One of the world’s leading authorities on killer whales is a kind of Dr. Dolittle character who spent decades not talking to marine mammals, but listening to them.
Over an impressive and influential career, the University of Cumbria Associate Professor of Wildlife Conservation, Volker Deecke helps guide international protection policies in many countries and has been at the forefront of raising public awareness.
He played a central role in the acclaimed research of the governments of Canada, Iceland, America and the United Kingdom to assess the status of killer whales in their waters.
Important in shaping conservation strategies for the largest member of the dolphin family, whose very survival hinges on tackling a catalog of pressing concerns, underwater acoustics has been key to Dr. Deecke’s studies. .
Having developed techniques that allowed him to literally eavesdrop on orca communication, he used the tell-tale signals to successfully accumulate vital data designed to protect populations and even prevent some from heading for the jaws of extinction.
Despite being one of the most familiar and well-known cetaceans, killer whales are classified as Data Deficient by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Despite the lack of information, what is known is that there are now populations considered to be threatened.
Dr Deecke explained: “While those I studied are reasonably healthy, residents of southern British Columbia, Washington State and UK waters are slowly declining.
“Fortunately, our research is very collaborative and rather than one of us ‘saving’ a population, we are all contributing to a puzzle that will hopefully lead to better management and protection strategies.”
In 27 years of research, Dr. Deecke’s work, particularly on communication tracking using digital recording tags, has helped to better understand behavior, diet and, most importantly, the impact of underwater noise.
Listening to telltale sounds is made possible by acoustic beacons, the size of a mobile phone, and equipped with four suction cups attached via a five-meter pole from a research boat designed to minimize disturbance.
“It’s been very exciting,” he admits, “to open up new areas of understanding under the waves. Prior to this, we were limited to surface whale watching. Beacons have given us the ability to plot dive paths and record the sounds they detect and emit.
“Hearing them opens a fascinating window into their world. I like to close my eyes while listening, imagining what it is over there.
“You need in-depth knowledge of their behavior to approach them slowly and tag them. We may see a slight jump start, but the data shows that they quickly return to normal activities.
“Between 2009 and 2012, we marked 34 northern residents off Vancouver Island, classified as Threatened in Canada, but with a stable or even slightly increasing population.
“In 2019, we tagged six more and the results are being analyzed, especially against southerners to explain the different trajectories. The work continues. »
The biggest concern comes from noise. For whales and dolphins, sounds from ships, naval sonar, industrial operations like offshore wind farms and seismic surveys for oil and gas, have an impact.
Dr Deecke explained: “While there is a growing trend to use marine mammal spotters and to only advance operations if there are no nearby sightings, deep diving animals and further away are not detected, but may still be affected.”
In the world’s first such trial, ships approaching the Port of Vancouver were asked to voluntarily slow down to minimize propeller and engine noise to reduce the impact on endangered southern resident killer whales.
“Global shipping is an area where huge gains could be made by designing quieter commercial cargo carriers,” says Dr. Deecke. “The slowdown trial is the first step towards creating economic incentives to reduce noise.
“Our work in western Canada has shown that even in this relatively remote region, northern residents experience some sort of anthropogenic noise most of the time.
“However, for residents south of the busy waterways between British Columbia and Washington State, the problem is even more serious.
“The technology to make ships quieter exists. The military has used it for decades to make ships less detectable. Considerable gains could be made by designing commercial freighters that produce less noise.
To get to the heart of the matter and understand life in the world of killer whales, Dr. Deecke literally listened to what they had to say, not just about noise pollution, but about how and where they feed, their reproduction, what they like and, above all, what bothers them.
These are not useless chatter, but essential communication signals between animals so that they can find and identify each other.
Their “language”, based on three sounds, echolocation clicks, whistles and pulsating calls, speaks of navigation to find prey and spot danger at remarkable distances of up to tens of kilometers.
The pulsating calls even have dialects, while the clicks, sounding a bit like a door creak, indicate objects around them, helping to identify prey and navigate.
Because they have excellent hearing, populations of mammal hunters use their calls sparingly to avoid alerting food supplies that they are hunting.
Dr. Deecke was born in Germany and raised in Austria where his interest in animal behavior developed from an early age. It was while studying biology in Berlin that he found himself in Vancouver with the irresistible prospect of researching underwater communication.
It was there that he completed his master’s degree studying the evolution of dialects in resident fish-eating orcas. This led to his PhD from Scotland’s University of St Andrews and focus on the vocal behavior of mammal-eating killer whales in British Columbia and Alaska.
His ear-piercing gadget has also been used on dolphins and seals. But it was the beautiful and distinctive black and white killer whale, with its sophisticated hunting techniques and convincing vocal characteristics, often specific to a particular group and passed down through the generations, that was the main focus.
“Our research in Shetland and Iceland used photo identification and call analysis to show how individuals frequently travel between the two countries – and helped us recognize those who got stranded.”
A male Orkney juvenile was identified, successfully refloated and seen swimming.
“In the 27 years I’ve studied killer whales, there have been notable changes, for better or for worse,” he says.
“Persistent organic pollutants, toxic substances that take a long time to break down and accumulate in the food chain, present significant challenges. The higher animals and plants are on the food chain, the greater their exposure. Large predators like killer whales and polar bears are particularly vulnerable.
“Flame retardants, commonly used in plastics and textiles, can cause disease and death where the immune response is reduced. Many chemicals are regulated, but the effects are global and will take centuries to disappear from the environment.
“Effective conservation requires all nations within the killer whale range to collaborate and implement conservation measures.”
Where there has been intervention and preservation legislation, it has made a difference, as Dr. Deecke explained.
“Residents in the south and Icelandic populations have been affected when individuals have been captured for display in aquariums. Fortunately, it ended in the mid-1970s in America and 10 years later in the waters off Iceland.
“Different populations feed on different things, but food supply is a big concern for many of them. Along the west coast of North America, mammal hunters have been greatly affected by the government cull of seals and sea lions, with serious consequences.Since this was stopped in the 1970s, they seem to be doing well in terms of survival and new births.
“However, fish eaters, such as southern residents, are of particular concern because a major food source is Pacific salmon, particularly chinook, which are becoming increasingly rare due to ruined habitats and represents 80% of their diet.
The work continues, with exciting plans underway to study killer whales in Scottish waters, but that’s another story.