Q&A Blog | World Orca Day
Dive deep into this Q&A blog with Suzie Hall, a scuba diver and Orcalab researcher based in Hanson Island off the north coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
Published July 14, 2021
Why did you choose to focus your career around diving and researching Orcas? When did you realize this was the path for you?
Honestly I think I’m just really fortunate and found somewhere that enabled me to do so many things that I love. I was drawn to OrcaLab for the orcas, the diving was a happy bonus! I set out to do something like this right after I graduated and within a couple of years found myself here. As I said earlier, it’s seasonal work. Every time I leave and come back it is such a re-affirmation that I want to be here and I am so grateful to have had this opportunity.
As a scuba diver, what are some tasks you performed at OrcaLab, which assist in orca research?
Most of the diving work is focussed around installing and maintaining underwater equipment. We currently have 7 hydrophones (underwater microphones) 2 cameras in the water, and some of them we take in and out for each season. In 2020, we had a huge grant approved to install several calibrated digital hydrophones, which I was a part of. That was pretty cool – taking these giant tripod structures down to about 60 feet and laying the cable so it wouldn’t get snagged.
There’s also general maintenance of the mooring buoys and fixtures that needs doing fairly regularly. There’s a lot of tension on the lines and chain when a boat is attached and a strong wind blows up – and you need them to be in good condition otherwise you might wake up and find the boat has disappeared!
Wow, so many to choose from! Honestly I think some of the most incredible diving I’ve ever done is right here in BC. The strong currents bring so many nutrients through these passages and every wall is teeming with colorful life – it often surprises people just how colorful and diverse the underwater world is in this cold water. I also love being in my drysuit. I recently received an O’Three drysuit and the buoyancy characteristics are excellent – I feel weird diving in warmer waters without it!
During your countless dives around the world, can you recall an incident you’ve experienced that you’ll never forget?
Yes! Just recently I was diving in Browning Pass (a world famous cold water diving spot) and saw a Giant Pacific Octopus out on the reef. I knew they were big beforehand but seeing one out like this was incredible. This one wasn’t fully-sized but some of its suction cups were as large as my fist!
Left: Suzie Hall in her diving gear. Right: View from the OrcaLab
Great that you brought that up, as I recently attended an online talk discussing a recent study of PCBs in Icelandic and Norwegian orca populations. Unfortunately, this issue isn’t going away any time soon as PCBs are so persistent in the natural environment. When one substance is banned, ten more seem to crop up and sadly, environmental law is seemingly always on the back foot. Reducing our usage and therefore the demand for products which contain PCBs and other similar substances is key, as well as establishing more rigorous laws which prohibit and control these substances in a much more rigorous manner.
To start with, look up PCB regulations and information in your country and try to find out what is being done about it. I’ll link to my article too if anyone would like to read more about how they effect orcas:
You mentioned in a Withington spotlight post that “marine conservation is a hugely over-saturated and under-funded area.” Being in this field yourself, what keeps you motivated to continue to research these incredible cetaceans?
I guess I keep going because there’s always work to be done! It’s a shame that there is not always enough money to support conservation efforts, but the only way we’re going to change that is by continuing to work hard and prove that something is worth investing in. I do believe that things are starting to shift; even over the last 5 years the amount of funding available for things like plastic pollution has increased tenfold. Sure, there is still big, big money in industries such as logging, oil and other natural resource extraction, but we have to stay positive and try to shift the balance little by little.
Throughout your academic endeavours and career as a diver, what or who inspired you? Who were some of your mentors?
I remember attending a talk by Cristina Zenato at the British Sub-Aqua Club conference in 2015. She talked so passionately about her diving, conservation and scientific endeavours with sharks in the Bahamas. I think that moment tied everything together, and I remember suddenly feeling like it was possible to combine my worlds in a way which I could give back to the earth and put my skills to good use – for the whales which stole my heart a very long time ago.
I am hugely grateful for the mentorship I’ve received here at OrcaLab with Paul Spong & Helena Symonds. Since 2017, they have welcomed me into their lives and almost every day I get to learn from them. 50 years on a rock listening to the ocean will certainly give you a lot of insight into the wonderful world of whales and other marine species!
I also have an incredible network of friends and family who put up with me babbling about whales and running off to various corners of the world to get involved in projects that I’m passionate about. So I really do have to thank them all, too.
Just to clarify – I don’t dive with orcas as everything we do here is set up to have as little interference as possible. The diving I do undertake is largely installation and maintenance of the network of underwater cameras and hydrophones. For diving in any marine environment, especially where there is lots of life, my top three qualities would be:
- Know your skills inside-out and be totally self-reliant. Diving is a joy but it can certainly be dangerous, and accidents can happen very quickly. If you’re working with tools or equipment underwater then your focus is on this and not your gear, which can lead to problems if you’re inexperienced. Practice what to do if you lose your mask, your drysuit floods, you’re out of air, or you become entangled in line e.t.c. so that these skills become second-nature, and you can get to the surface safely. You should anyway always dive with a buddy, but knowing how to get yourself out of a tight spot is imperative.
- Know the local laws and always be respectful of marine life. Before you dive anywhere, you should learn the local laws about diving with large mammals or any protected species to be aware of, in case you encounter them. I believe in a “no touch” approach to diving, so I’ll never poke marine life or grab onto the reef. There is some research which does require a more interactive approach and that is totally fine, just make sure your impact is still as minimal as possible. Watch your fins and don’t kick stuff!
- Don’t be afraid to question research ethics. Just because someone is a scientist, doesn’t mean they have full authority to do what they please. I have had some unfortunate experiences with people diving and interacting with orcas, whales and other species in the name of “research” but it turned out to be less about the study species, and more about the ego of the researchers themselves. Don’t be afraid to disagree if you’re uncomfortable with the work being done, and speak up to the relevant authorities if it is appropriate!
What advice would you give to the youth wanting to follow a similar path as you?
I suppose my best advice (and apologies for sounding cliche) would be: don’t try too hard to follow anyone else’s path! When I look back over the past few years, there have been so many unexpected twists and turns that were never in my “plan”, and yet I’m right where I want to be.
For anyone wanting to work in marine conservation – especially with a diving element – I would also say to set realistic expectations. It is often glamorized (selfies with dolphins and beach sunsets!), but the reality of any fieldwork is that the days are long, the work is strenuous and the jobs are highly competitive. It is also an unfortunately under-funded sector, and it can be quite tricky to maintain the balance between doing good work for the planet and staying afloat yourself. I’ve certainly not mastered this balance but I’ve become quite used to living season-to-season and I’m very grateful to be where I am.
I’d also encourage non-scientific and non-academic young people to pursue a career in conservation. I’m very privileged to have received the education that I did, and it has certainly opened a lot of doors for me. However, I have met so many wonderful people who do incredible work totally outside the realm of academia. At OrcaLab, we have an amazing mix of assistants who come from really diverse backgrounds. It takes a planet to protect the planet, and we can all contribute in our own way – remember that!
How can the youth and/or general public get started to save/protect and restore the orca population?
Here on the west coast of BC, certainly one of the most pertinent issues facing orcas is food scarcity. Years of overfishing, poor management and the rise of open-net aquaculture are – in my opinion – the leading causes affecting salmon returns, and therefore food availability for orcas and a host of other marine species. Keep yourself as educated and up-to-date as possible, write letters to your government, support local activist movements rooted in science and don’t let these issues be swept under the carpet. That would certainly be a good place to start, anyway!