Our species is in a large part defined by our amazing capacity for complex language. Some will argue that it is this capacity that sets us apart from other species. Anyone who has spent any time listening to the communicative sounds of orcas knows this to be false; that in orcas we find a species capable of communicating in a language perhaps more complex than our own, a language that we simply cannot understand.
Such an understanding, if even possible, has likely remained outside our grasp because we are in fact impeded by being a different species. We only know our world, and our language is a tool that has developed within our world. Orcas live in a vastly different world, meaning their language has not necessarily developed in the same manner and that we cannot use what we know of our language to judge theirs.
7 years ago I went on a whale watching trip to see the Southern Resident orcas. As excited as I was to be seeing wild orcas, I remember thinking that the multitude of boats constantly surrounding the whales marred what could have been a truly breathtaking scene. My feelings about this scene at the time epitomize the wall we often collide with when trying to understand another species; the boats were a problem to me because I could see them. For orcas, living in an acoustic world, the main problem with all the boats is that they can hear them.
At OrcaLab the hydrophones are playing 24/7. We listen to them when we’re on our shift in the Lab but we can also hear them when we’re doing chores and taking breaks. There are speakers spread throughout the camp such that you’re constantly hearing what the whales are hearing. This is a real wake-up call. Though I’m not sure those of us at OrcaLab need any sort of wake-up call, as we’re all aware of the problem presented by constant boat noise, it is quite an experience to get a glimpse of what the whales suffer through on a daily basis. Realizing this is when you can really appreciate OrcaLab for what it is; a platform from which studying orcas can be done passively. For the most part we can know where the whales are day and night and we can identify individuals as they pass by the lab or the outcamp on Cracroft Island, without interfering with the orcas in any way. To be able to see whales but know I’m not having a negative impact on them is a great feeling.
When the A30s first came through Blackney Pass everyone was ecstatic; this was why we were here at OrcaLab, this was what we’d been waiting for. As we watched the family make their way towards Johnstone Strait, we began to hear their calls coming from the speakers out on the lab deck. When the first call came through everyone froze for a moment, and then smiled. For me, this was when it all really hit me (and when the tears came); I was here, listening to orcas as they swam past OrcaLab. Getting to see orcas will always be an amazing experience but listening to them has come to be what I love most, which is why acoustics is the area of research I am becoming involved with.
One of the tasks the assistants have been working on this summer is annotations. This is when we look at a spectrogram of previously recorded calls and label each call type that we see. Doing this will allow for more efficient future analysis of the recordings made at OrcaLab but it also allows us a chance to try and learn the different call types associated with each matriline. Though daunting at times due to the sheer number of orcas, call types, and variations of these call types, I find this task extremely enjoyable because after becoming familiar with the calls during annotations it is possible to then know which calls you are hearing when we’re recording the orcas live.
Even though it’s possible to identify matrilines purely based on calls, we’ve still really only scratched the surface when it comes to understanding these whales and their communication. The orcas that we are studying at OrcaLab this summer are some, if not the most studied cetaceans in the world and yet we still have no understanding of what their calls mean. Though any sort of understanding may remain outside our grasp, our increasing ability to study cetaceans using passive acoustic monitoring enables us to attempt to gain a deeper understanding of another species, without interfering with the lives of these whales that we all love so much.
Tet and A30s photo by Ally Rice
August 6 2013