Unique Alaskan Orcas Slip Toward Extinction
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)