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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.

Balcomb's campaign finally created as much of a political problem as a scientific one for his colleagues. Their outrage at him grew proportionately to the pressure brought down on their shoulders. Some 10,000 letters in defense of the whales poured into Gentry's office, many declaring that the very integrity of the oceans and the global ecosystem was at stake. Ketten found herself obliged to give 44 briefings to Congress, the Pentagon, the State Department, the Bahamian government and a blur of federal agencies. The Navy made itself widely heard, both defending LFA's safety and talking of its "immediate critical need." Calls mounted in the Defense Department for a dilution of environmental laws affecting the military and the seas. So did complaints--one from Assistant Secretary of the Navy H.T. Johnson--that submitting to public environmental review was "like giving away your war plan to the enemy."

In such an arena, it was folly to act as if the major decisions by federal agencies would turn on scientific data. This debate finally was about competing public interests. Depending on perspective, the absence of clear proof became reason either to deploy or delay LFA sonar. The quarrel bordered on the metaphysical: In the face of limited knowledge, do you hold back or inch forward?

There was an even more fundamental question, rarely voiced: So what if a few whales are harmed by sonar? Many more marine mammals annually are hit by ships, caught in drift nets and blasted by noisy commercial freighters. Laws exist to protect these animals, but like most, they're open to interpretation. Even if scientists could prove LFA harmed whales, some in the country would still find reason to argue for its deployment. "I'm not putting my life on the line for endangered species," one Navy commander declared before a congressional committee. "Sonar allows us to keep our sons and daughters out of harm's way."

No wonder Roger Gentry felt squeezed. For 25 years before coming to Washington, he'd devoted himself single-mindedly to an academic study of the northern fur seal, and he looked now as if he dearly missed those seals. "This is not the role I wanted or sought," Gentry grumbled in the weeks before his office had to rule on the Navy's use of LFA sonar. "I'm basically a field biologist. We're stuck in the middle between competing forces. There's so little science. You have to make educated choices. You can only make educated choices."

In mid-August, 2001, Joseph S. Johnson, the Navy's LFA program manager in the Pentagon, called Ken Balcomb at his San Juan Island home. While shepherding the sonar system through the environmental review process, Johnson had received a number of Balcomb's animated written discourses. Now he wanted to meet this maverick scientist.

Balcomb appreciated the invitation. Being shunned and denounced by his colleagues had upset him. Being cut off from Darlene Ketten had especially hurt.

In truth, for all his eccentric ways, Balcomb was a social creature. He liked attending conferences and talking to scientists. He also liked having contact with the Navy. There'd been moments over the years when he'd considered asking the Navy to take him back. He thought he could help them, thought he could be part of the LFA inquiry from the inside. Yet in recent months, the Navy had also rebuffed him.

Until this day. Here was Joe Johnson saying he wanted to "address your concerns." Johnson wanted to hear Balcomb's story and explain the Navy's. He wanted to show Balcomb that those promoting LFA sonar weren't demons.

So what if Johnson's true aim was to defuse a voluble critic? Balcomb didn't care. A thought occurred to him. On Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, not far from his home, the Navy operated a submarine-listening station, a modern version of the type he once manned. "If you ever get out this way," Balcomb told Johnson, "I'd like to see the Whidbey station."

Johnson brought Gentry with him when he came. The equation had changed considerably by the time they arrived. It was Oct. 3, 2001--three weeks after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Balcomb understood the difficulty now of arguing for whales over national defense. Yet he did not feel inclined to back down.

The Whidbey Island naval base sits on a stunning spit of land some 85 miles northwest of Seattle. Dunes rise between the ocean and a squat concrete building that's protected by cameras, guards and a double line of barbed fencing. Balcomb, as usual, showed up wearing jeans, a blue denim shirt and sockless Birkenstocks. Joining him, all in coats and ties, were Gentry, Johnson and Bill Ellison, an LFA acoustics expert. They slid driver's licenses and photo IDs under a window, then followed a long corridor to a conference room. Balcomb sat down across from Johnson and Gentry.

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