Center for Whale research director featured in 'gripping' expose about navy sonar

Center for Whale Research Director Ken Balcomb calls on federal Fisheries officials to put their energy into restoring salmon runs to help the Southern Resident orcas at a 2009 community meeting in Friday Harbor.   - Journal file photo
Center for Whale Research Director Ken Balcomb calls on federal Fisheries officials to put their energy into restoring salmon runs to help the Southern Resident orcas at a 2009 community meeting in Friday Harbor.
— image credit: Journal file photo

An in-depth biographical account of San Juan Island's most celebrated marine biologist, it's not.

Maybe someday such a book will be on the shelves.

In the meantime, if you're looking for a gripping, true-life tale about the battles Ken Balcomb has waged to protect the Southern resident killer whales, and other marine mammals as well, from the very same government that is supposed to be reeling the endangered population back from the precipice of extinction, well then, my friend, your ship has come in.

Seven years in the making, "War of the Whales," a 420-page expose of the U.S. military's often secretive use of sonar in marine waters around the globe, and account of those, like Balcomb, who, through keen supposition and painstaking science, first connected the dots and then launched a courtroom campaign against the U.S. Navy and its perilous program, is due out July 1.War of the Whales

Researched and authored by renowned science writer Joshua Horwitz, co-founder of Washington D.C.-based Living Planet Books, and published by Simon & Shuster, War of the Whales blends together the spirit of both a suspense thriller of a Grisham novel (except that it's NOT fiction) and the political intrigue of an "All The President's Men."

In fact, here's what Bob Woodward, co-author of All The President's Men, has to say about it: "A gripping, brilliantly told tale of the secret and deadly struggle between American national security and the kings of the oceans."

And, there's this from renowned oceans' advocate Jean-Michel Cousteau: "It's the true story of the underwater collision between life in the ocean and an acoustic storm of military sonar -- and of citizen activists holding accountable the world's most powerful Navy. For anyone who wants to save marine life from drowning in man-made noise, this is a must-read book."

The book begins with what appeared at the time to be a mysterious mass stranding of beaked whales in the Bahamas. Balcomb, longtime director of the San Juan Island's Center for Whale Research, was witness to that stranding at the center's research facility in the Bahamas, in 2000. Meanwhile, the book's other chief protagonist, attorney Joel Reynolds of the National Resources Defense Council, has begun uncovering bits and pieces of the Navy's mostly concealed sonar operation and is preparing a legal challenge to expose and contest it.

In 2003, Balcomb was witness to another mass stranding, of sorts, this time involving members of the Southern residents orcas, listed as endangered under federal law in 2005, when the USS Shoup traveled the waterways off the westside of San Juan Island with its active-sonar deployed.

For Balcomb, who has studied, tracked and kept a yearly census of the Southern residents for nearly four decades, being depicted as a larger-than-life character is somewhat "embarrassing." Nevertheless, he believes the book could be thought of as required reading simply from its informative treatment about the use of active sonar and damage it's wrought and, even for him, because of the depth and breadth with which Horowitz documents the role that the military plays, and is aware of, in endangering life in the sea.

"Josh really dug in there," Balcomb said. "He's one persistent son-of-a-gun."

— Editor's note: The Center for Whale Research will receive a $5 donation for every order of "War of the Whales" made via the center's website,, prior to its official July 1 release date.



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