Listening to the Whales
She was the 12-year-old loitering all day at the killer whale tank at SeaWorld. Dolphins were cool, but killer whales—also known as orcas—were better. “They’re more than three times bigger, they have distinctive black-and-white markings, and they’re much more charismatic,” explains Monika Wieland ‘07. When the theme park staff asked tourists questions about orcas, young Monika happily answered. And when she got her first view of killer whales in their natural surroundings during a family trip to Alaska, she says, “there was no going back to SeaWorld!”
Posters of the sleek mammals (actually, they’re not whales, but a variety of dolphin) appeared on Wieland’s bedroom wall, next to ice hockey pin-ups. Now, at age 22, she has completed a biology thesis on the orcas’ famously enigmatic communication. She also has published a book and a calendar of orca photographs, both works filled with luscious killer whale images: sunlight glinting off smooth orca bodies; backs arched and ocean spray highlighting their lunges for prey; shots of the graceful formations of their communal swims with their adorable babies.
It’s a lot to put on a resume, at least for a graduate of such recent vintage. “Monika is a most amazing student, her thesis was outstanding, and we are making plans to try to publish some of her work,” says assistant professor of biology Suzy Renn. “On top of her skills as a scientist, she’s a great photographer.”
Wieland learned her wildlife stalking habits from her father, a software engineer, who often took her bird watching. Her mother, a glass bead artist, has accompanied her every summer since 2000—when Wieland was 15—to the quaint town of Friday Harbor on San Juan Island just north of Puget Sound. It’s the world capital of killer whale watching and research, and accessible only by ferry (in fact, the next stop on the boat is Canada). The family eventually pitched in and got a houseboat in Friday Harbor so Wieland could pursue her research with minimal distraction.
As she drops in at the tiny observation center in the minuscule Lime Kiln Point lighthouse, Wieland discusses the day’s audio recordings of three orca pods. Each is a community of orcas with its own dialect; the holy grail of orca research is to break the code in the vocal data. There are 25 to 27 discrete call types, each defined by its tonal patterns. Some sound like whistles or grunts, others like sustained squeaks from a rubber squeeze toy. Studying the acoustics of the orca language was the basis of Wieland’s senior thesis, and something she’s been working on since science fairs back in high school.
Outside the lighthouse, a gaggle of tourists sit on rocks, practicing the patient art of waiting for an orca sighting. Wieland knows some of them from her job as a whale watching guide—now she gets paid to answer the same questions she fielded when she was a kid hanging out at SeaWorld. She hasn’t gotten tired of the drill: “I get such joy out of educating people and watching them see the whales for the first time,” she says. “Every time I see the whales myself I’m just as excited as the first time.”
—L.D. Kirshenbaum ’84