For over 30 years, Dr. Paul Spong & his wife Helena Symonds have been co-directors of the orca research station, OrcaLab, on Hanson Island in British Columbia, Canada.
Paul initially set up Orcalab as a summer campsite on Hanson Island in 1970. Soon, his insights into the life of orcas and his experiences with them convinced him that orcas and other dolphins and whales are special animals that deserve human respect and protection, not the ruthless slaughter and abuse that was common at the time.
This conviction led to his becoming one of the founders of the save-the-whale movement. During much of the 1970s, he helped lead Greenpeace campaigns against commercial whaling. This work culminated in the worldwide moratorium under the International Whaling Commission. In 1979, Paul returned to full time research and he and Helena converted the summer camp into a permanent home and lab where they now work and live. The focus of their work together is the long-term life-history of the ‘Northern Resident Community’ orcas of British Columbia and on the protection of the orcas’ habitat.
In the 1980s, Orcalab developed a remote hydrophone network which enabled orcas to be tracked throughout approximately 50 square kilometres of what has become known as the “core habitat” of the Northern Resident community. Orcalab monitors these hydrophones twenty-four hours a day, year round. The data obtained has helped understanding of the whales’ use of the area throughout the year. The system has also served as an effective model of non-intrusive research. The Orcalab project is now considered to be the longest, continual wild whale project in the world today.
Orcalab’s research during the busy peak summer/autumn season is assisted by volunteer lab assistants from around the world. In recent years, Paul & Helena’s daughter Anna has been instrumental in developing the internet and video aspects of their work. Together, they have also promoted the cause of returning captive cetaceans to the ocean through the “FREE CORKY!” project. It is their and WDCS’s hope that Corky, a young female orca captured in 1969 from the Northern Resident Community, will gain her freedom from SeaWorld in San Diego, and return to life with her family in the waters of British Columbia in the near future. WDCS has a long association with Orcalab and is proud to support Paul and Helena’s work through our Adopt an Orca programme.