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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Killer Radio

Air Date: Week of

There's a new radio station on the air in British Columbia, and it's like no other. ORCA-FM broadcasts live, round-the-clock sounds of killer whales. Correspondent Tom Banse (BAHN-see) reports.


KNOY: There's a new radio station on the air in British Columbia, and it's like no other. ORCA-FM broadcasts live, twenty-four hours a day, the sounds of whales. The station airs the songs of Pacific Northwest killer whales as they communicate within their pods, cruising off the coast of Vancouver Island, a well-known whale watching spot. Correspondent Tom Banse reports.

(Different radio stations fading up and out as the dial is turned)

BANSE: Some people like rock, some like country, and some prefer news talk. But how many will listen to this?

(Whale songs. Man: "This is ORCA-FM, station CJKW, 88.5 megahertz, broadcasting live from Johnson Strait, British Columbia.")

BANSE: That's right, ORCA-FM. Orca as in killer whale.

(Whale songs continue)

BANSE: Robson Bight, off British Columbia's Vancouver Island, is a popular gathering spot for whales. Earlier this year, scientists from the Vancouver Aquarium set up a microphone in the bight to monitor passing orcas.

(A whale calls)

BANSE: They'd originally planned to relay the signal to whale researchers over a special frequency, but aquarium research director John Ford said he soon realized the general public might enjoy eavesdropping on the whales, too.

FORD: By choosing an FM transmitter, we could basically provide the opportunity for whale watchers who have come in from all over to tune in as well from their kayaks or from on shore when they're hiking, perhaps, in the area.

BANSE: The signal from ORCA-FM carries about 10 miles from the transmitter, and anyone with a standard radio can pick it up. About 1,000 people live within range of the signal, and many more travel through. The station transmits round the clock, but it's not exactly all whales, all the time. John Ford anticipates the underwater microphone will actually pick up whales only a few hours per day. He says first-time listeners may be surprised by how much other noise there is the rest of the time.

(Underwater noise)

FORD: Boats of all manner create a lot of underwater noise. And Robson Bight is a very narrow channel that forms part of the inside passage, like, you know, the inside highway, the marine highway. There's an incredible amount of noise at times.

BANSE: The deafening sounds of passing boats probably won't light up the ratings. But Mr. Ford says among those who do listen, he hopes to raise awareness that this noise could be a potential problem for the whales. Marine storms won't help listenership either. On days with high surf, ORCA-FM sounds like it's broadcasting live from inside a washing machine.

(Whale songs and other sounds)

BANSE: But on a calm, quiet evening, a pod of orcas can rival Mozart.

(Whale song chorus)

BANSE: This symphony occurred when 2 killer whale pods met and swam together for a while. John Ford says listeners beyond the range of the remote, low-power radio transmitter, can tune in, too. The signal is piped into a gallery of the popular Vancouver Aquarium. And if all goes well in spring, the aquarium intends to retransmit the station over its Internet Web site at vanaqua.org. For Living on Earth, I'm Tom Banse in Vancouver, Canada.



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