Private Project

Radio Free Orca: A Broadcast for World Peace

In the 1960s, Paul Spong was a young neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia. Then, part of his job was to study orcas (or killer whales) at an aquarium. But Spong quickly understood how badly these highly sentient, intelligent creatures suffered in captivity. So he moved to a remote island six hours north of Vancouver and founded OrcaLab—a scientific outpost committed to studying orcas in the wild without disturbing them. Using hydrophones and video cameras, Spong and his team can listen to and track orcas within a 31-mile radius. Over the course of almost 50 years, Spong has learned a great deal about these wondrous ocean dwellers. It has given him a sense of inner peace. To help others understand more about orcas, OrcaLab broadcasts its audio feed live through its website. Spong’s hope is that the feed will encourage a greater appreciation for these majestic mammals, and even the possibility of world peace.

  • Project Type:
  • Genres:
    Conservation, Planet Earth
  • Runtime:
    3 minutes 58 seconds
  • Completion Date:
    September 7, 2017
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
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Director Biography

Andrew Lampard is a staff producer at Great Big Story. He began his career by making a feature-length documentary about Kosovo’s war, and has since worked for Reuters and ABC News, among other outlets. In 2015, he was chosen by the New York Times to join their “Selects” sponsored content filmmaking team. He is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and a recipient of the emerging artists grant from the Canada Council for the Arts.

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Director Statement

This project arose from a conversation I had with my colleague Jon O’Beirne. Twenty years ago, when Jon was in college, he wrote to Dr. Paul Spong via fax about serving as a summer intern at OrcaLab. Jon had read about Dr. Spong’s work studying orcas in the wild on Hanson Island, BC, through a complex network of underwater audio devices called hydrophones and video cameras and was inspired to help. Unfortunately, the position was unpaid and the opportunity was too cost-prohibitive for Jon to travel to Hanson Island at the time.

When Jon told me his story and how fascinated he was with orcas and their underwater society, it triggered my own memories of growing up on Vancouver Island and learning about these majestic mammals that were my neighbors at sea. I began researching Dr. Spong and discovered that he was now live-broadcasting over the internet the orcas’ calls from his hydrophone network. It was clear Dr. Spong’s novel approach to create empathy for the orcas around the world, combined with his idyllic remote outpost, made for a terrific story.

Jon and I filmed the story over two days in the summer of 2017. During production, we filmed several pods of whales, some up close from an observatory near Hanson Island, and learned about their various dialects and societal groupings. I was astonished to learn that orcas are the most bonded creatures on the planet in that they stay with their families for their entire lives.

By the time we left, Jon and I viewed the orcas as being akin to people, with names, histories, and familial bonds. While a complete documentary could be made about Dr. Spong’s work on Hanson Island, and the incredible group of volunteers who work alongside him, my hope is our story will inspire in our viewers the same sort of empathy we developed at OrcaLab.