On Victoria Day weekend, whale watchers in B.C. were able to capture the acoustics of a group of Bigg’s orcas in the Discovery Island area using a special underwater audio recorder – and the results are captivating.
The whale watchers were on a trip with Wild Waterways Adventures, a tourism company based out of Quadra Island, B.C.
While it is not impossible to hear whales above water with just the human ear, the technology used by Wild Waterways Adventures made for a very unique experience, even for veteran whale watchers.
“Being able to hear the [whales] like that while seeing them was magical” said Jennifer Smalley, owner of Wild Waterways Adventures.
The audio was captured underwater using a hydrophone and was played above water using an amplifier.
Part of the thrill that weekend was being able to spot Bigg’s orcas, also known as transient killer whales. The species are named after the late Canadian marine biologist, Michael Bigg, who is often described as a “pioneer” in killer whale research.
Bigg was the first to identify transient orcas, recognizing that they moved around more than other orcas because of their diet. Unlike other orcas, Bigg’s orcas prey on sea mammals. Generally, their diet consists of harbour seals, but can also include dolphins and even other whale species.
Bigg’s orcas can be difficult to see because they travel in small groups — also known as pods — ranging from about 2-6 whales. Bigg’s orca acoustics are even more difficult to hear because they hunt quietly, using echoes to navigate the water and identify their prey.
Hydrophones do not work well underwater when other engine-powered boats are nearby as their sounds interrupt the audio feedback. Travellers with Wild Waterways Adventures were fortunate to be the only group in the area that day.
The encounter between whale watchers and the pods of Bigg’s orcas was a perfect overlap of circumstances that allowed for a very special whale-watching experience.
Under federal law, people must stay 400 metres away from endangered whales and dolphins, such as the southern resident killer whales, and 100 metres away from others.