Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book Review: Of Orcas and Men

Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us

David Neiwert
Overlook Press, NY, 2015

This is a very good book on the history and effects of orca-human interaction, from ancient Native American stories to the slaughters of the 20th century and the turn toward conservation in the 21st.  Seattle journalist Neiwert has spent a great deal of time with scientists studying orcas, and he gives us a lot of facts in the course of a compelling narrative.  He doesn't  try to provide every known detail: there are other books for that, such as Robin Baird's classic Killer Whales of the World.  (Interestingly, Neiwert uses the name "orca" throughout, although scientists are more and more going back to the old "killer whale.")   
Neiwert admires the animals and considers things like personhood, but he nearly always avoids  slipping into Jon Lilly-type woolly-mindedness (he does at one point refer to orcas' "fantastic sixth sense," but that's a quibble.). I learned a lot from this book I didn't know, especially about release efforts and proposals. (Some involve Miami Seaquarium's Lolita, an animal I saw in the mid-70s but didn't realize until recently had been in that little tank alone for so many years and was still there.) The sad saga of Willy/Keiko is here, too.  
Neiwert considers orcas and the media, including the effect of movies such as the positive Free Willy (not the remake) and the stunningly awful thriller Orca.  (He missed a family film I liked as a kid, Namu the Killer Whale, a very pro-orca film.) He spends a lot of time on the continuing global impact of the documentary Blackfish.  (To be fair, the marine park industry challenged the accuracy of Blackfish, and their arguments should at least be acknowledged, but Neiwert does mention the genuineness of the affection between orcas and their keepers even as he argues passionately for an end to captivity.)  The issues concerning the environment and ecology, especially as they affect his favorite orcas, the Southern Resident pod, are covered in depth.  
I would have liked more photos and some illustrations of the whale-studying gear he often discusses, but the author achieves his purpose: to make us think more about orcas and how we can protect them.  An excellent addition to the literature on Earth's apex predator.

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