FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. — In one coastal Indian legend, orca was created by Natsalane, a great hunter who carved a "blackfish" out of yellow cedar and commanded it to kill his wicked brothers-in-law.
Orca tore the men to bits and then returned to Natsalane, a Tlingit man who ordered the sleek black-and-white animal never again to prey on humans.
To this day, orca doesn't eat people. The creature is considered a custodian of the sea by the Tlingit people of southeast Alaska.
Orca, the oceans' top predator, has been feared and revered throughout history.
In many American homes, the best-known orca is Sea World's pleasing performer, Shamu, or the lovable, tragic Keiko, star of the "Free Willy" movies. The name--short for the Latin term Orcinus orca--is coming into use as a substitute for "killer whale." The marine mammal is actually a member of the dolphin family.
Orca's popularity is no surprise to researcher Ken Balcomb, who has devoted 20 years to separating killer-whale fact from myth in the picturesque San Juan Islands, scattered between the coast of northwestern Washington and British Columbia's Vancouver Island.
It's still a thrill for him to see the glistening black-and-white orcas swim past his research center, which is on a San Juan Island bluff overlooking Haro Strait.
"We all run down the hill to see them," Balcomb says.
"To me, the world appears healthy and complete when we have whales and eagles and wonderful wildlife to appreciate."
The Center for Whale Research here is supported by Earthwatch, a Watertown, Mass.-based nonprofit program that matches scientists doing exciting fieldwork with volunteers willing to pay to share the experience.
The center gets high marks from Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro, a whale activist himself.
"It's plowing new ground consistently in breaking down all the myths that have existed all these years," Munro said. "These guys are hunting the truth."
Balcomb's project offers close-up views of the never-ending charms of orcas, which frolic in family groups, or pods, as they chase great schools of salmon headed inland to spawn.
Orca acrobatics can be breathtaking.
The adults, which range from 18 to 32 feet long, soar from the water in a splashing, body-twisting move called breaching. Another move, called spyhopping, involves popping their heads and torsos up from the waves.
From a distance, the orcas look pretty similar, but Balcomb says no two are alike. With practice, center staff and volunteers learn to identify individuals by the shape and size of their dorsal fins and the scars there, and by the coloring and patterns of the saddles.
Crews have made thousands of photographs of the gray saddle and dorsal fin--as tall as 6 feet in males--of orca in the three pods that inhabit the protected inshore waters of Georgia Strait and Puget Sound, a 300-mile arm of the Pacific. Since 1976, the center has developed family trees for the 95 whales in those pods.
Photographing the whales can be a mix of chaos and exhilaration.
On one sunny summer day, Balcomb wielded the camera while his cohorts, Rhonda Claridge and Sean McNamara of Telluride, Colo., grabbed a picture-ID chart to see if they could recognize any of the whales, some of which were swimming past at up to 30 mph.
"L-41!" says Claridge, Balcomb's sister-in-law. The chart identifies L-41 as a male born in 1977, the son of L-11, a female born in 1957.
A microphone trails the boat, picking up the squeaks and clicks that make up orca talk.
The killer whale pods are matriarchal. From Balcomb's work, along with that of a handful of others, significantly more is known about population dynamics, range and longevity than just 20 years ago.
Public attitudes toward the whales has changed dramatically as people learn more about them. Munro notes that marine circus parks may end up being the victims of their own good public relations, as an increasing number of children and adult visitors want to see orcas remain free.
"People who learned to love whales at Sea World are saying, 'Hey, there's got to be a better way,' " Munro said from Olympia.
Schoolchildren are raising money to send Keiko--now a resident of the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Ore., after being rescued from a too-small, too-warm tank in Mexico--to his native Icelandic waters.
In Washington state, elementary school students have petitioned for the return of 30-year-old Lolita to the San Juans from the Miami Seaquarium, where she has lived since 1970.
Munro and his wife, Karen, became orca defenders in 1975, after seeing a whale capture on Puget Sound.
"We were just appalled by what we saw," he recalled. "It was a huge mess. It was probably one of the most dramatic things I've ever witnessed in my life."
Balcomb's work here began in 1976, after a decade of whale captures for aquariums and parks had significantly reduced the area population, believed to have numbered about 100 to 110 at its peak.