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Listening to whales
on 4 June 2006
If I believed in parallel universes I would think that somewhere there is another version of me, living in another version of Earth, in a place a bit like British Columbia in Canada. I'd live on the sea, somewhere rugged and remote and study marine mammals. The version of me writing this review took a different path in life but this book is as near as I'll get to that alternate life: and it does a pretty good job.
Alexandra Morton started her career at a marine park in California in the late 1970s. She began studying communication between dolphins but then changed her attention to the killer whales at the park and pioneered the recording of orca sounds using a hydrophone. Becoming increasingly perturbed by the concept of captive marine mammals, in 1984 she moved to a remote community in British Columbia changing the emphasis of her research from captive to wild orca.
Alexandra recorded the whales during mating, childbirth, training and grief and became to recognise the various patterns and what they mean. Her recordings have led to a deeper understanding of whale communication by echolocation and of the effects that modern fishing techniques and other human activities are having on the whales today.
I enjoyed the way this book was written: it is scientific but also deeply moving. She describes the tedious and meticulous job of recording and analysing the sounds recorded on her hydrophone: I'm not certain that the other version of me would have the patience for that. She describes how the whale researchers all interact to piece together what they can about the behaviour of whales in a way that makes you feel as if you have met them in person. She also documents the realities of life researching wild whales: the unforgiving weather, the isolation, life on a float-house, the death of her husband in a diving accident, making clothes for her children and the trials of bringing them up in a remote community.
Obviously this book also contains a considerable amount of information about the natural history of whales and their behaviour. For example, there are two types of whales: residents and transients and each type has their own diet, language and social system. This is very unusual in the animal world and usually only occurs when the communities are separated geographically. However, these two types of orca live side by side. You'd think that they would compete for resources (food etc.) but, fascinatingly, the resident pods eat fish but the transients eat mammals. This is possibly the only example of a `sympatric' species (animals that live in the same area but don't compete for food or habitat). The behaviour of transients is different to the residents: transients are quiet because their prey can otherwise hear them coming; they live in smaller groups and can hold their breath quietly. The fish-eating residents, however, can afford to be noisier and live in bigger groups. Alexandra co-authored one of the first scientific papers about the behaviour of these little-studied transient orca.
The book also contains photographs to really bring it to life. Books don't have to be novels to be escapist and this book illustrates that concept perfectly.