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Listening to Whales: What the Orcas Have Taught Us

Listening to Whales: What the Orcas Have Taught Us

4.6 17
by Alexandra Morton

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For the past twenty-five years, Alexandra Morton has been at the forefront of whale and dolphin research, dedicating her life to the study of orcas (also known as killer whales). Now in Listening to Whales, Morton shares the spellbinding story of her career, her adventures in the wilderness, the heartbreak she has endured, and the rewards of living her life on


For the past twenty-five years, Alexandra Morton has been at the forefront of whale and dolphin research, dedicating her life to the study of orcas (also known as killer whales). Now in Listening to Whales, Morton shares the spellbinding story of her career, her adventures in the wilderness, the heartbreak she has endured, and the rewards of living her life on her own terms.

Born into an artistic family in Connecticut, Morton experienced a seismic jolt when at age twelve she first read the work of primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall and knew she wanted to study wild animals. Soon afterward, listening for the first time to orcas communicating with each other, she knew she had found her life work. In the late 1970s, while working at California’s Marineland, Alexandra pioneered the recording of whale sounds by dropping a hydrophone into the tank of two killer whales. She recorded the varied language of mating, childbirth, and even grief after the birth of a stillborn calf. At the same time she made the startling observation that the whales were inventing and perfecting wonderful synchronized movements, a behavior that was soon recognized as a defining characteristic of orca society.

In 19784, Alexandra moved with her husband, photographer Robin Morton, to a remote bay in British Columbia to continue her research with wild orcas. For a few idyllic years, Alexandra and Robin shared their passion for whales, cruising the green northern waters and raising a baby boy. But tragedy struck when Robin died in a terrible accident. Only the love of her son and her abiding dedication to whale research gave Alexandra the strength to continue her groundbreaking work. Herrecordings of the whales that swim by her house have led her to a deeper understanding of the mystery of whale echolocation, the vocal communication that enables the mammals to find their way in the dark sea. She continues to be among the renowned researchers attempting to break down the barriers of interspecies communication.

At once an inspiring story of a woman’s determination to live her life on her own terms and a fascinating study of the profound communion between humans and whales, this book will open your eyes anew to the wonders of the natural world.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Orca researcher Morton describes her more than 20 years studying the movements and sounds of orcas, the mammals, actually dolphins, commonly known as killer whales, or, regionally, blackfish. After getting her ears wet cataloguing the recordings John Lilly (the author of Man and Dolphin) made of his controversial language experiments with dolphins, Morton turned her own hydrophone on the captive orca pair Orky and Corky, at the now closed Marineland of the Pacific in Palos Verde, Calif. Inspired by Jane Goodall as an important but rare model, she soon decided to find wild orcas to record launching her lifelong study of the animals in the coastal waters of British Columbia. She has faced down the inherent difficulty of finding the elusive creatures she studies, the periodic economic uncertainty of life in a remote place and the death of her husband in a diving accident. Throughout her warm, energetic memoir, she relates her work to the strides made by other marine biologists, consistently balancing her open curiosity about the vagaries of mother nature with solid scientific inquiry. In later chapters, her focus turns to the impact of salmon farms on the coastal ecosystem. Morton's rich descriptions of individual orca movements, and how each relates to the species as a whole, course alongside her passionate defense of the ecological balance of the region; she infuses both with just the right amount of personal reflection to make this an engaging tale of a woman's commitment to science and a life well lived. (May) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
When Alexandra Morton was a young girl growing up in Connecticut she became fascinated with snakes and life at a frog pond and preferred watching the flight of a monarch butterfly instead of the actions of a ball game. She was hooked early on observing and trying to understand the natural world. This desire for knowledge led her first to work with the seminal dolphin researcher John Lilly, then to an early Marineland and finally to British Columbia, where Morton encountered the whale pod relatives of one of the orcas held captive back in California. Like other memoirs that deal with working with whales, Listening to Whales has moments both amazing and poignant when we have to wonder just how intelligent whales and dolphins are. "Paul...began piping down a sweet melody from Johann Sebastian Bach. Top Notch stopped dead in the water...[and] the whale gently sculled closer to the boat. He floated peacefully as Paul played. I held my breath...It was a rare moment of contact, a peaceful act shared by whale and human alike. When the song was over, Top Notch let loose a long sweeping call, exhaled and vanished without a trace." (p. 94) Morton's story, however, is more personal and readable than many other titles. Her focus is totally on the moment and on the whales. Her listening and recording gear is quickly pulled out in any instance, reaching desperately to communicate with another species. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Random House, Ballantine, 309p. illus., Ages 15 to adult.
—Katherine Gillen
Library Journal
Morton has spent nearly 20 years studying the language and behavior of the orcas, or killer whales, that roam the waters of British Columbia. The author of two children's books on whales, she is a field scientist in the tradition of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. Although she does not possess an academic degree in science, she writes eloquently of the orcas' social groupings, strong mother-child bonds, migration patterns, and interactions with humans. Morton also graphically describes the effects of fish farming, logging, development, and whale-watching expeditions on the environment. Her book is primarily of value as an autobiographical document of a determined and highly self-motivated woman rather than a work of scientific popularization like Serge Dedina's Saving the Gray Whale or Dick Russell's Eye of the Whale. Readers will be impressed by the physical hardships of field work, the moving account of the death of her marine photographer husband in a diving mishap, and her stories of rearing her children on shipboard and in an isolated coastal community. Suitable for all public libraries. Judith B. Barnett, Pell Marine Science Lib., Univ. of Rhode Island, Kingston Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Marine mammal researcher Morton, who's been on the hydrophone listening closely to dolphins and killer whales for 25 years, reports on her work and life among the orcas thus far. Morton's association with marine mammals began under the guidance of John Lilly, perhaps best known for his dabbling with LSD, though he was also a pioneering, unconventional scientist working with dolphins. Those days not only fired within her a desire to pursue marine mammal vocalization studies, but it also opened doors to the insular world of cetacean research, a field in which Morton has no advanced degree and as such is often branded an untouchable. She worked in California with captive creatures, concentrating on the correlation between sounds and behavior, before realizing that her interests lay in work with wild animals: it was more vigorous, certainly; it also soothed her conscience, for she had begun to appreciate captivity to be a dreadful state for an orca. In plainspoken prose, Morton relates her work afield, eventually moving to Canada and concentrating on differentiation between transient and resident populations of orcas. She writes of her personal life with unembroidered ease as well, which is extremely powerful when telling the story of the death of her husband and co-worker Robin, who drowned. The tone is equally effective when spinning out less traumatic anecdotes, as when she and her husband-running through bad weather in their skiff, their cameras being kept dry in big green garbage bags-are targeted by the Mounties as drug-runners. Her concern for the orcas' welfare leads her to investigate pollution of their habitat and in particular the degradation of their food source, part of which isidentified as the damage done to wild stocks of salmon by the penned salmon of aquaculturists, the old bugbear of wild vs. captive rearing its head once more. A work in progress, but remarkably diverting if even so short a distance down Morton's road. Author tour
From the Publisher
“[Morton’s] descriptions of [the whales’] lives and their haunting underwater communications are so vivid that they will remain with you long after you have read the last eloquent page.”

“[A] WARM, ENERGETIC MEMOIR . . . An engaging tale of a woman’s commitment to science and a life well lived.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“AN EXTRAORDINARY BOOK ABOUT AN EXTRAORDINARY WOMAN. . . . This is a species that has learned to live in tolerance with each other, and to share in the resources of their world so that all can survive. Would that our species could learn to do the same.”
—Hamilton Spectator

—Natural History

[Morton’s] writing reflects a deep respect for whales in general and killer whales in particular. The reader will find her regard contagious.”
—Richmond Times-Dispatch

“This book will immerse you in a magical underwater world. It will bring you face to face with some of the most intelligent and mysterious creatures on earth. Alexandra Morton is a meticulous scientist, but she is not afraid to let her love for the whales illuminate her writing, nor her distress and anger at the harm we are inflicting on their world.”

“One of the world’s premier orca researchers . . . Morton has emerged as a champion for the welfare of whales and the preservation of their habitat. Listening to Whales is an unusual and involving tale of a life committed to interspecies communication.”
—The Olympian

“[Morton] is field scientist in the tradition of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. . . . Readers will be impressed by the physical hardships of field work, the moving account of the death of her marine photographer husband in a diving mishap, and her stories of rearing her children on shipboard and in an isolated coastal community.”
—Library Journal

“Morton’s descriptions of individual orca movements, and how each relates to the species as a whole, course alongside her passionate defense of the ecological balance of the region; she infuses both with just the right amount of personal reflection.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Moments of quiet triumph illuminate this absorbing tale.”
—Christian Science Monitor
(Selected as One of the Best Books of 2002)

[Morton’s] book gives us invaluable insight into complex, wonderful creatures. It’s an eloquent testament to one woman’s efforts at interspecies communication.”
—The Calgary Sun

“Lyrical . . . Hopeful . . . Listening to Whales is a fascinating journey into the heart of a research scientist captivated by these magnificent creatures.”
Miami Herald

“Leaves one questioning what we have done to our water-based, spy-hopping, family-loving cohabitants of this planet—and if we have not in the process diminished ourselves.”
The Georgia Straight magazine

“Remarkable . . . An extraordinary tale . . . Fascinating reading . . . Full of both poignant and distressing moments . . . One of the chief pleasures of her book is the straightforward quality of her prose; one finds oneself halfway through the book in the blink of an eye.”
The Grand Rapids Press

“As she wisely points out, what the whales need to survive—clean water, clean air, forests, and salmon—happen to be what we need as well.”
Sierra magazine

“Remarkably diverting . . . In plainspoken prose, Morton relates her work afield . . . She writes of her personal life with unembroidered ease as well, which is extremely powerful.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“This is biographical natural history at its best.”

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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6.58(w) x 9.48(h) x 1.08(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Some nights I hear whales in my dreams. They start off distant like the sound of wind in the trees but gradually pick up to the point where they’re all I can hear. Most times I can make out which pod is calling—the sisters, transients, G clan, or any of a dozen other orcas I’ve spent nearly a quarter of a century listening to. On a good night it’s the exquisite dialect specific to the family of the fifty-four-year-old matriarch Tsitika, a series of rippling harmonics so perfect it imparts a deep sense of peace in me, like a shuddering sigh.

Some nights I wake from one of these dreams and find it hasn’t been a dream at all.

I trundle downstairs in stocking feet, put my ear to the hydrophone speaker, and hear Tsitika calling to her children. I press the record button on my tape machine and note the time and date in the sound log. And so begins another day of work.

In the kelp bed floating outside my window, a hydrophone dangles down 15 feet into the water of Cramer Passage. A black cable snakes through the kelp, up the rocky beach, through the salal brush, around my kale garden, past the greenhouse and chicken coop, and up through the floorboards into my house, which is perched on a low bluff on the western coast of Canada.

I begin my mornings with a strong cup of coffee at my desk, writing, entering data, or sorting through black-and-white photos of dorsal fins. If there are no whales that day, the first sound I hear is often the crackle of shrimp coming alive with the lightening of the sky. Sometimes I hear otters chirping or dolphins letting loose those high-pitched twitters that make them sound like monkeys onhelium. The hydrophone doesn’t discriminate. More often than not, I hear the scream of outboard motors. The community in which I live, Echo Bay, has no roads. Everyone gets around by boat.

To study a wild animal, you must adapt your life to its rhythm. It’s the only way you’ll increase your chances of encountering your subject, and perhaps more important, it’s the only way you’ll begin to understand how your subject encounters the world. We landlocked humans experience our surroundings primarily through our eyes: land and vision. A killer whale’s aquatic world comes to it almost exclusively through its sense of hearing: water and sound. Living in Echo Bay has put me in a world as close as I can come to the killer whale’s without actually living underwater.

I’m constantly listening and looking for whales. As I wake my six-year-old daughter, cook breakfast, brush my teeth, talk on the phone, my ear remains cocked to the speakers. My eyes constantly scan the water for the misty plume of a whale blow. I press my eyes against a pair of high-powered astronomical field glasses seventy times a day, panning slowly back and forth over the water, always hoping for the rise and fall of an orca’s black fin. I’ve spotted whales while I’ve been gardening, baking bread, writing papers, braiding my daughter’s hair. I’ve spotted orcas while I’ve been taking a shower. And when I spot one, I’m gone. Into my boat—Blackfish Sound, a 22-foot dory—and out on the water, following the whales wherever they take me. I note their breathing intervals, record the sounds they make, watch them interact with the world around them. I am their shadow.

I came here when I was twenty-two years old. I’m forty-four now. When I began watching killer whales, I thought I could sit by a marine park tank and, merely by listening, crack the code of language used by the performing orcas held within. Now I realize I have to understand far more about who they are and how they fit into their environment. There are so many other things to be learned from killer whales.

Not long before I first arrived here, people shot orcas for sport. They were considered predators, wolves of the deep. Small children were encouraged to throw rocks at them from shore. Marine parks paid fishermen to steal infant whales from their mothers, move them across the continent in trucks, and imprison them in concrete tanks. The government tried to cull their population with machine guns.

Things have changed. It’s now a federal crime to harass a killer whale. Marine parks are no longer allowed to take killer whales from American and Canadian waters, although the horror of captivity continues. Our understanding of the killer whale’s world has increased exponentially. We know now that orcas organize themselves into sophisticated social groups and develop some of the strongest mother-child bonds possible. They hunt with amazing stealth and are capable of prodigious feats of learning. Their intelligence has yet to be adequately analyzed; indeed, their powers of cognition may be too complex for us to accurately quantify. In brainpower they may surpass us.

The killer whale, Orcinus orca, is found from the Beaufort Sea to the Weddell Sea and in every ocean in between, including the Mediterranean. Although they belong to the order Cetacea, which includes baleen whales like the gray whale and blue whale, orcas are more closely related to dolphins and porpoises, with whom they share the suborder Odontoceti (toothed whales). Killer whales are known as a “cosmopolitan species” because they’ve learned to survive in diverse habitats around the globe. Off the New Zealand coast, they eat stingrays. In the Antarctic they eat whales and penguins. Off the coast of Norway, they eat herring; in Patagonia, sea lions; in the open Pacific, sharks; in Japan, squid; in the Antilles, sea turtles; in the Indian Ocean, tuna. Just as human hunter-gatherer societies differed from one another based on their geography, climate, and food source, so have the different conditions faced by various orca

Transient whales, male and female

populations given rise to differing orca “cultures.” As Polynesians differ from Eskimos, so do Mediterranean orcas differ from the orcas plying the waters outside my cabin.

The killer whales of British Columbia are organized into four communities: northern residents, southern residents, transients, and offshore orcas. Community refers to a breeding population, whales that are known to swim together and peaceably share both calls and a feeding area. I work predominantly with the northern residents, who range from Pender Harbour, a few miles north of Vancouver, north to Prince Rupert, just south of Ketchikan, Alaska. Within that community exist sixteen pods, an orca’s basic social unit, a group of five to twenty whales who travel together their entire lives.

In the twenty-five years I’ve spent with wild orcas, they have got- ten to know me as well. They know where I live, the extent of my home range, and the fact that I scurry home when darkness falls. I don’t mean that they demonstrate recognition. For the most part they ignore me, and I like it that way. I came to observe whales being whales, not whales responding to humans. But they are too intelligent an animal not to have learned a few things about the woman following them with the dangling hydrophone.

They must find us an exceedingly strange species. Only two generations ago the human attitude toward orcas was one of aggression and attack. Now we want to love them to death. In the 1970s there was no whale-watching industry to speak of. Now it’s a multimillion-dollar business that threatens the waters of Johnstone Strait with gridlock every summer.

The whales are no longer harmed by our direct actions. But in the last ten years we have become more aware of the indirect actions that, in the long run, may pose just as big a threat to the whales’ existence. Instead of killing them with harpoons and rifles, we are slowly poisoning their habitat and killing off their food supply. Industrial logging desecrates the watersheds that produce the salmon vital to this coast; development dumps more of the noise and chemicals of civilization into their backyard; mismanagement of the commercial catch and the proliferation of corporate salmon farms are combining to snuff out the great wild runs of salmon that sustain the orca pods of the Canadian and American coast.

Every day I continue to watch and listen for killer whales. I hope that I do not have to watch them die out. In the course of spending my adult life recording and describing their behaviors, I’ve seen firsthand that the orca, like any other species, does not exist alone. It requires an entire web of life to sustain its presence. In an age in which hundreds of species may go extinct every day, anyone who studies a wild animal faces the challenge of, in effect, making a case for its life on earth. I pray that mine is strong enough.

Copyright 2002 by Alexandra Morton

Meet the Author

Born and raised in Connecticut, Alexandra Morton began her career in marine mammal research in 1976, when she moved to California to work for noted dolphin researcher, Dr. John C. Lilly. Since 1984 she has lived on the isolated central British Columbia coast, where she studies and records the language and habits of the various pods of orcas that swim the waters there.

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Listening to Whales: What the Orcas Have Taught Us 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'Listening to Whales' is a well written informative novel that takes the reader on a journey to another world. A world in which one hears the sound of orca calls and gurgling waves. Morton's work keeps the readers attention while informing and addressing important issues in the environment. Student, Oklahoma State University
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book changed many of my perceptions of whales and the people that work with them. I don't usually like autobiographies, but this one was entertaining, emotional, and interesting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I never read the book, but I love orcas and that is a little more important than a book. (According to sassy talk, that means way more important.) I am ten years old in fifth grade and have black hair and brown eyes. Be my friend or be my enemy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Listening to Whales is an amazing book if you have been interested in whales, dolphins, or other ocean life. This is an excellent book for people learning about these animals as well as for those that are familiar with the lives and behavior of these animals. If anybody has an interest in living in the wilderness, this book will provide you with information you may never have thought about. Super interesting!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
i havent read the book yet but im pretty sure their going to end up calling orcas/killer whales/blackfish whales at some point. they got the name killer whales from killing whales for food, not because they are whales. blackfish is because they are black but thats not a good name either, because they are white. orcas are acutually he largest member of the dolphin family, not the smallest whales. thank you all for reading
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Alexandria Morton has touched my heart in a breath taking experience. When I read her book i felt like i was right there with her. The descriptions are just...amazing. I can't even find the words to describe her book. This book is great for anyone that has any intrst in whales, dolphons..anything. Mostly whales though. Like me. If you know of any whale books that will help expand my knowledge of whales and marine life, please let me know. Thanks
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Misskatie1024 More than 1 year ago
I read this book in high school. I was in 9th grade and i enjoyed this book very much. I remember some things from the book today. After this book i wanted to be in marine biology. i didnt make it, but i wanted to because of this book. i'm 20 now and i remembered reading this with my teacher and 1 other student. we were the only ones in the class we took so we would go into a corner and read it together. that was a good memory of high school i would love to always remember.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book really touched me. I now know I am not the only girl in the wolrd that loves Orcas , snakes and many other things that I guess most girls don't like. Alexandra Morton really encouraged me to purseu my dream.
Guest More than 1 year ago
i absolutly fell in love with this book after only reading the first 3 pages. it's a book you can really get into. A book you'll have trouble putting down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love orcas so much
Kaitlin Kirsner More than 1 year ago