By Sarika Cullis-Suzuki, presenter  

We squint, scanning the water for movement. We are bobbing in the sea in a black Zodiac off the coast of British Columbia — engines off, listening, searching. All of a sudden a loud burst of air causes us to look left, where we catch sight of a large, shiny black dorsal fin arcing back into the waves.

“That’s A60”, says Jared Towers, a seasoned orca researcher who’s captaining the Zodiac.He spends more time each year on the water than on land and is able to identify over 600 individual orcas by sight.

Gradually, as my non-expert eyes acclimate to the scene, I begin to see more sleek-bodied orcas. There are a few up ahead, a few more to port, and a group in the distance on our starboard side. Wow. I don’t know what is considered ‘normal,’ but it sure seems like we are seeing a lot of them.

It’s then that I notice we’re not alone with these large marine mammals. There’s another research boat coming up behind us and a fishing boat meandering closer to shore, plus a tug boat, a trimaran, and a few whale watching boats closing in. Suddenly an enormous cruise ship appears, cutting through the ocean.

The orcas to our left continue to feed as more boats arrive — I count 16 vessels in the vicinity. Then a float plane comes out of nowhere, circles the scene, and disappears. I am stunned. A few moments ago it felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere; now it feels more like Grand Central Station.

Southern resident orcas face many threats

Southern resident orcas are designated Endangered under Canada’s Species At Risk Act. As I write this, their numbers have dwindled to just over 70 individuals. The Northern resident orcas — those we are watching today from the Zodiac — are holding stronger at just over 300 individuals; they are listed as ‘Threatened’.

Orca populations are declining for several reasons. For Southern residents, their food supply is shrinking: they primarily consume chinook salmon, whose numbers are dropping in part, due to overfishing and diseases introduced by fish farms.

Boats and their noisy engines are another big problem, crisscrossing areas of critical orca habitat off the south end of Vancouver Island. What’s more, toxins and chemical pollution in the ocean accumulate in their bodies and can eventually poison them and their fetuses.

Ocean noise affects more than just orcas

The Northern residents we are watching from the Zodiac continue to feed. But I’ve become distracted by the other boats around us. Who are they and what are they doing? Jared says some are government researchers monitoring the orca populations; others are university students with specific orca projects. Jared points to some scientists from Europe, here to study orca communication. And of course, there are the tourists.

It’s impossible not to think about how we are impacting these orcas. The underwater noise we are all creating with our vessels must be a problem for these animals who rely on acoustic communication. Full disclosure: I studied the effects of noise on fish for my PhD thesis, so I spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff.

We know the effects that man-made noise can have on whales and dolphins. But we’re just starting to discover that underwater noise can cause physiological changes and irreparable hearing loss in fish; massive acoustic trauma and death in octopus; internal bruising in crabs; deformities and developmental delays in scallops, the list goes on. It seems like everywhere we look, animals are being seriously impacted by our noise.

You'd never guess which species orcas evolved from
Returning 'Corky,' a wild orca, to her birthplace after 50 years in captivity

Coexisting with orcas in the future

As I perch on the side of the Zodiac, blowing on my frozen hands, I consider how we might coexist with orcas. Altering shipping lanes and reducing boat speeds are actions that would benefit them. Obtaining data on orcas through passive acoustic recordings, drone photography and fecal samples (all methods currently employed by various researchers) could be less invasive and preferred options for orca research.

And as for tourism, quieter boats are just the start. Chief Ernest Alfred of the Namgis Nation in Alert Bay described to me how some are already envisioning a land-based orca observatory where people have the opportunity to see marine mammals from a station. Tourists can plan on spending the day — have lunch, go for a walk, learn about local culture and hear all about whales and dolphins. As a bonus, you might see an orca … or you might not. You will, however, always leave with an experience, he says.

As Dr. Paul Spong of OrcaLab (the remote orca research station on Hanson Island) reminded me a few days ago: “We need to give these animals space. Space to thrive. We need to leave them alone.”

The feeding frenzy appears to be subsiding, and the orcas begin to dissipate. So too, go the boats and we are the last ones left. Then, we turn on our engines, steer towards home, and leave the orcas alone.

Watch Listening to Orcas on The Nature of Things.


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