It’s just past midnight when I wake to a familiar sound; R Clan is back. Jumping out of bed, I scurry down the ladder into the lab. A very confused looking research assistant takes one glance at my excited face and realizes something special is happening. It’s been three years since we heard the familiar voice of this family of orca.
The research station OrcaLab was founded 53 years ago by Dr Paul Spong. His wife, Helena Symonds, joined him a few years later. Together they have collected one of the largest acoustic data sets of a population of marine mammals on the planet. This was all done from one place: Hanson Island, or Yukusam, a small island off the northern end of Vancouver Island.
Based on the philosophy of learning without interference, OrcaLab does not follow the whales in boats. Instead, they have spent the last five decades developing a network of underwater microphones, known as hydrophones, to listen to approximately 50 square kilometres of underwater environment surrounding each one. To complement this effort, in later years, remote cameras were placed in carefully chosen locations to allow them to visually track the whales as well. With primary focus on a Northern Resident orca population of 300+ orca, OrcaLab also monitors the marine mammal-eating eco-type, Bigg’s. For more than two decades, Humpback whales have also become an important element to their work—since their return to these waters after being hunted to near extinction.
Footsteps patter on the decking outside as a small crowd of people, including Paul and Helena, tune in to the anticipated orca arrival. We are silently transported by the incredible vocalizations of this family of whales, a dialect learnt from matriarchal lineage for likely thousands of years. The stillness continues. Suddenly, through my headphones, I begin to hear it: the low mummer of a large ship encroaching on the once crystal clear soundscape. I checked the ship tracker online; a tugboat is making its way south, and so it’s only a matter of time before these perfect calls become masked entirely by the sound of that boat’s engine.
I first came to OrcaLab in the summer of 2012, from England, to volunteer. I arrived with a passion for whales and photography. Now, 12 years later, I help OrcaLab deploy hydrophones, install underwater cameras, and produce short films detailing all aspects of their operation. From the moment I arrived, I felt so deeply that the work they do mattered and the longevity of the project was remarkable. Hanson Island has become my second home, and the community my family.
It’s now past 2 a.m. My eyes become strained as the sound of the boat overwhelms me; this happens often. I barely hear the whales anymore and remove the headphones, immediately putting them back on knowing the whales don’t have that option. For roughly the past 150 years, the presence of boat noise has been increasing year after year for these whales. For some, their parents or grandparents could have, at some point, experienced a completely quiet ocean.
In recent years, OrcaLab, with coastal First Nation communities and other NGOs, formed the BC Coast-Wide Hydrophone Network (BCCHN), directed by Janie Wray, with the aim of consistently collecting high-calibre hydrophone data along the BC coast. The BCCHN hopes that data collected will inform policies that promote positive outcomes for all cetaceans and other marine life. The lives of whales are intrinsically tied to sound. They use it to find food, communicate with family members, and navigate their environment safely. When you introduce boat noise, the whales have to use far more energy than normal to complete these tasks. This can increase stress, causing negative long term effects on things like birth rate, growth, habitat usage, and population size.
Due to the global pandemic, it was announced, in March 2020, that cruise ship traffic would halt along the coast of BC. This posed an incredible opportunity for the BCCHN to collect data from a far quieter ocean. But cruise ships aren’t the only boats that use these waters. Tugs towing barges, container ships, articulated tugs, small recreational vessels, whale watching boats, transport vessels, and research vessels frequent them too. All of which continued to be a factor in producing underwater noise during this time.
In 2022, after two summers without the presence of cruise ships, the ships returned. So what do we know now? Having collected two years of data without cruise ships, we now need to collect two years with their presence before the BCCHN can begin to analyze any changes that occurred. At times, this can feel underwhelming. Then I’m reminded of the five decades that Paul and Helena have dedicated to understanding the lives of these whales, and the impact it has made.
While we wait, BCCHN has other things to work on. With physicist Ben Hendricks, they’re developing AI software to help detect certain sounds, analyze vast amounts of data, and use triangulation to track marine life and boats. This will allow us to track the underwater pathways of whales, monitor long term trends of habitat use, and identify areas to be designated as marine protected areas.
The sun rises, the tug boat has disappeared from our acoustic range, and we continue to listen to the sounds of R Clan as they join other family groups. The sound of multiple families excited to see each other after a long absence is energetic and clearly audible, as it roars through the speakers. The lab feels electric too. This intimate window into the lives of these whales is truly something special.
It is my hope that OrcaLab and the BCCHN continue to provide the information necessary to help create a quieter, cleaner, and more abundant environment for the whales. So that after another five decades, someone like me can arrive as a volunteer, sit in this very spot with a pair of headphones, and listen to the familiar sound of this family, now generations older, return to their summer home, catch salmon, communicate with their family, and live undisturbed.