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Alexandra Morton learns from listening to whales. It is surprising to think that only a few decades ago, no one had studied, much less made commercial recordings of, the voices of whales. Some, like the eccentric researcher John C. Lilly, had made much of the vocalizations of dolphins, but we knew a lot more about the animals who sang in the air where we could hear them. Morton has written about her scientific career in _Listening to Whales: What the Orcas Have Taught Us_ (Ballantine Books). There is a good deal of scientific information in it, often understated and certainly not with the sort of detail Morton must use in her papers. She can specify that orcas do not use a single sound to match a single behavior, for instance; it is the frequency of the sound that makes a difference, signaling tranquility or the need for a pod to change direction. Resident orcas, near the shore, could be vocal and splashy, because the fish on which they feed have not learned to listen for them. Transient orcas, traveling the seas and living on alert mammals that pay attention to sounds of danger, have evolved to be quieter and more stealthy.
There's plenty of general science in the book, about how orcas fish, mate, socialize, and raise families. But Morton's volume is one in a series of an appealing subgenre of memoir, that of the woman scientist. She was a high school dropout because she wanted to do research on mice more than doing regular studies. She chanced upon a job with maverick dolphin investigator, John C. Lilly, and then went on to do sound studies on orcas in tanks at Marineland. In 1979, she began to listen to orcas in the wild, using hydrophones originally developed to track submarines. At that time, orcas were a mystery; how they socialized, where they wintered, even what they ate could only be guessed at. Morton helped provide her share of answers, especially those bearing on their language. She married a man who photographed orcas underwater; he was eyes and she was ears. They had a son, and some of Morton's most endearing words have to do with how, in an extreme environment and with research duties looming, she handled little Jarret. She had to deal with widowhood, and primitive conditions in a wild area, but she loved the work. Sadly, her whales were driven away from her home waters because of salmon farming, which Morton covers in the last part of a the book. Not only the whales have suffered.
Morton is not a pessimist. Her book shines with hope for her whales and her planet, but she makes it clear that we are going to make mistakes in predicting how we can "control" nature. She has become an ecological advocate for her home territory, learning such useful techniques as bypassing local government and talking (via Internet) to an expert she can partner with to do research on the respective individual effects of salmon farming on her world. Her findings are getting easily published this way without delay or grant-seeking. She is making a difference; it isn't known if it will be enough. Her book is a wonderful examination of a life she has lived on her own terms, and lived well. It is easy to catch her enthusiasm, and this would be a wonderful book for a young person interested in science.
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on November 30, 2005
'Listening to Whales' was a touching story of how a women's life was enchanted through her passion for marine life. We follow the author, Alexandra Morton, through her life and career- which often go hand in hand- as she evolved as a marine scientist and a woman devoted to her love: the orcas. We are taken from her first job as an acoustics expert in Marineland to her more profound passion which is to examine the killer whales in their natural habitat; the open ocean. This book was not only captivating, but as I read through it I learned so many fun facts about orcas and dolphins and the life of a marine enthusiast.

My favorite aspect of the book was the way she explained how her extreme passion for orcas came to be. I loved learning about how her love for marine life evolved from her love of frogs and grew from there. I find it so fascinating that as a small child something like loving frogs has evolved for decades and turned into her fulltime career. It proved how dedicated she has been to her work for so long and how there is constantly so much more to learn. I loved how she dedicated her young life to follow her dream, and this story showed how far you can come if you are persistent and dedicated.

There wasn't any specific part of the book I didn't like. It was a story of this brilliant woman's dreams and stories, I don't think anyone is to say there was something wrong with it; it's an unedited, unchangeable story of her life. I think she had a good balance of her life-stories and experiences and her knowledge and history of her life with the whales. I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in marine life or anyone who has a passion that they want to persue. It's a very inspiring story, which makes the book good for almost anyone.
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on May 10, 2005
This book is captivating and engaging. There were times I couldn't put it down. I purchased this book because my 7-year old daughter is very interested in whales. After reading particular sections of the book, I would tell her the whale-stories inside (such as the differences between the three kinds of orca groups: resident, transient, and off-shores) Together we learned a lot. I expect to return to this book several times over the next few years to read its stories and re-evaluate its contents. It has certainly become the launching pad for further exploration about orca whales.

Although I quite enjoyed this book and strongly recommend it, I found myself wanting more scientific information than was provided. I would like to know more about the sounds of whales and communication techniques. Nevertheless, this book is part autobiography and part adventure. Ms. Morton has done much to shed light on just how far we have come in researching whales and other sea creatures. I really appreciated the acknowledgement of her mixed feelings about researching captive whales, where she personally benefited in her own research, and the necessity to keep these truly awesome creatures in the wild with their family pods. After reading this book, I realize just how important it is to NOT keep orca in pens for public enjoyment and entertainment. I also appreciated her views on conservation, and found her information on fish farms to be very insightful.

Overall, I found myself becoming much more emotionally involved with this book than I would like to admit. A very good read.
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on June 7, 2011
To experience this book is like hearing the blood pump throuth Alexandra Morton's veins. She IS the words embodied here. If you've ever wondered what it is to really feel a part of Nature's wide family, read this book. If you've ever wondered what it might be like to live in the sea and view the sun through the lens of the water, read this book. If you've ever wondered what joy there might be to call at night to your clan and have them gather 'round you with chirps and whistles and maybe even love, read this book.

Alexandra Morton knows Orcas, and I'm wagering they know her too. Her story is charged with ecstasy, adventure, tragedy and poignancy. You can get the plot from everyone else. What I'm telling you is that this story will enthrall you. You may even be changed by it. Now THAT's worth a read.
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on May 13, 2002
This is the autobiography (so far) of whale researcher Alexandra Morton who came to the remote Broughton Archipelago in 1984 to study orcas and was herself woven by nature into the warp and woof of that amazing place. While telling a fascinating story the book imparts a great deal of knowledge in so painless a manner that we hardly notice. We learn, for example, that there are three kinds of orcas: "residents," who eat mostly fish; "transients" who eat mostly seals and sea lions; and "offshores" who--nobody knows for sure--may well eat mostly sharks. Though whales, both captive and free, are the stars of this story, the real star is the Broughton itself with its myriad islands and channels, its sunny summer breezes and howling winter storms. With so few people living in the Broughton, the BC government pillages its islands with clearcuts, and both levels of government cooperate to pollute its waters with open netcage salmon farms. Courageous residents fight a running battle to protect the wild coast and wild fish they love from the blindness of bureaucrats and the greed of multinational corporations. This wonderful story, which is all true, will make you cry for the ocean, and at the same time renew your hope in the power of courageous people to change the world. If you have a kayak, go and paddle through the Broughton that Alexandra and her friends are fighting to save for us. You might even be able to help.
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on March 3, 2015
This is a personal biography as much as it is a book about killer whales. It tells the life story of a researcher trying to decipher the complex sonic language of these magical beasts but in the process the author connects us to these beasts in a very personal emotional way. I was very touched by descriptions of the plight of these magnificent, highly social, intelligent beasts confined in small pools at marine parks. The book moves from research done at these parks to the straits of Georgia where the author relocates to study the whales in their native habitat. From this vantage point the ecological disaster of the salmon fish farms is described that will persuade you to never buy farmed fish. If you are interested in learning more about the social life and the communications of killer whales in a book that is a good read then this one is for you
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on April 7, 2003
I am very moved by the love, the courage and the discipline of Alexandra Morton. She is a paragon of free spirits, living out the dream many of us only fantasize but dare not pursue--living on a boat to follow the whales on waves. Not only she portrays the fascinating orcas with delightful insights, she also writes about her later romance and boat-life with her documentary husband Robin and their baby on the boat. It's beautiful and loving account, which makes his later accident even more sorrowful and tragic, not just for her but for all of us and whales too. From this book you will be absorbed by the orcas' ways of communication and intelligence, as well as the life on the Vancouver waters and islands. After you read this book, you will look at those captured dolphines and whales and Seaworld or zoos very differently. Alexandra writes with clarity and love.
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on November 26, 2015
Mrs. Morton describes in infinite detail her life exploring and researching the orcas of the Canadian northwest. This is an autobiography of her life, her experiences, and her research. Very interesting, at times heartbreaking, and ending as uplifting and hopeful. I highly recommend this book!
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on December 11, 2003
Alexandra Morton writes with both her head and her heart. I read about her in a magazine and checked her book out from the library. I have purchased 5 copies to give at Christmas, knowing without a doubt that each recipient will love her story and appreciate what they will have learned. Well written with scientific knowledge embedded in a wonderful life story.
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on November 28, 2005
Listening to Whales is a wonderful story of a woman's life in the wild and the beautiful creatures she has devoted her life to. This auto-biography of the life of Alex Morten follows her journey through studying dolphin noises to captive dolphins to captive orcas and finally spending 25 years in the wilderness off the western coast of Canada studying killer whales in the wild. This story is so powerful and definitely shows us how important and intelligent these creatures are. Aside from retelling the moving story of how the whales thrived in those empty waters to completely leaving the same land with the coming of fish farms, this novel teaches the reader so much about this whale species, their culture and their environment. This is a must read for anyone interested in the preservation of the once pristine waters that are home to the killer whales and other marine animals--such as dolphins, porpoises, salmon, seals and otters--and for anyone who finds these beautiful and smart animals at all intriguing. Morton will make any reader fall in love with orcas as she takes the readers out on the waters in her boat, watching the whales live, play, love, and die. The end of the novel becomes more of a commentary on the industries--fish farming in particular--that destroy natural ecosystems. Morton leaves the touching story of her whales as they leave the once peaceful waters near her home, and throws a lot of political jargon at the reader. Though what she has to say is quite shocking, and definitely will leave the reader understanding the terrible effects of such an industry, the constant barrage of numbers and statistics that Morton uses to get her point across can become quite tiresome. However, it makes the final beautiful pages of this novel all the more emotionally touching. This book is amazing, and will definitely leave any reader feeling the same love that Morton does towards killer whales.
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