Author’s note: Sometimes the best stories are not planned out or deeply researched in advance, but rather the product of simply listening and letting a narrative take you where it wants to go. This one came about because I had always wanted to learn more about how orcas communicate: the extent to which we know they have some sort of language. I asked around and learned the person to contact is Jeanne Hyde, a wonderful character who has devoted more than a decade of her life to constantly listening to killer whales. Jeanne’s passion for telling the stories of these orcas is infectious. And her collection of sounds provides unique perspective, especially on the tragic grief ritual of mother orca Tahlequah, who caught the world’s attention in 2018. You’ve gotta listen! (This story originally aired March 29.)
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.
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.
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.