What does a captive killer whale feel? That’s one question Lopez Island author Gene Helfman asks in his debut novel set in Blaine and throughout the Salish Sea region.
The novel, “Beyond the Human Realm,” is about an ichthyologist who moves to Blaine and begins teaching at the fictional Northwest Washington State University after being fired from a prestigious university on the east coast.
Although the protagonist doesn’t view Blaine very favorably, Helfman said he finds Blaine a “really delightful seaside town” but presented it as an undesirable place because of the circumstances under which the protagonist arrives. It was also an appropriate setting because of its proximity to Salish Sea orca populations.
The protagonist’s inspiration to shift from studying minnows to orcas is an incident Helfman admits is autobiographical. The main character attends a conference at an aquarium in Vancouver, B.C. where he steps away from the festivities and sees an orca for the first time. It’s an experience Helfman had as well.
“I wound up outside the pool, and they had an orca, which I knew nothing about and had never seen before,” Helfman said. “I watched it for a while and realized it was a caged animal.”
Both Helfman and his novel’s protagonist did the same thing: Research. Helfman read everything he could find about orcas, which was easy to keep up with until there was a surge in research in the last decade, he said. The Southern Residents in particular provided a wealth of new information as “the best studied group of orcas in the world,” Helfman said.
In studying orcas and the local populations, Helfman also realized that it was impossible to separate orcas from Native American populations and traditions, noting the area has a more visible Native population than anywhere else he’s lived. Native American characters feature prominently in the book.
“If I wanted to go into orca culture, particularly traditional practices, I couldn’t leave out the Indigenous peoples because their lives are and have been intertwined since the end of the ice age,” Helfman said.
Helfman isn’t new to writing, but the four books he wrote before “Beyond the Human Realm” were academic texts. He spent two years writing the book but had the idea years earlier and didn’t start writing until retirement.
While the book includes a lot of factual information about orcas and makes reference to many real-life orca conservation groups, there are times where information is embellished, Helfman said.
“We’ve got an animal that’s got a brain much larger than ours, especially the parts of the brain involved in cognition,” Helfman said. “Why can’t they be capable of anything and everything we can, plus some things we’re not capable of like sonar and communication?”
Now that “Beyond the Human Realm” is published, Helfman is branching out and learning how to promote his work while considering future projects. He left the ending open for a potential sequel but has other ideas, including a manuscript about sharks that presents them as sympathetic rather than dangerous.
Helfman plans to donate all profit from his book to orca conservation, including the Center for Whale Research and The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor. More information about Helfman and his work is available at amzn.to/3D1VkBg.