“When you lock eyes with them, Ken Balcomb says, “you get the sense that they’re looking at you.It’s a steady gaze. And you feel it. Much more powerful than a dog looking at you. A dog might want your attention. The whales, it’s a different feeling. It’s more like they’re searching inside you. There’s a personal relationship that they set up with eye contact. A lot transmits in a very brief time about the intent of both sides. I’ve sometimes come away with a real ‘Wow!’ feeling. Like I’d just seen something above and beyond.”
“In those looks I’ve felt—,” he hesitates to say, “—appreciated. But of course,” the scientist quickly adds, “that’s subjective.”
Ken started the research that became his life’s work way back in the 1970s. It was right after the courts ordered SeaWorld to stop catching baby killer whales. “Within a year or so,” Ken says, “If someone in another boat started chasing the whales each time they surfaced, or began aggressively circling them, they would often come over and just stay around our boat. The whales understood that we weren’t going to be involved in high-speed chases. We weren’t going to be shooting any darts and tags. They saw,” says Ken, “that we were cool around them. Which implies, y’know, a consciousness of what’s going on.”
Could that consciousness encompass a sense of Ken’s good will? After everything they’d been through with the captures, could they have appreciated Ken? Enough to return a favor?