Some nights I hear whales in my dreams. They start off distant like the sound of wind in the trees but gradually pick up to the point where they’re all I can hear. Most times I can make out which pod is calling—the sisters, transients, G clan, or any of a dozen other orcas I’ve spent nearly a quarter of a century listening to. On a good night it’s the exquisite dialect specific to the family of the fifty-four-year-old matriarch Tsitika, a series of rippling harmonics so perfect it imparts a deep sense of peace in me, like a shuddering sigh.
Some nights I wake from one of these dreams and find it hasn’t been a dream at all.
I trundle downstairs in stocking feet, put my ear to the hydrophone speaker, and hear Tsitika calling to her children. I press the record button on my tape machine and note the time and date in the sound log. And so begins another day of work.
In the kelp bed floating outside my window, a hydrophone dangles down 15 feet into the water of Cramer Passage. A black cable snakes through the kelp, up the rocky beach, through the salal brush, around my kale garden, past the greenhouse and chicken coop, and up through the floorboards into my house, which is perched on a low bluff on the western coast of Canada.
I begin my mornings with a strong cup of coffee at my desk, writing, entering data, or sorting through black-and-white photos of dorsal fins. If there are no whales that day, the first sound I hear is often the crackle of shrimp coming alive with the lightening of the sky. Sometimes I hear otters chirping or dolphins letting loose those high-pitched twitters that make them sound like monkeys on helium. The hydrophone doesn’t discriminate. More often than not, I hear the scream of outboard motors. The community in which I live, Echo Bay, has no roads. Everyone gets around by boat.
To study a wild animal, you must adapt your life to its rhythm. It’s the only way you’ll increase your chances of encountering your subject, and perhaps more important, it’s the only way you’ll begin to understand how your subject encounters the world. We landlocked humans experience our surroundings primarily through our eyes: land and vision. A killer whale’s aquatic world comes to it almost exclusively through its sense of hearing: water and sound. Living in Echo Bay has put me in a world as close as I can come to the killer whale’s without actually living underwater.
I’m constantly listening and looking for whales. As I wake my six-year-old daughter, cook breakfast, brush my teeth, talk on the phone, my ear remains cocked to the speakers. My eyes constantly scan the water for the misty plume of a whale blow. I press my eyes against a pair of high-powered astronomical field glasses seventy times a day, panning slowly back and forth over the water, always hoping for the rise and fall of an orca’s black fin. I’ve spotted whales while I’ve been gardening, baking bread, writing papers, braiding my daughter’s hair. I’ve spotted orcas while I’ve been taking a shower. And when I spot one, I’m gone. Into my boat—Blackfish Sound, a 22-foot dory—and out on the water, following the whales wherever they take me. I note their breathing intervals, record the sounds they make, watch them interact with the world around them. I am their shadow.
I came here when I was twenty-two years old. I’m forty-four now. When I began watching killer whales, I thought I could sit by a marine park tank and, merely by listening, crack the code of language used by the performing orcas held within. Now I realize I have to understand far more about who they are and how they fit into their environment. There are so many other things to be learned from killer whales.
Not long before I first arrived here, people shot orcas for sport. They were considered predators, wolves of the deep. Small children were encouraged to throw rocks at them from shore. Marine parks paid fishermen to steal infant whales from their mothers, move them across the continent in trucks, and imprison them in concrete tanks. The government tried to cull their population with machine guns.
Things have changed. It’s now a federal crime to harass a killer whale. Marine parks are no longer allowed to take killer whales from American and Canadian waters, although the horror of captivity continues. Our understanding of the killer whale’s world has increased exponentially. We know now that orcas organize themselves into sophisticated social groups and develop some of the strongest mother-child bonds possible. They hunt with amazing stealth and are capable of prodigious feats of learning. Their intelligence has yet to be adequately analyzed; indeed, their powers of cognition may be too complex for us to accurately quantify. In brainpower they may surpass us.
The killer whale, Orcinus orca, is found from the Beaufort Sea to the Weddell Sea and in every ocean in between, including the Mediterranean. Although they belong to the order Cetacea, which includes baleen whales like the gray whale and blue whale, orcas are more closely related to dolphins and porpoises, with whom they share the suborder Odontoceti (toothed whales). Killer whales are known as a “cosmopolitan species” because they’ve learned to survive in diverse habitats around the globe. Off the New Zealand coast, they eat stingrays. In the Antarctic they eat whales and penguins. Off the coast of Norway, they eat herring; in Patagonia, sea lions; in the open Pacific, sharks; in Japan, squid; in the Antilles, sea turtles; in the Indian Ocean, tuna. Just as human hunter-gatherer societies differed from one another based on their geography, climate, and food source, so have the different conditions faced by various orca
Transient whales, male and female
populations given rise to differing orca “cultures.” As Polynesians differ from Eskimos, so do Mediterranean orcas differ from the orcas plying the waters outside my cabin.
The killer whales of British Columbia are organized into four communities: northern residents, southern residents, transients, and offshore orcas. Community refers to a breeding population, whales that are known to swim together and peaceably share both calls and a feeding area. I work predominantly with the northern residents, who range from Pender Harbour, a few miles north of Vancouver, north to Prince Rupert, just south of Ketchikan, Alaska. Within that community exist sixteen pods, an orca’s basic social unit, a group of five to twenty whales who travel together their entire lives.
In the twenty-five years I’ve spent with wild orcas, they have got- ten to know me as well. They know where I live, the extent of my home range, and the fact that I scurry home when darkness falls. I don’t mean that they demonstrate recognition. For the most part they ignore me, and I like it that way. I came to observe whales being whales, not whales responding to humans. But they are too intelligent an animal not to have learned a few things about the woman following them with the dangling hydrophone.
They must find us an exceedingly strange species. Only two generations ago the human attitude toward orcas was one of aggression and attack. Now we want to love them to death. In the 1970s there was no whale-watching industry to speak of. Now it’s a multimillion-dollar business that threatens the waters of Johnstone Strait with gridlock every summer.
The whales are no longer harmed by our direct actions. But in the last ten years we have become more aware of the indirect actions that, in the long run, may pose just as big a threat to the whales’ existence. Instead of killing them with harpoons and rifles, we are slowly poisoning their habitat and killing off their food supply. Industrial logging desecrates the watersheds that produce the salmon vital to this coast; development dumps more of the noise and chemicals of civilization into their backyard; mismanagement of the commercial catch and the proliferation of corporate salmon farms are combining to snuff out the great wild runs of salmon that sustain the orca pods of the Canadian and American coast.
Every day I continue to watch and listen for killer whales. I hope that I do not have to watch them die out. In the course of spending my adult life recording and describing their behaviors, I’ve seen firsthand that the orca, like any other species, does not exist alone. It requires an entire web of life to sustain its presence. In an age in which hundreds of species may go extinct every day, anyone who studies a wild animal faces the challenge of, in effect, making a case for its life on earth. I pray that mine is strong enough.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Listening to Whales by Alexandra Morton. Copyright © 2002 by Alexandra Morton. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.