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Call of the Orcas

Directed by Jessica Plumb

18 mins | 2023

Call of the Orcas explores the urgent effort to recover endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales of the Pacific Northwest, through the eyes of one of their human champions, researcher Ken Balcomb, who passed away in late 2022. Balcomb’s determined survey work over nearly fifty years helped people see these orcas as individuals, in family groups, and led to a subspecies listing under the US Endangered Species Act. The story encompasses many perspectives on the unique orca culture of the Pacific Northwest, from an indigenous experience of orcas as family, to the lifelong commitment of Canadian researcher Dr. John Ford, who dedicated his career to documenting orca calls.

Southern Resident orcas are distinctive for many reasons, among them their long, close proximity to human populations. They continue to visit the Seattle waterfront, following their preferred prey, Chinook salmon. Despite an aggressive capture program five decades ago, mutual curiosity between the people of Puget Sound and Southern Resident Killer Whales continues, raising an urgent question for human residents of the Salish Sea. Can we learn to live in a way that sustains the orcas among us? This story profiles a researcher running out of time, while 73 remaining whales depend our action for survival.

Director Jessica Plumb

Jessica Plumb is an award-winning filmmaker and writer based in the Pacific Northwest, and the creative director of Plumb Productions, a multi-media storytelling company specializing in films focused on the environment, people and place. She is the Producer and Co-Director of Return of the River, a feature documentary about the largest dam removal (to date) in history, recognized with over a dozen festival awards, including “Best Storytelling” by the International Wildlife Film Festival, and “Best Writing” from the Jackson Hole science media awards. Her work has appeared in festivals, theaters and galleries throughout the United States and internationally; in 2021 she exhibited a video art piece on climate change at the Kumho Museum of Art in Seoul. She has produced

short films for HHMI Tangled Bank Studios, Nat Geo Learning, Original Pursuit, the Clean Energy Transition Institute, and numerous non-profit and educational institutions.

Plumb holds a B.A. from Yale University and an MFA from Goddard College. Raised on the coast of Maine, she now lives on the Olympic Peninsula, close to wilderness and waters she loves. For more, visit


Director Statement

Southern Resident Killer Whales, known for their intelligence and agility, are also canaries in the coal mine of Pacific Northwest waters. The preferred prey of this orca society is salmon, which means that their fate is intertwined with the health of fresh and saltwater ecosystems that define a region. My feature film, Return of the River, chronicled the largest dam removal on the planet to date, an unprecedented salmon restoration project on the Elwha River. That story led directly to Call of the Orcas, and a researcher who championed the plight of these unique killer whales. Ken Balcomb, the scientist at the heart of this film, passed away in December 2022. He understood that he was running out of time, as were the orcas he loved and studied for close to five decades. This project began with a final interview with Balcomb, at a ranch on the Elwha River, where he spent his last days advocating for salmon restoration. This short film weaves the story of orcas, and people who know them best, in a region where people and killer whales have fished side by side for millennia.

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