Nation & World

‘Ocean in your pocket’ app lets you listen to killer whales in the Pacific Northwest

A new Internet app. Orcasound, livestreams audio from hydrophones - underwater microphones - used to locate whales near the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest.
A new Internet app. Orcasound, livestreams audio from hydrophones - underwater microphones - used to locate whales near the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest. Associated Press

If you are an FOW - Fan Of Whales - or would like to be, a new Internet app lets you eavesdrop on killer whales as they swim around in the ocean near Washington state. But it’s not just easy listening.

The scientists who created the Orcasound app launched this month, want to deputize “citizen scientists” to help them conduct their research on whales, who scientists say are suffering in the area.

On the Orcasound website, researchers call the app “an ocean in your pocket.” You can listen to the 24/7 livestream online..

Click here to hear four minutes of a podcast that captured “orcas calling, whistling, and clicking,” the app’s website says.

Heads up. Whales are loud.

“You’ve heard of whale watching, but what about whale listening?” writes Earth.com, which called the Orcasound project a “massive citizen science initiative.”

The app plays sound picked up by hydrophones - underwater microphones - that researchers use to locate whales.

Some of the hydrophones have been in place since 2002 in the Haro Strait along the west side of San Juan Island, the “summertime habitat of the endangered southern resident killer whales,” the Orcasound website says.

More underwater mics were set up this year at the entrance to Puget Sound, “a great place to listen for the southern resident killer whales who pass through Admiralty Inlet about once a month in search of salmon,” says the app’s website.

“Other common sounds here are ships heading to and from the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma and fishing boats using the adjacent ramp.”

The hydrophones are “especially useful at night or in poor weather when sighting networks are ineffective,” writes Science Daily.

“Computer algorithms are playing a growing role in analyzing hydrophone audio data, but human listeners can complement and enhance these algorithms.”

The project is meant to provide an inexpensive, user-friendly way for people interested in the study and conservation of marine life to do research, Scott Veirs, a bioacoustian in Seattle and lead researcher of the Orcasound project, told Science Daily.

Southern resident killer whales - found primarily off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia - “are in grave trouble and scientists want the public’s health in tracking them down,” wrote Smithsonian magazine.

After shooting and live capture of whales were banned, “the population rebounded from 71 individuals in 1976 to 98 in 1995,” according to the website of the Marine Mammal Commission, an independent agency of the federal government

“However, the population has declined since, and as of September 2018 stands at 74, the lowest it has been in 34 years. The prospects for recovery appear bleak, as since 2015 there have been no births that have produced calves who have survived.”

Dying chinook salmon populations - primary whale prey - have left many orcas in the area starving, Smithsonian reports. And the noise from commercial ships might be interfering with the whales’ abilities to communicate with each other about the location of available prey.

App listeners might be able to alert researchers more quickly when whales are detected so scientists can head out to test fecal matter and collect leftover bits of prey that tell scientists what the whales are eating, Earth.com reported.

Listeners also might help scientists “learn when and where orcas migrate, how they communicate and forage, and what noises might be impeding the recovery of this endangered species,” says the Orcasound website.

Researchers have to figure out how to organize listeners, train them on how to listen to the livestream and be “better detectors of whales,” Smithsonian wrote.

In the future, the project’s scientists hope to add a button feature that listeners can click when they hear something interesting they want to report, Science Daily reported.

“Without the real-time data from Orcasound we’re deaf to what’s happening now in an entire ecosystem,” says the app’s website.

California resident Kate Cummings shot video of two playful orca whales in Moss Landing, California, on Jan. 2.

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