By Eva Saulitis
Are the orcas okay? Headlines about their attacks on boats off the coast of Spain and Portugal have us raising eyebrows. Do they have a vendetta against humans? No, it’s all for funsies! This is how they socialize and shoot the breeze, or in this case, rip off rudders. There’s no record of orcas killing humans in the wild. If you want to see what their hunting forays look like, dip into this passage from Eva Saulitis’s Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss among Orcas. The late whale researcher’s rich, lyrical prose brings us up close to the intimate lives of these creatures.
Morning. Late June. Daytime breeze already ruffling the passage. While doing calisthenics on the beach, Olga spotted three blows threading upward in rapid succession against Gage Island, across the passage. Humpbacks. Some days, a particular quality of light, wind, and humidity made spouts stand out. Ralph, Mary, and I loaded up Whale 1. Since Elli was still sleeping, Olga stayed behind at camp. A few moments after departing, I spotted smaller, fuller blows off Squire Point. “Stop!” I yelled. The three of us stared through binoculars until the whales surfaced again—three orcas slinking close to shore, heading toward camp. Recalling Craig’s warnings about Squire Point, Ralph crawled onto the cabin roof and knelt on the bow, watching for rocks while Mary paralleled a male, female, and juvenile. I stood behind her, camera at my eye. “Once we’re past the point,” she said, studying the nautical chart, “it looks clear.”
The trio swam past Whale Camp. Olga, hearing our engine and the whales’ blows, stuck her head out of the tent and waved. In deeper water, the orcas finally dove. We drove ahead, stopped and waited. Would they continue into the labyrinth of rocks and islands ahead of us? Or angle out into the passage? Mary spotted them near a grassy island. Idling in close, we saw that the female was gone. The juvenile nosed up to a tide-exposed rock, its fin wobbling as it pushed its body into the shallows, the male milling a few dozen yards away. A seal pup crouched on the rock, scrambling higher as the orca tried to shove itself up and over a lip to get nearer. We stared, stunned, through our binoculars. Here it was. Seal predation. “I wonder if the juvenile orca has the advantage in shallow water,” Ralph said.
“Maybe it’s learning how to hunt?” I said. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to watch this.”
The seal’s eyes widened. It craned its head back toward the orca, then lurched a few inches higher. The male circled the rock. From behind, his dorsal appeared rippled. Mary checked the tide book. Fortunately for the seal, the tide was ebbing. I thought of Barry Lopez’s writings on the predatory behavior of wolves: “Predator and prey grow stronger together by means of a series of tests, through all the years of their lives, tests that pit them against each other at both psychological and physiological levels, tests that weed both culturally and genetically.” We were witnessing such a test.
For ten minutes the young orca tried to charge the seal from various angles. Finally, without fanfare, it gave up. The male had already departed. The juvenile turned, inhaled, and dove. We inched Whale 1 forward with a paddle to see if the seal had been injured. Unharmed but shaken, it transferred its worried stare to us briefly before slipping back into the sea.
“Wow, lucky seal,” Ralph exclaimed. “Lucky us.”
“Hurry and start up, Mary,” I said. “Or we’ll lose them.” When we caught up, the orcas had reunited and the three were hunting, searching every nook along Mummy Island’s shoreline. They ignored a sea otter and a small group of Steller sea lions, which bunched tighter, rose high out of the water, and huffed as the orcas passed. Hauled on numerous rocks and islets were their likely prey: harbor seals, the main food of West Coast transients in British Columbia.
As the whales penetrated further into Knight Island’s protected waters, Mary kept her eyes on the chart, and Ralph kept watch for bottom from the bow. It took our three sets of eyes to avoid hitting a reef or losing the whales. They were unpredictable, traveling north for a while, then abruptly reversing direction. Each time we dropped the hydrophone, it was silent. Mary flipped through the catalog. “I think Ripple Fin is AT11,” she said, pointing to a photo. “And that female looks like AT9, with the tiny nick.” According to the catalog, the juvenile was her offspring, AT10. Finally, in water too reef-choked to follow, we lost the whales.
As we headed back toward camp, I studied the chart. Countless unnamed rocks and islets dotted the entrances of bays that cut deep into Knight Island’s body: Drier Bay, Copper Bay, Johnson Bay, Lower Herring Bay. The archipelago continued for several miles, to Channel Rock, creating a navigational challenge but a refuge for seals, sea otters, and birds. On the chart, large swatches of water appeared impassible, shaded in blue, riddled with asterisks and crosses for rocks. I imagined that world from the orcas’ perspective, an intimate geography they obviously knew as home. Sometimes their bodies probably scraped against rock, or brushed past eelgrass or kelp ribbons. We called that stretch of water the Labyrinth.
That night, we sat inside the tent drinking cocoa laced with peppermint schnapps, recounting our encounter to Olga. “Hey, speaking of seals, an older guy from Chenega Village stopped by while you guys were out,” Olga said. “His name was Mike, said he grew up in Old Chenega. He said he’d heard you on the radio a lot, wondering where the whales are.” Olga laughed. “He’d been hunting in Icy Bay. He said there were a lot of seals in there. He sees orcas hunting in the ice a lot. There was dead harbor seal in his skiff.”
Later, after Olga took Elli to bed, Mary and I labeled film rolls and filled data sheets. In the catalog, I checked off the Chugach transients we’d seen so far: AT12, 14 and 22 with Craig. AT9, 10, 11, and 18 with Ralph. “I’ll never remember those numbers,” Mary said. “We should name them.” We already had Ripple Fin. Sitting by the fire, we studied the photos, and tossed around ideas. We settled on Chenega, for AT9, the nicked female, and Mike for AT10, the young seal hunter. The second adult we named Iktua, after the seal haul out in Iktua Bay. Something had begun, a door cracking open.
Two days later, it opened further. As we readied Whale 1 for travel one morning, two orcas, a male and a juvenile, surfaced off our stern, heading toward Squire Point. We decided to split up, Mary and Ralph taking the again-sluggish Whale 1 to find humpbacks, and Olga, Elli, and I taking the Dynous to follow the transients.
We threw equipment into Olga’s army-issue ammo cans—green, watertight, metal containers like giant lunch boxes. Olga bundled Elli into a life jacket. Once Olga was settled in the inflatable, I shoved it away from shore, and she yanked the pull cord until the engine sputtered to life. “Hang on!” Olga cried, squatting on her heels in front of the outboard, Elli peering out of the bib of her rain pants. Kneeling in the bow, I watched for rocks, the camera zipped inside my jacket. At Squire Point, the whales—Ripple Fin and Mike—paused, circling the outermost rock. As before, a harbor seal crouched there, out of their reach. Did adult males train juveniles to hunt, I wondered? How did they know the seal was up there? Both whales nosed in, but within minutes they abandoned the seal and dove. We debated what to do. They might continue across the passage or they might return to the rock. The tide was rising. It wouldn’t be long before the seal was swimming. Five minutes passed. “Let’s listen for blows,” Olga said, killing the outboard. I stood up, wide-legged for balance, and scanned.
At first I thought it was Elli, muffled against Olga’s chest. Something stirred the air, a moan. But it wasn’t Elli. It was coming from below, crescendoing into a trumpeting wail that twined around our ankles. I looked back at Olga. “Oh, my God, they’re calling,” she said. “They’re swimming right under us. Quick, get the recorder going.” I scrambled for the ammo can while Olga, clutching Elli, threw over the hydrophone. Fumbling with the plugs, I cursed until I found the right arrangement and the static stopped and calls poured from the speaker. They echoed off the passage’s underwater canyon walls.
This was not the chatter of residents, the catlike whines and yips and whistles. This was something other: long, descending cries, and high-intensity blasts ending in upsweeps, like questions. This was a voice at once strident and mournful, a strange hybrid instrument, part trumpet, part oboe, part elephant, part foghorn. And loud. In the calls’ echoes, I imagined the passage mirroring back to the whales: You are, you are. Soon, in silences between vocalizations, we heard distant, answering calls. Mike and Ripple Fin burst through the passage’s surface, charging west. We yanked up the hydrophone and raced to catch up. As we passed, I snapped ID photos, kneeling in the bow. Approaching Iktua Passage, Olga spotted more blows. Ahead of the pair, we dropped the hydrophone again: wild ululations, mingled with cacophony, the passage resonating like an amphitheatre. Without the hydrophone, we wouldn’t know this. It would be like wearing earplugs and watching, from behind a half-drawn curtain, an orchestra flailing away on their instruments.
At last, in tandem with the male and juvenile, we reached the mouth of Iktua Passage. The pair entered a fray, eight more orcas slapping flukes, charging after one another, lunging in tight arcs. We dropped the hydrophone, turned on the recorder and listened to a sound poem, like something composed by Philip Glass: upswept squawks punctuated by silence, and bangs and cracks, like axe blows against planks, some we could attribute to fluke slaps, and some not. Now and then a syncopated blast of echolocation, like automatic gunfire. No more mournful wails; these calls were higher-pitched, abrupt, gashes of sound, some degenerating into raspberries or harsh, thudding pulse trains, no two calls the same. A looping improvisation of molten glass, spinning, shattering, all of it stunningly audible in the still water. It reached a climax and suddenly stopped. The whales gathered into a line, nine abreast, one adult male behind. They circled slowly for an hour in formation, silent. Rest, I wrote in the notebook, along with the time. At seven in the evening, Elli fussing, all of us hungry and chilled, we left the whales and headed across the Passage toward camp, talking all the way, retelling it, piecing it into a story.
About the Author
Eva Saulitis (1963–2016) studied whales in Prince William Sound, the Kenai Fjords, and Alaska’s Aleutian Islands for the past 24 years. In addition to her scientific publications, her essays, poems, and reviews appeared in numerous national journals, including Orion, Crazyhorse, and Prairie Schooner. The author of the essay collection Leaving Resurrection and the poetry collection Many Ways to Say It, she taught at Kenai Peninsula College, in the low-residency MFA program at the University of Alaska, and at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference. She lived in Homer, Alaska.