“What Antarctic Killer Whales Can Teach Humans About Climate Change”

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The Story

“What Antarctic Killer Whales Can Teach Humans About Climate Change”
by Mona Gable
The Atlantic, April 10, 2017

The Pitch

When I was 10, I saw my first orca, sitting in the sunny stands at Sea World in San Diego. I was captivated. This was long before the documentary “Blackfish” exposed the brutal conditions in which the killer whales lived. Sea World had recently opened on the shores of Mission Bay, and Shamu was a rising star. When my children were young, I took them to see the killer whale shows at Sea World, too. They loved watching the athletic sleek orcas perform on command as much as I had.

In time, I realized that killer whales belonged in the wild, not doing parlor tricks in a shallow metal tank. I was horrified by my ignorance, my naivete. I had grown up body surfing in the waves with dolphins off Ocean Beach, dodging jellies and sting rays. I had deep respect for marine life. How could I have imagined that keeping these intelligent social creatures in captivity was OK? How could I have thought they were happy?

When Sea World announced that it was ending its killer whale shows, I was elated. But I was also wistful. I had loved these majestic creatures since I was a girl. I thought I would probably never see them again.

But soon I will be observing killer whales in the best habitat of all, in their natural surroundings, in the freezing waters of Antarctica.

In February, I will be shadowing two marine scientists, Dr. John Durban and Bob Pitman, as they research killer whales on a Lindblad voyage to the white continent. I couldn’t be more excited.

The scientists, both with the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, and based in La Jolla, California, have been studying killer whales for a decade. They are using measures of whale health in a novel and important way: to identify changes in Antarctica’s ecosystem as the ice melts and the seas warm. And to protect the world’s last marine wilderness from overfishing, tourism and development.

I’d love to write a story about their research on the trip, what their findings are revealing about climate change and its effects on marine life in Antarctica, and the rare experience of seeing killer whales.

Since 2011, the researchers have made more than a dozen trips to Antarctica. Through aerial photos of the killer whales, they made some remarkable discoveries. They learned that what scientists previously thought was one type of killer whale is actually five, each one distinct. And that each type has a different prey and hunting technique, meaning the whales are affected by climate change in different ways.

They learned that some killer whales eat Gentoo penguins, while others prefer elephant seals. And that some killer whales are sick.  By attaching satellite tags to the whales, they discovered that some whales migrate thousands of miles from the Southern Ocean to the edge of the tropics and back. Their research also revealed the deepest dives recorded by any of the world’s killer whales.

During the 10-day voyage in February, the scientists will be building on their research. I’ll be going out in the Zodiacs with them, tagging and observing killer whales. For the first time in 2016, they used an unmanned hexacopter, snapping photos of individual whales from 100 feet above the icy waters. The team collected more than 4,500 images, and hundreds more were contributed by passengers and naturalists on the ship. These photos will allow the scientists to measure the whales—their length and body condition–and assess their health. They will also enhance long-term efforts to estimate the populations of each type of killer whale.

I leave February 5, so if you could let me know soon that would be great. I need to set up interviews before I go. I can also provide photos and video of the trip.

My work has appeared in Los Angeles magazine, Fast Company, Pacific Standard, the Washington Post, Vogue, STAT News, and many other publications.  I’m also the author of a short memoir about genetic testing and Huntington’s disease.

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