Falling in love with the science of orca research

January 22, 2014

Into Great SilenceBiologist and writer Eva Saulitis spotted her first Prince William Sound orcas more than two decades ago as they swam past the salmon hatchery where she was working for the summer. Her new book from Beacon Press, Into Great Silence: A memoir of discovery and loss among vanishing orcas, chronicles her journey from that fateful glimpse through years spent on observation vessels gathering the scientific data that would help broaden our understanding of orca society in the Sound and, more grimly, document the impact of the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill on whale populations.

Chugach transient whales

Saulitis’s new book, Into Great Silence, paints a picture of these Prince William Sound orcas, a distinct population called the Chugach transients, before and after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Photo courtesy of North Gulf Oceanic Society

During her first Alaska summer Saulitis wrote an impassioned letter to well-known Alaska whale researcher Craig Matkin to say she’d cook, clean, whatever they needed, if he’d take her on as a crewmember aboard his research vessel. It worked.

“I fell in love with the whole package—field work, boat life, the Sound, orca vocalizations, collecting data, photo-identification, observing, taking notes, the full immersion that is life of a research cruise,” Saulitis says. “Craig invited me to return the following summer as a volunteer, to work out of a remote field camp, using a tiny skiff. He said it would be a good way for me to test my mettle, and to think about a research project to pursue in graduate school.”

Now, 27 years later, Saulitis conducts ongoing field research with some of the whales she met that first summer.

“I’ve been in the field every summer since 1987, with only one interruption, when I was being treated for breast cancer.”

And even that missed season found her monitoring the whales from thousands of miles away, tracing their movements on a computer screen from her hospital bed.

Saulitis scanning and writing

From Into Great Silence: You are cold on your fiberglass perch, shivering under your rain gear, fantasizing about the tent’s woodstove, and then cold and damp is all you’ve ever been or will be. Coziness is a story you heard once; sun is a rumor. You are nothing but a set of eyes combing the line where water meets land or sky, as indifferent as a lighthouse beam sweeping the sea’s surface. You clutch binoculars until the skin of your fingers swells, whitens, wrinkles. You stare through binoculars until the imprint of the eyepieces remains on your face when you put them down.   Photo courtesy of North Gulf Oceanic Society

To preface one chapter, Saulitis quotes composer John Cage: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

Though it comes from a musician, it seems to perfectly capture the world of scientific field study.

The Sound before and after

Saulitis is also a poet and a professor for UAA’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing low-residency program. This year she was recognized with a Governor’s Award for the Humanities for her work.

An excerpt from Into Great Silence speaks to her early development as a writer:

Dear Dad, I wrote. It’s stormy today, rainy, windy, foggy, so Mary and I are holed up in our “home.” You can’t imagine the luxuries one can have living on a remote island, with no electricity, running water or even solid walls. I described our showers, gasping under waterfalls in Mummy Bay, where we’d tie Whale I to a steep ledge and stand naked under the frigid cascade. I was sure my father and mother, Latvian immigrants, a college librarian and a phlebotomist, couldn’t imagine, much less understand, the life I’d chosen, but I never stopped trying to convey it.

The sometimes clinical language of science couldn’t fully capture Saulitis’s experience as a biologist, particularly the devastation and grief she experienced upon her return to the once-pristine water and beaches of the Sound following the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Her memoir gives context to the experience of an impartial scientific observer who also feels a passionate sense of connection to her research subjects. For her, there is no dissonance between science and passion.

Saulitis photo-identifying whales

To identify whales, researchers like Saulitis rely on photographs to capture a side-view of their distinctive fins and dorsal patches.   Photo courtesy of North Gulf Oceanic Society

“If you are a scientist who is trained to observe and record the observable facts, and if you have integrity, and are trained in the methods of data collection, you can do that impartially and cleanly, even if you feel passionately about a particular issue threatening the animals you study,” Saulitis says. “And if you care about the animals you study, how can you not feel passionately about their survival?”

In her early work as a graduate student, Saulitis helped to identify the unique behaviors and vocalizations of a group of orca whales, the Chugach transients. Transients, different from their fish-eating resident cousins, prey on marine mammals like seals and sea lions.

Whale vocalizations

Using a hydrophone, Saulitis recorded orca vocalizations, later transcribing the unique patterns in her notebooks like this, a sort of musical scoring of their sounds, which can be heard up to 15 miles away.  Image courtesy of Eva Saulitis

“My thesis described the unique behavior and vocalizations of the Chugach transients, who lived completely separate lives from other orcas using the same waters,” Saulitis says. “It turned out that later genetic studies bore out my conclusions, that the Chugach transients were a distinct population of only 22 individuals. In the year after Exxon Valdez, half of them disappeared.”

Finding her home as a marine scientist in Alaska also led to Saulitis’s indelible presence as an artist in the state. From Into Great Silence:

Remember these things, I want to whisper to that younger me, asleep on Whale 1. Remember the entrance to Disc Island that first time, the darkness of the basalt, which will be so much darker next year. Remember the smell of spruce needles, the salt tang of kelp beds at the back of your throat, the quiet in the cove, not even a lap of water against the hull. Remember the transients, jubilant after a kill, jubilant to be together. Remember the juveniles. Remember the water, incredibly clear. Remember your feet in your sleeping bag touching Mary’s feet in her sleeping bag, both pairs jammed together in the V of the bow. Remember water roiling in the pot over the campfire, the smell of noodles and smoke, the warmth down your throat and in your belly, the cold stones underneath, the thrush songs from deep within the island. The pigeon guillemot pair drifting by. The sizzling of low tide. Don’t be distracted, I want to whisper, by questions about RJ, your parents, or the future. Stay right where you are. This is your childhood in the Sound. Memorize everything as it is now. Stare hard at the water, which will darken, and die.

Orca photo ID

An ideal orca photo ID is taken from the left side and is a frame-filling shot of dorsal fin and dorsal patch, which are unique as fingerprints.  Photo courtesy of North Gulf Oceanic Society

On March 24, Alaska will mark 25 years since the Exxon Valdez spill. Into Great Silence is a window into why it still merits our attention as Alaskans.

“I don’t believe a scientist should or even can detach from what he or she studies. We can feel and do our work at the same time,” Saulitis says. “To me, such complete detachment sounds like death, or automation. To me, observational research is a lot like Zen meditation. It requires that level of intense focus, an emptying of the mind of distraction, so that the eye can see as clearly as possible. No one asks a Zen practitioner to live life in an emotionally detached manner. Quite the opposite. You learn to feel things deeply, and then to let go.”

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