Learning through listening
Since the 1970s we have been listening to the whales, dolphins, and other inhabitants of Northeast Vancouver Island. We are land-based as a matter of philosophy, and believe it imperative to be able to study cetaceans without interfering with their lives.
Instead of tracking the whales using boats, we wait for them to enter our space and monitor closely what we see and hear. Our primary focus is the Northern Resident Orca population, but we are also interested in the Bigg’s Orca population (Transients), humpback whales, and other marine species that frequent our area.
Every day, we listen to the marine species that surround our lab in Blackney Passage, Blackfish Sound, and the Johnstone Strait. We have over 60,000 recorded hours of acoustic data, most of which belong to the unique calls made by the Northern Resident Orca Community.
Orca societies are matrilineal, and each family group has its own repertoire of discreet calls that becomes easily recognizable to the trained ear. Building on the acoustic work of Dr. John Ford, we have cataloged these distinct calls every year since we began, and have built up an intimate picture of the remarkable lives of these orcas that return to our area, year after year.
The Northern Resident orcas are most active here during the summer months. From July-October we have dedicated assistants on shifts covering 24 hours a day who record all activity across our seven hydrophones.
As we are land-based, our visual sightings are limited to the times that the orcas traverse Blackney Pass or pass close to our remote cameras. Each time orcas pass by the lab, it is all hands on deck as we use scopes and digital cameras to track and photograph individuals, noting family groupings and interesting behaviours.
We are able to identify individual orcas by their dorsal fins, saddle patches, and even eye patches, using resources made available by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. These data are invaluable to our long-term population studies and help us further understand the complex, social lives of cetaceans.
The Northern Resident Orca Community are one of only two populations of orca known to exhibit ‘rubbing’ behaviour. Families will visit select pebble beaches gliding back and forth over the smooth stones. Often, they will do this for several hours!
We are fortunate to have remote cameras and hydrophones at these protected beaches within the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve. We have a unique window into this incredible behaviour, allowing us to collect invaluable data over the past decades.
During the summer months when the orcas are most active, we live-stream the rubbing phenomena to thousands of viewers worldwide through our partnership with explore.org. Make sure you tune in!
The humpback whale population in British Columbia was decimated to near-extinction in the early 1900s, when whaling was prevalent on the coast. In 1967, whaling was finally outlawed and, since then, we have been thrilled to see this population of humpbacks return in their numbers.
The bountiful waters around the lab see many of the same individuals return year after year to feed, from April to November, before their winter migration south.
In recent years we have also been witness to incredible humpback acoustics, as the males start to craft their mating song in the early fall. They can sing for hours and hours on end, often during the darkness.
Support our Research
Our acoustic dataset spans over 50 years. By observing long-term trends in their acoustic behaviour, we can learn more about the fascinating world of orcas.