Sounds of the Salish Sea

Like most whales across the globe, Salish Sea Orcas are threatened, and their numbers are dwindling. This means that tracking their activity is more important than ever. Orca Sound is a citizen science project that monitors orcas in the Salish Sea (located off the coast of British Columbia and Washington). Researchers and orca enthusiasts identify orcas by sound and can even report their findings to create a fuller picture of the state of Salish orcas.

Orcas have a unique sound that can be captured and logged, so Orca Sound’s primary focus is to educate citizen scientists on how to identify orca sounds and record them. Citizen scientists are first encouraged to listen to recordings on an extensive library of recorded orca and oceanic sounds. Recordings of the seascape of the Salish Sea are collected through hydrophones, and from those recordings, citizen scientists develop a keen ear to identify a variety of Salish Sea wildlife. Understanding the environment of Salish Orcas and distinguishing between different sounds one might hear in or above the water means that recordings by citizen scientists can be more accurate and, by extension, help ensure the legitimacy of the entire Orca Sounds collection. Citizen scientists can also listen to the sounds of the three salmon-eating orca pods in the Salish Sea. Each has a unique bioacoustic signature that the citizen scientist can learn to distinguish by listening and studying these recordings.

When a citizen scientist is ready to add their recordings, they can open up the Orca Sound web app and press record. The resulting recordings are logged on a shared Google spreadsheet. Citizen scientists can also help identify recordings picked up by hydrophones, speeding up the process of analyzing the wide range of collected data. At present, there are hydrophones in five locations in the United States, however, Orca Sound is open to participants in Canada, and the recordings picked by these hydrophones act as a valuable source of ecological data for both countries. Records collected by Orca Sound have also contributed to education efforts outside of the participating citizen science community, with recordings included in exhibits at the Seattle Aquarium and the Langley Whale Center. Salish Sea orcas are essential to the ecosystem and are also central for the livelihoods of communities in the surrounding communities, so it is heartening to see an example of international cooperation in an ecological monitoring project for these majestic mammals.


Orca Sound. (n.d.). “Welcome Citizen Scientists.”

Photo by Courtenay Crane