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OrcaLab – saving orcas in Canada

For nearly half a century, the team at OrcaLab have been following the daily lives of the Northern Resident population of orcas.

OrcaLab is unique. Nestled along the shoreline of the evergreen forest of Hanson Island, off British Columbia, Canada,  OrcaLab has been a listening outpost for nearly half a century. In recent years, remote-operated cameras have increased our knowledge offering a fascinating insight into the daily lives of the Northern Resident orcas who call the waters of the ‘inside passage’ home.
A hydrophone (underwater microphone) network listens in on over 30 square miles (50km²) of ocean, which means orcas can be monitored year-round, regardless of conditions. As long as the orcas are vocalizing – whether it be dark, foggy or stormy - their calls are projected through speakers in the lab, the main house and around camp at OrcaLsb.
OrcaLab was established in 1970 by Dr Paul Spong, who was joined by Helena Symonds in 1979. Their philosophy is simple and is centered on the belief that it is possible to study wild orcas without interfering with their daily lives and habitat.
The Northern Resident community consists of over 300 orcas including WDC’s adoptable orcas Holly and Fife. These majestic whales roam a huge area stretching from Southeast Alaska all the way down to Vancouver Island. Every summer, they return to their core area of Johnstone Strait and Blackfish Sound and spend the long days chasing Chinook salmon, resting, or socializing with family members and members of other pods.
Johnstone Strait is also home to the famous "rubbing beaches", specific beaches where the orcas come to rub their bodies on smooth pebbles. Different family groups have preferred beaches they like to visit. This unique behavior is a cultural tradition of the Northern Residents and underwater cameras capture extraordinary images of the orcas - both above and below the surface - as they effortlessly glide through the shallows. Footage taken at the rubbing beaches may even reveal to OrcaLab a strong hint that some of the females are pregnant – including WDC’s very own adoptable orca, Holly.

OrcaLab facts

  • OrcaLab is the world’s longest running wild orca project.
  • Over 300 orcas have been identified.
  • They use non-invasive techniques including photo-identification and hydrophones.
  • OrcaLab is supported through WDC’s Adopt an Orca project.
  • The family of Corky, an orca held at SeaWorld, roam these waters.

Just one Northern Resident orca captured during the horrific live capture era of the 1960s and 70s remains alive today.  Corky, whose family, the A5 pod,  includes WDC adoption orca Fife, was just a baby when she was captured in 1969.  Corky and Tokitae, the last living Southern Resident orca in captivity, are the longest-surviving captive-held orcas in the world.

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Find out more about orcas

Visit our species guide to learn more about this species.

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Fate of captive orcas

Find out  why orcas aren't suited for a life in captivity.

To listen and watch orcas - highlights and in real time - please visit: orca-live.net or explore.org/livecams/orcas

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