Whale Whisperer

Ken Balcomb’s passion is studying orcas in the San Juan Islands.

January 7, 2020
Ken Balcomb
Ken Balcomb created a digital database for identifying individual orcas in the San Juan Islands. Courtesy Center for Whale Research,

Forget facebook. For Ken Balcomb, it’s all about Finbook. For 43 years, the founder of the Center for Whale Research has been studying and photographing the three pods of Southern Resident killer whales that call the waters surrounding the San Juan Islands home. Balcomb’s daily digital snapshots—a good 2,000 to 3,000 clicks on a clear day—are added to Finbook, his database chronicling this endangered community over the decades.

Balcomb pioneered photo identification of cetaceans, using their unique fin and saddle-patch patterns to distinguish among pod members. “I like clearly marked, clearly identifiable whales so that other people can share the enthusiasm of being able to recognize an individual,” he says.

The center’s app lets visitors do just that, with an Orca ID tool to pinpoint which member of J, K or L pod they’ve spotted. Cruisers can dive deeper into the center’s work at its Orca Survey Outreach & Education Center in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. Visitors can listen to underwater vocalizations, watch livestream footage of the whales in the neighborhood and, yes, look at Finbook entries.


What (besides the whales) led you to establish your research base on San Juan Island? There’s a lot of open country. It’s mountain scenery all around you, snowcapped mountains of the Olympics and Vancouver Island. And you’re just surrounded by water. I love the water.

Some people never forget a face. Do you never forget a fin? Quite often, I can recognize whales on sight. We start with the adult males because they have a very tall dorsal fin. Then we look at the gray saddle patch. I can usually tell within a few seconds, “That is so-and-so.”

Do you have any favorite current members among the pods? My favorite at the moment would be the new baby, named J56, and her mom, K31.

orcas in the San Juan Islands
For four decades, Ken Balcomb has been researching orcas in the San Juan Islands. Courtesy Center for Whale Research,

Ken’s San Guan Island Selections

Whale Watching: The whale-watching tour companies on the island are run by professional, competent, caring people. Or go to Lime Kiln State Park and watch the whales swim by there.

McMillin’s Dining Room (Roche Harbor, San Juan Island): It’s a popular destination for yacht folks. It has a good bar and good food, especially its crab bisque.

Herb’s Tavern (Friday Harbor, San Juan Island): It’s been the local watering hole for several generations with live music Friday and Saturday nights in the summer.


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