Author makes whales' tale a real winner

Posted: Thursday, February 19, 2004

The beluga whales of Cook Inlet have become a classic case for ecosystem concern.

Over the past generation, counts have plummeted of the area's isolated stock of the charismatic white whales. In the 1990s, their decline ignited a flurry of concern and reaction among regulatory agencies, subsistence hunters and environmentalists.

Now Nancy Lord has written "Beluga Days," a beautiful and disturbing book about the small whales' fate. She weaves the issues of human use and abuse together with science into a suspenseful ecological mystery: Why did these belugas vanish, does their decline hint at ominous threats to ourselves and what if anything can be done to bring them back?

"I had wanted, when I started, to learn everything I could about Cook Inlet's belugas," she writes. "What I'd learned was that most of what was about belugas was really about things other than, or in addition to, belugas."

Lord has written several books of creative nonfiction about Alaska's natural history and short-story collections. Her graceful and thoughtful prose is winning increasing acclaim, including a 2003 Pushcart Prize.

Raised in New Hampshire, she came to Alaska 30 years ago and settled in Homer, where she still lives. Summers, she fished a salmon setnet site on the wild western shore of Cook Inlet. That vantage led her to observe the inlet's belugas. Those observations begin and end her narrative.

Lord's quest to understand belugas led her to such far-flung places as Quebec's Saint Lawrence inlet, Chicago's Shedd Aquarium and the Inupiaq village of Point Lay on the Chukchi Sea.

Although her schooling is in the humanities rather than the sciences, she is a quick study who understands the problem's biological basics. She spoke to researchers about the limitations of their counts and accompanied them on a frustrating attempt to radio-tag animals along the Susitna delta. She transforms scientists' work and data into gripping scenes and fascinating tidbits of information.

Belugas themselves come across as splendid and odd, as we discover them alongside the author. She contrasts their lumpy shapes with their aquatic grace, and conveys our gaps in understanding their habits and intelligence.

"Belugas are thought to have the most sophisticated echolocation system of any whales of any marine mammals to help them maneuver and find food in the dark Arctic waters and the shallow channels that make up their homes," she writes.

Yet this book is as much about people as it is about whales. Lord interviewed biologists, government regulators, Native elders, oil-industry representatives, environmental lawyers and others. She gives us sympathetic and intriguing portraits of individuals from all points of the debate, such as Tyonek leader Peter Merryman, hunter turned environmentalist Joel Blatchford and Girdwood stranding activist Jim Diehl.

She uncovers surprising vig-nettes of the past, when the whales were plentiful. Entrepren-eurs fished them commercially around 1920, and Kenai used to feature a beluga barbecue at its summer town picnic into the 1960s.

Ken Tapp, who now lives in Oklahoma, was then a member of the ephemeral Kenai Beluga Hunt Club. "There were thousands of those doggone things," he told Lord. "I've seen it look like whitecaps. There were tens of thousands. They were as thick as snow geese on the flats."

Now the inlet's belugas are rare, with official counts hovering in the range of 300 to 450 individuals. These concentrate in the upper inlet, where threats from hunters, pollution and stranding seem greatest. The survivors have become political pawns, with different interest groups trying to spin the situation to their advantage.

Much of what Lord learned made her uncomfortable a word she uses several times.

She displays great skill and open mindedness in explaining and navigating this minefield of eco-politics. She lays out each group's case, plus her analysis of its limitations. Her probing includes blunt but tactful looks at such things as scientists' vague findings, environmentalists' exaggerations and Natives' stubborn skepticism about inconvenient facts.

Included are such sensitive topics as Dena'ina (centered in Tyonek) and Eskimo (based with migrants to Anchorage) claims to hunting rights to the faltering stock.

About the only stakeholder she faults is the National Marine Fisheries Service, whose mandate to safeguard the belugas' future seems hopelessly hamstrung by red tape, politics and lack of leadership.

She also expresses dismay at the judges who dismissed the environmentalists' and scientists' case for an official endangered species listing.

"My sympathies were everywhere," she writes. "Everywhere except with whomever maybe the system itself was responsible for the dithering that had led to, and perhaps past, the eleventh hour."

But "Beluga Days" is not a save-the-whales diatribe. The book is even-handed and circumspect. Lord is not sentimental, angry or judgmental. She combines passion for her subject with a rational and accommodating view of human nature. The result conveys substance, concern and credibility.

"Beluga Days" represents the best of contemporary nature writing, with its combination of art, heart and hard science. Lord has created a suspenseful and subtle look at an environmental crisis still unfolding in our corner of the world. This may be her best book yet.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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