Local Orca Researcher Ken Balcomb Featured in True-life Legal Thriller, “War of the Whales”

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Ken Balcomb, senior research scientist at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, Washington, is a nationally recognized pioneer in marine mammal photo identification.
His is a familiar face on the local news, he is generous with his time and his dedication the survival of the Pacific Northwest Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcas) who frequent the Puget Sound and Salish Sea ensures that he is usually available to answer questions for the media.
And now he is about to become famous in a whole new way – as the principal character in the legal thriller by Joshua Horwitz, War of the Whales. Available in bookstores and online on July 1st, 2014. Amazon has chosen it as the best book of July!
War Of the Whales is the surprising and untold story of how two individuals united in a desperate fight to protect dolphins and whales from the deadly acoustic assault of navy sonar.
Deeply researched, and brimming with colorful and interesting detail, Joshua Horwitz’s gripping book reads like a thriller but, in the tradition of the best non-fiction writing, brings to light the secret history of military sonar and its devastating connection to traumatized whales and dolphins stranding and dying on beaches around the world.”

– TIM ZIMMERMANN, Associate Producer and Co-Writer of Blackfish and author of The Killer In The Pool.

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Ken Balcomb, senior researcher at the Center for Whale Research

For the last forty plus years Balcomb has patiently built a database on the Southern Resident orca population;  in Seattle and along much of the west coast even children are familiar with these whales and even know some of them by name. These whale families are iconic to our region, and while we owe much of our knowledge about them to Balcomb, the orcas themselves owe their chance at continued survival to man who has dedicated his life to them.
But the orca’s presence is seasonal and when winter approaches and the orcas spend less time in the nearshore waters, Balcomb focuses on the intermittent winter sightings, and pursues his interest in other species. For years his winters were spent in the Bahamas studying elusive beaked whales.
This is where War of the Whales begins.

In the early hours of March 15, 2000, the paths of the world’s most powerful navy and the ocean’s most mysterious species of whales were about to converge. Though on the calm surface of the Great Bahama Canyon, nothing hinted at anything amiss.
It was just another morning in paradise, the day the whales came ashore.
(Excerpt, War of the Whales.)

Balcomb was unaware that the lull of his idyllic island time would precede a personal hurricane of hard choices on a scale that most of us never have to face. His was a Sophie’s Choice that demanded he choose between the well-being of the whales, and his dedication and sense of honor towards the Navy where he had served two tours of duty. Author Joshua Horwitz artfully puts the reader in the scene as Balcomb struggles in an internal battle that will transfix and engage you, and leave you wondering if you would have the fortitude to do what he did – most of us ultimately choose to do the right thing, but are not faced with choices where both options are right.

Whether we believe in war readiness or not, it is the world we live in, and the men and women who risk their lives in the military deserve as much protection as we can provide. But do we allow the oceans to be ravaged for our human drama?  Where do we draw the line? It is a complex and often emotional debate, and Horowitz’s brilliant handling of the events allows it to unfold in an organic blend of data points and drama.

Joel Reynolds, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Joel Reynolds, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In an interview for The Planet, author Joshua Horwitz explains his interest in and dedication to bringing this story to light:

Horwitz says he hopes what readers will take away from War of the Whales is an understanding of the importance of tenacity in social change. “The book is really a story about two individuals who stood up to the most powerful navy in the world. I think that they are real role models for anyone, particularly young people, who really want to fight for change.”

The second individual who along with Balcomb faced the navy in the battle to mitigate sonar in the oceans is Joel Reynolds, senior attorney and director of the Los Angeles office of Natural ResourcesDefense Council (NRDC); and founder and director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project. Horwitz shows both the integrity and the complex character of this man who followed his beliefs and fought (and continues to fight) the navy in a court of law. His efforts to protect the whales from Navy sonar laid the foundation for what was to come, without it Balcomb may not have thought to take the actions he did.

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Ken Balcomb with his son Kelly. (War of the Whales photo)

But it is Ken Balcomb who Horwitz finds most intriguing. Most people are unaware of how important Balcomb’s time serving the Navy is to him, and his fundamental loyalty to the agency that can wreak havoc on the whales that Balcomb has dedicated his life to studying. Horowitz does a masterful job of engaging the reader in Balcomb’s conflict, and in illustrating the cost of standing up for what you believe.
The story is so artfully constructed that you are drawn in and forget that you are not reading a novel. With the index, end notes and list of characters it isn’t necessary to recall each of bit players, since it is easy to find them again.  Horwitz keeps the main focus on the internal conflicts of Balcomb and Reynolds, and creates a story that is fascinating even if you have no interest in whales or navy sonar.
From The Planet:

Horwitz: For me, this story is only partly about naval sonar and whales. At heart it addresses the question: what makes an effective change agent? My two protagonists — the environmental attorney and the marine biologist– are in many ways polar opposites. The lawyer is an institutional player who works inside the system in collaboration with other organizations and activists, with scientists and celebrities; whatever will get the job done. The whale scientist is a true maverick who’s never had any institutional affiliation, and who’s not very good a working collaboratively. One’s an extrovert, and the other’s an introvert who seems to enjoy the company of whales over humans.
But they share several important traits that make them highly effective when it comes to forcing change. They’re both tenacious and totally committed to the fighting the fight for as long as it takes — often at a cost to their personal lives. They don’t allow cynicism to erode their fundamental idealism or sense of purpose — which is a big challenge in a field like environmental law where you’re typically outgunned by deep-pocketed adversaries or facing judicial panels who defer to the military, especially during wartime. Tenacity, it turns out, is as important as intelligence or tactical decisions when it comes to fights over threatened species and environments. By the end of the book, their antagonists at the Navy, at the regulatory agencies, and on Capitol Hill have long ago cycled out of service and into other careers. But Balcomb and Reynolds are still at it, still fighting for the whales.

And Horwitz? The six years he spent researching this story led to a passion for the whales themselves. His first close encounter with friendly gray whales helped propel him to write the book, but along the way he came to understand the unique adaptations of these intelligent animals and is now focusing on a petition drive to continue the battle to protect whales and other marine life from the effects of Navy sonar.
Ultimately, increased awareness of the whales and what is happening to their environment is the happy ending we would all like to see and this masterfully crafted book is guaranteed to bring the issues to a larger audience.

The author petting a friendly gray whale in Baja, Mexico
The author petting a friendly gray whale in Baja, Mexico

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