The Woman Who Loves Orcas
The bad weather was my good fortune.
At the tail end of another summer on Prince William Sound, the whale biologist Eva Saulitis was fed up with high winds and rolling swells. Rather than endure one more night tucked into a bunk aboard the tiny research vessel Natoa with gales blowing at a steady 30 knots, she persuaded Craig Matkin -- her partner "in research and in life" -- to motor into the calmer waters of Resurrection Bay and tie up until morning in Seward, on the eastern side of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. This not only ensured that I could join them for the last day of her season at sea but also meant that I could tag along to a potluck dinner with the team of amateur whale researchers they have enlisted to form the North Gulf Oceanic Society.
When I found the Natoa’s slip, Saulitis was in the galley putting the finishing touches on marinated steaks of silver salmon and a massive tossed salad. Saulitis is 50, but her Latvian cheekbones and tumbling blond curls somehow make her seem much younger. She wears a near-constant smile that conveys universal warmth but also some deep-seated concern verging on worry. Matkin, by contrast, is full of bluster and grumble, like a motor with water in the bilge, but in greeting me he quickly made clear how pleased he was that I’d taken an interest in Saulitis’s work. In all their years together, Matkin has always been the mouthpiece, the public face of their research, while Saulitis has hidden, contentedly it seems, in his shadow.
But recent events, affecting both her personal life and debates about the future of Alaska’s ecosystems, have pushed Saulitis to become a more outspoken advocate for the killer whales she studies and loves. Most notably, she has just published a book aimed at a lay audience, titled Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas. It is a chronicle of her near quarter century of studying the AT1s, a unique group of killer whales with the relatively localized range of Prince William Sound, the Kenai Fjords, and the mouth of Resurrection Bay. The whales also serve as something of an emblem and cautionary tale for anyone interested in saving the disappearing species of America’s remaining wild places. The AT1s may well be in their final throes before extinction, but -- caught up by environmental change too rapid for science to document, much less halt -- they may be gone before they’re even officially recognized.
Killer whales are currently considered a single species, but that classification is being rethought as scientists catalog more and more distinctions in body type, diet, behavior, and even genetics among different populations. The whales of the eastern North Pacific are generally divided into "residents" and "transients," but those names, increasingly, are misnomers. The difference between the two groups is less about their range than their preferred food sources. Residents exclusively eat fish, while transients eat marine mammals. But the more scientists know, the more even those distinctions break down. "Offshore" killer whales, for example -- a proposed third group -- seem to eat mostly sharks.
No group defies easy classification quite as stubbornly as the AT1s. They eat harbor seals and Dall’s porpoises, but their range is much smaller than that of any other group of transients. They don’t associate with other killer whales, even other seal eaters, and seem -- as described by Lance Barrett-Lennard, another of Saulitis’s colleagues -- to have a genetically distinct ancestry. They may be some remnant of a very old group of killer whales, perhaps an earlier form from across the Pacific that gave rise to the more localized and specialized groups we commonly see today. That might explain why their complex call structure -- first studied and categorized by Saulitis -- encompasses a greater range of sounds than the limited vocabularies of other transient populations. In simple terms, most killer whales speak variant dialects; the AT1s speak another language.
That fact alone makes the AT1s fascinating, but the need to understand more about their unique behavior and communication has grown more pressing as their numbers have dwindled. When Saulitis began studying them in the mid-1980s, there were only 22 individuals in the entire group -- just enough genetic diversity to maintain the population. But then, in March 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, spilling at least 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. Soon after, four AT1s were photographed swimming through the slick; three of them, along with six other members of the group, went missing soon after and were never seen again. Since then, others have died, their tissues carrying the telltale signs of high levels of toxic contaminants common in crude oil. If that weren’t enough, either because of these chemicals or simply because of the lack of sufficient genetic diversity, the remaining members have been left unable to reproduce. The two surviving females are approaching an age at which breeding would be impossible, even if conditions were right.
All of which has pressed a hard reality upon Saulitis. "They are leaving the earth under my watch," she writes in her book. "There will, perhaps in my lifetime, be a last one." There’s no denying this or fixing it. The time for cleaning up Prince William Sound has passed. Saulitis is simply documenting the decline, gathering as much information as she can before the inevitable arrives.
This difficult truth hung over all of our conversations, even the quiet potluck on our first night together. Saulitis and Matkin guided me through Seward to a gravel lot where boats stood dry-docked for the winter. At the back, tucked into a clutch of gnarly willows, was the Right Whale, a 48-foot research vessel built by the owners, Cy St-Amand and his wife, L. A. Holmes, who now rent it out, running charters for marine researchers like Saulitis and Matkin. The boat, propped in a rutted, muddy berth, seemed both whimsical and imposing in the half-light.
Inside the cramped cabin, dinner was an intricate dance: St-Amand mixed stiff rum and Cokes, made with the kind of cheap spiced rum that comes in plastic bottles (no glass on deck), while Saulitis moved the Coho steaks in and out of the oven. Holmes and Dan Olsen, who works as a seasonal captain and naturalist for Kenai Fjords Tours in Seward, swapped stories of recent sightings, recounting tales of close encounters and pieced-together narratives of what could be heard when they dropped hydrophones and listened to the whales call. After dinner, St-Amand leveled his gaze toward me.
"So, why the AT1s?" he asked. Why would someone like me care about them? Was it just because we could quantify how small their numbers have become? All of the whales -- all of the wildlife of Alaska -- were devastated long ago. "When people say our other whales are doing well," he said, "that means they’re holding to within 1 percent of where they were last year. That doesn’t mean they’re doing well historically. We’re looking at the trash that was left over."
He smiled from under his broom of a mustache.
"So if you see 150 whales tomorrow, you’re seeing the remains."
Matkin howled at the number, warning me not to get my hopes up, but Saulitis sat silently, almost motionless. Later, after we’d said our goodbyes and made our way back toward the center of Seward, she confessed that she had been trying to keep from crying. "I had never heard them talk about their connection to the AT1s," she said. "How we’re twined with their story was right in the room. We’re so fated, and so fatefully connected to these animals."
She paused a beat, in thought. "How?"
* * *
Saulitis came to killer whales by a circuitous path. She tried to explain it as we loaded gear and prepared to head out of Resurrection Bay toward Fox Island, but she kept interrupting herself, rummaging through one plastic bin after another. The wind was still blowing hard, and Saulitis was preoccupied with the worry that I would become hopelessly seasick. So she dug around, producing herbal pills, some tea, a wristband for one arm, and, for the other, a shock watch -- a battery-powered device that doles out low-level electrical charges every few seconds to dupe your inner ear into thinking you’re standing on shore. The hodgepodge of cures was part of her private stash.
As Matkin backed the Natoa out and puttered past the breakwater toward the chop of the bay, Saulitis laughed at the ridiculousness of a marine biologist who suffers from seasickness. After all, it was whitecaps that had lured her away from her first love: music. She studied to become a concert oboist at Northwestern but experienced crippling stage fright. To overcome her fear, she spent countless hours whittling her reeds and playing in the university’s tiny practice rooms overlooking Lake Michigan. "You could see this wild water," she told me. And one day she thought, I’ve got to get out of here. I have to be outside. She transferred to Syracuse in her native New York and enrolled in the College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
With a degree in fish and wildlife biology in hand, Saulitis came to Alaska in 1986 and landed a job as a technician at a salmon hatchery on Esther Island in Prince William Sound. In December, her boyfriend persuaded her to get some of the scant winter sun by taking the hatchery skiff out to Wells Passage. On their way back, Saulitis saw a dark wave amid the rollers. She realized it was a black dorsal fin. They steered into the whale’s path in time to see her surface, then dive and disappear. All spring, Saulitis watched for killer whales along the shoreline near the hatchery and finally managed to snap a few photographs of their fins. She sent them to Matkin, whom she’d heard of through a mutual friend, along with a simple offer: "I’ll scrub your decks, cook, clean, whatever, for a chance to volunteer on your boat." On the eve of her 24th birthday, the mail barge arrived with Matkin’s reply: as it happened, he needed an assistant that summer.
It was aboard Matkin’s research vessel, Lucky Star, that Saulitis first encountered the AT1s and began using a hydrophone to make recordings of their unique calls. Now, as we approached Fox Island, she unwound the snaking black coil and dropped the waterproof microphone over the side of the Natoa with an unceremonious plop. The receiver hissed, like an old snowy picture tube, and beeped periodically to indicate that the system was still connected, but the waters around the island were silent that day. Saulitis munched on homemade granola bars (from a tub labeled "Bear Shit") as she remembered the first time she picked up the calls of AT1s over the hydrophone.
She had heard killer whales before, but this was "something other." Communicating across great distances, they would caterwaul in long, siren-like cries, turned up at the end as if they were questions. "This was a voice at once strident and mournful," she writes in her memoir, "a strange hybrid instrument, part trumpet, part oboe, part elephant, part foghorn. And loud." But when the lone scouts were joined by more members of their group, the calls changed to "upswept squawks punctuated by silence; bangs and cracks, like axe blows against one-by planks, some we could attribute to fluke slaps, and some not. Now and then a syncopated blast of echolocation, like automatic gunfire."
Saulitis eventually spent 230 hours making more than 6,000 recordings of the 22 AT1s then active in Prince William Sound. She identified 14 discrete call types and correlated them to specific behaviors -- loud chattering when the whales were socializing; soft, low-frequency bleats while hunting. The work would become the basis of her master’s thesis at the University of Alaska Fairbanks -- and would yield a number of important discoveries. "Most significant, and most worrying," she wrote, the AT1s "shared no calls with other populations, suggesting genetic isolation."
No sooner had Saulitis come to this conclusion -- since supported by DNA research -- than the Valdez struck Bligh Reef. Saulitis freely admits that she returns compulsively to the hours before the spill, turning it over in her mind. The night before, when the supertanker was still in the terminal, filled with oil, the Cordova marine biologist and activist Riki Ott addressed the mayor’s oil action committee in Valdez, warning of a spill she called "the Big One." What if someone had thought to inspect the Valdez that night? Might he have found "the tanker’s drunken skipper," as Saulitis calls him, in the midst of his bender or already passed out in his bunk? Might he have discovered that the tanker’s radar had been broken and switched off for more than a year -- too costly, in Exxon’s opinion, to repair? "Something in me," Saulitis writes, "obsessively rewinds the tape, scrutinizes each increment, trying to find the one word or gesture that would have turned the tanker away from the reef -- a few degrees north, a few moments sooner -- allowing us all to awaken to ordinary rhythms of water on a blessedly ordinary day."