Listening to Orcas

Uncovering the complex and emotional lives of the ocean’s most intelligent predators.
Available on CBC Gem

Listening to Orcas

Nature of Things

Since the 1960s, our knowledge of orcas has evolved. This species once feared as apex predators and “killers of the deep” are now seen as extraordinarily intelligent, emotional, and social animals.

Listening to Orcas, a documentary from The Nature of Things explores the ground-breaking research. Marine biologist and presenter Sarika Cullis-Suzuki meets up with some of the scientists who have transformed our awareness of orcas and have turned Johnstone Strait, on British Columbia’s west coast, into a living laboratory of orca research. 

Cullis-Suzuki heads out to sea with Department of Fisheries researcher, and unofficial “orca lifeguard,” Jared Towers, whose hands-on approach to research means spending most of his time out on the water. He’s been unravelling orcas’ profoundly close family ties and social bonding — and he’s come to know hundreds of individuals by sight alone. She also watches as Oceanwise director of marine mammal research, Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, uses drones to document orca health and behaviour.

Back on land, Cullis-Suzuki visits the Whale Interpretive Centre in Telegraph Cove and learns how orcas “see” with sound using their complex and sophisticated brains with neurologist Lori Marino and zoologist John Ford.

The team uses a hydrophone to listen as orcas communicate with each other, demonstrating their distinctive calls. Ford is trying to understand how orcas live together, connect and play, hunt and share information and skills that are passed from one generation to the next through the matriarch of each clan.

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Aboard the state of the art German research vessel ‘The Tomorrow,’ Cullis-Suzuki watches as a group of international scientists attempt to decipher orca language by using computer software to compare their sounds with their behaviours.

Cullis-Suzuki learns from Namgis Hereditary Chief Ernest Alfred that the West Coast Resident orcas are a threatened species. Their future is at risk because of reduced wild salmon stocks and over-fishing; from chemical pollution and the ever-increasing noise of boat traffic.

Watch Listening to Orcas on The Nature of Things.