Our Story

Listening to whales since 1970

Dr. Paul Spong arrived on Hanson Island in 1970 to study wild orcas, with little more than a tent and hydrophone. What started as a summer project led to year-round monitoring and, by the late 1970s, Paul and his family were living there permanently. The lab and surrounding buildings were built out of wood and added to over the last 50 years, as the demands of research and living have increased. Every summer the lab hosts approximately 10 to 20 volunteers who contribute to the 24/7 running of the lab, as the Northern Resident Orcas chat, forage, and socialize day and night.

What we do

Our research has always focussed on listening to whales and their underwater environment. Orcas are highly acoustic beings and rely on sound to hunt, socialize, communicate and travel. Our hydrophone network allows us a window into their world 24 hours a day, and our round-the-clock efforts contribute to a fuller picture of their lives.

We have witnessed some incredible moments from other marine mammals, too. Bigg’s orcas, humpback whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions all contribute to this marine soundscape; their lives are varied and rich.

Noise: The invisible threat

Through our decades of research, one thing has become evidently clear: Most of the time, we can no longer listen to whales and dolphins without boat noise.

The waters of the ‘Inside Passage’ between Vancouver Island and the mainland are increasingly popular for cruise ships, cargo ships and pleasure craft. It is not uncommon to have one large, slow ship audible within our range for several hours at time, as well as many smaller crafts that are on the water for fishing, travel or whale watching.

We can simply choose to turn down the volume, but the whales cannot. Noise pollution is as great a threat to cetaceans as chemical pollutants and marine debris. It’s time to listen.

Over the years…

OrcaLab has seen many people through its doors over the past five decades. Some of our volunteers return year after year, and many have gone on to pursue careers in conservation, ocean science and marine mammal research. We are exceptionally fortunate to have such dedicated people who believe in our ethos and want to help us carry out our work.

Since we began, we have focused primarily on the intricacies of the Northern Resident orca population. We have watched their dynamics evolve and shared in every joy of a new baby or the sad death of a beloved individual. We know each orca by name and each family by its distinct acoustic repertoire.

Our research has aided in the designation of the Johnstone Strait as Critical Habitat for the orca population, and ours remains one of the longest-standing monitoring projects on a single population of cetaceans, worldwide.

Photo: Jared Towers

Become part of our story

OrcaLab would not be where we are today without the help of countless individuals. Whether by volunteering time, providing financial support or simply sharing what we do with others: every contribution counts.

Listen now

Stream our live hydrophone audio