Dr. Paul Spong is a neuroscientist and cetologist from New Zealand. He has spent more than 30 years researching orcas (or Killer whales) in British Columbia, and is credited with increasing public awareness of whaling, through his involvement with Greenpeace.
Paul Spong was born in Whakatane, near the north-east coast of New Zealand, in 1939. He studied law at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch.
In 1963 Spong enrolled in the Brain Research Institute (BRI) at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) for post-graduate studies in psychology. His work at the BRI included analysis of human brain wave patterns and tracking information pathways. Spong's doctoral thesis was on sensory stimulation, perception, and human consciousness.
Transfer to Vancouver
In 1967 Dr. Murray Newman, of the Vancouver Aquarium, asked Dr. Patrick McGeer, head of the Neurological Lab at the University of British Columbia (UBC), to find a "whale scientist" to assist him at the aquarium. Dr. Spong was selected as the candidate to work at the Vancouver Aquarium with orca whales (Orcinus orca) after a successful interview and a recommendation from the head of the lab at UCLA.
Dr. Spong arrived in Vancouver, with his wife Linda, in April 1967. This was two months after Skana, the orca that Paul would be working with, had been bought by the Vancouver Aquarium from The Pacific Northwest Boat Show.
Dr. Spong started his research on Skana by testing her eyesight. This was done by rewarding the whale (with a herring filet) every time she distinguished between one or two horizontal lines. However, Paul soon noticed that Skana's enthusiasm had waned and her success rate fell to 0%. After some research, Dr. Spong contemplated whether the whale was trying to communicate with him and giving him wrong answers on purpose. This was the first breakthrough Paul had in understanding orcas' complex communication system.
In April 1968, a second orca, Hyak was captured and brought to the Aquarium. Hyak was kept in a separate pool from Skana. Dr. Spong thought that Hyak was in deep depression after being captured, and thus tried to stimulate the orca by conductive experiments. Paul learned the importance of acoustics for orcas through these experiments. He noticed that when the two whales swam together in the same pool they vocalized and sung together. Thus Dr. Spong started experimenting with music and sound and noticed Hyak's recovery from lethargy.
Dr. Paul Spong believed that his frequent interactions with the whales allowed him to communicate with them. He established this after an event involving Skana. The whale would brush her teeth against the Dr. Spong's feet repeatedly until he no longer pulled them out of the water. Dr. Spong considered this a conscious deconditioning of his fear by the whale. After this event Dr. Spong started freely swimming with the whales on a regular basis.
In a 1968, Dr. Paul Spong delivered a lecture at UBC, describing his experience with the two whales at the Vancouver Aquarium. He described the whales as "highly intelligent, social animals" and advised that they should not be kept in captivity. He proposed transferring the whales to a semi-wild environment (such as Pearl Harbour) in order to study them in their natural habitat. Dr. Spong also mentioned that humans could someday communicate with whales.
His comments from this lecture were published in local newspapers and interviews with radio stations were scheduled. However, the Dr. Newman from the Aquarium did not appreciate the fact that Dr. Spong's recommendation on freeing the whales. This pushed him to suspend the research project Dr. Spong was working on.
Killer Whale (Orcinus Orca) Foundation, or KWOOF was the foundation that Dr. Paul Spong created with his $4000 separation package from the University. The purpose of the foundation was to stop whale captures in British Columbia, Canada.
In December 1969 Spong travelled to Pender Harbour, where fishermen had captured 12 whales. Of the 12 whales, only one whale, Corky, survived in captivity for more than 2 years. Spong spent three decades trying to free her.
In the summer of 1972, Dr. Paul Spong moved to Hanson Island and established the OrcaLab. The lab is located 200 miles northwest of Vancouver in a quiet bay where orcas retreat to in the summer to feed and give birth. Hanson Island was an ideal place to study orcas in their natural habitat.
At the laboratory, Dr. Spong started to catalogue and transcribed the modulations and songs sung by the whales in order to decipher them.
Dr. Paul Spong set up an online viewing portal of the orcas over several summers starting in 2000. While future plans for this project are under review, but microphones are still available. It included 3 microphones or "hydrophones" and one roving video link. Viewer could log in and chat to fellow orca enthusiasts. He also helped set up a sister site in Japan to watch turtles. Both programs run under the Nature network banner.