Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas
By Eva Saulitis
Beacon Press (Jan. 15, 2013)
Review: Tara Allison
March 13, 2013
Author Eva Saulitis is a biologist who conducts ongoing studies of a group of unique killer whales. She knows them well. She also likes to write, and she does it well. She puts these two interests together in a lyrical style that will appeal to whale lovers and general-interest readers both. She interweaves descriptions of searching for orcas (her preferred word for killer whales) with her innermost thoughts and experiences as she grows from young, naive college graduate to, somewhat unexpectedly, an obsessed orca expert with a talent for speaking from the heart. I became hooked, so to speak, and so will you. I wouldn’t call this an easy read, but stay with it and she’ll pull you into her world.
She identifies her book as “a memoir, a work of contemplation, not science or reportage.” While it is, indeed, a memoir, she includes a lot of what I would call reportage, with extensive passages detailing the sightings and behavior of her main focus: the “AT1 transient population” of killer whales, who prefer to remain in and around Prince William Sound, Alaska, rather than move widely from place to place as other whales do. She’s been studying these orcas for nearly a quarter century. They’re her passion.
But so is writing, and her lovely descriptions of the natural world perched me on boulders for contemplative observation of sea lions, walked me along heat-drenched beaches and through blueberry thickets and onto her skiff to listen to the haunting calls of her favorite orcas.
Saulitis also pulled me into the tragedy of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, as she stared in horror at once-pristine water covered in an oil slick so wide and persistent that the war against it is still being waged 24 years later. The fouled waters have killed hundreds of thousands of birds, fish and other wildlife. And, of course, the orcas didn’t go untouched. Of the precious small original group of 22 AT1 orcas, just seven remain, and Saulitis writes soulfully about their loss. The death of one, in particular, is especially sad.
By the end of the book we’ve learned quite a lot about orcas, of course. But we also learn the author’s story: her fears, anxieties, triumphs, worries and joys. She tells it with a frank matter-of-factness that doesn’t overwhelm the story of the whales, and I appreciated the fine line between the two.
If you’re interested in killer whales and a woman who has dedicated her life to them, this lyrical book will resonate with you. And if you finish it without grieving for the AT1 orcas, well, this wasn’t the book for you.