VANCOUVER—On any given day, Paul Cottrell’s phone can light up with hundreds of notifications. It’s the orcas calling.
“Southern resident killer whales are very chatty,” he says.
Cottrell is the marine mammal co-ordinator with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and he’s also part of a project that is using artificial intelligence to track the whereabouts of endangered southern resident orcas.
The Canadian government maintains a network of 18 underwater microphones surrounding Victoria and Vancouver, as well as the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Every time an orca swims near one of those 18 hydrophones, as they are known, artificial intelligence technology developed by Google sends a notification telling researchers where the orcas are.
“It’s like getting an email every five seconds. So you definitely know what’s going on,” Cottrell said.
Whale researchers are especially interested in tracking the southern resident orcas, which have been in decline for more than a decade.
Fewer than 30 of them are of breeding age, according to the Center for Whale Research, the organization responsible for conducting an annual census of the southern residents. The northern resident orcas, which spend less time in the busy Salish Sea, are faring much better. There are about 300 individuals in that population.
The AI project springs from a partnership between Google, the Silicon Valley-based Rainforest Connection and Fisheries and Oceans Canada that began in the fall of 2018.
A demo of the Rainforest Connection web interface running Google’s orca detection model. Read more about our research: https://www.blog.google/technology/ai/protecting-orcas/
Cottrell and his team sent 1,800 hours of audio — filled with everything from the whirring of motor boats, to the sound of rain pattering on the surface of the ocean, to the clicks and whistles of orcas — to Julie Cattiau’s bioacoustics team at Google.
Using a software developed by Rainforest Connection, Cattiau and her team taught an algorithm — originally developed to help American authorities identify humpback whales — to identify orcas instead.
Resident orcas are very talkative, said Cottrell, much more so than their mammal-hunting counterparts, the transient orcas. The transient orcas ply coastal waters silently, so as to remain undetected by their prey: seals and other whales. Resident orcas, by contrast, are fish-eaters and — since they have no reason to hide their presence — chatterboxes.
That makes it easy for the algorithm to detect them.
Whenever orcas enter the Salish Sea, Cottrell’s phone lights up. Researchers can pinpoint exactly where the whales are, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“It’s incredible — it’s almost like they have no privacy,” he said.
For that reason, this information is not available publicly, lest over-enthusiastic whale lovers head out onto the water to try and catch a glimpse of the endangered animals. In Canada, boaters must stay at least 200 metres away from an orca.
But researchers such as Cottrell will now know in real time where the orcas are without having to monitor the hydrophones themselves. That might be the difference between life and death if there is an oil spill or other disaster in the area. Authorities would be able to head out onto the water and turn the orcas away from the spill if necessary.
“I hope this never happens, but if there is an oil spill, it’s important we know where the animals are,” he said.
The information also allows authorities to alert vessel captains when there are orcas in shipping lanes or ferry routes.
The southern resident orcas are facing extinction due to toxins in the water, noise pollution from ships and, most pressingly, a lack of Chinook, their preferred prey.
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Cottrell said the new technology will enable studies and conservation efforts researchers haven’t even thought of yet. Scientists now have data — a lot of it — and it’ll be a matter of thinking of ways to use it, said Cottrell.
The algorithm may one day even be able to tell the difference between the calls of different pods of orcas.
Pods of resident orcas have distinct calls they only use among themselves, as well as a shared dialect they use to communicate with those outside of their family group, said Deborah Giles, a conservation biologist with the University of Washington.
“I’m not an acoustician at all, but I can tell the difference between the three (southern resident) pods,” she said. “It’s very obvious who is speaking.”
Cottrell mused that if the software could identify individual whales, it would open even more doors for research and conservation. For instance, veterinarians might be able to keep tabs on certain sick and injured whales. The possibilities are endless, he said.
“We’re just so happy with this collaboration. We’re really jazzed.”
A few months before the current partnership began, a mother orca had carried her dead newborn’s body for two weeks before letting it sink to the ocean floor. The story struck a chord with many, highlighting the plight of the southern resident orcas who, according to researchers, are slowly starving to death. Then, another orca, a malnourished three-year-old southern resident, died despite a dramatic multinational rescue attempt.
“We read it and we got very upset about it, because it’s so sad,” said Cattiau. Her team had been working with the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the time on humpback whales in the Pacific Ocean, which have seen a remarkable recovery since whaling was outlawed in 1965.
“We thought, ‘What about species that are endangered today and need urgent care from the authorities?’”
So Cattiau arranged a meeting with Cottrell in Victoria in September 2018. She offered Google’s bioacoustics technology to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, free of charge. They also partnered with Rainforest Connection, which has its origins in the anti-deforestation movement, detecting chainsaw noises in the Amazon rainforest and notifying authorities.
Giles said the southern resident orcas need all the help they can get. In the past three years, a dozen southern resident orcas have died. Last week, researchers announced that a 42-year-old male, L41, had been missing for some time and was presumed dead.
That means this unique population of whales, one of the most studied in the world, is nearly back to capture-era levels. In 1976, there were 68 whales in the southern resident population after dozens of orcas were captured for aquariums, according to the Centre for Whale Research. The population slowly grew back to 89 individuals by 2006.
Today, there are 72 southern resident orcas left.
Anyone who sees a whale in distress can call Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s injured marine mammal hotline at 1-800-465-4336.