Ohio farm girl in love with whales (and owls) speaks at Village Books

Naturalist and writer Leigh Calvez, author of the New York Times- and Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association-bestselling “The Hidden Lives of Owls,” reads from her new book, “The Breath of a Whale,” at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 30, at Village Books, 1200 11th St. She distills a dozen years of research and observation into five chapters, each on a different Pacific Ocean whale. She tells the story of orcas, blue whales, humpbacks, the elusive deep-diving beaked whales, and false killer whales through the work of dedicated researchers who have spent decades tracking them along their secretive routes that extend for thousands of miles, gleaning their habits and sounds and distinguishing peculiarities.
Here’s her story:
“I remember as a child, lying on the couch with my dad watching episode after episode of ‘Jacques Cousteau.’ Since then, the ocean and all its creatures has held special fascination for me. When I saw my first whale in 1992, I was still living in Ohio. It took me three months to tell anyone that I wanted to study whales for fear they would think I was nuts! But when my husband-at-the-time got transferred to New England, I volunteered for the first internship I could find. I soaked up all the information I could about whales and their world by listening to the naturalists on the whale watch boats. I fell in love with the whales!”
When I asked her thoughts about the U.S. Navy off Whidbey Island for research on marine mammals and the differences between hydrophones and sonar, she said “Hydrophones are passive listening devices that are usually used to listen to and track the movements of whales. The Navy uses hydrophones to track enemy submarines. Hydrophones do not disturb the whales in any way.”
“Sonar is an active technology that puts out a sound and gets a signal back. Whales use a natural type of sonar, echolocation, to find food. Sonar has different frequencies and levels of sound. Loud low and mid-frequency sonars can cause disturbance and death in whales and other sea creatures. As far as I know, the navy is using hydrophones to listen for whales off Whidbey. Several years ago the navy “unintentionally” blasted the Southern Resident j-pod with mid-frequency sonar. The incident was shown on the evening news, It was painful to watch.”
I wondered how her life as a scientist differs from herr interest in the metaphysics of whales.
“I’m not sure that it does,” she says.
“For me science and spirit are not mutually exclusive. It’s like the two are on different levels. I can study a whale to see how it will react to sound, for instance, but that does not interfere with my belief that they are an intelligent species that wants to help us evolve. I think we are coming to a time when we will be able to test some of our metaphysical beliefs using scientific methods, like Rupert Sheldrake tests his theories of morphic resonance, which seems a bit spiritual to me because he’s talking about a force we field we cannot directly measure. I did, however, keep my metaphysical beliefs about whales to myself for the most part. In many scientific circles, spiritual beliefs are frowned upon.”
I asked if there is any connection between her love of whales and her love of owls.
“Yes, definitely,” she says.
“I have a love for all nature—the animals, the land, the oceans. It’s my love of Mother Earth that inspires me to write.”
I wanted to know how she felt about whale-watching tours in Puget Sound.
“I’m all for it,” she says, “as long as it is done responsibly and respectfully. Most of the whale-watching boats are very good at watching whales the right way. As far as watching the southern residents, I’m all for giving them a break. They don’t spend as much time around the San Juans as they used to, so whale watch operators are having to look for other whales anyway. There are many different kinds of whales to watch in Puget Sound now, including humpbacks, grays, minke, transient killer whales and porpoises. I think it’s important for people to see whales in the wild. I believe that what we love we will protect. Seeing wild whales helps people fall in love with them!”