'It's a huge party': B.C. whale-watching operator uses hydrophones to listen to whale songs

When it comes to whale-watching tours in British Columbia, operators are now finding whale sounds are becoming just as important as whale sightings.

Wild Waterway Adventures, based on Quadra Island, B.C., uses hydrophones to pick up underwater audio recordings on some of its tours.

"When we get the acoustics is when they’re in the big groups. It’s multiple families together that haven’t seen each other in awhile and it’s a huge party," said Jennifer Smalley with Wild Waterway Adventures.

"There’s so many sounds and so many different tones and we don’t know what they’re saying but it's very clear they’re having a really good time," she added.

Hobby photographer Blair Denman was on one of the whale-watching tours when some whale sounds were picked up by the hydrophones.

"We could hear them without the microphone just while standing in the boat, and then when we dropped the microphone in the water it was like they were having a party. It was amazing," he said.

'THEY ALL HAVE DIFFERENT LANGUAGES'

Whale researcher Jackie Hildering says hydrophones are a great educational tool.

"The power indeed of literally opening up the oceans so that people can hear the whales in their environment has such power to it," she told CTV News.

"As educators what we’re trying to do is have more boaters realize that this is the reason that there are distance limits and speed limits around whales," she said.

Hildering helped install a hydrophone in Robson Bight, on northern Vancouver Island, several years ago.

She says the audio recordings can help determine where whales are coming from, and which specific families they belong to.

"It not only allows knowing what species of whale are in an area, but in the case of the population of orcas on our coast – four different populations – it's what allowed researchers to know that they all have different languages," she said.

Hildering notes that the technology is passive and does not disturb whales, which is good news for tour operators that have the hydrophones on their ships. 

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