STORY: Pleasure boaters and kayakers in Canada's Johnstone Strait just north of Vancouver, British Columbia, will soon have more than the majestic views of the nearby mountains to ooh! and aah! over. Beginning this spring, ORCA-FM goes on the air.
ORCA-FM's format is all talk, all the time. Only this station will speak the language of killer whales, also called orcas. Underwater microphones in the strait will pick up and transmit the vocalizations of passing orcas. Meg Pocklington, a research assistant at the Vancouver Aquarium, says anyone with a radio will be able to tune in.
POCKLINGTON: "It's a very low frequency broadcast, so it will be available only in the Johnstone Strait area. This is going to be a wonderful thing this summer, for kayakers, hikers, anyone who has a pleasure boat. So it's really going to open up the underwater world to listeners in that area."
The idea for ORCA radio comes from John Ford who is the director of research and conservation at the Vancouver Aquarium. He's studied killer whales for over 20 years and was among the first to identify orcas by the sounds they make. He says listening to them reveals a lot because different groups of orcas speak in different dialects.
FORD: "And these dialects enable us to identify each group with just a few moments of vocalizations. And so by having a year-round monitoring station we can say exactly who's around during the winter and summer and so on."
While the new radio station has value to researchers, perhaps its most important contribution will be in educating the public about orcas. And for those of us who can't get to Johnstone Strait, orca sounds also will be available on the Vancouver Aquarium's web site. Meg Pocklington says even bigger plans are in store if the radio station is a hit.
POCKLINGTON: "Our hope is a very big project, called Whale Link, will be realized. It's these remote acoustic monitoring stations like the one we have in Johnstone Strait--hydrophones from the U.S. border all the way up to Alaska at key points where the killer whales pass. We'll be able to track these whales as they migrate up and down the coast and get a better picture of what they're doing when we're unable to be out there."
John Ford says ORCA-FM will broadcast 24 hours a day. Once every hour a recorded human voice will give the station identification. But after that it's all orca, all the time.
OUTRO: For Arctic Science Journeys, this is Robert Hannon reporting from Fairbanks, Alaska.
Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
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