This time of year, when I am not reading OS, or noticing how much earlier the sun is setting (already!), one of my favorite things to do is listen for whales at www.orca-live.net.
Most of the time, what you hear are the ambient noises of Johnstone Strait: lapping waves, clicking shrimp, and the ever-present drone of boat engines. But sometimes, listen…there, above the boats, do you hear it? A high pitched swoop like a saxophone…a faint whistle...the orcas are back!
Right now, this very minute, I am listening to the northern resident orcas (killer whales) as they traverse their summering grounds off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. Their calls are being picked up on a hydrophone network run by Dr. Paul Spong and Helena Symonds of OrcaLab.
Paul founded OrcaLab in 1970 as a place to study orcas without interfering with them. Today, there are seven hydrophones placed in the water around Blackfish Sound and Johnstone Strait. Listening to the whales tells us not just where, but who they are.
Orcas live in tightly bound, matriarchal groupings called pods. They stay with their pods their entire lives. If one member of a pod is identified, the others are likely to be nearby.
Each pod has signature calls; unique sounds that identify individuals as belonging to that pod. A few individuals can also be discerned by their calls.
Listen! They’re getting closer; the calls are becoming louder. There’s a corkscrew whistle, a creaking door...chirping, mewing...did someone honk?
More whales join in. It's a full-blown symphony now. Layer upon layer of calls cascade across the canyons, echoing in the dark.
The big question is, of course, what are they saying?
Besides the likely and the obvious (“Hello, here I am," “Where’s the salmon?," "What are you doing up so late?" and "Where's Freaky?"), I think it will take us a while and a few giant leaps to figure that one out. Do you remember the movie Contact, when Jodie Foster discovers the secret of the signals the aliens are sending? That each (deceptively) simple tone contains encrypted information packets, with blueprints, instructions, and the keys to the code?
One day it will be like that for us with the whales, I think. There are pictures in their songs, waiting to be unpacked. But to fully understand who they are, we may have to change our understanding of who we are.
For now, it’s thrilling just to sit at my kitchen table in Seattle and hear orcas having a raucous underwater meet-up, a few hundred miles away. And to know that people all around the world are listening the same way I am—rapt, alert, caught in an aural net the whales have spun. Like a dream you can’t quite remember when you wake up, but the good feeling lingers the rest of the day.