was over. The others had things to do. Balcomb wanted to catch a ferry; Balcomb wanted to go home.

There is no telling what public attention the Navy and Fisheries Service's joint report on the Bahamas stranding might have garnered if it hadn't been released 20 months after the event, in the last days of 2001, just in time to make the New Year's Eve papers. There were qualifications–mention of other "contributory factors" such as the unique Bahamian topography–but there were also two unprecedented admissions: The Navy's mid-frequency sonar caused the stranding; the Navy acknowledged responsibility.

Never before had sonar been shown to cause fatal trauma in marine mammals. Never before had the Navy conceded its role. The report pointedly noted that LFA "had no involvement in this case," but by leaving unanswered just how mid-frequency sonar harmed the whales, it also left dangling the questions about LFA.

Some in Washington expressed surprise, having expected more obfuscation. Ken Balcomb felt vindicated. Nothing much had changed since the night he stood in Darlene Ketten's Boston lab. Her whale ears, now finally decalcified for direct study, only confirmed what they'd seen at midnight on the CT scanner.

It occurred even to some he'd annoyed that Balcomb had helped bring this about, that he'd in large part made this report happen. From the Marine Mammal Commission, a federal watchdog agency, came now the thought that "the world needs people like Ken," that critical events "need people with fortitude to stand up and go against the tide." Navy Cmdr. Paul Stewart, an environmental liaison officer and co-author with Roger Gentry of the Bahamas report, told a visitor, "Ken is not an adversary. He's a wonderful observational biologist. He has provided excellent data. He said what he believed. He was trying to motivate. He definitely raised awareness. We wouldn't have data if he hadn't cut those whale heads."None of this meant that others expected Balcomb to prevail in the end. Nearly everyone believed his quest to be quixotic. Therefore, few expressed shock when the Fisheries Service, in mid-July 2002, granted the Navy the permit needed to implement LFA sonar. Seven dead whales–and the amorphous prospect of more–were not likely to handcuff the Navy.

In Gentry's view, his agency had made not just an educated choice, but a shaded and qualified one. The Fisheries Service permit placed some limits on where and when the Navy could operate its sonar. It also required the Navy to continue research on LFA's impact, particularly on sperm and beaked whales. Gentry said he meant to look over the Navy's shoulder, reviewing and modifying, treating LFA's deployment as an ongoing research experiment.

That wasn't nearly good enough for opponents. In early August, a coalition led by the Natural Resources Defense Council sued to block LFA's use, calling both the sonar and the permit illegal. Among other things, the council argued that the Fisheries Service had improperly given the Navy carte blanche to operate LFA in 75% of the world's oceans without monitoring or mitigating its full impact. Policy choices aren't made in a vacuum, NRDC senior attorney Joel Reynolds pointed out; they must still follow the laws of the land. Thus did a confounding public debate swing from the scientists and rule-makers to the lawyers and judges.

In late September it swung again, this time into headlines, with news that 15 beaked whales had stranded themselves in the Canary Islands during NATO naval exercises. Echoes of the Bahamas filled the early reports. Once more, necropsies showed ear and brain trauma "consistent with acoustic impact." Once more, a U.S. Navy spokesperson said "it would be inappropriate to speculate on the cause of the stranding." Once more, assorted officials promised a thorough investigation.

Then came an unexpected if much-awaited voice from the courtroom. At the end of October, U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth D. LaPorte issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting deployment of LFA until the Navy and environmental groups agreed on limited regions where the sonar could be operated safely. It was only an interim decision, subject to modification and, eventually, a full-blown federal trial. It would restrict but not stop LFA's use for training and testing purposes. It wouldn't apply at all in times of war or "declared heightened risk." Yet here was one judge's opinion that the environmentalists would likely win their lawsuit: At a minimum, she found, marine mammals would be harassed by LFA, if not irreparably injured.

"Wow!" Ken Balcomb proclaimed when told of the ruling. "I had not heard." He tracks both lawsuits and strandings only from afar these days, eyes on his computer monitor. He remains largely isolated. Certain colleagues still won't return his calls. The Fisheries Service has denied his application for funding of a network to record strandings. His second wife has gone her own way, their relationship strained by his extended campaign. He has not been able to get specimens or CT scans from the Bahamas. He plays no role in the Canary Islands probe.

His foray into the world of human affairs has been a journey of education. With wistful wonder, he says "the whole thing is not what you thought it was when you were growing up." Yet he also says he has no regrets. He's pleased to have played a role in winning official recognition that sonar harms marine mammals. He's gratified that so many brilliant people are finally studying this matter. He's certain that one day the world will see clearly and adjust.

That's enough, Balcomb figures. He turns now to his boat, eager to rejoin his whales. All he wanted, he points out, was to leave his mark. He wanted only to say: "We were here, this was seen."

Barry Siegel, a Times national correspondent, is the author of Actual 
Innocence
and Lines of Defense. He last wrote for the magazine about 
Waldron Island in the Pacific Northwest.

FAIR USE NOTICE

Back to Animal Issues & Stories


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.