Changing Planet

Unique Alaskan Orcas Slip Toward Extinction


 Transient Alaskan orcas like Eyak and his family  are the world’s most contaminated animals.            Photo: Eva Saulitis

The other day, in Homer, Alaska, a group of volunteers carried the rearticulated skeleton of a gray whale on their shoulders to its new home at the Pratt Museum. On their shoulders they carried both the bones and the space between them, the untold, unknowable biography of that animal.

The Pratt museum’s permanent collection includes innumerable animal bones, skeletons and fossils, as well works of art inspired by bones. It houses, as well, an exhibit related to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the echoes we detect even today, in the form of still-struggling animal, human and bird populations, traumatic memories, and oil buried in nearshore sediments, unearthed (and ingested) by foraging sea otters.

Eyak's skeleton may be seen in the Cordova Alaska Cultural Centere. Photo: The Prince William Sound Science Center

One spill-echoing artwork, a ceramic wall-mounted sculpture called “Eyak’s Jaw,” was made in remembrance of the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Within a rich bed of intertidal life forms – sea start, kelps, and urchins, a viewer glimpses the jawbone and conical teeth of an orca. The actual jawbone of the male orca named Eyak, a member of an endangered orca population called the Chugach, or AT1, transients, is suspended, along with his rearticulated skeleton, above the foyer of the Eyak Cultural Center, in Cordova, Alaska, Eyak also being the name of a distinct language and cultural group of human beings living off the bounty of the Copper River Delta. The Chugach transients occupy the narrowest of ranges known for orcas: a body of water called Blying Sound, bounded by the Copper River Delta to the east, and the western end of the Kenai Fjords. Contrary to what the name “transient” suggests, the Chugach transients occupy this area year-round. Like other transients, the Chugach are meat-eaters, subsisting primarily on harbor seals and Dalls and harbor porpoises.

Other orcas frequent these waters: residents (fish-eaters) in larger, gregarious maternally-structured pods; offshores (shark-eaters) dipping inshore only rarely to feed on the enormous, fatty livers of Pacific sleeper sharks; and roving Gulf of Alaska transients, combing the shorelines across a thousand-mile range for marine mammal prey. Though they encounter, and certainly hear, one another, with these other populations, the Chugach transients do not interact. They are genetically and acoustically distinct. Why? It’s one of the mysteries. Perhaps they evolved “on a different day,” for a different world, relatively small populations of apex predators robust in an abundant, unpolluted ocean, each occupying a unique niche.

But that is not the world in which the Chugach transients find themselves today. As of this writing, only seven remain on earth. Those (along with other transient orcas) are among the most contaminated creatures known to science, bearing in their blubber dangerous levels of PCBs, DDTs, and flame-retardants. The male named Eyak survived the oil spill, but 11 of 22 Chugach transients did not, succumbing, we believe, to physiological damage caused by breathing hydrocarbons and ingesting oil-coated seals.

Bones are potent symbols of what we cannot know, can only surmise, of the actual day-to-day life of a creature. An orca is no representative of its kind; it is an individual, with a personality, predilictions, a particular voice.

Eyak was a roamer, a sometimes loner, who also maintained a lifelong bond with another male named Eccles. Transients like Eyak are mostly silent, relying on passive acoustics – listening – to locate wary prey like harbor seals. Sound reaches an orca through the fatty channels in the jawbone. And yet, transient orcas are capable of producing complex and haunting sounds, sounds that can carry miles to locate or announce themselves to others of their kind. The Chugach transient population communicates in a language – a dialect – unlike any other. They share no calls with other orca populations who inhabit their range.

So when the last Chugach transients pass from this earth, their language will disappear with them. Eyak’s jawbone, the actual and the artistically rendered, thus speaks to us from out of its great silence. We might also think of it as listening for our response. It reminds us of the fragility of life on our planet – that of other beings who share it with us – and our own. We are not representatives of our kind, but individuals, with stories to live and tell and pass on.

What story will we leave behind of our human tenure on earth? Eyak’s bones are what poet W.S. Merwin called: “a single irreducible warning.” They are also a reminder of our responsibilities, our interdependence, our common fate.

(a special thanks to Eva Saulitis for   the text above  and Craig Matkin, dedicated researchers whose perseverance  allows them to  know more about these animals than anyone on earth. We owe them a debt of gratitude for bringing these animals to the world’s attention. Learn more about orca in her excellent  book  at http://www.beacon.org/productdetails.cfm?PC=2284)

He has more than 40 years experience as a wilderness guide, interpretive naturalist and bush pilot flying the wilds of Alaska. He’s a Master Guide, licensed Coast Guard Captain with strong expertise in marine biology. He is an elected member of the Explorer’s Club and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and is a Nationally Certified Yoga Teacher. He was the first Alaskan to serve on the Smithsonian National Board, a Trustee for The Nature Conservancy and Wilderness Foundation board member. He was awarded a Legislative Citation for Practical Activism. He was an Advisory Board member and pilot for Lighthawk, “Volunteer Pilots Flying for Conservation in America” and a founding patron of Bateleurs, “Volunteer Pilots Flying for Conservation in Africa” and is an elected member of the Africa Game Rangers Association. His Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge won a score of international awards and is listed in the NY Times Best Seller “1000 Places To See Before You Die” . Web site: alaskawildernesslodge.com
His new book The Last Wilderness-Alaska’s Wild Coast is available at Fulcrum Publishing, Golden Colorado

  • Shannon M

    Good when they die off we can drill without bleeding hearts crying.

  • Shannon M

    Good when they die off we can drill without bleeding hearts crying.

  • Joe Allen

    Thank you for the article. I was in PWS when the spill happened. I watched Sea Otters and other marine life die. I watched these guys up close for a couple of years. Too many people think it is over and done with. The effects of it are on going. To this day on Knight Island you can dig down 1 ft in places and come up with a cupped palm of oil from the spill. We blew it on the spill… Lets not let the Tsunami debris be another example of us blowing it!!!

  • Joe Allen

    Thank you for the article. I was in PWS when the spill happened. I watched Sea Otters and other marine life die. I watched these guys up close for a couple of years. Too many people think it is over and done with. The effects of it are on going. To this day on Knight Island you can dig down 1 ft in places and come up with a cupped palm of oil from the spill. We blew it on the spill… Lets not let the Tsunami debris be another example of us blowing it!!!

  • James Hunt

    Thank you

  • James Hunt

    Thank you

  • Alexis R

    You can read all about these whales in Eva Saulitis’s new book, Into Great Silence. http://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2013/01/into-great-silence.html
    Hopefully learning about the natural world will help keep people from being as dismissive of it as Shannon M.

  • Alexis R

    You can read all about these whales in Eva Saulitis’s new book, Into Great Silence. http://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2013/01/into-great-silence.html
    Hopefully learning about the natural world will help keep people from being as dismissive of it as Shannon M.

  • Jessie B

    I highly recommend Eva Saulitis’s new book on the orcas, “Into Great Silence.”

  • Manda M

    Thank you for the article. Shannon M, what a disgusting thing to say. I really hope you’re joking.

  • Manda M

    Thank you for the article. Shannon M, what a disgusting thing to say. I really hope you’re joking.

  • John

    @ Shannon M – sure ,destroy the planet and all it’s creatures so you can have some more oil. We need to depend even less on fossil fuels and more on solar and wind energy.

  • John

    @ Shannon M – sure ,destroy the planet and all it’s creatures so you can have some more oil. We need to depend even less on fossil fuels and more on solar and wind energy.

  • Larry R

    Thanks for posting this info Michael. It always great to hear of folks in other parts of the universe that are concerned about these special creatures of the Oceans.

  • Larry R

    Thanks for posting this info Michael. It always great to hear of folks in other parts of the universe that are concerned about these special creatures of the Oceans.

  • ThomasTorrisi

    I think we should prevent it from getting any worse
    then it is right now before it happens again catch it far in advance please

  • ThomasTorrisi

    I think we should prevent it from getting any worse
    then it is right now before it happens again catch it far in advance please

  • Amanda B

    Article should be corrected to include specifically Prince William Sound as a location, as that is where they are primarily found and where the Exxon Valdez ran aground.

  • Amanda B

    Article should be corrected to include specifically Prince William Sound as a location, as that is where they are primarily found and where the Exxon Valdez ran aground.

  • Shannon McBride-Morin

    The earlier ugly comment was of course NOT posted by me. What an awful and untrue thing to say! I can not imagine who would put this in under my name. I am 100% of the opposing view. The internet can be a strange place – I am afraid this is Identity Theft in the comment section. Wonder who or why? – From the Real Shannon in Homer who cares deeply about these Orca.

  • Shannon McBride-Morin

    The earlier ugly comment was of course NOT posted by me. What an awful and untrue thing to say! I can not imagine who would put this in under my name. I am 100% of the opposing view. The internet can be a strange place – I am afraid this is Identity Theft in the comment section. Wonder who or why? – From the Real Shannon in Homer who cares deeply about these Orca.

  • Tanvi

    Great Information!!! =)

  • Tanvi

    Great Information!!! =)

  • Tammy S.

    Could we introduce (slowly) a captive female who can breed into the pod? We could save an Orca from a marine park and possible save the Chugach from extinction.

  • Tammy S.

    Could we introduce (slowly) a captive female who can breed into the pod? We could save an Orca from a marine park and possible save the Chugach from extinction.

  • Jen

    This is quite unfortunate; I find myself wondering what it will be like for the last orca.

  • Jen

    This is quite unfortunate; I find myself wondering what it will be like for the last orca.

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