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Virtual orca show dives into issues of marine noise pollution, conservation

A B.C. woman's virtual reality project, exploring the impact people have on southern resident killer whales and the ocean, premiered at the Smithsonian this week.

A Mayne Island resident has been in awe of killer whales since she was a little girl and is now trying to help them through an augmented-reality experience. 

Amy Zimmerman produced and wrote a virtual experience called Critical Distance, which premiered at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 29. 

"I hope that some kid or little girl, just like me, sees this project and is blown away by this amazing family of orcas and wants to do something to protect them,” says Zimmerman.

Critical Distance allows people to interact, touch and play with a pod of southern resident killer whales, virtually. 

"We have created an XR experience using Hololens technology,” she says. “What it does is it immerses you under the Salish Sea and you are interacting with J-Pod, which is one of our southern orca pods.”

This pod of orcas, including six-year-old Kiki, is often spotted off the tip of Vancouver Island.

"You can interact with her, you can play with her, she’s going to swim around you,” says Zimmerman. “You can watch them hunt and feed on the chinook salmon."

During the simulation, boats start to appear above the user’s head. 

“You begin to lose your sight or ability to see, which is the simulation of the effect of noise pollution on the orca's ability to use echolocation,” explains Zimmerman. “It simulates what aquatic noise pollution does to the orca's ability to echolocate, so the ability for them to communicate, hunt and find one another.”

At the end of the augmented-reality experience, users will get to learn about what can be done to support marine conservation. 

Southern resident killer whales are currently endangered only 74 animals in three pods remain. These mammals face many challenges, including dwindling stocks of chinook salmon, toxins in the water and increased vessel noise. 

Zimmerman has a background in film and wanted to combine her passion for technology and conservation to create positive change. 

“My hope for this project and the technology... is a new way that we can learn and interact and be around animals without having negative impacts on them,” she says. “And bring awareness to this story, get more people involved in taking action and supporting the groups out there on the water doing the work.”

Critical Distance, created by Vision 3 and presented by Microsoft, explores why these whales are endangered and what can be done to help them. 

“Perhaps changing the course of this story to not be [74] orcas, but many, many, many orcas thriving in a healthy ocean, whether that be marine-protected areas or policy change or whatever that looks like to protect the Salish Sea to create a more healthy ecosystem for them,” says Zimmerman.

The pandemic created challenges for the project; it took three years to produce. 

"It really is a co-collaboration between global partners and local communities. We’ve had the local First Nation communities, biologists, researchers and museums all come on board to help us be able to tell a really accurate story using this really hard technology,” she says.

Having Critical Distance premiere in Washington allows an entirely different audience to care about the issue, according to Zimmerman.

"It’s beyond anything I can possibly imagine,” she says. 

Zimmerman hopes to one day take Critical Distance to the Pacific Northwest, where J-Pod calls home.