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The Whale Man

Cover Story

Ken Balcomb Has Spent a Lifetime Immersing Himself in the Giant Mammals' World. Now He's Convinced Navy Sonar Is Driving Them to Their Deaths.

December 08, 2002|Barry Siegel | Barry Siegel, a Times national correspondent, is the author of "Actual Innocence" and "Lines of Defense." He last wrote for the magazine about Waldron Island in the Pacific Northwest.

None of this brought in much money. Balcomb paid a price for living outside the box. He ended up being ousted from his whale museum by a skeptical board of directors. There were times when he couldn't predict which of his aging cars and boats would start. There were occasions when he ate roadkill rabbits. With little bent for fund-raising or filling out grant proposals, he still relies on scattered donations and payments from Earthwatch volunteers. His Center for Whale Research, based in his San Juan home, most closely resembles a disheveled flea market.

He'd have it no other way. He is guided, he explains, by a lesson learned years ago in Navy flight school: When you're up there, it's you and the instructor, who says he's not in control, you are, and the plane doesn't care where it goes, what it does. Same with life, Balcomb decided. If you give up control, which most people do, well, that's it. That's everything.

Hours after Balcomb cut off and froze the two whales' heads, Darlene Ketten of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution arrived in the Bahamas. She'd been summoned by federal agencies because she was an expert in animals' sensory systems, especially whales' ears. On the beach, she cut into one of the heads. She saw bleeding in the brain case and auditory canal. This wasn't typical death throes or the result of stranding. This was unusual trauma, possibly shared by other nearby whales.

Ketten's hands dripped as she cut. "This tissue," she said, "is a lot bloodier than I'd expect."

Ken Balcomb held a videocamera to his eye, recording her every move. His pulse quickened. Here possibly, he believed, was the first tangible proof that sonar harmed marine mammals. Here also was his chance to learn at the elbow of a master. He marveled at Ketten's knowledge and ability. He saw himself as her assistant. He thought all was "way cool."

They were both voyeurs at heart, trying to imagine the world of whales, but they did so in far different ways. Where Ken Balcomb observed marine mammals at sea, Darlene Ketten studied their anatomy in laboratories, trying to "see" whales' hearing by looking at the design of their ears. He was driven by passion for his subjects, she by intricate structures and the rigors of science. He had no graduate degree; she had a master's in biological oceanography from MIT and a doctorate in comparative anatomy from Johns Hopkins. He was self-employed; she had joint appointments at Woods Hole and Harvard University's medical school.

Two weeks after the Bahamas stranding, past midnight in a Boston lab, Ketten and Balcomb again stood together. This time they were studying a beaked whale's head on a three-dimensional CT scanner. They both saw the same thing--pools of blood in the inner ears and brain case. They both knew they were looking at confirmation of what they'd seen on the Bahamas beach. Despite the late hour, Ketten felt compelled to reach for the phone. "I figure you guys should know we have an unusual case," she told Bob Gisiner at the Office of Naval Research.

Ketten, however, didn't feel ready to offer a conclusion. She understood too well that she occupied a hot seat: Given the Navy's presence in the Bahamas, there'd be lots of people wanting particular answers--and right away.

Instead of obliging them, Ketten first wanted to see the whales' inner ears on the cellular level. No matter her expertise in forensic radiology--if there was more definitive proof, she needed to get it. That's what the Navy and federal agencies would expect. They'd favor hard fact over her surest judgment.

Seeing whales' inner ears isn't easy, though; they're protected by some of the densest bone known. To get to them without inflicting harm, Ketten would have to dissolve that bone gently--an 18-month process. "You're causing me a whole lot of work," Ketten told Balcomb.

His eyes stayed on the image before him of bloody whales' ears. Although Ketten's expertise fascinated him, he didn't think he needed her wisdom to grasp the meaning of this CT scan. Blood in a whale's ear and brain, that wasn't normal. That just wasn't normal.

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