What was your best experience in the field covering this story?
The best part of my assignment was simply the pleasure of working with animals with abilities and traditions similar to ours. Working with orcas is a real frontier, so there was the constant joy of discovery. So much of what these animals do challenges all our assumptions about the uniqueness of humans. It's a rare privilege to be able to go out and work with animals at that level, one that blurs the border between anthropology and biology.
In fact, it was so intriguing that I went back to the coast of Alaska last summer and worked for five weeks as a volunteer. Austrian researcher Volker Deecke, who I mentioned in the article, needed another person on the boat for safety reasons and to help with observations. That's all I needed to hear.
What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?
Killer whales live in some lovely places; the scenery around the coast of northern Washington up through Alaska is just spectacular. However, one minute you're in paradise, and then the next minute the ocean takes over. All of a sudden the tides turn and the winds blow up and you're wondering if you're going to make it around the point to a safe anchorage.
One time we were scooting along trying to follow some seals in an area where killer whales were hunting when we heard this terrible whack. We had hit a submerged piece of ice. When you're in a channel with a lot of current and ice floes as big as a house passing by, you don't want the engine to go out. We were on a long lonely fjord and although the danger was not immediately life threatening, we were a long way from help. Fortunately, we had only knocked off part of the propeller, so we were able to get out of there.
What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?
A lot of whale watching is just waiting and hanging out on the boat. One day we saw a great looking jellyfish go by, so photographer Flip Nicklin took a picture of it. Then we went below with him so he could upload the photograph into a computer. While we were downstairs, the biggest male killer whale we had recorded to date came within about five feet (two meters) of our boat. We watched through a window as it leaped so high out of the water that it seemed level with the boat's roof. It may have been warning us that we were approaching several females and young in his family. But Flip missed getting his picture, all on account of the jellyfish.