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Could we identify individual Orca calls within a cocktail party of Orcas?

Image 1 by Suzie Hall

This is the objective of Marion Poupard, a PHD student from France who is spending her summer at Orcalab, British Columbia, Canada.

But this is not Marion writing. My name is Megan Hockin-Bennett and this is my 9th summer working for Orcalab, a world renowned research station off the coast of Northern Vancouver Island. Dr Paul Spong and his wife Helena Symonds have been dedicated for the past 40 years to recording the dialects of the Northern Resident Orca population who spend their summers catching salmon in the coastal fiords of British Columbia. With a network of 6 hydrophones (underwater microphones) covering an area of over 60km² they are listening 24/7/365 to the underwater water world. They operate a land based operation and took their boats off the water many decades ago after beginning to learn more of effects boat noise has on whale’s lives. Over 400,000 hours of recordings later they are able to recognise individual families who all have different dialects. With a combination of the acoustic recordings and photo identification there isn’t a whale that moves through that area that they don’t know.

AND THAT’S ALOT OF WHALES

(Over 600 approximately)

Image by Shari Manning

So why are you guys interested…Ohh yes DIVING!

To help Marion answer her question of how to identify an individual orca she needs a hydrophone, 4 in fact. Positioned on a big antenna with a lot of batteries and memory cards in a waterproof housing. Using the data from all of these recordings she can use triangulation or TDOA (time difference of arrival), find the position of the orca in 3D space.

Image by Megan Hockin-Bennett

I’m not a scientist, I’ve been with Orcalab for the last 9 summers as a conservationist, film maker, photographer and diver. I’ve spent my time helping to capture the whale activity and maintain and deploy the cameras and hydrophones. Diving in these waters is not an easy task. With water temperatures of 7ºc and extremely strong currents you have to be well prepared and pick your time precisely and with back eddies close to shore the slack current charts don’t always match up….Here is me looking a little like a wind sock installing the underwater camera.

Image by Megan Hockin-Bennett

With Marion’s hydrophone antenna weighing in at over 50KG’s it was a huge feat of team work to install. It was loaded onto the labs trusty work horse SONIC as we swam out from the shore to the mooring line. The team seen below, including Dr Paul Spong himself now aged 80 years old and still as fit as a fiddle, lowered the array into the water.

Image by Megan Hockin-Bennett

Image by Megan Hockin-Bennett

Once we reached the bottom of the mooring line (around 17 metres deep) we left the Antenna and went on to find a suitable spot for the deployment. Marion needed a flat surface and unobstructed area around 23 metres deep that faced due east, which was directly out into the passage and usual trajectory of the orca.

Image by Megan Hockin-Bennett

After a search of the area around ten minutes later we found the spot and began to move the Antenna into place. This was a huge challenge due to the weight but with the use of an SMB to help give some buoyancy and some urchin casualties (rest in peace) we finally got the unit to its spot. No photos of this part of the installation exist as it was quite stressful and tiring. Once securing it in place with as many rocks as we could find to help protect it from the strong currents moving through the pass we checked the baring and stability.

          

Image by Megan Hockin-Bennett

When we were happy with the position we began our slow accent back to the surface and were lucky enough to enjoy our lengthy safety stop in Orcalab’s kelp forest.

Image by Megan Hockin-Bennett

Image by Megan Hockin-Bennett

The ground team were happy to greet us at the shoreline to help with all our kit and provide hot chocolate and snacks. We were also pleased to find out that the firewood heated sauna had been lit, especially Marion who had conducted the entire dive in a 7mm wet suit!

Images by Megan Hockin-Bennett

Over the next week or so Marion was able to record multiple encounters with the Northern Resident Orcas for her thesis and her although her findings are a long way off she is very confident that the data she’s collecting is going to bring us much closer to the individual acoustic fingerprint of the Orca! See here a photo of what orca calls look like when you turn them into a colour photograph called a spectrograph.

Images by Marion Poupard

Image by Megan Hockin-Bennett

And now for something a little less sciency but still very fun. As well as recording underwater sounds Orcalab also has a network of cameras set up in remote locations to film the whales. All these cameras are streamed live over the internet made possible by the incredible Explore.org. You can tune in day and night to follow the whales as they use the area in the summer months and I highly recommend you do so!

Image by Explore.org

A few weeks after the successful deployment of Marion’s antenna we installed Explores latest underwater camera at Cracroft Point.

Cracroft Point is very small land based outpost of Orcalab situated around 6 miles from the main lab and overlooking the core habitat for the Orca’s. This is where I live day and night during my summer months filming from the tiny platform. With no running water and limited solar power it’s a simple life but I love it.

Image by Megan Hockin-Bennett

Aside from the whales swimming by the intertidal zone at Cracroft point boasts a colourful and flourishing backdrop to my front garden. Diving on Vancouver Island truly is breathtaking and I recommend it as a holiday destination for any avid cold water diver. As a professional camera operator above the water I have yet to venture into the world of underwater film making or as I like to refer to it as (A millionaires ball game). For now my trusty Gopro and dive light is capturing to some extent the delights to be seen.

https://vimeo.com/353441892Installing the underwater camera at Cracroft Point by Megan Hockin-Bennett

A successful deployment of the underwater camera had gained us a new window into the incredible life below the surface in the kelp bed. I have become obsessed with watching it day and night even though it’s right outside my front door. I’m currently waiting for my snorkelling gear to arrive from the UK and then I can venture out bubble free into this incredible forest underwater.

     

      Images by Explore.org

I hope you have enjoyed reading a little bit about life here at Orcalab and some of the exciting projects we have ongoing. I’m currently in the process of filming a documentary on Dr Paul Spong’s life and I hope to release that at some point next summer. In the meantime you can have a deeper look into mine and Orcalab’s work with the following links.

Instagram:

@Wild_Sky_Productions

@orcalabbc

@exploreorg

Vimeo:

Wild Sky Productions: https://vimeo.com/user36814745

Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/OrcaLabBC/?epa=SEARCH_BOX

Websites:

Explore.org

Image by Shari Manning