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<i>Listening to Whales: What the Orcas Have Taught Us</i> - 2002-05-26


Japan has once again been thwarted in its efforts to end the ban on commercial whaling which has been in place since 1986. However at the International Whaling Commission meeting this week in Shimonoseki, Japan, the host country did succeed in blocking a 5-year extension that would have allowed native peoples from Alaska and Russia to continue to kill whales for subsistence. Pro-whaling countries also defeated a proposal to expand whale sanctuaries. Japan has argued that whales, especially the abundant minke whale, can be sustainably harvested. Anti-whaling nations led by the United States and countries in Europe say whale hunts result in senseless slaughter. Seven of the 13 great whale species are endangered. "Listening to Whales: What the Orcas Have Taught Us", a new book by marine researcher and writer Alexandra Morton, gives whales a voice in the debate.

Alexandra Morton says from the time she was a child she "was fascinated with all things slippery, furry, scaled and feathery, but especially, slippery."

As it turned out killer whales, commonly known as orcas, captured her imagination. These giant jet-black mammals of the sea have no known predators and their brains are second in size only to those of elephants.

Using an underwater microphone Alexandra Morton began to record orca sounds at a marine park in California to study communication among whales. The young researcher documented the first baby whale born in captivity and then the reaction of the mother orca to the baby's death. "I ended up staying awake for three days and nights watching what I can only describe as a mourning period by the female. [I also recorded] how the male reacted to her. What happened at the end of those three days was that he actually used sound to call her back," she says. "And she began using the same call as (he did) back and forth, back and forth, and when she did that and actually stopped her mourning sound, it moved me and I thought this is my species."

But she found that the oceanarium was not the place she wanted to study whales. "They [the oceanarium] went on to lose two more babies, and that began to cast doubts on the validity my research," she says. "If these whales had been captured too young to learn how to raise a baby, perhaps they had also been captured too young to have developed a full vocabulary. And, could you really learn the language of a foreign species when it was in an environment to which it had not naturally adapted or evolved."

Alexandra Morton set out to match the sounds she recorded of whales in captivity to those in the wild. Historic photographs of whale captures led her to a remote corner of the western coast of Canada, where she was able to identify the same pod or family group from which the marine park mother orca had been taken years before. ""I put my underwater microphone down, and the first thing that struck me was just how big their sounds are in the wild," she says. "I could hear them ten miles away. They filled 100 square miles with each call."

The year was 1980. She has lived in this isolated area ever since. Over the years Alexandra Morton mother of two and a widow learned how to survive alone in the vast Canadian coastal wilderness. She lives very simply. She has a garden on the land behind her float house and has a chain saw to cut wood and a gun to guard against grizzly bears.

She listens to orca whales, and other marine creatures, from a hydrophone under her home. The sounds alert her to go out for a closer look. She says it became clear early on that the captured orca and her brothers and sisters in the wild spoke the same language. "The more related they are the more sounds they share," she says. "And this is how they guide their own social order. There's a northern community of fish eaters and a southern community of fish eaters and those two don't mix, and then there's the mammal eaters who have a completely different dialect and they never mix with the fish eaters."

Sound keeps the whales together in pods and helps them to survive. "When the first whale hears that sound, the sound will be altered a little bit from traveling through the water and the whale perhaps can read those alterations to see the schools of fish that lie between them. So, that would make sense why one family would be using one set of calls because that mother specifically wants to benefit her youngsters in being able to find food," she says.

Skirble:"What are we listening to?"
Morton:"These are foraging whales just below my house. This pod has lots of big males in it. There are the calls, but there are also the 'tink, tink, tink.' That's their echolocation (using sound to locate fish like sonar.) So, once they have located a school of fish they will 'tink, tink, tink' in on it and when they get really close they will all start running together until it sounds like a creaking door opening, and if you slow that down it's actually individual pulses. Those sounds are so strong that a lot of people including myself - believe that they can stun the fish. The whale sounds will go through flesh.

"That whale is very excited and the other one is answering it. I think that at that moment they were actually arguing over which way to go which you see quite a bit where whales reach an intersection. There's a bit of a debate and off they will go. Granny is saying one thing and the young male is making that other very excited call. I don't know, but I'm guessing that he wanted to go back out to the larger group of whales."

But these are also troubled waters. Alexandra Morton had gone to Canada to study communication among killer whales. Now her focus is to document toxins in the water, pollution from fish farms and fish disease.

These problems, coupled with the loud underwater devices used by fish farmers to keep seals away from their underwater pens have also hurt the whales, whose population has decreased.

As an eyewitness to the destruction of whale habitat she teams with experts in the field to promote change. "Actually doing the research and getting these things into the scientific literature is something I can do, and feel that there is progress being made," she says.

Alexandra Morton says the more she watches whales the more she understands that all creatures are part of one living, breathing organism that must be kept in balance. Our health and the planet's health, she says, depend on it.

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