Dr. Paul Spong

Spong shares songs of the orca

Dr. Paul Spong presents audio recordings in Speaker's Corner event.

PORT McNEILL—Guests at last week’s Speaker’s Corner event at St. John Gualbert Church may not realize it, but they were treated to one of the most impressive sound editing performances since Pink Floyd released the album Dark Side of the Moon in 1973.

That album was released a year after Spong arrived on Hanson Island to found OrcaLab, which has since catalogued more than 20,000 hours of audio recordings of orcinus orca (killer whales) in their natural habitat in the waters off Vancouver Island.

A few of those calls were shared in a slide presentation last Wednesday evening as Spong and Helena Symonds gave a presentation on OrcaLab’s worked to more than 30 guests in the monthly Speaker’s Corner series.

“I was keen to come over,” said Kate Brauer, who studies orcas on the rubbing beach near Malcolm Island’s Bere Point. “I mean, it’s Orca Royalty. He’s been doing this work for more than 30 years.”

Spong and Symonds, with the aid of slides, video and, of course, audio recordings — guided the audience through the spectrum of OrcaLab’s work, from the identification of orca matrilines (female-oriented family groups) to the return of the orphaned celebrity Springer to Blackfish Sound, to working to return orcas from captivity, to the nuts and bolts of OrcaLab’s operation, to concerns for and threats to the whales’ future.

Nearly all of it revolved around the distinctive vocalizations of the animals and OrcaLab’s efforts to learn about the species through a comprehensive record of those sounds.

“I wanted to study whales without disrupting them,” said Spong, who discovered through experimentation the importance of vocalization and socialization between whales while working with Vancouver Aquarium in the 1960s. “So we began installing hydrophones off Hanson Island to listen in.”

The network has since grown to six hydrophones that can track the progress of the orcas as they traverse Blackfish Sound past Hanson Island, through Blackney Pass and into Johnstone Strait to the famed rubbing beach in the Robson Bight (Michael Bigg) Ecological Reserve.

OrcaLab’s work has proved so relevant and popular that volunteers — ranging from marine biology students to simply orca fans — have offered to spend time at OrcaLab helping to catalogue and share the research gathered at the remote facility.

In the late 1990s Spong and his ever-changing cast of assistants began placing cameras underwater, and now have a station at Cracroft Point that features video of orcas from underwater and from above the surface. Live video streams can be accessed, particularly “in-season”, at www.orcalab.org.

The presentation ended with a caution of the challenges orcas face in the region, including dwindling food sources, a marked decrease in rubbing activity in the reserve and, particularly, increased boater traffic and other noise that may disrupt the animals’ communication.

“It’s very hard for us to get sound without boat noise anymore,” said Symonds, emphasizing her point with one last audio clip, in which the orcas’ calls are completely subsumed under the roar of a passing boat engine. “They’re communicating with each other, but they have to do it through that filter.”