They are eerie, mysterious sounds clicks and howls and forlorn whistles that seem to come from deep in a primordial past linking the killer whales that make the calls to the people who, with modern tools, can now listen to them.
John K.B. Ford, a bearded marine scientist so smitten with whales that he keeps a six-foot narwhal tusk in his office, has listened to and studied calls of the killer whale, also called orca, for more than 20 years and still finds them evocative.
He is convinced that there there are so many people like him in this dreamy West Coast dominion that he is starting what is probably the world’s first all-whale radio station.
Ford, head of research at the Vancouver Aquarium, plans to use a lowpower FM license to broadcast continuous live transmissions from under the sea - specifically an area between the British Columbia mainland and Vancouver Island called Robson Bight that is known as one of the busiest killer whale intersections in the world. He keeps track of more than 500 whales that make the voyage through Robson Bight.
“The idea of listening to 30 to 40 whales chatting to each other at Robson Bight without bothering them at all was pretty compelling,” Ford said. “Even if the whales are not in earshot, people could listen to water noises - fish grunting, mussels popping and above all cruise ships and fish boats and all these things that are really very noisy.”
While grunting and popping might sound like the best of some afternoon radio talk shows, Vancouver’s FM radio market is not quaking at the arrival of a new competitor, which Ford has designated ORCA-FM.
“I don’t think people are going to come to work in the morning listening to whale song instead of traffic reports,” said Roderick J. Gunn, general manager of CFMI-FM, a classic rock station in Vancouver. But he was certain that if there are people anywhere who might want to tune into an all-whale format, they are probably in Vancouver.
“We do have our share of tree-huggers here,” he said. “I couldn’t really see this happening in Toronto or New York.” At first, the transmission area of all-whale radio will be limited to a radius of just 10 miles from the initial underwater microphone at Robson Bight. This will allow the thousands of people who come in whale-watching boats each year to listen in. The signal will then be sent to the Vancouver Aquarium, where 850,000 annual visitors will hear it.
Eventually, he plans to put live audio transmissions on the aquarium’s Internet site so that people around the world can tune in ORCA-FM.
The reason for doing this is not ratings, but research, Ford said. The radio transmissions are part of a long-term investigation into acoustical identification that has helped scientists understand how killer whales, actually a kind of dolphin, live.
Using a system to identify whales by their markings, Ford has found that all killer whales have a repertory of about a dozen calls. But the pitch and tone of the calls vary depending on which group, or pod, the whale belongs to. Typically, whales from the northern tip of Vancouver Island end their calls with an up note, while southern whales trail off with a down note.
Ford believes that whales make noises to keep together in murky water. Differing accents might also help identify pod members and thus avoid inbreeding. But it is not language in any human sense.
“We’d love for these wonderful animals to be able to talk to us, but unfortunately for believers there really is no evidence to support any of that,” he said.
A few years ago Ford placed a single underwater microphone in Robson Bight. It was hooked to a speaker in the home of a local resident who agreed to record the whale sounds he heard. One night when there was an extraordinary number of whales, he called Ford and simply held the phone to the speaker. Ford, 250 miles away in Vancouver, was amazed that the sounds coming over the telephone were so clear he could identify which whales were making noise.
That gave him the idea of designing a new system where a computer differentiates whale calls from boat noises. When it recognizes whale sounds the computer uses a solarpowered cellular phone to call Ford’s office, where the sounds are recorded.
But Ford came to realize that the background noise of passing ships was important too. As whale watching has become more popular, the number of boats at Robson Bight has shot up. One summer day in 1996, 107 boats were in the area following 21 whales. Ford believes that noise from the boats can interfere with the whales’ own signals.
He decided that a continuous feed from the microphone back to his office was required. But that meant sending a radio signal from the listening station 10 miles through rough country to the village of Telegraph Cove on Vancouver Island, which had existing phone lines to relay the information to Vancouver.
But instead of confining the radio signal to the research project, Ford decided to give whale watchers the chance to listen in, and perhaps better understand how their presence affects the whales.
He had to file an application with the federal government for the broadcast license. “In one place they asked if the principal language was English, French or other,” he said. “We checked other and wrote in: whale.”
Regulators approved Ford’s application on Oct. 2. Testing on the station, 88.5 FM, will start in October, but Ford said rough winter weather might force him to wait till spring to begin full programming.
While the first broadcast is still some time off, Ford’s whale top-40 is already generating plenty of interest. Stephen L. Dennis, who owns four whale-watching boats in Tofino, a small town on the west coast of Vancouver Island, was skeptical at first. Now he has been won over by ORCA-FM.
“I never thought I’d see the day when people would be pumping whale sounds into the atmosphere,” Dennis said. But now he plans to hook up an amplifier so people on his boat can hear what they cannot see.
“It’s a wonderful idea,” he said. “Maybe I’ll even pipe it into the office.”