Sunday, October 23, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Whale Watcher -- Biologist Ken Balcomb Hopes Liberating Lolita Will Unlock Mysteries Of The Orcas


It figures these days that the first sign of killer whales is not the Poooofff! Poooofff!! of orcinus orca gently clearing cetacean snot from its blowhole, but rather, the electronic yelp of a black plastic pager. There! Triangulated on the liquid-crystal display, exact coordinates as reported by an on-shore spotter with a mighty powerful scope. There! Whales! Frolicking in the seasick mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, headed west, toward the Pacific Ocean. Whales.

Not just any whales, but the 94 orcas who summer off the San Juan islands. These are J, K and L pods, and they may all look alike to the casual observer, but, of course, each is special to its mother. And to Friday Harbor whale biologist Ken Balcomb. He knows each by name, personality, physique, lineage. That 84-year-old great-grandmother breaching and slapping her tail is K7. There's L57's dorsal fin soaring above the water like the Matterhorn, and L12 whose saddlepatch looks like a huge comma leaking milk.

Balcomb has studied these whales for almost 20 years. He knows who hangs out with whom, who is sick, who gave birth, who is going through a growth spurt, who belongs to which mother. Orcas in these highly social resident pods stay with their mothers for life; Balcomb has family portraits. Every year, he and other researchers compile fresh mug shots of each whale into a catalog, a scientific field guide that's a cross between family album and whale yearbook.

The yearbook is missing one whale. Her name is Lolita. She has a gray saddlepatch that looks, from above, like a heart. She is 30 years old, 8,000 pounds and half as long as a school bus.

She lives in a tank in Miami.

But Lolita is no "Free Willy." She is a real live orca who could well be the Rosetta Stone of marine mammalogy, unlocking mysteries about cetacean behavior and environmental biology that have eluded scientists for years. And Balcomb, a facts and figures scientist, is not a character in a magical box-office hit. This biologist-in-Birkenstocks is the stuff of National Geographic documentaries.

Balcomb wants to teach Lolita to hunt for salmon, swim long distances, dive 20 times deeper than her 20-foot-deep tank. Ultimately, if she is fit, he would reunite her with her pod in greater Puget Sound, where she was captured 24 years ago. He'd track her travels, hormone levels, vocalizations. But before that ever happens, the founder of the Center for Whale Research must carefully navigate between aquarium owners whose profits depend on keeping the whale and animal-rights extremists whose karma depends on releasing her.

"The truth of the matter," says Manny Garcia, Lolita's Miami trainer of seven years, "is that you can make all of your points, but you can never change people's hearts."

Animal behavior is not nearly as bizarre as human behavior. And real life, these days, is so much more complicated than a children's movie.

FOR SOME, WHEN they are young, there comes a random event that changes life forever. A car crash, a lethal bee sting, a hamburger tainted with bad bacteria.

For Lolita, it was the capture.

She was, at that time, about 6 years old, 14 feet long and 2,000 pounds, a slim young thing with clean lines where glossy black met white.

"She was so beautiful, unmarked, just a mellow nice animal," says Jessie White, her veterinarian for nearly 20 years. White, now semi-retired on a Florida ranch with 338 birds and four Maltese dogs, has, in 40 years as an animal doctor, custom-fabricated an artificial flipper for a sea turtle and served as midwife for manatees. Another of White's claims to fame is that he is the only human to do a nose job on a whale, the nose in question belonging to Hugo, a strapping 5-ton, 23-foot orca for whom, 24 years ago, the veterinarian chose lovely Lolita as a mate.

"Here I am a young veterinarian taking off going 4,000 miles to get a young female for a young male in Miami. That's a whale of a pimp." White picked up Lolita at Seattle Marine Aquarium on the waterfront a few days after she was captured in Penn Cove.

Penn Cove, off Whidbey Island, is cuddled in the rain shadow of the Olympics. That hot August week in 1970 was so clear you could see Mount Baker. Nobody, of course, was looking. Not the lawn-chair tourists with their beer, or the reporters with notebooks flapping, or the state game department guys in their tan Bermuda shorts, or the hairy protesters with their signs. Certainly, not the whale hunters themselves, salty and sweaty in skin suits. Everyone was focused on the dozens of squealing orcas - 60, 70, maybe even 80 of them - corralled inside three acres of purse seine nets. Outside the nets, whales from three pods boiled the water, screamed, clicked, slapped the surface with their flukes, scattering droplets in the prevailing southwest winds. A few whales spyhopped, hanging vertical in the water so they could see above the surface. Dry grass hills, stands of Douglas fir, a Madrona log cabin on shore. And there. There. A floating dock shaped like a square U. Men acting like cowboys, shouting, slipping lassos over young whales' fins, towing the orcas behind motor boats to the docks by the Standard Oil tank farm and look, Look! Lolita beached in a canvas sling, clumsily rising out of the water, swaying, onto a flatbed truck.

At night, sounds floated across the mussel-shaped inlet: silverware clinking in the Captain Whidbey Inn dining room; a whale hunter on the tavern phone to Brussels, yes we've got whales, young ones, healthy, $30,000, right, you interested? Outside, silent stars, splashing flukes, squeals spiraling like high-pitched question marks. The tavern cat arched and went berserk.

That week in Penn Cove, dozens of whales from J, K and L pods were captured. Most, too big to transport, were set free with fresh nicks and tears that years later would turn out to be helpful markers in Balcomb's photo-identification project. Seven young whales were sold to aquariums and marine parks around the world. One orca, a 20-foot cow, got caught in the nets and drowned. Months later, during the November rains, three baby whales washed up on shore not far from Penn Cove, their bloated bellies slit and weighted with anchors. For six years, whale hunters Ted Griffin and Don Goldsberry admitted nothing. "It could have been us or again it couldn't," Goldsberry told a Seattle Times reporter. "There could have been . . . accidents." Those carcasses turned the tide.

Griffin and Goldsberry, once local heroes, fell from public grace. "We were wearing white hats and all of a sudden I'm wearing a black hat," Goldsberry said in a 1976 KING-TV documentary in which he confessed to sinking the dead whales to avoid bad publicity. "My ex-partner and I care more about these animals . . . have done more for these animals than all the environmentalists put together. We've showed the public what they are like. They are a beautiful animal."

KILLER WHALES, which are actually big dolphins, evolved about 25 million years ago. They have had a bad rap at least since first century A.D., when Roman scholar Pliny the Elder called orcas "an enormous mass of flesh armed with savage teeth . . . an enemy of other whales" that would "charge and pierce" females and their calves like "warships ramming." The top predators hunted in packs, bullying seals off ice floes, feasting on the tender tongues of sperm whales, leaving behind bloody blubber. The Navy gave orcas its highest plus-four danger rating and warned divers to get out of the water should they encounter the monsters. Local fishermen, just three decades ago, routinely blasted bullets into the black-and-white beasts because the resident orcas ate so much of the salmon catch.

The reputation of orcinus orcas changed in 1965 after Griffin triumphantly brought Namu, a killer whale from British Columbia, to his Seattle Marine Aquarium on Pier 56. Griffin loved the whale. He rode the whale. Namu sold tickets. The orca starred on T-shirts, baseball caps, mugs, sew-on patches and eventually, in a book and movie by Griffin. The 21 1/2-foot whale died after a year in captivity. But not before capturing the community's affection.

Griffin and Goldsberry went into the business of whale hunting, and for a dozen years after Namu's capture, the coasts of Washington state and British Columbia were virtually the only places in the world where live orcas were harvested for aquariums. In all, 308 orcas were captured, 11 died in the struggle, 240 escaped or were released. Fifty-seven killer whales were sold to seaquariums where, within a year, 20 of them died. The remaining Shamus and Corkys and Benkeis were accessible, huggable, lovable. Today, 33 million people a year visit the 24 orcas remaining in American marine parkks.

"Seeing them in aquariums individualized these creatures, you see. They weren't just whales in the abstract," says Victor Scheffer, a retired biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who, at 87, is known as the dean of marine mammalogy. "At the same time, it also brought a backlash: Gee whiz, are we justified in holding them in captivity?"

The idea that whales could have rights evolved alongside the women's movement, the civil-rights struggle and Earth Day, Scheffer writes in "The Shaping of Environmentalism in America." "There was a national self-examination, a kind of cultural revolution almost as important as the Industrial Revolution. . . . It was a sobering moment. We realized we had been mistreating the earth and its resources."

Laws were changed. By 1972, Washington state required a $1,000 permit to capture orcas. Then the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act kicked in, further restricting killer whale captures. In 1977, after a string of protests and a major lawsuit involving Goldsberry and Sea World, the Pacific Northwest became, in effect, a killer-whale sanctuary.

After that, Iceland and Japan got into the multibillion-dollar industry, and recently, Russia, hungry for quick cash, began advertising killer whales from the Bering Sea - $1 million for an orca fresh off the boat; $2 million, trained. So far, no takers.

How the world has changed in a few decades. But not for Lolita. Through it all, she has performed two shows a day, 365 days a year, for 24 years, plus an occasional catered party under splashy lights. IiiiIIIITTTtt'sss SHOWTIME! The patent-leather whale jumps 15 feet in the air with a handsome neoprene-clad trainer perched on her pectoral fins. She belly-flops back into her tank, splashing a toddler in Lion King sneakers who screams in delight. Sometimes, during leaps, Lolita glimpses the Miami skyline in the crack between flaking concrete bleachers and corrugated metal roof. At night, the whale looks up at stars in a sky polluted by pink-orange street lamps. She cannot see the ocean, though she may sense the warm waters of Biscayne Bay only a few hundred yards away. Her tank is clean and well-kept. It is four whales long and one whale deep, too shallow for Lolita to dive. You could swim across it in about 15 strokes. She shares it with four Pacific white-sided dolphins, who harass her when she's ovulating, and a battleworn Risso's dolphin who resembles a graffiti-scarred subway train.

During the time Lolita has lived in that tank, trainers have come and gone, governments have fallen, a generation of kids was raised to love killer whales. Lolita is stuck, but she is loved. She gets free medical and dental, 180 pounds of restaurant-quality fish a day and tongue massages from her trainers. Her dorsal fin does not droop, her skin glistens. She feels to the touch like an enormous hard-boiled egg, peeled. Hugo, her whale friend with the nose-job, died in 1980 leaving Lolita alone in Miami. Her family is in the Pacific Northwest. Nobody knows whether she is happy.

Of the seven whales captured that hot August week in Penn Cove, Lolita is the only survivor.

BEFORE YOU VISIT long-lost relatives, let alone move in, you call. And so, as Balcomb sees it, the first step to reuniting Lolita with her pod is a whale-to-whale phone call. This is not as crazy as it sounds.

Sound, in fact, is at the heart of the experiment. Orcas picture their world through sound which, through water, can travel as far as from California to Japan. Whales echo-locate by bouncing clicks off objects. They can talk to each other from 30 miles away, their voices resembling birds chattering in a jungle canopy. Pods have distinct dialects, which is something like saying people in northern China speak Mandarin and those in southern China, Cantonese. In audiolingo, the primary acoustic energy for Pacific Northwest killer whales is between one and six kHz (kilohertz), with high frequencies shooting above 30 kHz. In plain language, nobody really knows how orcas talk or what they are saying. Balcomb wants to find out.

Why? Why do humans want to know this stuff about animals?

The 53-year-old scientist is bent over a wheelbarrow, scrubbing a beaked whale skull that smells thick and oily. His right eye twitches because he spends so much time one-eyed, peering through cameras and telescopes. His beard and hair are wavy and wild and flecked with white, like sea kelp. His watch calculates the tides. Earthwatch volunteers, who help with research and fund his work, wander barefoot around the property, which has an outhouse, apple trees, tepee, creaky computers and a sweeping view of whale runs in the Haro Strait.

Remember the sub-sub librarian in "Moby Dick"? Balcomb asks. The sub-sub, in an obscure appendix in the back of Melville's novel, is "a mere painstaking burrower and grubworm of a poor devil" who snivels around searching for higgledy-piggledy whale facts in the sub-sub basements of libraries and street-stalls of the earth, "picking up whatever random allusion to whales he could anyways find in any book whatsoever, sacred or profane."

The whole of human history, Balcomb says, is about gathering higgledy-piggledy facts. Everything we know, like how to make bronze or tune a car, is based on something pre-learned by somebody else. Balcomb, like Melville's sub-sub librarian, is motivated by acquisition of knowledge.

He could have turned out different. He was raised in tract housing during an era when the goal was to get a bike, then a car, then a wife, then a house and a job to make money so your kids could have the same. He was a Navy pilot for seven years in a hierarchy that says pilots are the best in the Navy, the Navy is the best branch of the military, Americans are the best humans, humans are the best living creature in the world. But all along, he studied whales. "As we began to learn more about these whales, Bing! the light goes off. We're pretty arrogant. We're animals." Suddenly, nobody was better than anyone else. Humans could not lord it over other species. Money, power - that all got thrown overboard. The only thing left was curiosity.

"Maybe this is another sideshow," Balcomb says of the Lolita experiment. "A big scientific sideshow. It's not any morally superior to throwing whales in a swimming tank and charging people to see them." Still, there is stuff he must find out.

The acoustic experiment would be sort of like E.T. phoning home using a satellite hookup and hydrophones. Lolita in her tank at one end. At the other end, her pod swimming in the wilds of Haro Strait. Will she respond to them? Physically? Verbally? What types of sounds will she make? How will they react? Keiko, the movie-star whale who played the title role in the movie "Free Willy," got an erection when he heard recordings of other killer whales. Lolita vocalized excitedly while listening to orca tapes, even though the whales weren't speaking her dialect. Balcomb wants to see what Lolita does, what she says, when she hears the voices of her own pod feeding or foraging or resting or doing aerial acrobatics or being sexy. Will her hormone levels rise? Adrenaline? How about heart rate and respiration and brain-wave patterns?

By electronically manipulating the phone hookup, Balcomb hopes to learn whether orcas communicate in bursts of information or in a steady stream, whether chopping out high frequencies or very low ones will make a difference in what whales hear.

Yet the biggest question, when it comes to whales and phones, is about social bonds. Whether Lolita will recognize her family, whether they will remember her. "What the heck is she going to say to momma and brother on a live hookup?" Balcomb wonders. "What are they going to say back - where the hell are you? And where have you been all this time?"

Imagine the reunion. No, wait. First, think about a year of intense rehabilitation for Lolita. Before she ever left Miami, she'd have a complete physical, including tests for parasites and other diseases, to guard against transmitting sickness to whales in the wild. If she passes, it would be onto a year of training in a netted-off cove on San Juan Island. She would learn to swim long distances, to dive, to hunt for fish, to recall to a special whistle.

Eventually, Balcomb wants to bolt a transmitter to her dorsal fin that would record her blood levels and heart rate, vocalizations, speed when she's swimming, depth when she searches for bottom fish - gigabytes of information. What happens to Lolita's body when she dives? What does she say when she's eating? Where does she go with her pod? Do the fish she eats and the places she feeds change her chemistry? Will her levels of DDT, PCBs, heavy metals, mercury, selenium and other contaminants rise? Killer whales are top predators. Here in the Pacific Northwest, they eat fish, primarily salmon. We eat salmon. If pollution has infected their diet, it has likely infected the entire food chain in the greater Puget Sound.

This fall, scientists at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, B.C., plan to biopsy resident pods to study their DNA. The tests could show whether Lolita is from J, K or L pod, who is her mother, who is her great-grandmother, her aunt, her cousin. Female killer whales in the wild live into their 50s; it's likely a few Pacific Northwest orcas are octogenarians. They will remember Lolita, Balcomb believes.

Now. Imagine the reunion. It would be May of whatever year. Her pod would come into the Haro Strait, following the annual spring salmon migration. They'd hear each other from a long way off. "It'll stir something in her memory," Balcomb says of Lolita. "I'd be willing to bet the deed they'll be vocal, do aerial acrobatics, hang outside the net. We'd be prepared to open the gate. If there's a lot of excitement and carrying on, we'd let her go. If she's fearful and doesn't react, we wouldn't push it. We'd be prepared to care for her for the rest of her life in the cove."

That's Balcomb's dream experiment. It is risky. Lolita could die if she doesn't eat or runs into boats.

"I don't think it's absurd, but it's something we don't have a lot of experience with," says Ann Terbush, chief of the division that issues reintroduction permits for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "It would seem like a real uphill battle to deal with an animal that had been in captivity that long."

The release should not be used as an emotional placebo for humans at the ultimate sacrifice of the whale, warns Lolita's current veterinarian, Greg Bossart, an assistant professor of pathology at the University of Miami Medical School. "So we feel good about the release, but when you look at the statistics, the statistics are not that great."

Actually, what's not great is the dearth of statistics. We know this: A pilot whale, after eight years at Marineland, survived many years in the wild. Several dolphins were successfully released after years in captivity. When it comes to orcas, only a few have been released after long captivity, and those cases have had sloppy follow-up. Two killer whales, Charlie Chin and Pointed-nose Cow, escaped from a seapen in Pedder Bay, B.C., after seven months and have been photodocumented with their pod every year since. But that's just one example. Really, nobody knows Lolita's chances.

"Everything is pretty when they talk about a release," says Garcia, Lolita's trainer. "The reality is it's not going to be pretty. It's death. Life is rough out there. It's like saying, `OK grandma, we're going to kick you out.'

"How can someone who lives thousands of miles away, who doesn't know the animal, tell me she's unhappy? That she'd want to go back to the wild? I was with the animal five days a week for seven years. He doesn't know her."

It sounds crazy - a whale-to-whale phone call, the expectation that an orca who has been hand-fed for 24 years, who once freaked out when a live grouper swam in her tank, would learn to hunt for her own food. But no crazier, Balcomb says, than lifting a young whale from Penn Cove waters and flying her across the country to live for 24 years in a refrigerated salt-water swimming pool.

THE LOLITA THING is warming up in Miami. Ocean Drive, an upscale fashion and entertainment magazine with big-name advertisers, is running $10,000 "Free Lolita/Boycott Miami Seaquarium" double-page spreads sandwiched between ads for Bacardi, Hermes, Ralph Lauren. "We've never taken a stand on anything except choosing who our cover model was every month," says publisher Jerry Powers, who was inspired after seeing "Free Willy" last year. "We're not a cause publication. We felt this was a good way to start." Advertisers love it. Powers' campaign to free Lolita will soon crank up to $7,000-a-month billboards on Interstate 95. Whatever it takes, whatever it costs, he says, "We have the money."

Balcomb has offered Seaquarium $250,000 to do the acoustic experiment, $1 million for the release. He could come up with more; there are donors.

The situation has become sufficiently heated that it is now easier to get an interview with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher than with Seaquarium owner Arthur Hertz. Lolita is the star attraction at his marine park, a facility open since 1955 that now employs 250 people and grosses more than $10 million a year. This has not been a good few years for Seaquarium, what with Hurricane Andrew and the tourist shootings and legal deadlock with tony Key Biscayne neighbors over a $70-million expansion plan. Last year, 650,000 tourists visited the park, half the crowd of three decades ago.

Hertz has not officially nixed Balcomb's experiment, but he hasn't said yes, either. Right now, he's just not talking. Who do those whale people think they are, anyway? Where are they when sick whales strand themselves on the beach at 4 in the morning? Or when baby manatees get chewed up by boat propellers and need 24-hour bottle-feeding? Do they come waving fists of cash then? Seaquarium spends $1 million a year rehabilitating and releasing injured and stranded marine mammals. Where do you think that money comes from? Gate receipts! And why do you think people will pay the $17.95 admission? Not to get their hand stamped - to see Lolita!

After all the field work with binoculars and 300mm camera lenses, the meganights on the computer analyzing data, the endless hunt for pre-1976 photographs of J, K and L pods, Balcomb was afraid this would happen. "We're pegged as screaming extreme animal-rights humaniacs. As if we haven't given a thought to it. As if we just want to throw a whale back in the ocean.

"Way back in the beginning, I didn't want to get into any battles with Sea World or the government or Greenpeace. I was into data. Facts. Information. There were 68 whales in 1976, 71 in 1977, 94 now. Good fun stuff to know. Something you can prove. I had to stay aloof and I pretty much have until this Willy thing came along."

The Willy thing. After the movie came out, producers Dick and Lauren Shuler-Donner, residents on neighboring Orcas Island, asked Balcomb to help with a plan to rehabilitate and eventually free Keiko, the movie-star whale with a droopy dorsal fin who now languishes in a Mexican marine park. (The latest is that Warner Bros., the movie company, will build a larger, cooler $10 million tank for Keiko in Newport, Ore.)

Balcomb wrote a proposal and flew to Mexico. The CEO of Reino Aventura, the Mexican marine park that owns Keiko, agreed to give Balcomb responsibility for the whale. Handshakes all around. This is all on videotape. But suddenly, before Balcomb even got back to Friday Harbor, everything was called off. For Warner, a multinational corporation whose tentacles wind around marine parks, releasing Keiko to the wild would be like opening Pandora's tank.

Lolita, Balcomb realized then, was a far better candidate for release than Keiko. Her health was better than Keiko's, and, thankfully, she would not be hounded by the complications attending a movie-star whale. Best of all, unlike Keiko's Icelandic family, Lolita's pod is known, studied and right here, in the Pacific Northwest.

BALCOMB SORTS through 3,600 photo negatives and hundreds of entries in the 1994 orca log, wrapping up the whale yearbook for yet another year. Summer wasn't kind to J, K and L pods; scarcity of fish. L42's not looking good, the blubber behind his blowhole all sunken like he's starved. His uncle, L10, with the tall bite-nicked dorsal, is starting to show skull. These whales need food. And K17, the 28-year-old with the Nike swoosh-stripe markings, well, K17 is missing. Yesterday he was swimming behind his mother looking kind of tired; today she is around, but he is gone. Where? Where are the fish? Why didn't the pods follow them? Why are the male orcas suffering most? So much stuff to figure out. Maybe this will be K17's last year in the pod's family portrait.

Summer is over. Soon, the whales will scallop past Balcomb's back porch on an extended autumn sojourn. Past the place where the hills roll down into a long flat line, past the golden grasses falling off into the sea. The whales will spend their winter in waters where people are not - Desolation Sound, the west coast of Vancouver Island, 300 miles out in the stormy Pacific Ocean.

Lolita, for yet another year, will winter in Miami.

Paula Bock is a Pacific staff writer. Harley Soltes is Pacific's photographer.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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