Meet Suzie Hall, Raincoast’s new NoiseTracker Technician

Suzie has joined our team to assist with creating a map-based noise visualization system that will help monitor underwater noise.

Suzie Hall has joined our Cetacean Conservation Research team to assist with our new NoiseTracker initiative. Suzie will be working with the existing hydrophone operators along the coast of BC to develop an effective and standardized acoustic data collection and sharing system. Working with the NoiseTracker Technical Committee, she will help steer the development of a user-friendly, interactive, and public-facing website which will serve to monitor underwater noise levels, track long-term trends and allow people to learn about underwater noise and its impacts.

Suzie is from Manchester, England and holds a Master’s degree in Physics from the University of Leeds. Since moving to the west coast in 2019, she has spent considerable time at OrcaLab in Kwakwaka’wakw Territory studying the acoustic repertoire and social dynamics of the Northern Resident killer whale population. At university, she chaired her local SCUBA diving club and ran a small non-profit focussed on reducing plastic pollution through community education and empowerment. Her passion for killer whales, in particular, has taken her to some incredible places, volunteering in projects from British Columbia down to the southern reaches of Patagonia.

We posed some questions to Suzie to help get to know her better. 

Can you please tell us about your background and how you ended up working with killer whales?

Growing up, I was fairly obsessed with whales and dolphins – killer whales were my favourite. I always imagined working with them in some capacity, but I ended up studying physics at university instead of marine biology. It was a hard choice, but I was easily fascinated by the inner workings of the unseen universe and thought it would give me a solid scientific base to work from. My time in the university’s SCUBA diving club further cemented my love of the ocean, and I began to look for ways to marry my physics background with marine conservation.

Naturally, when the opportunity to volunteer at OrcaLab arose in 2017, I positively jumped! The acoustic element to their work piqued my interest more than anything else and my understanding of killer whales has been evolving ever since. 

I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had and very excited to explore the avenues that NoiseTracker is already creating.

We understand you’ve worked with several populations of whales around the world. Can you tell us more?

“Whale jobs” can be hard to come by without prior experience, so when I left the UK I planned an entire 15-month trip around whales. My intention was to find work or volunteer in any way that I could. My first stop, OrcaLab, set the bar incredibly high! My days were filled with the sounds of the Northern Resident killer whales as we monitored their every sound and move 24/7.

After that, I worked on an eco-tourism project in southern Chile – almost accidentally. I came across a storefront in Punta Arenas with a big whale tail sign that read ‘WhaleSound’. I introduced myself to the owner and secured a position on an uninhabited island in the Magellan Strait, departing in 3 days! For three weeks, I lived at a remote eco-camp assisting in the daily humpback whale data collection and with tourists who had come to see the fjords, whales, and glaciers of southern Patagonia. 

I was also fortunate enough to volunteer with NGO and ecotourism outfits in Argentina, the US and Scotland, working alongside some fantastic researchers and passionate people.

Since 2019, I’ve been focussed more heavily on the Northern Resident killer whale population. I am completely enamoured by everything about them: from their family dynamics and foraging habits to their beach rubbing behaviour and complex acoustics.

For those who don’t know, can you please explain what “Generation Free Willy” is and how it shaped you? 

This may be a term that my dad created, but it’s really quite accurate. Many of the people I’ve worked with say that they were inspired to work for the protection of killer whales because their favourite movie as a child was Free Willy. It’s been remarkable to discover this seemingly global generation of people who have been inspired to work in the same field because of one childhood movie!

I used to watch the film on repeat and would regularly scour the internet for any killer whale video I could find. I even emailed Seaworld as a ten year-old to enquire about a future job as a trainer! In hindsight, I’m quite glad that particular career path did not pan out…

There’s no illusion that life will somehow work out like a kid’s movie; I don’t have visions of riding off into the sunset on the back of a whale one day. But the shared connection that I have to so many people because of its creation is very grounding for me and something I treasure.

Young Suzie Hall smiling on a boat.
Young Suzie hall standing on a rocky beach looking happy.

Learn more about underwater noise and NoiseTracker.

What’s your best killer whale encounter story?

Gosh, that’s so hard to answer! Listening to killer whales has added a dimension to their mystique that I could have never anticipated. Sitting in the lab at 2am with nothing but the inky darkness and echoing sound of killer whale calls is certainly an encounter like no other.

If I have to pick the best, it would have to be from Duncansby Head, Scotland in 2019. Every year, a local charity organizes ‘Orca Watch’ week, which attracts hundreds of people to the area to stand on a cliff and watch for orcas from land for the week. The entire week was shrouded in fog, buckets of rain and gale force winds which threatened to snap my tent poles in half. By any other definition it would have been an awful week, but the whale hopefuls were out in full force, keeping an incredibly positive atmosphere. There were barely any sightings for the entire week, but on the last evening we received a report that a group of killer whales were headed north towards us. We waited for hours and, as the light faded and fog rolled in, a few teeny tiny dorsal fins swam offshore, past our towering cliff, visible only with binoculars. The sounds of elation and joy will stay with me forever. People who had travelled hundreds of miles to see their first killer whales were hugging and dancing all night. It was only a few years prior that I had been one of those desperate to see killer whales, so for me it was a really beautiful encounter.

Suzie smiling next to a tent with the ocean and some sheep in the background.

Besides working to protect whales, what do you like to do in your spare time?

Get in the sea! I’m a keen SCUBA diver and relish any opportunity for a dive, snorkel, or cold swim. I also love hiking and exploring new places on foot – it’s very satisfying to pack all of my possessions into backpacks of various sizes. Since moving to the west coast I’ve learned to sail, drive powerboats, and navigate in coastal waters. I’m excited to continue refining these skills and do whatever I can to spend maximum time on the ocean. 

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Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.