In the waters around Washington state’s San Juan Islands, submerged microphones capture the clicks, whistles and squeals of the region’s orca populations. Scientists use these recordings to locate and study whales, particularly at night or in bad weather, when visibility is poor. Now, as Matthew Taub reports for Atlas Obscura, an app is letting citizen scientists listen in on orca conversations.
Orcasound, as the app is called, connects to live hydrophones (or underwater microphones) so the sounds of the sea flow into listeners’ ears in real time. The hydrophones have been in place for years, according to Taub, but the app was recently re-launched to include livestreaming capabilities. At the moment, you can hear sounds coming in from the Orcasound Lab hydrophone, which picks up noise from the Haro Strait and the western side of San Juan Island, one of the largest of the San Juan archipelago. Another hydrophone at Bush Point, located at the entrance of Puget Sound, is currently under repair.
The goal of the app is not just to entertain amateur whale enthusiasts. Southern resident killer whales, which are found primarily off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, are in grave trouble, and scientists want the public’s help in tracking them down. Chinook salmon, the whales’ primary prey, is dying off, leaving orcas in the area to effectively starve. Rumblings from commercial ships may also interfere with orcas’ ability to communicate about prey through echolocation. The team behind Orcasound hope that non-expert listeners will help quickly alert researchers to the presence of orcas, so they can send out boats to test fecal matter and leftover bits of prey, thereby getting a better sense of what the whales are eating.
“We want to make it really easy for citizen scientists to listen to signals,” says Scott Veirs, a Seattle-based a bioacoustian and lead researcher of the Orcasound project.
In addition to the livestream, the Orcasound website includes a library of recordings that allows listeners to interpret sounds coming in from the hydrophones. There is, for instance, an interactive illustration of creatures that live in and around the Salish Sea, where the San Juan islands are located, that features recordings of animals (among them orcas, harbor seals, porpoises and Pacific herring) and boats. Listeners can also learn to decipher the favorite calls of specific orca pods.
A collaborative Google spreadsheet lets users log their observations, and the researchers behind the project also ask that Orcasound users email them if they hear anything interesting. In the future, Kay Vandette of Earth.com reports that the team hopes to add a button to the app that users can easily click if they pick up on any important sounds.
For the most part, listeners will probably just hear noise from ships. But if you get lucky, you may catch a snippet of orca chatter, which can, in turn, help scientists keep a close eye on the whales—and determine if they are getting enough food.