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Orca Mystery Could be Cracked by Calls

Tom Banse
10/07/2002

There's a researcher on Vancouver Island who can identify orca pods just by hearing a couple of their distinctive chirps and calls. That ability could be key to solving one of the remaining mysteries about Northwest killer whales -- where do they go in the winter? Correspondent Tom Banse reports.

ABOUT A MONTH FROM NOW, THE ORCA PODS THAT HAVE DELIGHTED WHALEWATCHERS, TRAVELERS AND BOATERS ALL SUMMER WILL DISAPPEAR FROM NORTHWEST WATERS. THEY'LL SIMPLY VANISH INTO THE OPEN OCEAN UNTIL THEIR EXPECTED RETURN NEXT MAY.

Ford: "Where they go in the winter is a big mystery and it's an important one. It's probably the most serious gap in our understanding of the animals in terms of their conservation."

WHALE EXPERT DR. JOHN FORD WANTS TO KNOW WHAT'S GOING ON OVER THE WINTER. THE STEADY POPULATION DECLINE OF ONE OF THE NORTHWEST'S SIGNATURE SPECIES ADDS URGENCY TO HIS MISSION.

Ford: "When the whales comes back from wherever in the spring or early summer, this is when we see animals missing. They've lost them primarily through the winter. They don't seem to lose them during the summer."

FORD IS TRYING TO CRACK THE MYSTERY FOR THE CANADIAN DEPARTMENT OF FISHERIES AND OCEANS. HIS OFFICE AT THE PACIFIC BIOLOGICAL STATION IN NANAIMO IS CRAMMED WITH BOOKS, PRINTOUTS, AND REPORTS. THE AMIABLE SCIENTIST DRESSES LIKE A MARINE DETECTIVE -- IN T-SHIRT AND SHORTS. FORD SAYS ONE WAY TO FIND OUT WHERE THE KILLER WHALES GO WOULD BE TO CATCH A BUNCH OF THEM NOW, DRILL HOLES IN THEIR FINS, AND ATTACH SATELLITE TRANSMITTERS.

Ford: "But with the few whales we have on this coast and the pressure they're under, I don't think that's really an appropriate kind of technique."

PASSIVE MONITORING WITH UNDERWATER MICROPHONES SEEMS A BETTER OPTION TO DR. FORD. SINCE THE MID-80'S, THE SCIENTIST HAS BEEN PLACING UNDERWATER MICROPHONES AT LIGHTHOUSES ON THE WEST COAST OF CANADA. THIS FALL, HE'S EXPANDING THAT NETWORK INTO THE OPEN OCEAN. A GOVERNMENT TEAM EVENTUALLY HOPES TO DEPLOY HYDROPHONES FROM THE QUEEN CHARLOTTE ISLANDS ON OUT TO FISHING BANKS FAR OFF THE WEST COAST.

Ford: "Because killer whale sounds are quite loud, we could record them up to 10 miles away."

THAT'S WHERE FORD'S SPECIAL GIFT COMES IN. OVER 25 YEARS OF RECORDING AND ANALYZING ORCA WHALE CALLS ALLOWS HIM TO RECOGNIZE INDIVIDUAL PODS ALMOST INSTANTLY BY THEIR CURIOUS DIALECTS.

Sound: [A pod, squeaking calls]

Ford: "That's an example of a very distinctive call that really is unlike anything else. The A-clan is only the one that does it. If you were to look say, at R-clan. This is a typical call from that clan. [Sound: whale call] So really quite different. Here's another one. [Sound: 2nd R-pod call] And if you were to look at J-clan…"

Sound: [J-pod calls and honks]

Ford: "That was J-pod. Most of their calls are kind of flat and then they drop it down in pitch at the end. And they also have a couple really funny honking kinds of calls that, again, are very distinctive."

J-POD IS ONE OF THE DWINDLING SOUTHERN GROUPS THAT FREQUENT PUGET SOUND AND THE SAN JUAN ISLANDS. THE ABILITY TO TELL WHALE PODS APART BY THEIR DIALECTS ENABLES SCIENTISTS TO TRACK THEM UNOBTRUSIVELY OVER THE OPEN OCEAN. ONCE THEY FIND WHERE THE KILLER WHALES GO IN THE WINTER, THEN SCIENTISTS WILL SEEK OUT WHAT THEY'RE EATING THERE. MAYBE IT'S CONTAMINATED WITH POLLUTANTS. OR MAYBE, THE WINTER IS A LEAN TIME FOR KILLER WHALES. THEY COULD BE DYING BECAUSE THEY DIDN'T FATTEN UP ENOUGH EARLIER IN THE YEAR ON OUR SCARCE SALMON RUNS. WHATEVER THE CASE, PEOPLE ON THIS SIDE OF THE BORDER ARE EAGER TO HEAR WHAT THE CANADIANS DISCOVER. SO SAYS OLYMPIA-BASED WHALE BIOLOGIST JOHN CALAMBOKIDIS.

Calambokidis: "Any information on their winter movements and what might be affecting and causing the decline that has been observed in their populations would be very valuable to U.S. managers and scientists."

CALAMBOKIDIS SAYS U-S RESEARCHERS ARE DOING REMOTE OFF-SHORE ACOUSTIC MONITORING OF BLUE WHALES. HE SAYS IT MIGHT BE POSSIBLE ONE DAY TO CONNECT THE TWO WHALE SEARCHES. I'M TOM BANSE IN OLYMPIA.

Note: Special thanks to KUOW Reporter Cathy Duchamp for sharing John Ford interview tape that made this feature possible.

07.18.18

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