"Listening to Whales"
Reading history and reviews
Finished on 5th February 2009This is one of the most engaging and fascinating books that I've read for a long time - I've had it since sometime last year, when a friend recommended it to me in an email. Alexandra Morton has been involved in orca (killer whale) research since the 1970s and she describes how our knowledge and understanding of these animals has grown from that time, at the same as profound changes have occurred both in our attitudes towards them, and the nature of the threats that they face to their survival. For me growing up hearing about Greenpeace and "Save the Whale" all the time in the 80s, it's eye-opening to realise just how little was known about orcas back then - even their numbers were in dispute before scientific efforts catalogued the pods in the Pacific off the coast of North America and Canada. Over time dedicated researchers (including Morton, who's speciality was recording the whale songs using a hydrophone) discovered the animal's complex social patterns which are still barely understood.
Morton's own life is intertwined with the growth of knowledge about orcas, but even without this connection her story is a fascinating one and is told in an disarmingly straightforward and extremely engaging and readable manner (which reminded me very much of Lynne Cox in her autobiography Swimming to Antarctica). Her interest in the orcas brings her to remote Echo Bay in Canada's Johnston Strait where she and her family have become part of a community of people who, like the killer whales, depend on the health of the bay's fish in order to survive. It's a little depressing that by the end of the book the natural fish stocks of the bay are under threat, and so depleted that the orcas that originally brought her to the bay are hardly ever seen there. (Morton lays a large part of the blame for this at the door of salmon farms, also described in a recent New York Times "Scientists at Work" article Saving Wild Salmon, in Hopes of Saving the Orca).
What I enjoyed about this book was how it engaged me as both autobiography and as an introduction to the orce research; but what also comes through is Morton's refusal to give up on the things that she loves, even in the face of tragedy, and again like Lynne Cox's story there seems to be an inspiring message there for all of us.