Orcas are long-lived, slow to reproduce and exist in highly complex societies which can be vulnerable to disturbance, so ideally any meaningful study of these incredible creatures has to be long-term and developed in a way so as not to interfere with their daily lives or habitat.
OrcaLab – a remote listening station off the coast of British Columbia in Canada does just that and today it is recognised as one of the longest, continual wild whale projects on the planet. Established by Dr Paul Spong over forty years ago, its philosophy is centred on the belief that you can study wild orca society without the need to be on the water, in their environment, following their every move.
Today, Paul, his partner, Helena Symonds and a dedicated team of volunteers from around the world are able to monitor the daily lives of the 260 or so orcas that make up the Northern Resident community – all from a unique network of hydrophones and associated land-based cameras.
Sound is vitally important to orcas and their repertoire of calls and whistles together with their finely-honed echolocation skills are essential tools allowing them to communicate, navigate and hunt, and generally make sense of their environment.
Each orca family group, or matriline, has a unique acoustic heritage passed on through the mother and as a result relatedness between groups can be determined by the number of shared calls. In the Northern Resident community the family groups are organized into three clans. Groups within a clan have in common some shared calls but between clans there are no shared calls – though that doesn’t stop them from frequently coming together to meet and socialise.
The beauty of the remote hydrophone network is that it allows researchers to track orca pods through many kilometres of their core habitat. So, whether it’s foggy, dark or stormy it doesn’t really matter as long as the orcas are vocalising and within range of the hydrophones. Just by listening OrcaLab staff will have a pretty good idea on what is going on with the whales – who is out there, who they are travelling with and, quite often, where they’re heading.
With the development of the Orca-Live project in 2000 people from all over the world can now eavesdrop on the orca’s world through their computer.
Over the decades, orca research has added new, exciting pieces to the jigsaw puzzle but inevitably it has also tracked the growing human interest in the marine environment.
Logging activity and the proliferation of commercial fish farms have both had an impact on the health of the wild salmon populations. Consequently the environmental needs of the food chain that is supported by salmon are also affected. The salmon is king on this coast and without the return of the spawning Pacific salmon each year there would be no orcas, no bears and no coastal wolves – even the ecology of the actual forests themselves, which rely on the decaying salmon carcasses to nourish the soil, would be compromised.
The oceans are far noisier than when OrcaLab first dropped a hydrophone into the water many years ago. Orcas today now have to contend with increased vessel traffic from cruise ships, ferries, tugs towing logs and logging barges, sports fishing boats and commercial whale watch operators. A recent study of a neighbouring community of orcas in the south suggests these magnificent creatures are now calling louder and longer than they were 25 years ago – just to make themselves heard.
As technology progresses and the world becomes more accessible, more potential threats present themselves. WDC members were recently effective in blocking plans for a tidal turbine to be placed in Blackney Pass – core habitat for Northern Resident orcas and home to the WDC Adoption orcas.
25 years ago I first came to OrcaLab as a volunteer and I’ve been fortunate to return nearly every year since. I have seen many changes since my early days but one thing that hasn’t changed is the passion, dedication and commitment that Paul and Helena show to this unique project and I’m honoured to count them as both friends and colleagues. They are true guardians of the orcas and their environment.
Supporters of WDC have been able to follow the lives of the orcas of British Columbia and support the work of OrcaLab through regular updates in our Adopt An Orca programme. Why not help us protect the orcas and the ocean they call home and make sure this vital study continues for another 40 years?