Seattle author David Neiwert’s new book “Of Orcas and Men” edifies and fascinates in its examination of killer whales, their natural history and their role as an indicator species in our environment. Neiwert will discuss his book Tuesday, June 30, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
As recently as the 1970s, profiteers roamed Puget Sound capturing killer whales by the dozens for display and entertainment at marine parks in the Northwest, California and Florida. Since then, opinions and ethics have radically shifted about such practices, and orcas are now well protected, but their home waters are threatened by pollution, and their ability to thrive is still very much in doubt.
David Neiwert’s “Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us” (Overlook, 320 pp., $27.95) chronicles the sagas and science of these remarkable animals, a subspecies of which is listed as endangered. Neiwert is a Seattle investigative reporter who has written books on such eclectic topics as vigilante outlaws on the U.S.-Mexico border and Japanese American history in Bellevue.
“Of Orcas” edifies and fascinates in many ways. The author’s research includes personal observations, news accounts, movies and interviews with scientists, advocates, environmentalists, caretakers and operators of whale-watching tours.
The author of “Of Orcas and Men” will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 30, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
Orcas have been swimming here on Earth for 6 million years in virtually the same form that they have now. They have inspired human reverence reaching back a thousand years in the Pacific Northwest, where native peoples created myths and iconic images of the orca. More recently, movies (such as “Free Willy”), books and news stories have spawned a renewed interest, including a burgeoning movement to protect and preserve the species.
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Why all the attention? They are physically impressive specimens — huge, sleek and graceful. They are also highly intelligent. Orcas, writes Neiwert, “…challenge the longstanding belief that humans are the planet’s only intelligent occupants.” Orcas have big brains, including a highly developed insular cortex, the part of the brain associated with self-awareness. In addition to our five senses, orcas have a sophisticated sixth sense — echolocation, an underwater sonar that enables them to navigate and communicate from long distances.
What’s more, researchers have discovered that there are several subspecies of orcas. The most common in the North Pacific, including Puget Sound and Alaska, are Resident Killer Whales, which eat salmon and swim in pods of five to 12 whales. Bigg’s Killer Whales, located in the same general area, feast on seals and sea lions and travel in small pods of three to five. The two subspecies show different patterns of communication and relate very little with each other.
The boom to capture and display orcas peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, generating millions of dollars in profit for marine park owners. As research on killer whales progressed, so did public awareness and pressure to stop the roundups. In 1976, Washington state and Canada declared Puget Sound a sanctuary for orcas, banning their capture.
Neiwert presents as compelling a case for environmental action as I’ve ever read. Because they are at the top of the food chain, orcas are “one of the real indicator species for the overall health” of the water and entire ecosystem. The decline of salmon in the Puget Sound and the Columbia River (because of upstream dams) threatens the fish-eating orca. And research shows that killer whales are among the most contaminated of all marine mammals, with toxins in their bodies from pollutants such as engine fuel, paint and many other products. An oil spill here would be devastating to orcas.
In answer to the book’s subtitle — what we might learn from orcas — killer whales model cooperation and working together without hostility and violence. We would also learn again how interconnected are the worlds of humans and animals, and of air, land and water.