Whale-watcher keeps language study alive

Posted by on Sep 25, 2012 in Uncategorized

Jean Kavanagh, The Vancouver Sun 28 Sep 1988 (Page B1)

(Winner, BC Newspapers Award Jack Wasserman Prize)

ECHO BAY – As the early morning mist rolls along the silent ocean and light fog lifts off surrounding mountains, a chorus of strange squeaks and squeals fills Alex Morton’s ocean-front home.

Her bedside radio, attached to a nearby hydrophone, signals the whales have arrived.

Gulping coffee and gathering her equipment – cameras, tape recorder and a portable hydrophone that allows her to listen to the whales’ underwater sounds – Morton scurries around her one-room home in anticipation of the day’s work.

For the past four years, Morton, 31, has repeated this routine innumerable times before she heads out to observe the west coast orcas in the reclusive channels surrounding her Gilford Island home, near Queen Charlotte Strait.

In this remote grouping of islands and inlets off the northern coast of Vancouver Island, Morton is an anomoly. Living with just her six-year-old son, Jarret, Morton studies killer whales full-time.

Until two years ago, she worked side-by-side with her husband Robin, a photographer and filmmaker. They lived and worked on their 20-metre motor vessel, the Blue Fjord, travelling throughout Johnston and Queen Charlotte straits in pursuit of the mystical orcas.

They often anchored at the world-renowned Robson Bight, an ecological site where killer whales can be seen rubbing against rocks near the shallow shores. Alex and Robin first met at the whale-rubbing beaches in 1980 – the same spot where tragedy struck on Sept. 16, 1986.

Robin Morton drowned during underwater filming of the whales he and Alex loved and respected.

Just a day before a National Geographic crew was to arrive to film their work, and two days before he was to sign a contract with the National Film Board to produce two films on his beloved whales and the people of this coast, Robin’s breathing apparatus – a rebreather – failed.

Sitting in their inflatable Zodiac with Jarret and listening to the underwater sounds of the giant marine mammals, Alex sensed something was wrong. She dove in and brought her husband’s limp body to the surface but it was too late.

“It was so ironic. Things were finally going so well. He was finally going to make his own film, the National Geographic (was) coming to film us. He was very happy,” Morton sadly remembered from her Echo Bay home. “It took me a long time to be able to see it that way.”

But two years later, Morton is getting on with her life and their work with the graceful black-and-white whales.

She now speaks easily and fondly of her husband. His whale photography adorns the wooden walls of her home and shots of him at work are a constant reminder of her loss.

Morton is the only full-time killer-whale researcher along this idyllic coast. Hers is a longterm study of orca language and communication among pods; it may turn out to be her life’s work.

“In a lot of ways I feel like I’m finally getting to the meat of it. I’m finally in a place that I know, with whales that I know, and now I’m really hoping for some kind of brainstorm that will bring it all together.

“Until I get to that point I’m just going to learn as much as I can about the whales and what they’re doing in this environment, and about their sounds,” she said recently at her home overlooking picturesque Simoom Sound.

Determining just how and what whales communicate to each other is not easy.

“Language is a thing that most of the researchers have steered away from. It is a very big project (and) it doesn’t neatly fit into a (academic) degree,” Morton said, referring to the fact she has yet to earn a PhD.

“I’m working on communication and trying to figure out what is important to them (killer whales), and what they communicate and how they do it.

“I see this as a window into their intelligence, into what they’re thinking. But it’s tough, there are often no clues.”

What has also been tough for Morton throughout the 10 years she has studied killer whales in their natural habitat is getting enough money to fund her work. Unlike other noted B.C. whale researchers, such as Jim Darling, John Ford, Mike
Bigg and Graeme Ellis, Morton doesn’t hold the requisite post-graduate degree to qualify for research grants and fellowships.

And while the Connecticut native places high value on formal graduate work, she doesn’t know if she’ll ever return to the classroom.

Morton has an inter-disciplinary bachelor of science degree in animal behavior, biology, linguistics and oceanography.

She first became entranced with killer whales and their language in 1978 while cataloging dolphin sounds at SeaLand in San Diego, and she hasn’t looked back since.

After Robin’s death, many people – including her Echo Bay neighbors, who helped make her permanent settlement here possible – thought Alex would pull up stakes and head back to the U.S., or at least to Victoria where Robin’s family lives.

It might have been a chance for Morton to embark on her academic dreams, but her attachment to the whales and Robin’s memory here wouldn’t let her go.

Guessing she will “probably” work toward a PhD at some time, Morton said: “When Jarret runs out of school years here I might do it at that point if I feel it’s necessary. But if I leave here now I might miss something crucial with the whales.

“I weigh the two dilemmas in my mind constantly,” she explained.

“For one, Rob left me with all the tools that I need. I met this guy, next thing you know I’m living on a boat and I’m learning to live in this environment and then poof, he’s gone, but I’m still here.

“And if I threw it away now, I would not only be wasting my efforts but I feel this was a gift from Rob to me – this opportunity to be out here, and I don’t want to throw that away either,” Morton said.

Tofino-based researcher Jim Darling, one of the founding members of the WestCoast Whale Research Foundation, said Morton’s longterm field work is “very well-respected.” But he confirmed that those who choose “not to go the mainstream route” run the risk of being shunned in academic circles, a very real fear for the single mother who raises her research funds through lecturing and the sale of a line of whale cards, photographs and calendars.

“I want to be accepted by the scientific community very badly,” she said. “Let’s say I find out something really great and nobody believes me. It will have been a wasted lifetime.”

But Morton’s smiling, tanned face and eager eyes belied the notion of wasted time as she steered her six-metre speedboat around the eight-member “A4 pod” on their travels through Tribune Channel.

With golden Lab Kelsey, her constant whale-watching companion, leaning over the side for the best view, Morton’s excitement spilled into a few hearty “yahoos” upon seeing the pod for the first time this year.