Researchers ready to take whale of a call

by Stephen Forgacs
Staff writer

PictureJohn Ford is probably the only person in the world who might realistically expect to answer his cellular phone and hear killer whales on the line -- live from somewhere along B.C.'s coastline.

Ford, an adjunct professor in UBC's Zoology Dept. and Fisheries Centre, and director of Research and Conservation at the Vancouver Aquarium, is realizing a decade-old plan to link the killer whale pods that cruise the B.C. coast through the summer months to researchers at the Vancouver Aquarium.

Ford's plan, developed while he was doing doctoral work at UBC, has evolved into a multi-phase project called WhaleLink. The project involves the establishment of numerous underwater acoustic monitoring stations along the B.C. coastline, from the southern tip of Vancouver Island to remote locations near the Alaskan border.

The stations consist of hydrophones connected by armoured underwater cable to detection and communication devices housed in a weatherproof casing and powered by batteries and a solar panel.

Whale sounds detected by the hydrophone travel through filters to microprocessors which activate a cellular phone that in turn calls researchers at the Vancouver Aquarium. Only sounds that meet the amplitude and duration of whale calls are relayed through the phone.

The first station has been set up in a Coast Guard navigational beacon near Robson Bight in Johnstone Strait where pods of killer whales are found almost daily from early July through September.

"It's all set up and ready to go," Ford said. "We're just waiting for the whales to arrive."

The project is aimed at adding to knowledge of local killer whale activity and solving the mystery of where the whales go when they leave the southern B.C. coastline for the winter and spring months, Ford said. It also enhances opportunities for further research into killer whale language.

Johnstone Strait, the 50 km passage between northeastern Vancouver Island and the mainland, is the site of frequent killer whale activity. As many as 16 pods, with some 300 resident whales spend much of the year in the area.

"The whales come in from the central and north coast near Alaska with the salmon. They typically arrive in Robson Bight in early July and are there till the last run of chum salmon comes through in November or December," Ford said.

The ability to detect and listen to whale sounds by phone from remote locations builds on the research Ford undertook at UBC in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That research led him to the discovery that killer whale pods use distinctive dialects to communicate but may share sounds or calls with other pods.

In addition to producing underwater sounds for communication, killer whales use intense clicking sounds for echolocation. A type of biological sonar, echolocation is used by the whales to navigate and locate food in the often murky waters of the coast.

Ford and fellow researchers, many of whom are past or present UBC graduate students, have determined that the 16 pods of resident killer whales on the B.C. coast can be split into four sub-groups or clans based on their vocalizations. Each pod within a clan has a distinct dialect but shares expressions with other whales within the clan. Yet, despite the fact that whales from the various clans often mingle, there are no shared expressions across clans.

Ford estimates that, as well as the resident whales which feed primarily on salmon, there are about 250 transient whales in the area which tend to travel in smaller groups and feed only on mammals and seabirds.

The transients can also be identified by their calls, although they vocalize far less than resident whales. As stealth hunters, transients emit infrequent clicking sounds for echolocation, but rarely emit the longer calls common to resident whales. Ford said they may actually listen for prey passively. Transients will vocalize to communicate with other transients on occasion, but they speak in "transient tongue," Ford said, adding the transient language is common to whales from California to Alaska.

"The transients will sometimes vocalize after they have found their prey and the element of surprise is not necessary," Ford said. "And the dialect they use is quite distinct from the residents."

A third group of whales identified by the researchers comprises "offshore" mammals in the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Three of Ford's UBC graduate students, Zoology master's students Volker Deecke and Harald Jurk, and PhD student Lance Barrett-Lennard, are involved in killer whale research.

Barrett-Lennard is looking at population genetics in whales and has collected DNA samples from 160 of B.C.'s resident and transient killer whales.

Jurk is studying the language of the Alaska killer whale population, while Deecke is working on sub-dialects and the evolution of dialects within pods.

Deecke also played a major role in developing the computer software used by researchers to distinguish between whale calls in each pod and clan. Researchers at the aquarium are now also able to use a computer to test their ability to distinguish one clan's call from another's.

The WhaleLink project will gradually expand to include more sites as the technology is proven effective and arrangements are made to provide cellular, radio or even satellite phone service in areas not covered by BC Tel Mobility's cellular network, Ford said. BC Tel is currently picking up the phone bill for the Robson Bight location. Two former BCIT students are continuing to work on the design of the detection and communications device.

Ford plans to have two more sites operational by early next summer in the San Juan Islands and the Prince Rupert area. He is also seeking approval from the Canadian Radio and Television Commission to use a low power FM radio frequency to broadcast the underwater acoustic signal from Robson Bight. That signal will then be picked up in nearby Telegraph Cove, digitized and sent to the Vancouver Aquarium via land line. This will both serve research purposes and allow the aquarium to play the whale calls live as part of a new exhibit.