Q&A Blog | World Orca Day

Megan Hockin-Bennett

Check out this Q&A blog through the lens of Megan Hockin-Bennett, a filmmaker and OrcaLab researcher based in Hanson Island off the north coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

Q&A Blog

Published July 14, 2021

All images provided courtesy of Megan Hockin-Bennett and OrcaLab

Check out more of Megan’s work here!

Your impactful filmmaking ability has allowed you to document unprecedented visual and audio recordings of Orcas. Why did you want to dedicate your career to natural filmmaking and research in this field?

I think from a young age I knew I wanted to work alongside animals. What drew me to the project of Orcalab initially was my love for Orcas and capturing the natural world with my background in filmmaking. But the reason behind me staying with this organisation for the last 11 years is most certainly it’s philosophy. The philosophy of stepping back and thinking, what can we learn here without interference? Knowing how driven Orcas are by sound and listening to their soundscape using hydrophones, we don’t go out on boats and add to the already noisy environment they are trying to navigate. 

By using wind and solar power to establish remote sites that run cameras and hydrophones to monitor the whales, Orcalab listens, watches and learns about the lives of these whales in the hope that what we learn can provide governments with the evidence that a clean, quiet and disturbance-free environment is crucial to the whale’s survival. My hope is that I can continue to aid this work as best I can not only through the dedication of time but with my skills in filmmaking.  

Left: Megan spotting an Orca. Right: The solar panels of the OrcaLab contributes to its clean and disturbance-free environment.

Throughout your academic endeavours and career as a filmmaker, who were some of your role models?  

 I have always been in awe of the women whom I happen to be surrounded with at the time. Working in both the film industry and in the field of conservation, which are historically very male-driven environments, I have always gravitated towards the women to learn from them.

The community I find myself now working in on the coast of British Columbia boasts a wonderful wealth of incredibly strong female role models. Some of whom I read about in books when I was a teenager that ultimately led me to this place. Others are peers that I have been privileged enough to collaborate and grow alongside over the past decade.

Most importantly at Orcalab, I have had the great privilege to learn directly from Helena Symonds and Paul Spong, the co-founders who have dedicated the past 50 years of their lives to this project. Their continued guidance and dedication will give me an ever-stronger foundation to where my life will lead.

How do you think studying acoustic data and recordings will contribute to educating the public on issues in the areas of orca life and habitat interference? Paul’s goal was always simple. To bring people closer to nature without harming her. I believe there is a lot to be learnt from this. In sharing this philosophy along with sharing the data that is collected here, numerous studies can be and are being made into the impact boat noise has on whales as well as behavioural studies into unique behaviours like that seen with the Northern Residents at the Rubbing beaches. Calculating trends in the whales’ abundance is also key to understanding why they are using the area less year by year.  Another quote I carry with me daily is one from Helena. “We must surround these whales with an impenetrable wall of respect”  A lot of the work we do here is also about presence. Having our eyes and ears on the critical habitat for the whales has most certainly altered how boaters navigate the waters around these whales. We are here to hold people accountable for their actions. Breaching the guidelines and any level of disturbance is absolutely not tolerated. The Northern Resident Orca are labelled as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Their close cousins, the Southern Resident Orca are critically endangered. So allowing them to hunt for food undisturbed is really a basic need for a species that is already in such grave danger and if we can mitigate that somewhat then it’s a step in the right direction. 

During your time at OrcaLab, what was the most challenging part of researching and filming orcas? What type of difficulties are there in inclement weather?

Working in the field requires the fundamentals. There is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing. This is certainly true of keeping yourself warm and dry, especially in a rainforest. But when it comes to keeping camera equipment and technology safe you can be as prepared as you want with homemade and store-bought protection. But ultimately you have to accept in some circumstances that the elements are going to win. There are days when things will feel like a failure. I’ve spent days in 3 meter standing waves, vomiting over the side of the boat being unable to film whales in Iceland. That was a hard day but a great lesson in the nature of nature I guess. 
As a researcher studying acoustic data, how do you identify individual whales within a pod?
It’s all about practice. We are very lucky to have many tools at our disposal. The initial groundwork was laid out in the 70’ by scientists such as John Ford, Grahame Ellis and Michael Bigg. We break the recognition of groups or individuals down into two main elements. Visual and acoustic recognition.
Visual recognition is slightly simpler in that we can take an image of a whale and using distinguishing features such as markings, scares and abrasions to their dorsal fin or saddle patch we can compare this to identification catalogues and identify the individual.
Secondly as with John Ford’s work and Orcalab’s continued effort the Northern Resident community of Orca is broken down into three acoustical clans, A, G and R. These groups do not share call sets so we can tell them apart. Breaking it down further, for example, A clan can then be broken down into pods. Some share calls, others don’t, but the families that do share calls will deliver them in certain ways that we can not only hear, but when we turn the sound into an image, we can see the difference. Some family groups will make certain calls that immediately allow us to identify them, others are a little tougher, and that’s where the practice comes in.
The advantage of acoustic identification is that it allows us to keep track of the different family groups using the area even in spaces that are not immediately visible to us, as well as during the nighttime hours. It also allows us to begin to understand the acoustical heritage and how dialects are being passed from one generation to the next via the matriarch of the group.

Left: Visual recognition and identification based on dorsal fins. Right: Acoustic identification recorded via hydrophones used when visuals are limited.

What advice would you give to the youth wanting to follow a similar path as you?

I think if I could offer up any advice to young people who are interested in a life in conservation or filmmaking is to try and find people working within the industry that you can relate to, people whose path looks similar to yours. This may seem unachievable to many minorities and as a white cisgender woman, the struggles I have had are nothing compared to most. I would like to acknowledge that and also feel confident that hard work is already being laid down in film and conservation from strong and brave individuals to make these industries a more accessible and diverse environment. If you find your minority isn’t being represented then I hope that there are people here ready and willing to hear from you and to help build you up. If the COVID-19 Pandemic has taught us anything it is that the world needs more leaders and thinkers that are not only relatable but who are genuinely focused on the recovery of species and saving a planet over making a profit. 

What do you think are the 3 most important qualities one must possess to work with the Orcas?

I would say patience is key, which in the face of global crisis can sometimes feel more urgent, but keep that at your forefront. Secondly, have optimism and hope that you are doing what you can to help. Lastly, I believe the removal of ego is crucial. A realistic focus on what your skills can provide organisations and research to help preserve, protect and learn from the natural world is the key to finding a better way to co-exist. 

Across your years of working with big names like National Geographic and Orcalab across the world, what is a challenging encounter you’ve faced that you wish people following a similar path should know beforehand?

Be prepared to be really hard on yourself. Not only are film and conservation tough to get into, but the path can be long and not easy for everyone. I have struggled with anxiety towards my talent to produce films and my self-worth in both industries for years and I still do some days. But what I have learnt is that although these feelings don’t go away, it means you care about what you’re doing and what you are contributing to. When you are focused on something that you believe in and you know is doing good things for the environment or the species you’re working with, then it makes all of those feelings irrelevant. And this stems back to the idea of taking out the ego. When you remove the idea of ego and know the answer to the question, “Why am I doing this?” and, “Who am I doing this for?” If the answer sits well with you then you always know you’ll move forward with strength and determination that will ultimately win. Don’t get me wrong, there are moral confections with the work I do. I drive a boat and burn gas to get food and water from nearby communities and to pick up and drop off volunteers. I buy batteries made from precious metals mined from the ground in order to keep my camera fueled to film and run my laptop to edit. But if you know you are doing your best and you know you can always take it that tiny step further, then you are doing okay. People may tell you otherwise, but the aforementioned help.

How can the youth and/or general public get started to save/protect and restore the orca population?

Be conscious of everything you consume. Educate yourself on the areas you’re passionate about or the things that concern you and know who to offer your help and support to. I find with any species or habitat I have learnt to look to the original custodians of the land. You usually find that they are fighting industry and government around every corner to protect this land that their ancestors have inhabited for millennia. They have the history, the knowledge and the connection to the land that will only be of great help to restoring what has been lost. Offer your money, your time,your skill-set,and be patient. We can also use our voices. One of the main threats to Orca in Canada is the loss of their primary food source, Salmon. This is due to a number of incredibly pressing issues. Open net fish farms and the infrastructure of dams in their habitat to name a few. Write to your government and big industry and ask them to pay attention to the science and the landowners. Use your time and skill set wisely and always be asking yourself, why am I doing this? And who am I doing this for? My answer has always been the same, Orcas. Good luck, the planet really needs you!