A student's journey through the world of bioacoustics


Superpod take two!

Yesterday was a big day for us on Saturna Island. Paul Cottrell of DFO, Tom Dakin of Ocean Networks Canada (my boss), and myself all gave presentations about underwater sound, hydrophones, the SIMRES hydrophone array and our own research. We were all hoping for a bonus show from the orcas, who had been reported going South near Vancouver earlier that day, but no luck!

They’ve been in this pattern lately where they go North to the Fraser River sometime after the late morning, and go back South to San Juan Island in the morning or early afternoon the following day. (These two locations are important fishing areas for the Southern Resident orcas in the summertime.) Given that we hadn’t seen them by 6 pm, we assumed they just weren’t coming. But boy were we wrong!

We were just packing up to go see some friends at a potluck dinner when our host looked out the window, pointed, and said, “There’s a whale!” Shocked, Lily and I ran back outside with the research gear. We were half convinced that there wasn’t a whale, and mostly convinced that, if there was a whale, it must be a Bigg’s whale (which we’re not researching). We set up everything in record time, took a good look at the first whale coming through, and lo and behold, it was J whale! J Pod and K Pod had returned for superpod round two!

It was a magnificent viewing. They came super close to the land, and they were breaching and tail lobbing and slapping their pectoral fins on the surface. We saw one whale spyhop really high out of the water, and we could hear it producing echolocation clicks while it was up! For those of you who don’t know, it sounds like this:

This was pretty amazing, and a very unique experience. The air-water interface is very reflective, acoustically speaking. Sounds produced under water generally reflect back into the water when they hit the surface, never to be heard in air. So hearing an orca from above the water is a rarity. A wild orca producing sound above the water’s surface is also extremely rare! This was the first and only time I have ever heard a wild orca produce sound above the water. Absolutely incredible.

We also got some great data. We were able to get visual tracks of many individuals, and they were pretty chatty while they were here. Since we were busy collecting data during this sighting, we didn’t get much in the way of photos (except for the gem Lily took, shown below), but we did get some great acoustic recordings! So close your eyes, imagine the beautiful, deep, emerald green of the Salish Sea, and listen.



Lily's pec-slap photo

Lily’s pre-pec-slap photo

Photo by Lily Campbell