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Killer whales breaching in unison (a rare sight). Photo by John Ford.

Blackfish {format} {format} {format} 3:22 Barrett Golding

Identifying whale families by their song.

Broadcast: Feb 28 2007 on PRX Nature Stories Podcast; Dec 20 2004 on NPR Day to Day Subjects: Environment, Science

Profile: Dr. John Ford studies the communication of orcas at the Vancouver Aquarium

December 20, 2004 from Day to Day

ALEX CHADWICK, host: Ocean pollution comes in different forms. At the Vancouver Aquarium in Canada's British Columbia, marine biologist John Ford studies noise from shipping--there's a lot of it along the coastline--and for whales, which use sound to communicate...

(Soundbite of whale song)

CHADWICK: ...the interference is a real problem. As producer Barrett Golding learned, Dr. Ford can identify individual groups of killer whales--they're called orcas--by their calls. But he has to work at night because the shipping noise is so great in the day.

(Soundbite of whale song)

Dr. JOHN FORD (Marine Biologist): Each family group, or pod, of killer whales actually has its own unique set of sounds, a repertoire of very distinctive calls.

(Soundbite of whale song)

Dr. FORD: One kind of sound that's very commonly heard is called echolocation, and they're very rapidly emitted clicks.

(Soundbite of whale song)

Dr. FORD: An echo is received from objects in the environment, and they process the information in this echo to get a three-dimensional acoustic picture, and so they use it to navigate and to find fish. The other kind of sounds that whales make, these very shrill, metallic-sounding squeals and screams, tend to be for communication between individuals in a group and between groups.

(Soundbite of whale song)

Dr. FORD: They're only within earshot of the hydrophone for a few hours a day, typically, but often what you do hear is the sound of boats and ships.

(Soundbite of ship noises)

Dr. FORD: We have cruise ships that go right through the area. There's a lot of fish boat traffic, there's whale watch traffic, research boats. And it's of growing concern to us acoustic biologists how these noises might be affecting the whales' ability to use their sonar to find food and navigate and to keep in touch with their pod mates.

(Soundbite of whale song)

Dr. FORD: They are wonderful sounds to listen to, especially at night, when we're camped, or anchored in our boat, and we have our hydrophone, underwater microphone, hanging off the side of the boat. And it's really quiet at night because the boating traffic is mostly gone and you can hear the whales' calls resonating down this very deep submarine canyon that's like 1,500 feet deep or so, and it's a very, very eerie, magical experience at times, to be able to eavesdrop to live orca conversation underwater.

(Soundbite of whale song)

CHADWICK: That piece comes to us from Barrett Golding. He's an independent radio producer who runs the radio consortium Hearing Voices.

(Soundbite of whale song)

CHADWICK: Whale song on DAY TO DAY.