Donna Sandstrom

Donna Sandstrom
Seattle, Washington, USA
September 10
Born in Brooklyn, raised in L.A. Studied at U.C. Santa Cruz, waitressed in San Francisco, found my way to Seattle in the early 80s. Career in high tech (Aldus/Adobe) until 2007 when I left to do The Whale Trail. Writing on Open Salon since May 2008. Go Obama!


AUGUST 18, 2009 5:47AM

Listening to the Whales

Rate: 15 Flag


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

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.


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Oh, fantastic! I got to see two blues and about ten humpbacks and a minki (sp?) all on one trip this summer in the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary. It was amazing. One of the blues was feeding on krill and we were lucky enough to have it swim right up to the boat for a closer look at us.
I've never seen an orca in the wild. I will check out orca-live.
Thanks for this beautiful post.
Great post. I am going to check out the site now. Hope you're having a good summer.
A friend and I were sitting on our surfboards one morning a little before dawn when three Orcas came by about twenty feet in front of us. Their dorsals were about four feet tall and the little bit of their backs that were visible had a radius that meant they had a girth of at least six feet. There was no movement to be seen other than their slow progress north at perhaps one mile per hour.

They came out of the dark already very close to us and scared the holy living stuff out of us, but once we realized we were not to be breakfast we were in awe and glad to have seen something not many others have.
Gracielou! What a great trip...the Channel Islands are amazing - so many kinds of whales and dolphins there, and so (relatively) close to civilization. Nothing quite like seeing a blue whale..and a close pass by, lucky you!

Thanks, JK, it will be great to imagine you listening too! Just this past week there was a superpod right in English Bay – some great shots of the southern residents with the Vancouver skyline behind them. Hmm, maybe it’s time for an OS meet-up on the north side of the island…

Roger, thanks for stopping by, and I hope you enjoy listening too! Not a single complaint about this summer, except that it’s going by a little too fast….

Sharkbait, what an amazing story – where was it? I can only imagine what that would have felt like – they are the top predator in the sea, but they’ve never harmed humans, even during the (horrific) captures here in the 70s. Says a lot about their nature, I think, and ours…
This is such an exquisite post for so many reasons, among them it is so beautifully written and haunting. I wish you wrote more things for OS, Donna.
I once saw a blue whale near Cabo. Also a pod of rare Right whales in the Bay of Fundy. I adore whale watching and you evoke the wonder.
And I always wondered what the clicking is when you go underwater. Is it only the shrimp?
Thanks so much for sharing your joy and peacefulness.
Freaky seems to be a common subject to all mammals. (This post is so cool! Thank you.)
Thanks, Lea! If I've gotten at all close to how it actually feels to see a whale...that's high praise indeed. That clicking noise could be lots of things, depending where you are: parrotfish nibbling a coral reef, echolocating whales. It is amazing how loud it can be...

Thanks for stopping by, Steve! And yes, it's amazing how well-known Freaky is; fun-loving mammals of every species recognize each other, I guess. Wait, is she a mammal? Hmm. Warm-blooded, at least. Wait...
This is so cool! I have a friend in the UK that is going to plotz (ploutz? plotz?) over that site. I love the thought of you and the whales. I know that sounds weird, but really whenever I see your avatar, it makes me smile because I know you're looking after our sea friends.
Aw, thanks, Deven..I am pretty sure they look after me, too ;) I hope your friend does like the site. Tell her about this one too: That picks up the southern resident orca calls, in our neck of the woods. A little bit of magic...
Your ears, my dear Mlle Sandstrom, are tuned to our world's most mysterious songs.
So glad this popped up on the feed (thanks to M.Chariot). What a lovely post! Written with understanding and poetry. And it’s a real boon to me right now as our 4-year old is on a whale kick. I’ll have to play the site for him while we watch some pics of Orcas. Plus it reminds me that I think we only have a few more weeks to head out off our Southern California coast to catch sight of some Blue Whales. So thanks!
Ah, my dear M Chariot, how very kind ::blushing:: the seas are rich with them, and this, the Water Planet...

David, thank you! If there aren't any orcas around when you tune in to the site, be sure to watch the "best of" compilations from previous seasons. Lots of stunning orca footage, and sounds. And yes, go see those blues! Thanks again for stopping by...
Late to the pod...but thanks. Your posts, like the orcas, are a rare treat, and well worth waiting for.
It's never too late, Laurel! And what a wonderful note to come home to...thank you. Here's to more pieces, from both of us :)
Just discovered you Donna. I'm a Seattlite (pretty new toOS) and a born & raised NY'er!! However, I've never seen a whale (live) (got to get out more!) great post. rated
Hi Trilogy! There is nothing like encountering orcas in the wild, we are so lucky to have them within a few hours drive of Seattle. The San Juan Islands in September are a little piece of heaven, go! Thanks for stopping by, and welcome to OS.
Orcas in the area and great whale sounds now...
Wonderful...thank you for sharing...xox
Thanks for stopping by, Robin! The orcas are likely to be around for the rest of this month or so. Then the Straits go (relatively) quiet again...
Whales speak a gentle simplicitythat we should listen to.
This sounds like heaven. I would love to see a video of what you describe. So beautiful.