An orca and a silent computer screen
May 28, 2020
I looked into my computer screen, saw that it listed 52 participants in the online class meeting, and started to talk.
“Ok. Time to get started. I hope everybody is staying safe and well in this crazy and challenging time. I thought I would start this lecture with a story.”
“A few years ago or so, I was fishing for halibut with my family—parents, wife, and little daughter—in coastal SE Alaska. It was a slack-high tide, with no wind, and so we just drifted in our boat on the liquid-metal water, lines disappearing into 200 feet of dark water. And then . . . .far away . . .we saw it. It was a sharp black fin and small misty spout. It surfaced again, closer, but still perhaps a km away. Again. It got closer, the fin looked bigger. We reeled up our lines and stood quietly, waiting.
And then there was a bulge of water 20 feet from the boat. The glassy push of water got bigger, and then the fin sliced up with a soft hissing sound, rising up out of the water until it was the height of my wife. “Pwhooof”, as it took one powerful breath to fill its hot-blooded lungs. And then it arced down again, back down to its watery home. We looked down over the gunnels into the water, as the black and white slid underneath our boat. The graceful power and speed was shocking. And then it was gone.”
I looked at my computer screen. There was my opening slide for the lecture--a picture of the orca—and my face in the inset box looking back. The computer was quiet. The online teaching platform did not show the student faces. I triple-checked that I was set to unmute. I started to trip over my words.
“Ummm. So. I guess this moment meant a lot to me. It. . . kind of. . . filled me with awe. And was just so, I don’t know, inspiring and stuff, to witness such power.”
The computer was silent. I imagined 52 undergraduate students, under quarantine. I had no idea if I was reaching the students. Sitting on their beds in their small apartments alone, or at the kitchen table in their parents’ house. I bet most of them had headphones or earbuds in, trying to block out the background noise of the city or their neighbor with the loud stereo system, or in consideration of their roommates. It was the second week of remote-teaching my Aquatic Ecology class after the corona virus epidemic triggered campus closures.
I took a deep breath. “So, anyways. That is what we will be talking about today. We will talking about the conservation status of orcas, their salmon prey, and changing coastal food webs of the eastern Pacific Ocean.”
“Please use the chat box for questions or comments. Anybody?”
Silence and my own face looked back at me. Perhaps they had walked away from their computer and were pouring milk for cereal. Perhaps they were surfing the internet while I droned on. Perhaps they were holding their pillow, aching with worry about a sick relative or a struggling family business and rent money, and angrily wishing I would just get to the material that would be on the test.
I stumbled through the rest of the lecture. Dialogue and questions popped up sporadically in the chat-box in the online portal. But, after the lecture, I was fundamentally shaken. What was I doing?
I closed my computer, took a deep breath, put on shoes, and went outside. I wandered down through my neighborhood, through the forest, to the ocean inlet. The streets were disconcertingly empty. People awkwardly avoided me on the trail. There was less boat traffic on the water. But the ocean looked the same. AND, I realized, the salmon were here! The glassy water near shore had little dimples, and v-wakes in it. The inlet at high tide was filled with schools of tens and hundreds of baby pink salmon. I wished my students could see this. I wished my students were here to witness this mass migration that shapes the ocean food web. I wished my students were here to take solace that, even now, the tide still rises and the salmon still migrate. I wished my students were here so I could see their faces light up as they gently held and then released a gleaming and wriggling salmon smolt for the first time.
A group of around fifty fish came towards me into the shallow water, and I could make out their tails working hard on their delicate 30 mm bodies as they searched for zooplankton and tiny invertebrates trapped in the surface tension. The group of tiny fish reached the long shadow I cast over the water, darted away as one, and were lost to me.