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It’s Time to Listen

Researchers capitalized on a summer without cruise ship traffic to hear how whales respond to a quieter underwater world.

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by Louisa Gilbert

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The onset of COVID-19 created devastation worldwide. But for whale researchers like Janie Wray, who has been studying the unique calls of killer, humpback, and fin whales in British Columbia for more than 20 years, the pandemic presented a unique opportunity—a chance to hear how whales respond to a quieter underwater world.

Whales evolved in a quiet ocean and communicate with sounds and songs. Toothed species such as killer whales also hunt by listening for their prey. But in the past 100 years, boat noise has increased. Now, when whales such as transient killer whales hunt for seals, sea lions, and porpoises, the sounds of the prey are masked by the loud droning of ship propellers. The reduced ability to communicate or hunt puts whales at risk.

OrcaLab, a land-based whale research station on British Columbia’s Hanson Island, employs nonintrusive methods of studying whales, including listening to subjects through hydrophones.

Presented with an entire summer free of cruise ship noise due to COVID-19 restrictions, Wray, the lead researcher for BC Whales and the CEO of the nonprofit North Coast Cetacean Society, seized the moment to partner with her colleagues Paul Spong and Helena Symonds at OrcaLab to hear how whales communicate when the underwater landscape is free from the chugging, droning, and ear-splitting sounds of cruise ships. In collaboration with the BC Coast-Wide Hydrophone Network, they upgraded OrcaLab’s hydrophone system with five new units, with two more to come next year. That system will be part of a bigger network of hydrophones spanning BC waters from Prince Rupert to the Gulf Islands, set to be complete in 2023.

The work will ultimately help the researchers learn more about habitat usage and how moving shipping lanes could mitigate the impact of noise pollution on whales. In the meantime, all they have to do is listen.