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  • Madison Churchill

Hydophone Recovery: Reconnecting to the Southern Residents Through Sound.

There are few sounds more enchanting than the underwater songs of a wild orca pod. From my home, I’ve spent many rainy mornings listening to the Southern Residents over the Orca Sound hydrophones. Right here in my home, landlocked and surrounded by forest, I connect with them.

I’m reminded of the complex nuances of their language. The back and forth chatter leaves me wondering what they’re discussing. They might be hunting, calling to their family members, making declarations or expressing curiosity.


More likely perhaps, they might be communicating about things we couldn’t begin to understand. Having hydrophones in the water and hearing these animals on a regular basis has taught us so much about their migration, their hunting methods, their family structure, and their intelligence. So, when the Orca Sound hydrophones stopped working, it was imperative to restore that connection with our whales.

Orcinus Orca is one of the most intelligent and widespread mammal species on Earth. They communicate underwater across grand stretches of sea. The Southern Residents in particular are quite vocal, much more so than their Transient cousins. Each family unit, or “pod” is thought to have their own unique dialect.


Through various calls, clicks, squeaks, and songs, they hunt for food and communicate with their family members from miles away. Cetaceans as a whole are considered to be one of the most communicative and family-oriented groups of animals in the world. Sound is everything to them. That’s why recovering the Orca Sound hydrophones was a necessary step in reconnecting with the whales we strive to save.

This August, PNW Protectors met up with Val from Orca Sound and Gloria of Co-Extinction, along with Joel and London Fletcher, on an epic freedive mission. On that bright summer morning, the group took to Haro Strait. Half of the divers swam out from shore, others by boat, to a spot called Smugglers Cove where the hydrophones were said to be located. The general area was identified, but the hydrophones had since become completely camouflaged with the surrounding ecosystem.


Locating and retrieving these hydrophones was no small feat. The team took over 30 dives down throughout about two and a half hours. No scuba tanks were used on this mission, everything was done by lung capacity alone, with each dive averaging a minute long.

The water was murky with phytoplankton, as it usually is in the Pacific Northwest. The underwater landscape was concealed by blankets of flowing kelp, making the task much like a game of hide and seek. Searching through kelp, algae, rocks, and sand, they began to locate each of the submerged hydrophones.

As they searched through the icy Salish water, the divers were greeted by the calls of J-Pod. The whales sang and communicated back and forth to each other, sharing the excitement with this elated group of orca conservationists. For hours the team endured the freezing cold water with the support of the whales, and they couldn’t be happier to have done it. The pod serenaded back and forth throughout the entire dive, bringing a unique sense of validity to the mission. This was the exact result they hoped to achieve by fixing the devices. To hear the whales again.

Once the hydrophones were located, they were raised to the boat using ropes and buoys. After years of being sedentary in the ocean, they were encrusted with sea life. They had been consumed by twirling tangles of red and green kelp, looking like an old piece fallen from a pirate ship.


With smiles and full hearts, the team successfully recovered three hydrophones which have since been repaired and replaced back to their aquatic homes. Now, thanks to the hard work of this amazing team, we are able to hear the Southern Residents from our own homes by tuning into Orca Sound. There are six hydrophones in total that need to be replaced in Smuggler’s Cove. Of the six, three were reclaimed that day. We plan to return for the other three in the upcoming months. We hope that by connecting people to these whales through sound, we can begin to build empathy and inspire conservation for this incredible community of orcas.


Tune in to listen to the orcas today at https://www.orcasound.net/


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