The Woman Who Loves Orcas
Source: Ted Genoways, Onearth
The bad weather was my good fortune.
At the tail end of another summer on Prince William Sound, the whale biologist Eva Saulitis was fed up with high winds and rolling swells. Rather than endure one more night tucked into a bunk aboard the tiny research vessel Natoa with gales blowing at a steady 30 knots, she persuaded Craig Matkin -- her partner "in research and in life" -- to motor into the calmer waters of Resurrection Bay and tie up until morning in Seward, on the eastern side of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. This not only ensured that I could join them for the last day of her season at sea but also meant that I could tag along to a potluck dinner with the team of amateur whale researchers they have enlisted to form the North Gulf Oceanic Society.
When I found the Natoa’s slip, Saulitis was in the galley putting the finishing touches on marinated steaks of silver salmon and a massive tossed salad. Saulitis is 50, but her Latvian cheekbones and tumbling blond curls somehow make her seem much younger. She wears a near-constant smile that conveys universal warmth but also some deep-seated concern verging on worry. Matkin, by contrast, is full of bluster and grumble, like a motor with water in the bilge, but in greeting me he quickly made clear how pleased he was that I’d taken an interest in Saulitis’s work. In all their years together, Matkin has always been the mouthpiece, the public face of their research, while Saulitis has hidden, contentedly it seems, in his shadow.
But recent events, affecting both her personal life and debates about the future of Alaska’s ecosystems, have pushed Saulitis to become a more outspoken advocate for the killer whales she studies and loves. Most notably, she has just published a book aimed at a lay audience, titled Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas. It is a chronicle of her near quarter century of studying the AT1s, a unique group of killer whales with the relatively localized range of Prince William Sound, the Kenai Fjords, and the mouth of Resurrection Bay. The whales also serve as something of an emblem and cautionary tale for anyone interested in saving the disappearing species of America’s remaining wild places. The AT1s may well be in their final throes before extinction, but -- caught up by environmental change too rapid for science to document, much less halt -- they may be gone before they’re even officially recognized.
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