A student's journey through the world of bioacoustics


Harbour seal birth!

The whales have been away for a few days, but that doesn’t mean that we get to sleep in. Lily and I get up at 5:45 am every day to start watching for whales, just in case they surprise us (and sometimes they do).

But morning watches without whales aren’t always boring. There are often lots of other sea creatures to watch while we wait for the whales to come by. We frequently see harbour porpoises, harbour seals and river otters. There’s even a seagull that has taken to trying to land on seals’ heads when they come to the surface – a source of endless entertainment for the both of us.

But the other day, we saw something truly spectacular. The fattest seal I have ever seen awkwardly haul herself out onto the rocks for all to see. When she was on her stomach, her back fins hardly touched the ground. Of course jokes were made and laughs were had. But soon after hauling out, she rolled onto her side, and it became immediately obvious why she was so large. This seal was very pregnant, and her stomach was twitching as contractions came over her in waves. This seal was about to give birth right in front of us.

One very pregnant seal

One very pregnant seal

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With two DSLRs at hand and nothing more important to do, we decided to document the process and share it with you. Below is a series of photos from the event, followed by Lily’s video footage.

Warning: Some of the following photos and footage are graphic. But, given that this is a birth, you probably already knew that.

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Starting to push

Here comes the baby!

Here comes the baby…

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And a seal is born!

Mother and baby meet for the first time

Mother and baby meet for the first time

Shortly after the birth, the baby decided to explore, and got stuck in a crack in the rocks!

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Newborn seal stuck in a crevice

Eventually the tide washed the baby out and the two swam around the point and out of sight.

Mum and babe in the water

Mum and babe in the water

Lily’s video footage:

We were worried that the newborn wouldn’t make it because it was struggling so much to stay upright in the water and swim. But later that day, mum came back with her baby on her back. All was well, and a new life had begun!

Baby seal riding mum's back

Newborn seal riding mum’s back

Photos by Kristen Kanes, video by Lily Campbell





Superpod at East Point!

As some of you may know, last Saturday was Parks Day – the 100th anniversary of Parks Canada. Here on Saturna Island, many people were visiting from all around the Salish Sea to see the underwater world through the SubEye live dive, look at and learn about the marine invertebrates that divers brought to the surface for the Intertidal Safari,  and learn about orcas at the Parks Canada orca update.

And what a day of celebration it was! While we were celebrating 100 years of BC and Canada Parks, the orcas were celebrating a family reunion. L-Pod came racing through Tumbo Channel, porpoising out of the water to gain speed, and out to the Strait of Georgia. They breached, tail-lobbed, dorsal-slapped and cartwheeled their way around the East Point park and into Boundary Pass, to the delight of about 50 or 60 surprised onlookers.

Composite of breach sequence photos from my assistant, Lily Campbell

Composite of breach sequence photos from my assistant, Lily Campbell




Shortly after L-pod’s departure down the pass, J and K pods came down the Strait. They too were super active. They breached so many times in such quick succession that I completely lost count of how many breaches I had seen!

Tail Lob

K22-Sekiu tail-lobbing

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J37-Hy’Shqa and J49-T’ilem I’nges. Hy’Shqa means “thank you” or “blessing” in the Coast Salish/Samish language, and T’ilem I’nges means “singing grandchild.”

As they rounded the point, they came right into the kelp forest that lines the shoreline. They were so close to shore that I could see them swimming beneath the surface of the waves.

Orca surfacing at East Point. Photo by Kristen Kanes.

Orca about to surface

Orcas underwater

Mother and offspring under water

The whole time that the whales were here, there were no boats to be seen. The whales could have heard each other for several kilometers, without human interference, just like days of old. It must have been a great day for them too.

This was, by far, the best whale watching that I have ever done, and I am so grateful that the whales came by at a time when so many other people were there to appreciate their beauty. I hope that all of the people who saw the whales that day will hold onto that memory, because it really doesn’t get any better than that. I hope that they all went home excited, and with renewed intent to protect our ocean and the animals that inhabit it.

Photos by Kristen Kanes unless otherwise stated.


What am I doing here?

I thought I’d start this off by telling you a little bit about what I’m doing for the summer. I am a Master’s student at the University of Victoria. I am collecting data for my thesis, which will ask the question, “Do individual Southern Resident orcas have different “voices”?” Can we tell individuals apart by sound?

It’s an easy question to ask, but a difficult one to answer. If orcas were land animals, then I could observe a group of individuals talking to one another, and use their facial movements to infer which individual was speaking at what time. But orcas spend an estimated 95% of their time underwater. Underwater video won’t help either, because orcas don’t need to move their mouths to speak. Rather than passing air over vocal chords in their throats to make sounds, as we do, orcas pass air back and forth in air sacs in their sinus cavities. The sound is focused by the fatty tissue in an organ called their “melon,” and comes out of their foreheads.

So with no reliable visual cues to indicate who is speaking, how does one figure out who is saying what?It’s a little complicated, and does involve a few different steps, but I believe it’s doable.

The first step is the most expensive. To find out where a sound came from, you need acquire an array of underwater sound receivers, called hydrophones. You need at least 3, because, after some fancy math, each pair of hydrophones will give you one line of bearing. In other words, if we imagine a line drawn between a pair of hydrophones, we can calculate the angle at which an incoming soundwave crossed that line, giving us a line from the receivers out to infinity upon which the sound source must be. With three receivers, we can calculate up to three lines of bearing, which intersect at the location that a sound came from. This age-old method is called triangulation, or localization.

So for this first and crucial step, I will be using the array of Ocean Sonics digital hydrophones that is being deployed on Saturna Island by the Saturna Island Marine Research and Education Society (SIMRES). We have two hydrophones in the water now, and one to go. This means that I cannot triangulate the source of a sound right now, but I can draw a line on which the sound source must be. So, until the third hydrophone is deployed, I can’t localize all of the sound sources (orcas), but I can localize the leaders and trailers of a group – the whales who are far enough ahead or behind that no other whales will be in the same line of bearing at any given time. If the whale I’m focusing calls multiple times as it passes the array, then I can make a “track” of the whale’s movements to refer to after step two.

Step two is a little less passive than step one (pun intended for those of you into passive acoustics!). This step requires that I watch the whales (woohoo!). I stand on the shore near the hydrophones with my handy-dandy theodolite. This instrument is actually one used for construction and surveying, but is easily appropriate for visual data collection. It looks like a telescope suspended between two posts on a rotating base. It measures the vertical and horizontal angles of the position of the telescope. If I aim the telescope at a whale, then I can measure the vertical angle that whale is at relative to myself, and the horizontal angle it is at relative to a reference point (in this case, true North). With this information, as well as knowledge of my height above the waterline and my GPS location, I can use trigonometry to find out where the whale is. If I take these measurements on the same whale several times as it passes through the research area, then I can make a visual “track” of the whale’s movements. If this track matches the acoustic track from step one, then I can reasonably assume that the whale I was looking at is the whale that was speaking. At the same time, my assistant videos the whales so that I have a record of what happened, which individuals were there, and the movements of other whales. Since every Southern Resident orca has been photographed and is recognizable by differences in their dorsal fin shapes and saddle patches, I can use all of this information to determine which individual was making all the noise.

With a collection of calls from several individuals, I can then analyze calls of the same call type for differences after the data collection season is over. And, if I’m lucky and there are differences, then long term monitoring projects may be able to make more and better use of passive acoustic techniques to follow this at-risk population, allowing us scientists to reduce our dependence on boats for data collection and therefore our impact on the whales themselves.

So that is what I’m doing here on Saturna Island this summer. If you want to know more about the orcas, and about this community specifically, check out the Center for Whale Research at http://www.whaleresearch.com, and the Whale Museum at whalemuseum.org. Or check back here for more updates and educational blog posts!