OrcaLab assistants 2017 – Max


An unmistakable whistle permeates the camp. Tools are downed, and all legs rush to the lab. The calls intensify as they approach our hydrophone on Flower Island – the Western-most threshold of the 50km2 OrcaLab acoustic network. Notions of shifts, timetables and rotas fall away; the orcas have announced their arrival, and our time is now theirs to govern.

The lab is a sight to behold: people clamber over each other to snatch the nearest binoculars, cameras and ID books, while those on shift remain more composed; it falls to them to isolate the closest hydrophone and locate our visitors on the live-cams. This will enable us to follow the group through these islands’ waterways.

The early calls are sparse, enough only to confirm the orcas’ broad acoustic group: The A clan, of our local Northern Resident population. But more specific identification – the matriline or even the pod – is tricky. The more experienced among us iterate through potential candidates with remarkable efficiency, using acoustic cues as yet inaccessible to me:

‘A4s! That’s promising!’

‘No – A5s?’

As if in retort, a deafening N47 call screeches through the lab speakers, announcing the presence of the A30 matriline without ambiguity. Cheers resound as the health and integrity of this much-loved family unit are confirmed for another year; two assistants even share a tearful hug, and discuss a potential new addition to the group. It is impossible not to be caught up in the moment – my hairs stand on end.

The team hurries out to the deck as the A30s pass directly in front of our Hanson Island outpost – using cameras and scopes to inspect their dorsal fins is essential for identifying individuals in the group. We remain there for several hours until their passage is complete, all the while treated to an array of tail slaps, pec-slaps and breaches. A mother tries feebly to rein in a particularly exuberant new-born.

As the adrenaline dissipates, we return to our various projects – in my case, re-wiring an ancient network of speakers around the forest – with a renewed sense of purpose. My thoughts turn to a Hanson Island in the not-too-distant future, to new crop of assistants camping down by these same speakers. I feel their hearts racing as the first call sounds.

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