When orca grandmothers and noise pollution meet artificial intelligence

When orca grandmothers and noise pollution meet artificial intelligence

Where orca grandmothers and noise pollution meet artificial intelligence

By Emily Jerome, Digital Engagement Assistant, National Environmental Treasure

Noise pollution and ship strikes create many challenges for endangered Southern Resident killer whales. That’s why researchers are developing new technologies to help protect them.

When you hear the blow of air infused with a salty mist and see silky black dorsal fins break the glassy waters of the Salish Sea, you can’t help but be in awe of the swift yet commanding movements of orcas. In the spirit of Family Day, we’re celebrating the uniquely tight bonds shared by the remarkable resident killer whale families that call western Canadian waters home. One family member, in particular, is key to the survival of these populations: the grandmother. While resident killer whale families face countless challenges, including dwindling salmon populations and noise pollution, innovations aimed at protecting these sentient creatures are underway.

baby orca with mom swimming in the mountains
Photo by skeeze-272447 from pixabay/Canva

Orca grandmothers as knowledge holders and leaders

What comes to mind when you read “quintessential grandmother?” Perhaps you think of being spoiled with tea biscuits and macaroni and cheese. Or maybe you hear words of wisdom for when you’re in a bind. Well, orca grandmothers are much like human grandmothers. Female resident killer whales give birth to offspring until as late as their mid-30’s but continue to live for decades after their reproductive years are far behind them. In a 2019 study, it was shown that post-reproductive grandmothers increase the survival of their grand offspring. This is known as “the grandmother effect.”

Post-reproductive grandmothers support their grand offspring by (1) lending a helping hand to catch nutrient-rich Chinook salmon, (2) sharing their salmon catches and (3) sharing their ecological knowledge with the family. Menopausal grandmothers use their understanding of the landscape when salmon is scarce and undertake leadership roles during these challenging times.  In some coastal Indigenous cultures, orcas are known as the Guardians of the Sea and represent compassion, protection, community and a strong sense of family. With the decline of Chinook salmon, it is critical that resident killer whale populations have healthy post-reproductive grandmothers and younger females that will age into orca elders.

Chinook salmon jumping out of water
Chinook salmon. Photo by supercaliphotolistic from Getty Images/Canva

What’s the racket on noise pollution?

Orcas use whistles and pulsed calls to communicate with each other and clicks to navigate and hunt for food through echolocation. It’s safe to say that sound is essential to their survival. But, quiet waters have quickly become what the 2016 documentary Sonic Sea describes as a “loud, dark nightclub, unable to see or hear the people right next to you.” The noise pollution created by tankers, container ships, ferries, cruise ships and recreational vessels easily drowns out orca vocalizations due to cavitation bubbles. As the propeller prop spins, bubbles form and then pop at the same frequency of orca echolocation. While we can leave a nightclub if the cacophony is deafening, orcas have no emergency exit.

In January 2021, a study found that boat traffic within 400 yards (366 m) interrupted Southern Resident killer whale feeding. In particular, female whales often stop feeding entirely. The disproportionate effect on female whales is of great concern as it “hinder(s) her ability to meet energetic requirements to support reproductive effects, including fetal growth in pregnancy and lactation costs after calving.” There’s also the possibility that disrupted feeding could impact the health of post-reproductive females that are so important for offspring and generational knowledge. Currently, vessels are required to keep 400 m away from all orcas along the southern B.C. coast.  

tanker ship and orca swimming
Photo by Izanbar from Getty Images/Canva

The Southern Resident killer whales are listed as endangered in Canada with their population teetering at 74 whales as of December 31, 2020. This population travels from mid-Vancouver Island through the Salish Sea, an area that has no shortage of boat traffic and shipping and ferry routes. In 2017, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority estimated that the Southern Resident killer whales can lose up to 5.5 hours of foraging time a day due to boat disruption, including whale watching boats.

Orcas face more than one danger

spy hopping orca in salish sea
Orca spy hopping in the Salish Sea. Photo by Roclwyr from Getty Images/Canva

In addition to the overwhelmingly loud nightclub trapping orca populations, ship strikes also pose a threat. A UBC study that conducted necropsies on stranded orcas between 2003 and 2014, showed that of the nine Southern Resident killer whale deaths, four died because of traumatic impact (44% of the deaths). Orcas are often thought of as highly agile water creatures, but as it turns out, they’re still susceptible to steel tankers plowing through ocean waters. As if these whales don’t have enough to worry about, they’re also exposed to persistent waterborne toxins and fishing pressure on Chinook salmon populations.

Innovations in Artificial Intelligence support orca protection

So, what is being done to protect resident killer whale populations, in particular the Southern Resident killer whales? A Simon Fraser University researcher received $568,000 from Fisheries and Oceans Canada to develop a warning system with the use of artificial intelligence. The aim is to develop a system that will recognize Southern Resident killer whale vocalizations and project their movement for up to 3 or 4 hours. The hope is that this high tech system will prevent future ship strikes with the endangered population.

And what about noise pollution? The Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) Program, spearheaded by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, aims to mitigate acoustic and physical disturbances associated with vessels and environmental contaminants. In 2020, the ECHO Program coordinated voluntary slowdown trials in the Salish Sea and along the coast of Vancouver Island.

How can you help Southern Resident killer whales?

1. Become a citizen scientist. Download the Whale Report app and help conservation efforts by reporting whale sightings.

2. Report an injured or harassed marine mammal (including orcas) or sea turtles to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. 

3. Learn more about noise pollution here, listen to CBC’s podcast Killers: J pod on the brink and watch the award-winning documentary, Sonic Seas.