There’s No Rosetta Stone For Orca

In the inky blackness of night, a northern resident pod of orcas moves into Blackfish Sound and toward the lab, heading toward Johnstone Strait and the rubbing beaches. With no hope of identifying them visually, I lean against the railing of the lab, ears turned toward Burnt Point and Blackfish sound, listening for the sound of their blows, that echo like shotgun blasts for miles in the dead of night. There’s a whoop from behind me, muffled by the glass of the lab. I turn and in the dim light of the desk lamp, see Paul’s wife Helena, arms raised, a grin across her face. “R calls!” She hollers at us.

The R pod, rarely seen even in the summer, were on there way. There presence as unique as the noises they make which features several unique calls shared with none of the other northern residents. The celebration is short lived though. Over the next several minutes, as more and more calls move from orca to hydrophone to headphone, even Helena, who has listened to the residents for 30 years, is less convinced of what she’s hearing. The orcas turn before they reach the lab, the chance to listen and count the number of blows and add another piece to the puzzle is lost. We’d have to wait for morning to solve the mystery.

By 7 a.m we knew it was not the R’s that we had hoped for, but the I15s that had riled up Helena and all of the assistants in the early morning hours. The I15s were notorious for, “imitating” a pair of R calls and had been duping eavesdropping scientists for years. The following evening the I15s moved serenely by the lab at their slow, tranquil pace they were known for. Instead of just passing through they halted, almost directly in front of the lab and stayed for almost an hour. Spyhopping and surfacing, as if they were apologizing for the dirty trick they’d played on us the night before.

The I15s apologize for the previous nights skullduggery.
The I15s apologize for the previous nights skullduggery.

Two days later, we awoke to the real thing. The R4 pod entered Johnstone Strait and stayed for two days before departing to the west, attending to whatever business they have in the Queen Charlotte Strait and beyond. The I15s imitated the Rs calls, two days later the Rs arrived. Convenient coincidence or something at a much deeper level? Four decades into research and we still haven’t the foggiest idea.

There’s a fundamental problem with trying to understand what these orcas may be “saying” to each other. Each pod has roughly 12 calls in their repertoire and are used over a variety of behaviors. Some are used exclusively during social interactions, others primarily during resting, but their language is fluid and it is clear that the same call can have different meaning depending on the context that it was used. It leaves us with an almost impossible task. To watch an animal that spends only five percent of its life where we can visually observe it, and try to guess what’s going on beneath the waves as they call to one another. Paul believes the next step is to find out who in the pod is talking. Is it the matriarch doing most of the talking, calling the shots? Or are her sons, daughters, and grandchildren part of an open democratic forum? One thing is certain, there decisions are not random. They don’t just happen to chose to go past the lab, or leave the strait, or go for a rub. Those big developed brains are doing something, calculating, and analyzing their environment.

And so here we sit, forty years after Paul, Michael Bigg, and other orca pioneers started. We have discovered their tightly wound social bonds, the order and structure of their society, we know what they eat, and the sounds we make. But we may have pushed our research of these animals to the breaking point while we wait for technology to catch up. How can we determine who in the pod is talking? What are they doing

underwater when their calls are emitted? There are things such as the critter cam, a small camera that attaches via suction cup to the animal which would allow us to, “see” what the orca sees. It’s an obtrusive and ethically questionable idea. And in their murky, underwater world, how helpful would it be to try to see what an acoustically driven animal sees. What we need is a device, that could be somehow attached, unobtrusively to the animal that could record when the individual calls, its position in the water column and there location. If we could start to associate not necessarily their behavior, but their location in their three dimensional world, perhaps we could begin to take the next step in knowing exactly what the hell is going on down there. We are a visually driven species studying an equally intelligent acoustically driven species living in a medium completely alien to us. This could take awhile.

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