Puget Sound orcas have a lot to say. This woman is almost always listening. | KNKX

Puget Sound orcas have a lot to say. This woman is almost always listening.

Mar 29, 2019

Orca whales have the second-largest brains of all marine mammals. They’re known to be intelligent. And they have a lot to say.

Jeanne Hyde is almost always listening.

Scientists have long suspected that whales have language, and there’s research that suggests they even have local dialects.

Jeanne Hyde on the beach whale watching on San Juan Island.
Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / KNKX

Hyde works at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. She documents all she can about what goes on with the whales for the Adopt an Orca Program at the museum, where she is known as the staff “storykeeper.”

While Hyde says she’ll never be able to speak or translate orca language, she insists the whales do have language. And the countless hours she’s spent listening to their calls has brought her much closer to them.

On a windy bluff at Lime Kiln Point State Park, on the west side of San Juan Island, Hyde unlocks the door of a 100-year-old lighthouse. It’s a lab for marine scientists now.

Inside, handwritten data on whale sightings covers whiteboards that line the walls.

And in a back room, a cable leads to underwater microphones — called hydrophones — that capture whale sounds and stream them out, live, over the internet.

“You can listen in 24/7 for free — anywhere in the world,” Hyde said. 

The lighthouse where Jeanne Hyde listens to whales talk, using underwater microphones called hydrophones.
Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / KNKX

A few steps away,  in the park, there’s a listening station with a speaker, so visitors can hear what’s going on under the water with the push of a button.

None of the three endangered Southern Resident pods are out on this specific day. When they are, Hyde says people’s faces light up.

“When you turn on the hydrophones,” she said, “you’re in another dimension of their world.”

Not all three pods — J, K and L — sound the same.

The Southern Residents that are native to Puget Sound have 27 calls in common. But each family group has its own distinct dialect. And these can be used to almost immediately recognize which one has arrived in range of a hydrophone.

Since she fell in love with the local whales 15 years ago, Hyde has seen it all: suspense, grief, kinship, goofiness. But when she talks about their struggle to survive, as Chinook salmon populations dwindle and individual whales grow ill, she gets emotional. 

“Too many people just want their pictures,” she said, fighting back tears. “It just is sad to me to see the disrespect for nature.”

Still, the bleak outlook doesn’t keep her from hoping for the best. “I have to be optimistic,” she said. “There’s no other choice. If you’re pessimistic you’ve given up.”

To learn more about Hyde’s passion for whales and hear more of their language, click on the link at the top of this post.