Dr. Paul Spong is a neuroscientist and cetologist from New Zealand. He has been researching orcas (or killer whales) in British Columbia since 1967, and is credited with increasing public awareness of whaling, through his involvement with Greenpeace.

Photo of Dr. Paul Spong taken on OrcaLab in September 2003

Early lifeEdit

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 VancouverEdit

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.

Whale ResearchEdit

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 2 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 sang 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.

1968 LectureEdit

In a 1968, Dr. Paul Spong delivered a lecture at the University of British Columbia, 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 Harbor) 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.

1969 AddressEdit

In June 1969 Spong gave an uninvited address to the Western Psychological Association. In this he discussed his belief that taking drugs helped him tune in to the killer whales space and that this could help with orca-human communications.

“The whale’s the highest creature. Believe you me, baby, and I’ll prove it to you one of these days, see? I won’t prove it, excuse me Skana, I won’t prove it, the whale will prove it. Let me tell you, as soon as I can get some liquid crystals in my hand, the whale will start talking to us, talking to us in English. In words that we can see, like the I Ching…"[1]


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 45 years. Spong spent over four decades trying to free her.

Maplewood Mudflats and Hanson IslandEdit

In 1972 Dr. Paul Spong was living in a hippie commune in North Vancouver, called the "Maplewood Mudflats". He was interviewed about the community in a film made for the NFB (National Film Board of Canada), by Robert Fresco and Kris Paterson, called "Mudflats Living". https://www.nfb.ca/film/mudflats_living/

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.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Werner, Mark T. (2010). What the whale was : Orca cultural histories in British Columbia since 1964 (MA). University of British Columbia. doi:10.14288/1.0071537.

Weyler, R (2004). Greenpeace. Vancouver, BC: Raincoast Books. In Stop Ahab pp. 197–236; Zelko, F (2013), Make It a Green Peace, New York, NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 161–180

External linksEdit