OrcaLab research is land based as a matter of philosophy… research without interference. The approach works well in our area, with its many waterways & relatively small distances. OrcaLab’s location on Hanson Island at Blackney Pass is perfect for reception of radio signals from Johnstone Strait & Blackfish Sound, two of the most important areas used by the whales.
Because of the surrounding geography, we’ve been able to develop a network of remote hydrophone stations that provides acoustic coverage of much of the orcas’ “core habitat”.
At each of these stations, a hydrophone connected to a radio transmitter broadcasts underwater sounds of the ocean which we monitor continuously in our lab. The network enables us to listen in to a key area of about 50 sq.km of ocean within which numerous orca families spend much of their time during the summer and fall months. Collectively, the families make up the “northern resident community” of British Columbia orcas. All the families and their members have been identified, and many individuals are well known. Additionally, the families and the “clans” to which they belong use sounds which enable us to identify them, making it possible for us to monitor the orcas and their movements 24 hours of each day (so long as they are within range of our hydrophones). To do this efficiently, we operate our lab around the clock during the summer and fall with the help of a crew of volunteer assistants who come from countries around the world. Whenever we hear orcas calling we make a recording (over 1000 hours each year) and whenever the orcas pass OrcaLab during daylight we attempt to identify them visually, using spotting ‘scopes, noting associations and behavioural details.
Since 1994 we’ve also operated a video station on a nearby island, at Cracroft Point. Cameras in fixed locations underwater serve as “windows” into ordinary life in a kelp forest, as well as occasionally providing us with extraordinary glimpses of orcas and other marine mammals underwater. A surface camera records the whales when they are near, as well as recording human activities around the whales. From another land observation site on Hanson Island, and radio communications with whale watchers and researchers, we obtain additional information about orca activities. Our role as researchers and observers includes assessment of impacts people are having on the whales – with a view to protecting vital habitat and giving orcas the opportunity to lead normal lives. Given their attractive appearance and lifestyle, it is easy to comprehend the fascination which orcas hold for people. Because of that fascination, and because of a clear need for the public to be educated about orcas and the intrinsic value of ocean life, in year 2000 we began to make our video & audio data available, in real time, to people around the world via the Internet. We call this project “Orca-live“. It enables people everywhere to share with us, moment by moment, the sounds and sights of the world we have been immersed in for three decades. Our goal day by day during each “season” is to create as complete a picture as possible of what the orcas are doing; and our goal, over the years, has been to follow the lives of the individuals and families that make up the community. By so doing, we hope to improve our understanding of these fascinating whales.