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A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas

by Eva Saulitis

Pub Date: Jan. 15th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-8070-1435-6
Publisher: Beacon

An evocative meditation on shifting boundaries and the kinship we feel to other species.

In 1986, fresh out of college with a degree in fish and wildlife biology, Saulitis (Many Ways to Say It, 2012, etc.) took a job in an Alaskan fish hatchery. There, she experienced a life-changing moment when she saw a female orca, and thus began a lifelong fascination with these extraordinary creatures. The author connected with a nearby scientific group of whale watchers in Prince William Sound who were studying a population of local orcas made up of “transients” (mammal eaters) and “residents” (fish eaters). After two years of working as a volunteer, she entered a doctorate program. For her thesis, she analyzed the calls of a pod of 22 local transient orcas. During her field sessions, Saulitis recorded more than 6,000 calls, and she was able to separate them into 14 discrete call types. She then attempted to correlate these with specific behaviors—e.g., quiet calls when hunting, clicking noises to orient themselves, etc. (The author accepts that these interpretations are subjective and therefore speculative.) In 1989, the author's Alaskan idyll was shattered by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Since then, she and her co-workers have been involved in documenting the damage to the local whale population. The group of transients she studied has been reduced by half and is no longer able to reproduce. She herself suffered a potentially life-threatening bout with cancer in 2010, but she remains optimistic. The Sound, to which she returns every year, is once again a functioning (though transformed) ecosystem.

A vivid, moving depiction of a way of life tragically becoming increasingly endangered.