Two pods of the scarcely seen Southern Resident orca population showed up in the waters off Seattle within just a few hours of author Erich Hoyt’s return to the Pacific Northwest for his book tour.
Hoyt knew next to nothing about the iconic whales when he first started studying them in the 1970s, back when they were abundant in the Salish Sea. He says it took several years of coming back every summer before he really started to get a sense of how they live.
“We found every time we went out, they were doing different things. We were just trying to piece it together," Hoyt said. "And then after a few years seeing that these were actually long-term families – pods – you know, getting the larger picture of communities.”
Hoyt is the author of the book, "Orca: The Whale Called Killer," which recently was updated and expanded in a fifth edition. He took a break from a series of speaking events to talk about the book with environment reporter Bellamy Pailthorp.
Hoyt's early work coincided with that of Michael Bigg, who pioneered the photo-identification technique still used to track orca populations here and around the world. It was a time before much was known about orca behavior or intelligence, when most observation was of whales that had been captured and sent to aquariums. Hoyt and others recorded some of the earliest encounters with orcas in the wild.
On using synthesizer sounds to lure orcas for a film shoot: “We had the sense they were acoustic creatures... We knew that there’s echolocation that goes on and there’s some kind of communication. So we thought if we could use a synthesizer that might be a novel way to get their interest.”
He says it worked. Serveral whales responded by echoing his synthesizer. “I nearly fell out of the boat," Hoyt said. "We were all amazed."
But that’s as far as the research went. The whales didn’t approach the boat, because they could hear the sound from miles away. “So, it was an interesting experiment initially, but there wasn’t any place we could really take it.”
On bonding with orcas, especially Stubbs: “I had a lot of close experiences with them – out in small boats – and there was a kind of gentleness about Stubbs,” Hoyt said of the older female, who was named for her stubby dorsal fin, probably caused by a boat strike. But the matriarch was the opposite of shy.
“She was just particularly curious and kind of like a tag along animal that you might have if you make a friend in the wild.
“I suppose you impart mystical things to it – or that it’s a special kind of relationship and if it’s special to you, it becomes special. But, standing back as a scientist, I don’t know how much actual evidence there is. But I was very, very fond of her.”
On why his book has stayed in print all these years: “What other whale researchers have told me – and people who love the book – is that it traces that journey from not knowing anything at all about whales to step-by-step figuring out these things that we know today.
"And it focuses on the habitat issue, in a really sharp way. So, it sort of moves from that era of trying to save whales, to saving their habitat.”
On his outlook for the future of Southern Residents: “I’m always optimistic, I have to be,” Hoyt said. “It’s too tough to be pessimistic.”
But, he says, it will take a major effort – everyone giving everything they have – if the work to save Puget Sound’s resident orcas is to succeed: “It is a fantastic example of what may be possible if it does work out, but there’s every chance it can fail. People will be watching what you do here.”
He says the congested area and skyrocketing population around the Sound stand as a case study from which other areas can learn.
“This is the future," Hoyt said. "And if we can’t work it out here, we’re really going to be in trouble.”
On what would be lost if the Southern Residents go extinct: “We’d lose many, many thousands of years of this lineage of killer whales," Hoyt said. “I think it would take a piece out of an awful lot of people from this region, as well as the people who know them. It’s not something you could really replace.”