The Woman Who Loves Orcas

Scientist, poet, and cancer survivor Eva Saulitis says that orcas saved her life. If only she could return the favor.

Chris MuellerPhoto: Chris MuellerEva Saulitis stands on Bishop’s Beach in Homer, on the tip of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula

Editor's Note: This story was originally published as a Spring 2013 cover story. Its subject, Eva Saulitis, who also wrote for this magazine on the plight of orcas, passed away from breast cancer on Saturday. Her loss is deeply felt.

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.

Killer whales are currently considered a single species, but that classification is being rethought as scientists catalog more and more distinctions in body type, diet, behavior, and even genetics among different populations. The whales of the eastern North Pacific are generally divided into "residents" and "transients," but those names, increasingly, are misnomers. The difference between the two groups is less about their range than their preferred food sources. Residents exclusively eat fish, while transients eat marine mammals. But the more scientists know, the more even those distinctions break down. "Offshore" killer whales, for example—a proposed third group—seem to eat mostly sharks.

MULTIMEDIA: See and hear orcas from the AT1 group.

No group defies easy classification quite as stubbornly as the AT1s. They eat harbor seals and Dall’s porpoises, but their range is much smaller than that of any other group of transients. They don’t associate with other killer whales, even other seal eaters, and seem—as described by Lance Barrett-Lennard, another of Saulitis’s colleaguesto have a genetically distinct ancestry. They may be some remnant of a very old group of killer whales, perhaps an earlier form from across the Pacific that gave rise to the more localized and specialized groups we commonly see today. That might explain why their complex call structure—first studied and categorized by Saulitis—encompasses a greater range of sounds than the limited vocabularies of other transient populations.  In simple terms, most killer whales speak variant dialects; the AT1s speak another language.

Photo: Los Angeles TimesFour orcas from the AT1 group swim right through the oil slick from the Exxon Valdez. After the 1989 disaster, the tanker was banned from ever again entering Prince William Sound

That fact alone makes the AT1s fascinating, but the need to understand more about their unique behavior and communication has grown more pressing as their numbers have dwindled. When Saulitis began studying them in the mid-1980s, there were only 22 individuals in the entire group—just enough genetic diversity to maintain the population. But then, in March 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, spilling at least 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. Soon after, four AT1s were photographed swimming through the slick; three of them, along with six other members of the group, went missing soon after and were never seen again. Since then, others have died, their tissues carrying the telltale signs of high levels of toxic contaminants common in crude oil. If that weren’t enough, either because of these chemicals or simply because of the lack of sufficient genetic diversity, the remaining members have been left unable to reproduce. The two surviving females are approaching an age at which breeding would be impossible, even if conditions were right.

All of which has pressed a hard reality upon Saulitis. "They are leaving the earth under my watch," she writes in her book. "There will, perhaps in my lifetime, be a last one." There’s no denying this or fixing it. The time for cleaning up Prince William Sound has passed. Saulitis is simply documenting the decline, gathering as much information as she can before the inevitable arrives.

This difficult truth hung over all of our conversations, even the quiet potluck on our first night together. Saulitis and Matkin guided me through Seward to a gravel lot where boats stood dry-docked for the winter. At the back, tucked into a clutch of gnarly willows, was the Right Whale, a 48-foot research vessel built by the owners, Cy St-Amand and his wife, L. A. Holmes, who now rent it out, running charters for marine researchers like Saulitis and Matkin. The boat, propped in a rutted, muddy berth, seemed both whimsical and imposing in the half-light.

Inside the cramped cabin, dinner was an intricate dance: St-Amand mixed stiff rum and Cokes, made with the kind of cheap spiced rum that comes in plastic bottles (no glass on deck), while Saulitis moved the Coho steaks in and out of the oven. Holmes and Dan Olsen, who works as a seasonal captain and naturalist for Kenai Fjords Tours in Seward, swapped stories of recent sightings, recounting tales of close encounters and pieced-together narratives of what could be heard when they dropped hydrophones and listened to the whales call. After dinner, St-Amand leveled his gaze toward me.

"So, why the AT1s?" he asked. Why would someone like me care about them? Was it just because we could quantify how small their numbers have become? All of the whales—all of the wildlife of Alaska—were devastated long ago. "When people say our other whales are doing well," he said, "that means they’re holding to within 1 percent of where they were last year. That doesn’t mean they’re doing well historically. We’re looking at the trash that was left over."

He smiled from under his broom of a mustache.

"So if you see 150 whales tomorrow, you’re seeing the remains."

Matkin howled at the number, warning me not to get my hopes up, but Saulitis sat silently, almost motionless. Later, after we’d said our goodbyes and made our way back toward the center of Seward, she confessed that she had been trying to keep from crying. "I had never heard them talk about their connection to the AT1s," she said. "How we’re twined with their story was right in the room. We’re so fated, and so fatefully connected to these animals."

She paused a beat, in thought. "How?"

* * *

Saulitis came to killer whales by a circuitous path. She tried to explain it as we loaded gear and prepared to head out of Resurrection Bay toward Fox Island, but she kept interrupting herself, rummaging through one plastic bin after another. The wind was still blowing hard, and Saulitis was preoccupied with the worry that I would become hopelessly seasick. So she dug around, producing herbal pills, some tea, a wristband for one arm, and, for the other, a shock watch—a battery-powered device that doles out low-level electrical charges every few seconds to dupe your inner ear into thinking you’re standing on shore. The hodgepodge of cures was part of her private stash.

Photo: Chris MuellerAboard the research vessel Natoa, Saulitis and her partner, Craig Matkin, log photographs of the dorsal fin of each orca they spot

As Matkin backed the Natoa out and puttered past the breakwater toward the chop of the bay, Saulitis laughed at the ridiculousness of a marine biologist who suffers from seasickness. After all, it was whitecaps that had lured her away from her first love: music. She studied to become a concert oboist at Northwestern but experienced crippling stage fright. To overcome her fear, she spent countless hours whittling her reeds and playing in the university’s tiny practice rooms overlooking Lake Michigan. "You could see this wild water," she told me. And one day she thought, I’ve got to get out of here. I have to be outside. She transferred to Syracuse in her native New York and enrolled in the College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

With a degree in fish and wildlife biology in hand, Saulitis came to Alaska in 1986 and landed a job as a technician at a salmon hatchery on Esther Island in Prince William Sound. In December, her boyfriend persuaded her to get some of the scant winter sun by taking the hatchery skiff out to Wells Passage. On their way back, Saulitis saw a dark wave amid the rollers. She realized it was a black dorsal fin. They steered into the whale’s path in time to see her surface, then dive and disappear. All spring, Saulitis watched for killer whales along the shoreline near the hatchery and finally managed to snap a few photographs of their fins. She sent them to Matkin, whom she’d heard of through a mutual friend, along with a simple offer: "I’ll scrub your decks, cook, clean, whatever, for a chance to volunteer on your boat." On the eve of her 24th birthday, the mail barge arrived with Matkin’s reply: as it happened, he needed an assistant that summer.

It was aboard Matkin’s research vessel, Lucky Star, that Saulitis first encountered the AT1s and began using a hydrophone to make recordings of their unique calls. Now, as we approached Fox Island, she unwound the snaking black coil and dropped the waterproof microphone over the side of the Natoa with an unceremonious plop. The receiver hissed, like an old snowy picture tube, and beeped periodically to indicate that the system was still connected, but the waters around the island were silent that day. Saulitis munched on homemade granola bars (from a tub labeled "Bear Shit") as she remembered the first time she picked up the calls of AT1s over the hydrophone.

She had heard killer whales before, but this was "something other." Communicating across great distances, they would caterwaul in long, siren-like cries, turned up at the end as if they were questions. "This was a voice at once strident and mournful," she writes in her memoir, "a strange hybrid instrument, part trumpet, part oboe, part elephant, part foghorn. And loud." But when the lone scouts were joined by more members of their group, the calls changed to "upswept squawks punctuated by silence; bangs and cracks, like axe blows against one-by planks, some we could attribute to fluke slaps, and some not. Now and then a syncopated blast of echolocation, like automatic gunfire."

Saulitis eventually spent 230 hours making more than 6,000 recordings of the 22 AT1s then active in Prince William Sound. She identified 14 discrete call types and correlated them to specific behaviors—loud chattering when the whales were socializing; soft, low-frequency bleats while hunting. The work would become the basis of her master’s thesis at the University of Alaska Fairbanks—and would yield a number of important discoveries. "Most significant, and most worrying," she wrote, the AT1s "shared no calls with other populations, suggesting genetic isolation."

No sooner had Saulitis come to this conclusion—since supported by DNA research—than the Valdez struck Bligh Reef. Saulitis freely admits that she returns compulsively to the hours before the spill, turning it over in her mind. The night before, when the supertanker was still in the terminal, filled with oil, the Cordova marine biologist and activist Riki Ott addressed the mayor’s oil action committee in Valdez, warning of a spill she called "the Big One." What if someone had thought to inspect theValdez that night? Might he have found "the tanker’s drunken skipper," as Saulitis calls him, in the midst of his bender or already passed out in his bunk? Might he have discovered that the tanker’s radar had been broken and switched off for more than a year—too costly, in Exxon’s opinion, to repair? "Something in me," Saulitis writes, "obsessively rewinds the tape, scrutinizes each increment, trying to find the one word or gesture that would have turned the tanker away from the reef—a few degrees north, a few moments sooner—allowing us all to awaken to ordinary rhythms of water on a blessedly ordinary day."

Illustrated by Joe Lemonnier

Instead, researchers at the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks called together their graduate students for a meeting. Before speaking, they showed slides of the damage. One photo showed the black hull of the scuttled supertanker, its name clearly painted in white block letters. "Nothing could be darker than that hull, I thought," Saulitis writes. "But then I saw that something was darker. Black against black, four dorsal fins, four orcas." Soon, the 22 whales she knew well enough to recognize on sight had been reduced to half their number—and, in the years after, dwindled to just seven individuals that Saulitis can now tick off by their nicknames: Chenega, Iktua, Egagutak, Mike, Marie, Ewan, Paddy.

In a full day on the water together we saw a humpback whale (announced as a "wide guy" by a cruise operator across the marine band radio) and an enormous group of Steller’s sea lions flopping off rock outcroppings into the waves. But hours of scanning the shoreline for blows puffing up from the breakers, of cutting the motor at favored anchorages to drop the hydrophone and listen, yielded nothing. And so, when the sun finally began sinking low and the air again turned cold and gusty, Matkin turned back toward the harbor.

On the bridge above the wheelhouse, Saulitis opened the big binder of photographs they use in the field to confirm sightings and identify specific individuals. She flipped to the pages with the AT1s and pointed to the dorsal of one of the seven, a young male nicknamed Egagutak, which they hadn’t seen in more than a year. "He’s the one roamer that’s left," she said, "but you never see him anymore. I was just thinking yesterday ... God, what if he just decided to mix with some other whales?"

Later, back on shore, Saulitis returned to that fantasy, confessing that it grew from her long-held and festering anguish over the Valdez spill. Egagutak was the one AT1 photographed swimming through the oil slick that had managed to survive. The other three males in the photograph had vanished, leaving Egagutak to hunt on his own forever after. Rather than believe that he, too, was now gone, Saulitis preferred to imagine that he had found companions, maybe even a mate. "It’s just one of those spontaneous graspings after some hope," she conceded. "I just want to know he’s out there somewhere."

It was this very impulse that eventually pushed Saulitis away from "the objective language and rigid methodology of science." She longed for a way of tackling environmental issues that admitted to a personal stake, an idiom that spoke with greater ardor and greater awe. Above all, she wanted to concentrate on the possible, not simply record the inevitable. In short, she needed to "develop another language with which to address the natural world." In the 1990s she started writing poetry, and instead of entering a Ph.D. program in biology, she entered the MFA program in creative nonfiction in Fairbanks. In the 15 years since, she has continued to publish scientific papers, but the bulk of her writing has been gathered into books of poems and essays. It’s a decision that has brought her both critical acclaim and personal happiness—and, along the way, her professional partnership with Matkin crossed over from the realm of science to become an enduring romance.

Despite her success as a writer and the domestic contentment she has found, Saulitis spent many years avoiding writing directly about the Valdez spill and the fate of the AT1s. That changed when she was suddenly confronted by the prospect of her own death.

* * *

In late March 2010, while visiting her sister on Cape Cod, Saulitis was diagnosed with breast cancer. Rather than returning home to Alaska, she went directly into treatment. Once a week, her sister would drive her into Boston, where Saulitis would be hooked up to an IV that pumped a cocktail of chemo drugs into a vein on her right hand. Afterward her sister would drive her back to her third-floor bedroom on Cape Cod. She maintained a regimen of anti-nausea meds choked down with spoonfuls of applesauce, but her queasy stomach never seemed to quiet. Worse still, her white blood cell counts would yo-yo wildly after each treatment.

Hardest of all, Saulitis says, the ravaging of her body by chemotherapy seemed mirrored by the black, cancerous mass spreading across the Gulf of Mexico. Every day for weeks, as she struggled through treatment, the Deepwater Horizon spill dominated the news, "creating inside me," she wrote in her online cancer journal, "an upwelling: memories of oil and whales and carcasses and boats and haggard human faces." As summer approached, Matkin prepared to go out on Prince William Sound without Saulitis for the first time in 24 years. Cy St-Amand filled in for her at the wheel, and Saulitis began to wonder if she would live to see the AT1s vanish after all. In August, her white cell count plummeted so precipitously that she needed an emergency blood transfusion. The cancer, she thought, might carry her away.

To ease the side effects of chemotherapy and level out her white blood cell counts, Saulitis was encouraged to try visualization therapy. Each time the nurse inserted the needle into her hand, Saulitis pictured the same scene:

I’m in the little red kayak paddling toward Zaikof Bay, where a group of orcas slowly mills. They’re AT1s, Chenega, Iktua, and Mike, and I paddle among them until I’m parallel to Chenega’s flank, and I place the flat of my hand against the flat of her dorsal fin. She holds herself still in the water beside my kayak. Every once in a while she lifts her head slightly and blows, and I hear it, and feel the cool mist of her breath on my face. Through my hand, I feel her power, her myoglobin, and its energy travels up my arm, into my body.

Soon after she began visualization therapy, Saulitis received a call from Matkin via satellite phone with some unexpected news. That August evening, after an icy day in lashing winds futilely trying to tag a group of AT1s, he and St-Amand had given up and headed toward a favored anchorage on Knight Island. Suddenly, Chenega appeared off the Natoa’s bow. Chenega is usually very shy, Saulitis explained—so nervous around boats that she bangs her fluke on the surface of the water to show her displeasure. But that day, she pulled up alongside the Natoa, porpoising out of the water to keep up. St-Amand stomped on the cabin roof to alert Matkin—and Matkin tagged her, easily, with one shot.

Above all, she wanted to concentrate on the possible, not simply record the inevitable.

Now Matkin asked Saulitis to open her laptop and log on to the ARGOS satellite-tracking website. He wanted to know: was the tag putting out a signal? "It was," Saulitis wrote in her journal. "I could see Chenega’s path as she zigzagged around Knight Island Passage, and I joked that she’d intentionally allowed him to tag her, so I could follow her movements from thousands of miles away, on another ocean’s coast, in the third-floor room at my sister’s house."

Every morning thereafter, still in bed, Saulitis logged on to the satellite-tracking site. She waited as a digitized map of Prince William Sound stitched itself across the screen, then watched the points and lines chart the path of Chenega’s nocturnal wanderings. But it was just cold data. "There. Off Point Helen," Saulitis wrote. "I clicked on the biggest dot, the most recent satellite hit: 4:30 a.m., heading south. The dots told me only that much."

In a flash, Saulitis saw what she needed to do. For the rest of that hot August and into the fall, she propped herself up in bed (or at a desk when she could muster the strength) and wrote out the whales’ stories—what she knew of their habits and demeanor, her encounters with them—first for Chenega, then for the other AT1s. Imagining herself there, Saulitis could return to the days before the Valdez spill and finally begin to confront the awful years after. She says now that she drew strength from the knowledge that the AT1s were still out there. By being away from Prince William Sound for a summer, she could start to believe that—like Egagutak—she could survive on her own. "Whatever he’s doing, he’s being a killer whale, he’s being an AT1," she says. She could also emerge from Matkin’s shadow and write about the AT1s—and their fate—in her own way, in the language of poetry rather than science.

That simple realization was a turning point. Now cancer-free for two years and with a positive prognosis, she must once again face the inevitability of observing their disappearance.

"They saved me," Saulitis insists, "though I can’t save them."

* * *

Our unsuccessful day on Resurrection Bay  marked the end of the research season, so Saulitis and Matkin packed up and headed back to Homer. Saulitis was eager to return to her garden, set back in the trees amid tall stands of fireweed and peekaboo views of Kachemak Bay.

Alaskans often joke that there are only two seasons there: winter and preparing for winter. With that transition hard upon her, Saulitis was hurrying through final preparations before the cold set in; already stiff winds were blowing in from the Gulf of Alaska, sending the mercury plummeting and filling the sky over Homer with heavy flurries. I drove down to the office of the North Gulf Oceanic Society, just a stone’s throw from the water. Saulitis showed up, a little late and a little frazzled, a forced smile on her face. Then she bit her lower lip and tears ran down her cheeks.

All morning, she had been chewing over old memories of the Valdez spill. "I think about the individual stories of anguish, of all those people," she said. She caught her breath. "And then some f***ing million-dollar ad campaign, some whitewashing oil company can just wipe it all away. That story is gone. No, the story out there is that this went well. The Exxon Valdezwhat a stellar example of how the oil industry can respond." Her voice surged with anger, but her face was tight with anguish, not rage.

Photo: Cathy Hart/AlaskaStockTwo survivors from the AT1 group of orcas, otherwise known as killer whales, cavort in Prince William Sound

She laid out the office copy of Killer Whales of Southern Alaska, a volume she and Matkin assembled with three other researchers in 1999. The book was intended as a version of the field guide they keep on the Natoa, a set of dorsal fin photos grouped by locality and pod with thumbnail histories for each of the individual whales. The spread for the AT1s was covered with Post-its and Saulitis’s handwritten notes about each of the six subgroups that had existed when she first started her work. Two Post-its recorded those killed in the immediate aftermath of the spill; another described how one family of whales had temporarily regrouped. But at the bottom was a circled note: "all dead." Another subgroup was down to one individual; the other two had just three each, with truant Egagutak still listed among them. The devastation to this particular group was graphically displayed, but Saulitis was quick to recognize that there’s too little information about them, or about killer whales in general, for science to acknowledge the loss of this population as a true extinction. Even with genetically distinct markers, researchers insist that there just isn’t enough data to classify the AT1s as anything more than a "threatened population."

"I think they are at least a separate subspecies," Saulitis said—but there’s too little agreement on the structure of reclassification to proceed. "We’re not even at that level. We’ve been able to separate them for management purposes, at least—to get scientists to recognize that there are these different stocks. The problem is that even if you were to call these separate species—let’s say Alaskan residents versus separate species of transients—there’s still a diversity, almost at the pod level within the subpopulation, that’s important for conservation. I mean, what is the conservation imperative? What does it mean to lose one pod? Does that matter, if they’re all just part of a larger species of killer whale?"

They saved me ... though I can't save them.

Later, back at home, sipping hot tea at her kitchen table overlooking the bay, Saulitis explained that such questions had driven her to divide her attentions between science and literature, to keep one foot in each world. Even if science doesn’t register the vanishing of the AT1 group as an extinction, Saulitis still does. She sees her project, now that she once again expects to outlive the whales, as one of witness and conduit between her two worlds. But there are no guarantees, and with the constant threat of relapse, she resides in the same twilight they do. "If I think about it now," she said, "it’s been harder for me than their being completely gone." This, of course, is the mystery of all life, she said—the knowledge that one day it will end, for all of us, and the need to find a way not only to keep going but to find wonder and improbable joy in the midst of that certainty.

What haunts her, Saulitis said, was no longer the prospect of a world without the AT1s but rather the day when there is only one—that last whale, calling out in its lost language to an ocean that will never yield a reply. "It’s that one," she said, "having to live out whatever time period it can survive that way." She thought, too, of the old Alutiiq stories of the killer whales. In their mythology, the arrival of the whales was a symbol of death itself, in all of its complexity. When there were no sick or dying, villagers worried that the killer whales would carry away the soul of a child. But when one of the elders was in the last stage of illness, the arrival of the whales signaled relief and a time for letting go.

"The most dramatic contemporary version I’ve heard was over in one of the native villages across the bay," she said. "There was a guy who was dying there of cancer, an old man. The family kept going out to see if any killer whales were coming into the bay. This guy was ready, he needed to go, and he was ready to go. But he couldn’t, so they were waiting for the killer whales to come and take his spirit. Then this small group of whales shows up in the bay, and they told him, and he died." By embracing her new life after cancer, Saulitis is also accepting that there will be no AT1s to carry her spirit away. One day, she will be the sole carrier of their lost language and all the habits and culture they built over millions of years.

Before leaving Homer, I found a bush pilot to take me up over Kachemak Bay, a last attempt to lay eyes on a black dorsal fin before leaving Alaska. The wind was ferocious now, but the pilot came with Matkin’s highest recommendation; he had flown over Prince William Sound after the Exxon spill, radioing down information about whales he could spot from the air. I would like to say I saw a slick black fin zippering through the waves as we banked over the native village and back toward the drilling rig rising from the end of the spit, but the water below was obsidian-dark and whitecapped and, at least from our vantage, a silent void.

This article was made possible by a generous grant from the Vervane Foundation.

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