By Patricia Guthrie / Whidbey News Group
WHIDBEY ISLAND — Most of the time, it sounds like the white noise soundtrack of sleep.
Or perhaps the static of a faraway radio signal.
But every once in awhile, Whidbey Island’s new ear to the ocean will catch the squeals of orcas and the man-made noises that might be harming them.
A hydrophone, the underwater microphone just launched by Orca Network at Bush Point, projects 10 miles into Admiralty Inlet from the southwest shoreline of Whidbey. There, strong Pacific tides rush to and from Puget Sound and mix with rivers, attracting marine life and sea birds.
It’s hoped the hydrophone will help augment research into the seasonal migration of salmon and the movement of the local three pods of southern resident killer whales, said Orca Network co-founders Susan Berta and Howard Garrett.
The whale pods, known as J, K and L, are struggling to survive. Numbering nearly 100 in 1995, the population has dwindled to 74. The whales are threatened by toxins, ship traffic and a lack of food, specifically chinook salmon, according to the Center for Whale Research.
The hydrophone will allow scientists to study the effects of ocean noise and measure the levels of sound generated by passing ships.
Southern resident orcas typically return to Puget Sound in the fall, following chum salmon that have returned to spawn, Berta said.
“People interested in orcas can now listen to them, as well as see them,” she said.
But the equipment has a few issues.
“Unfortunately, the hydrophone went down, except for occasional sporadic bursts for a few seconds at a time, since we sent out the Nov. 1 press release and J pod came down Admiralty,” Garrett said. “The techies are on the case, and their diagnosis is that there’s a power supply problem, which can be fixed.”
To install the device, the Orca Network of Langley partnered with Beam Reach/OrcaSound and the Center for Whale Research that coordinates a network of hydrophones around the Salish Sea.
The Bush Point hydrophone is part of the new OrcaSound App, which includes underwater mics near San Juan Island; another may be added near Langley. It can be accessed on smart phones and allows an unlimited number of people to dip their ear in the ocean without getting wet.
The stream is being archived, said Scott Veirs, oceanographer, bioacoustician and founder of Beam Reach/OrcaSound.
OrcaSound’s website encourages listeners to become citizen scientists by reporting live orca sounds via email and to log observations on a spreadsheet.
During the summer months, southern resident orcas are usually heard every few days via hydrophone.
They emit diverse calls, or vocalizations, some 40 distinct signals within the hearing range of humans, according to Orca Network.
The public can tune in to hear humpback whales, transient killer whales, harbor seals and a collection of rare and unusual sounds, including fish farts, at the Langley Whale Center’s underwater listening exhibit.
This past March, hydrophones picked up the rare sound of a lone sperm whale. “The last time a sperm whale was heard even close to the Salish Sea was more than 30 years ago,” Veirs wrote on his OrcaSound blog. The largest of toothed whales, the sperm whale’s echolocation of loud clicks sounds like metal marbles being shot from a pellet gun.
The Bush Point hydrophone was built by Lab-Corp. Florian Graner, an underwater filmmaker and diver with SeaLife Productions, installed the device. Owners of Bush Point Bed and Breakfast agreed to wharf access and to have related equipment installed in their building; Whidbey Telecom provided a grant to fund high-speed Internet access. Kickstarter donations also support the project.
This story originally appeared in the South Whidbey Record, a sibling paper of The Daily Herald.