No child starts life as an environmental reporter, but Lynda Mapes’ early years in New York’s Westchester County exerted a pull. “All my life, I’ve been enthralled by how nature works,” she said. “I grew up on seven acres with a frog pond, and my mom spoke those magic words to me: ‘Go outside and play.'”
Mapes did. And her new book, Orca: Shared Waters, Shared Home, demonstrates why she and her team have won national and international science journalism awards, most recently for the Seattle Times series on which this book is based.
Beginning her journalistic career in police reporting (in Maryland, 1985), Mapes later moved to the courts — “great training for environmental work.” Then in 1992, Mapes took a job with the Seattle Times, where she has remained. Assigned to tribal issues, she found herself covering the environmental challenges faced by salmon.
But Orca is more than “coverage.”
“The story really began in crisis,” Mapes explained. She sketched out the gut-wrenching story of Tahlequah (J35), the mother orca who in 2018 carried her dead baby around for 17 days, refusing to let its body go. “Tahlequah was doing something no one had ever seen happen before … day after day after day,” Mapes said. Orcas were listed as endangered in 2005, but people are used to such listings. Tahlequah, Mapes said, “was a mother who happened to be a whale. She transformed the story.”
The Seattle Times published daily accounts of the unfolding tragedy. By the 17th day, over six million people were following Tahlequah’s story. With the (unsuccessful) effort to save young Scarlet (J50) from wasting away that same summer, Mapes explained, “there was this shocked feeling of, ‘Oh my god, what has gone so wrong in the Salish Sea?’ ”
Orcas are the key
Orcas, Mapes came to understand, are “the key to what’s going on in this place. They’re our signature. If the whales can’t survive, what does that say about us — our impact and our choices?”
To capture that impact, Mapes allowed her poetic senses free rein — from the shining pink spots of netted fish to the stench of little J50’s breath as she starved. “The beauty of the Salish Sea is so present,” Mapes said. “I’m tutored by the place.” Describing the marine wonders her research offered elicits the word “magical.”
But also unbearable. Men who, 50 years ago, captured wild whales to sell to aquariums described the tormented cries of families ripped apart. “Some of those guys said they could never get that sound out of their mind,” she said; one confessed it haunted him more than what he’d witnessed in Vietnam.
Part of the crisis, Mapes thinks, is that people see salmon and orcas as a coastal issue, or even “an Indian thing,” rather than acknowledging Canada to California as part of their habitat web. She recalled a waitress in Sacramento shrugging, ” ‘I don’t get cable, so I don’t know anything about orcas’ — not realizing that the Sacramento River is second only to the Columbia in salmon production!” Mapes’ laugh dies away. “We need to make sure we never get to that place, where we’ve forgotten that every river is a salmon river.”
A surprising epiphany: hope
Given the dire challenges her book details, Mapes’ surprising epiphany in writing Orca was hope. “I actually came out feeling way more empowered than I did going in.” How so, after researching every awful obstacle, from noise pollution to asphyxiated rivers? “Because we know what to do; we’ve seen it done,” Mapes averred. “Fix the habitat, damn it; keep the water cool and clean.” She referenced her book’s sections on dam removal, and the recovery of the Northern Resident orcas in Canada. “If you have more salmon, you’re going to have more orcas. I became very uplifted by that fact.”
But hope means work, and Mapes is passionate that Northwesterners need to put their tax money where their sentiments are. She can list dozens of examples of “hydrotrash” blocking salmon everywhere: derelict dams, dykes, seawalls. “They’re crap. Just no one’s doing anything about them.” All we need, she argues, is political will “to spend the money to preserve the things we say we love. This is a wealthy area. How about a dedicated fund to pay for all this removal, so salmon don’t have to compete with public health and K-12 education? Or a salmon/orca initiative, paid for by a tax on vacation homes …?”
Mapes credits the legislature for funding some projects, like the impressively effective Elwha Dam removal, but says it’s not enough. “People need to insist to their representatives that that’s what they want: for this place to look and feel and be like the Northwest, for their grandchildren.”
The crisis that produced Tahlequah’s soul-shaking grief is an opportunity, Mapes believes. “What the salmon need — that’s what we need too! We need to return to the home that we say we want to live in.” Like that frog pond of her youth? Exactly, Mapes said. “It wouldn’t have been any fun if there hadn’t been any frogs in it.”
On Saturday, Sept. 18, at 2 p.m., Mapes will speak at Lopez Island Library. Pre-registration is online for the free event.