Beyond the Rock: Using Satellite Trackers to Study the Lives of Common Murres

By Stephanie Loredo, Seabird Oceanography Lab, OSU

Photo credit: Seabird Oceanography Lab

Common murres (Uria aalgee) are the most abundant seabird on the Oregon Coast. At least half of the population in the California Current Ecosystem breeds on the Oregon Coast (half a million seabirds). This makes them ecologically important consumers of forage fish, especially during the breeding season when they use state-waters.

While they spend most of their time at sea, murres must come to shore to breed. During this time, they are highly visible by humans as they breed in large masses on rocky islands. While they are not the most agile on land, due to their short and stubby legs, they are actually amazing divers. Their short flipper-like wings help them swim, and they typically reach depths of 30-60m to catch their prey.

Aside from their underwater aviation skills, they make great parents as well. Both parents will incubate and care for their chick – murres only lay one egg a year – until they fledge; once they leave the rock, male murres take full responsibility for their chicks while the moms go on vacation (they worked hard to lay the egg so they need some time to recuperate). After the breeding season, murres leave the rock in large quantities – this is often the last time humans will see them this year in large aggregations from shore.

Despite their omnipresence and importance as a marine predator in Oregon, there is still a lot we don’t know about murres. Where do murres go when they are not breeding? Do they migrate? Where do they feed during the breeding and non-breeding period? What habitat characteristics are associated with feeding areas? By answering these questions, we increase knowledge of murre ecology in Oregon. Moreover, a more comprehensive understanding of the year-round movements of murres aids marine spatial planners take more informed actions on the current decisions regarding offshore renewable energy development. This is what I hope to achieve through my Masters research project at OSU.

Most of what is known about the offshore distribution of murres in Oregon comes from vessel observations. However, vessel data only provide snapshots in time, and not a continuous picture of area-use. Within the Seabird Oceanography Lab (SOL), we are using individual satellite tracking devices to follow the movements of murres associated with the Yaquina Head colony, which is a prominent breeding colony in Oregon located near Newport.

A common murre displaying a satellite tag prior to release.

SOL was able to track 15 common murres associated with the Yaquina Head colony in 2015 and 2016.  These tags were deployed periodically throughout the breeding period and have been successful in tracking birds for up to three months. Thus far, we have tracking data ranging from May to December (only one bird tracked during December).

Tracking data from 2015 and 2016 of murres off the Yaquina Head colony provide an interesting comparison.  In both years, murres experienced warmer ocean conditions, high Bald eagle disturbance rates, and consequently high Western gull egg predation at the colony. Some data also indicate low prey availability.  The combination of all these factors is most likely the reason for the observed reproductive failure at the colony in both years. Tracking data showed that 13 of the 15 birds tagged dispersed from the colony earlier than expected. The maps below summarize the dispersal of birds by year and by time of deployment.


Each map (Left: 2015, Right: 2016) illustrates all birds that dispersed from the colony and did not engage in central-place foraging (feeding trips to and from the colony). Sample size: n2015=7, n2016_spring=1, n2016_summer=3.

Most birds made a northward movement and traveled as far north as British Columbia, Canada.  Along their movement north, they used inlets and bays, but one of the most prominent areas used was the Columbia River plume. Birds used the Columbia River mouth area during the summer and fall, with the most time spent there during the summer. Dispersal from the colony was not what we expected; we expected individuals to breed on colony and engage in central-place foraging  (feeding to and from the breeding site) nearshore until mid-August when they usually leave the rock. However, we are still interested in the habitat characteristics of feeding areas and the conditions that led to movement from one feeding area to the next.

Prior to examining habitat associations of murre feeding areas, we must first determine their behavior state at each point location derived from the satellite tags.  After data cleaning and filtering out erroneous locations, we applied a behavioral analysis (Residence in Space and Time method) to determine behaviors associated with each point location. This analysis has allowed us to distinguish between intensive foraging, transiting, and extensive foraging. Extensive foraging locations can be interpreted as a set of locations that are mostly spread out in space, where murres searched for prey. On the other hand, intensive foraging locations can be interpreted as a set of locations that are very close together in space where murres likely found prey, and thus spent more time.

We are finalizing the extraction of environmental data for each point location from satellite data. Once all data are extracted, we can begin analysis for determining what environmental conditions were sought during dispersal and what types of habitats are preferred. Some of the ocean conditions that will be examined are sea surface temperate, wind, upwelling index, and primary net productivity. Some other habitat descriptors we are interested in assessing are substrate, distance to river mouth, salinity, depth, distance to the 200-m isobath, and distance to shore. For now, exploration of data indicates differences in habitat associations by behavior and between seasons.

Sample size means everything in a study like this so I am happy to say that more data is yet to come: SOL plans to deploy 15 more tags during spring and summer of 2017. I am excited to see what the additional tagged murres will do, and whether they will follow a pattern similar to those tracked in 2015 and 2016. However this time around, we will deploy tags as late in the summer/early fall as we can, in hope of acquiring some novel winter data to fill this knowledge gap. If we are successful, we may finally have a better idea of what life is like for common murres during more of the year beyond the rock.


Celebrating Hydrothermal Vents!

By Florence Sullivan, MSc Student OSU

40 years ago, in 1977 OSU researchers led an NSF funded expedition to the Galapagos on a hunt for suspected hydrothermal vents. From the 1960s to the mid-1970s, mounting evidence such as (1) temperature anomalies found deep in the water column, (2) conduction heat flow probes at mid ocean ridges recording temperatures much lower than expected, (3) unusual mounds found on benthic mapping surveys, and (4) frequent, small, localized earthquakes at mid oceanic ridges, had the oceanographic community suspecting the existence of deep sea hydrothermal vents. However, until the 1977 cruise, no one had conclusive evidence that they existed.  During the discovery cruise at the Galapagos rift, the PI (principle investigator), Dr. Jack Corliss from OSU, used tow-yos (a technique where you drag a CTD up and down through the water in a zig zag pattern – see gif) to pinpoint the location of the hydrothermal vent plume. The team then sent the Deep Submergence Vehicle (DSV) Alvin to investigate and returned with the first photographs and samples from a hydrothermal vent. While discovery of the vent systems helped answer many questions about chemical and heat fluxes in the deep sea, it generated so many new questions that novel fields of study were created in biology, microbiology, marine chemistry, marine geology, planetary science, astrobiology and the study of the origin of life.

 “Literally every organism that came up was something that was unknown to science up until that time. It made it terribly exciting. Anything that came [up] on that basket was a new discovery,” – Dr. Richard Lutz (Rutgers University)

In celebration of this great discovery, OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences sponsored a seminar looking at the past, present, and future of hydrothermal vent sciences. Dr. Robert Collier began with a timeline of how the search for hydrothermal vents began, and a commemoration of all the excellent researchers and collaborations between institutions and agencies that made the discovery possible. He acknowledged that such collaborations are often somewhat tense in terms of who gets credit for which discovery, and that while Oregon State University was the lead of the project, it takes a team to get the work done.  Dr. Jack Corliss proudly followed up with a wonderful rambling explanation of how vent systems work, and a brief dip into his ground breaking paper, “An Hypothesis concerning the relationship between submarine hot springs and the origin of life on Earth.” Published in 1981, with co-authors Dr. John Baross and Dr. Sarah Hoffman, they postulate that the temperature and chemical gradients seen at hydrothermal vents provide pathways for the synthesis of chemical compounds, formation and evolution of ‘precells’ and eventually, the evolution of free living organisms.

Dr. Corliss, Dr. Baross, and Dr. Hoffman were the first to suggest the now popular theory of the origin of life at hydrothermal vents. (click on image to read full paper)

Because of time constraints, the podium was swiftly handed over to Dr. Bill Chadwick (NOAA PMEL/ HMSC CIMRS) who brought us forward to the present day with an exciting overview of current vent research.  He began by saying “at the beginning, we thought, ‘No one has seen one of these systems before, they must be very rare…’ Now, we have found them [hydrothermal vents] in every ocean basin – including the arctic and southern oceans. We just needed to know how to look!”  Dr. Chadwick also reminded us that even 40 years later, new discoveries are still being made. For example, on his most recent cruise aboard the R/V Falkor in December 2016, they found a sulfur chimney that was alternately releasing bubbles of gas (sulfur, CO2 or other, hard to know without sampling) or bubbles of liquid sulfur! Check out the video below:

Some of the goals for this recent cruise included mapping new areas of the Mariana back-arc, and investigating differences in the biological communities between vents in the Mariana trench region (a subduction zone) and vents in the back arc (a spreading zone) to see if geology plays a role in biological community composition.  For some very cool video footage of the expedition and the various dives performed by the brand new ROV SUBastian (because all scientists love puns), check out the Schmidt Ocean Institute youtube channel.

Dr. Chadwick showed this video to highlight results from his last cruise.

Finally, Dr. Andrew Thurber wrapped up the session with some thoughts about hydrothermal vents from the perspective of an ecosystem services model. Even after 40 years of research, there are still many unknowns about these ecosystems.  Individual vent systems are inherently unique due to their deep sea isolation. However, most explored sites have revealed metals and mineral deposits that have generated a lot of interest from commercial sea floor mining companies. Exploitation of these deposits would be an example of ecosystem “provisioning services” (products that are obtained from the ecosystem). Other examples include the biology of the vents as a source of new genetic material, and the thermal and chemical gradients as natural laboratories that could lead to breakthroughs in pharmaceutical research. Cultural services are those non-material benefits that people obtain from an ecosystem. At hydrothermal vents these include new scientific discoveries, educational uses (British children’s television show “The Octonauts,” has several episodes featuring hydrothermal vent creatures), and creative inspiration for artists and others. Dr. Thurber cautions that there are ethical questions to be answered before considering exploitation of these resources, but there is a lot of potential for commercial and non-commercial use of vent ecosystems.

Vent inspired art by Lily Simonson

As an undergraduate at the University of Washington, I spent time as a research assistant in Dr. John Baross’ astrobiology lab. We studied evolutionary pathways of hydrothermal vent viruses and bacteria to inform the search for life on exoplanets such as Jupiter’s moon Europa.  It was very fun and exciting for me to attend this seminar, hear stories from pioneers in the field, and remember the systems I worked on in undergrad.  I may have moved up the food chain a little now, but as we all work on our pieces of the puzzle, it is important for scientists to remember the interdisciplinary nature of our work, and how there is always something more to learn.



What it looks like when science meets management decisions

Dr. Leigh Torres
GEMM Lab, OSU, Marine Mammal Institute

It’s often difficult to directly see the application of our research to environmental management decisions. This was not the case for me as I stepped off our research vessel Tuesday morning in Wellington and almost directly (after pausing for a flat white) walked into an environmental court hearing regarding a permit application for iron sands mining in the South Taranaki Bight (STB) of New Zealand (Fig. 1). The previous Thursday, while we surveyed the STB for blue whales, I received a summons from the NZ Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) to appear as an expert witness regarding blue whales in NZ and the potential impacts of the proposed mining activity by Trans-Tasman Resources Ltd. (TTR) on the whales. As I sat down in front of the four members of the EPA Decision Making Committee, with lawyers for and against the mining activity sitting behind me, I was not as prepared as I would have liked – no business clothes, no powerpoint presentation, no practiced summary of evidence. But, I did have new information, fresh perspective, and the best available knowledge of blue whales in NZ. I was there to fill knowledge gaps, and I could do that.

Figure 1. Distribution map of blue whale sightings (through Nov 2016) in the South Taranaki Bight (STB) of New Zealand, color-coded by month. Also identified are the current locations of oil and gas platforms (black flags) and the proposed area for seabed mining (yellow polygon). The green stars denote the location of our hydrophones within the STB that record blue whale vocalizations. The source of the upwelling plume at Kahurangi Point, on the NW tip of the South Island, is also identified.

For over an hour I was questioned on many topics. Here are a few snippets:

Why should the noise impacts from the proposed iron sands mining operation on blue whales be considered when seismic survey activity produces noise 1,000 to 100,000 times louder?

My answer: Seismic survey noise is very loud, but it’s important to note that seismic and mining noises are two different types of sound sources. Seismic surveys noise is an impulsive noise (a loud bang every ~8 seconds), while the mining operation will produce non-impulsive (continuous) sound. Also, the mining operation will likely be continuous for 32 years. Therefore, these two sound sources are hard to compare. It’s like comparing the impacts of listening to pile driving for a month, and listening to a vacuum cleaner for 32 years. What’s important here is to considering the cumulative effects of both these noise sources occurring at the same time: pile driving on top of vacuum cleaner.


How many blue whales have been sighted within 50 km of the proposed mining site?

My answer: Survey effort in the STB has been very skewed because most marine mammal sighting records have come from marine mammal observers aboard seismic survey vessels that primarily work in the western regions of the STB, while the proposed mining site is in the eastern region. So at first glance at a distribution map of blue whale sightings (Fig. 1) we may think that most of the blue whales are found in the western region of the STB, but this is incorrect because we have not accounted for survey effort.

During our past three surveys in the STB we have surveyed closer to the proposed mining site. In 2014 our closest point of survey approach to the mining site was 26 km, and our closest sighting was 63 km away. In 2016, we found no whales north of 40’ 30” in the STB and the closest sighting was 107 km away from the proposed mining site, but this was a different oceanographic year due to El Niño conditions. During this recent survey in 2017, our closest point of survey approach to the proposed mining site was 22 km, and our closest sighting was 29 km, with a total of 9 sightings of 16 blue whales within 50 km of the proposed mining site. With all reported sighting records of blue whales tabulated, there have been 16 sightings of 33 blue whales within 50 km of the proposed mining site. Considering the minimal survey effort in this region, this is actually a relatively high number of blue whale sighting records near the proposed mining site.

Additionally, we have a hydrophone located 18.8 km from the proposed mining site. We have only analyzed the data from January through June 2016 so far, but during this period we have an 89% daily detection rate of blue whale calls.


Why are blue whales in the STB and where else are they found in NZ?

My answer: A  wind-driven upwelling system occurs off Kahurangi Point (Fig. 1) along the NW coast of the South Island. This upwelling brings nutrient rich deep water to the surface where it meets the sunlight causing primary productivity to begin. Currents push these productive plumes of water into the STB and zooplankton, such as krill that is the main prey item of blue whales, aggregate in these productive areas to feed on the phytoplankton. Blue whales spend time in the STB because they depend on the predictability of these large krill aggregations in the STB to feed efficiently.

Sightings of blue whales have been reported in other areas around New Zealand, but nowhere with regular frequency or abundance. There may be other areas where blue whales feed occasionally or regularly in New Zealand waters, but these areas have not been documented yet. We don’t know very much about these newly documented New Zealand blue whales, yet what we do know is that the STB is an important foraging area for these animals.


Questions like these went on and on, and I was probed with many insightful questions. Yet, the question that sticks with me now was asked by the Chair of the Decision Making Committee regarding the last sentence in my submitted evidence where I remarked on the importance of recognizing the innate right of animals to live in their habitat without disturbance. “This sounds like an absolute statement,” claimed the Chair, “like no level of disturbance is tolerable”. I was surprised by the Chair’s focus on this statement over others. I reiterated my opinion that we, as a society, need to recognize the right of all animals to live in undisturbed habitats whenever we consider any new human activity. “That’s why we are all here today”, I explained to the committee, “to recognize and evaluate the potential impacts of TTR’s proposed mining operation on blue whales, and other animals, in the STB”. Undisturbed habitat may not always be achievable, but when we make value-based decisions regarding permitting industrial projects we need to recognize biodiversity’s right to live in uncompromised environments.

I do not envy this Decision Making Committee, as over three weeks they are hearing evidence from all sides on a multitude of topics from environmental, to economic, to cultural impacts of the proposed mining operation. They will be left with the very hard task of balancing all this information and deciding to approve or decline the mining permit, which would be a first in NZ and may open the floodgates of seabed mining in the country. My only hope is that our research on blue whales in NZ over the last five years has filled knowledge gaps, allowing the Decision Making Committee to fully appreciate the importance of the STB habitat to NZ blue whales, and appropriately consider the potential impacts of TTR’s proposed mining activities on this unique population.

A blue whale surfaces in a calm sea in the South Taranaki Bight of New Zealand (Photo L. Torres).

The best field season ever

By Dawn Barlow, MSc student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

8:35pm on February 20th found the blue whale team smiling, singing, and dancing on the aft deck of the R/V Star Keys as the light faded and the sky glowed orange and we marked our final waypoint of the 2017 blue whale field season. What preceded was a series of days so near perfect that we had barely dared dream of the like. Sighting after sighting, and our team of scientists and the wonderful Star Keys crew began to work like a well-oiled machine—approach the whale gently and observe its behavior, fly the drone, deploy the CTD and echosounder, approach for photos, launch the small boat, approach for biopsy, leave the whale, re-apply sunscreen, find another whale, repeat. This series of events continued from sunrise until sunset, when the sky and water were painted brilliant colors. The sound of big blue whale breaths broke the silence over the glassy water, and the plumes of exhaled air lit up in the last bits of sunlight, lingering there without even a puff of wind to blow them away.

A blue whale mother and calf surface in front of Farewell Spit in calm conditions as the daylight starts to fade. Photo by Leigh Torres.
The small boat returns to R/V Star Keys after collecting the final biopsy sample of the season. Photo by Dawn Barlow.

Despite coming to New Zealand during the “worst summer ever”, I’m pleased to say that this has been the most fruitful field season the New Zealand blue whale project has had. We covered a total of 1,635 nautical miles and recorded sightings of 68 blue whales, in addition to sightings of killer whales, pilot whales, common dolphins, dusky dolphins, sharks, and many seabirds. Five of our blue whale sightings included calves, reiterating that the South Taranaki Bight appears to be an important area for mother-calf pairs. Callum and Mike (Department of Conservation) collected 23 blue whale biopsy samples, more than twice the number collected last year. Todd flew the drone over 35 whales, observing and documenting behaviors and collecting aerial imagery for photogrammetry. We took 9,742 photos, which will be used to determine how many unique individuals we saw and how many of them have been sighted in previous years.

A blue whale surfaces with R/V Star Keys in the background. Photo taken from the small boat by Leigh Torres.

It is always hard to see a wonderful thing come to an end, and we agreed that we would all happily continue this work for much longer if funding and weather permitted. But as the small skiff returned to the Star Keys with our final biopsy sample and the dancing began, we all agreed that we couldn’t have asked for a better note to end on. There has already been plenty of wishful chatter about future field efforts, but in the meantime we’re still floating from this year’s success. I will certainly have my hands full when I return to Oregon, and in the best possible way. It feels good to have an abundance of data from a project I’m passionate about.

A blue whale comes up for air in a calm sea. Photo by Leigh Torres.

Thank you to Western Work Boats and Captain James “Razzle-Dazzle” Dalzell, Spock, and Jason of the R/V Star Keys for their hard work, patience, and good attitudes. James made it clear at the beginning of the trip that this was to be our best year ever, and it was nothing less. The crew went from never having seen a blue whale before the trip to being experts in maneuvering around whales, oceanographic data collection, and whale poop-scooping. Thank you to Callum Lilley and Mike Ogle from the Department of Conservation for their time, impressive marksmanship, and enthusiasm. And once again thank you to all of our colleagues, funders, and supporters—this project is made possible by collaboration. Now that we’ve wrapped up, blue whale team members are heading in different directions for the time being. We’ll be dreaming of blue whales for weeks to come, and looking forward to the next time our paths cross.

Blue whale team members in front of R/V Star Keys in port in Nelson.
The team rejoices after a magnificent final survey day!


A day in the office

Join us for a couple boat rides as we study blue whales in the South Taranaki Bight of New Zealand.

In both videos below you can see and hear the field team coordinate to capture photo-identification images of the whale(s) while also obtaining a small tissue biopsy sample. It is important to match the individual whale to the sample so we can link biological data obtained from the sample (genetics, hormones, stable isotopes) to the individual whale. We also carefully take notes on where, when and what we collect in order to help us keep track of our data.

In this video clip you can watch as we gently approach two blues surfacing off the starboard bow of the RV Star Keys in order to capture photo-identification images and a small tissue biopsy sample. Callum Lilley (DOC) on the bow; Leigh Torres, Dawn Barlow, and Todd Chandler (OSU) photographing and coordinating from the flying bridge.


We are in the small boat here collecting data on a pair of blue whales. Callum Lilley (DOC) is on the rifle; Leigh Torres (OSU) is on the camera and taking notes; Todd Chandler (OSU) is on the helm.


Keeping up with blue whales in a dynamic environment

By Dawn Barlow, MSc student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

“The marine environment is patchy and dynamic”. This is a phrase I have heard, read, and written repeatedly in my studies of marine ecology, and it has become increasingly tangible during the past several weeks of fieldwork. The presence of the blue whales we’ve come here to study is the culmination of a chain of events that begins with the wind. As we huddle up at anchor or in port while the winds blow through the South Taranaki Bight, the water gets mixed and our satellite images show blooms of little phytoplankton lifeforms. These little phytoplankton provide food for the krill, the main prey item of far larger animals—blue whales. And in this dynamic environment, nothing stays the same for long. As the winds change, aggregations of phytoplankton, krill and whales shift.

When you spend hours and hours scanning for blue whales, you also grow intimately familiar with everything that could possibly look like a blue whale but is not. Teasers include whitecaps, little clouds on the horizon, albatrosses changing flight direction, streaks on your sunglasses, and floating logs. Let me tell you, if we came here to study logs we would have quite the comprehensive dataset! We have had a few days of long hours with good weather conditions and no whales, and it is difficult not to be frustrated at those times—we came here to find whales. But the whale-less days prompt musings of what drives blue whale distribution, foraging energetics, and dreams of elaborate future studies and analyses, along with a whole lot of wishing for whales. Because, let’s admit it, presence data is just more fun to collect.

The view from the flying bridge of R/V Star Keys of Mt. Taranaki and a calm sea with no whales in sight. Photo by D. Barlow.

But we’ve also had survey days filled with so many whales that I can barely keep track of all of them. When as soon as we begin to head in the direction of one whale, we spot three more in the immediate area. Excited shouts of “UP!! Two o’clock at 300 meters!” “What are your frame numbers for your right side photos?” “Let’s come 25 degrees to port” “UUUPPP!! Off the bow!” “POOOOOOP! Grab the net!!” fill the flying bridge as the team springs into action. We’ve now spotted 40 blue whales, collected 8 biopsy samples, 8 fecal samples, flown the drone over 9 whales, and taken 4,651 photographs. And we still have more survey days ahead of us!

A blue whale surfaces just off the bow of R/V Star Keys. Photo by D. Barlow.

In Leigh’s most recent blog post she described our multi-faceted fieldwork here in the South Taranaki Bight. Having a small inflatable skiff has allowed for close approaches to the whales for photo-identification and biopsy sample collection while our larger research vessel collects important oceanographic data concurrently. I’ve been reading numerous papers linking the distribution of large marine animals such as whales with oceanographic features such as fronts, temperature, and primary productivity. In one particular sighting, the R/V Star Keys idled in the midst of a group of ~13 blue whales, and I could see foamy lines on the surface where water masses met and mixed. The whales were diving deep—flukes the size of a mid-sized car gracefully lifting out of the water. I looked at the screen of the echosounder as it pinged away, bouncing off a dense layer of krill (blue whale prey) just above the seafloor at around 100 meters water depth.  As I took in the scene from the flying bridge, I could picture these big whales diving down to that krill layer and lunge feeding, gorging themselves in these cool, productive waters. It is all mostly speculative at this point and lots of data analysis time remains, but ideas are cultivated and validated when you experience your data firsthand.

A blue whale shows its fluke as it dives deep in an area with abundant krill deep in the water column. Photo by L. Torres.

The days filled with whales make the days without whales worthwhile and valuable. To emphasize the dynamic nature of the environment we study, when we returned to an area in which we had seen heaps of whales just 12 hours before, we only found glassy smooth water and no whales whatsoever. Changing our trajectory, we came across nothing for the first half of the day and then one pair of whales after another. Some traveling, some feeding, and two mother-calf pairs.

The dynamic nature of the marine environment and the high mobility of our study species is what makes this work challenging, frustrating, exciting, and fascinating. Now we’re ready to take advantage of our next weather window to continue our survey effort and build our ever-growing dataset. I relish the wind-swept, sunburnt days of scanning and musing, and I also look forward to settling down with all of these data to try my best to compile all of the pieces of this blue whale puzzle. And I know that when I find myself behind a computer screen processing and analyzing photos, survey effort, drone footage, and oceanographic data I will be imagining the blue waters of the South Taranaki Bight, the excitement of seeing the water glow brilliantly just before a whale surfaces off our bow, and whale-filled survey days that end only when the sun sets over the water.

A big moon rises to the east and a bright oil rig on the horizon at the end of a long and fruitful survey day. Photo by L. Torres.
And to the west of the moon and the rig, the sun sets over the South Taranaki Bight. Photo by L. Torres.


I love it when a plan comes together

By Dr. Leigh Torres


After four full-on days at sea covering 873 nautical miles, we are back in port as the winds begin to howl again and I now sip my coffee with a much appreciated still horizon. Our dedicated team worked the available weather windows hard and it paid off with more great absence data and excellent presence data too: blue whales, killer whales, common dolphins, and happily swimming pilot whales not headed to nearby Farewell Spit where a sad, massive stranding has occurred. It has been an exhausting, exhilarating, frustrating, exciting, and fulfilling time. As I reflect on all this work and reward, I can’t help but feel gratified for our persistent and focused planning that made it happen successfully. So, as we clean-up, organize data, process samples, and sit in port for a few days I would like to share some of our highlights over the past four days. I hope you enjoy them as much as we did.

The team in action on the RV Star Keys. Callum Lilley (DOC) on the bow waiting for a biopsy opportunity, Dawn Barlow (OSU) on the radio communicating with the small boat, Kristin Hodge (Cornell) taking photos of whales, Captain James Dalzell (Western Work Boats) on the helm, and Chief Engineer Spock (Western Work Boats) keeping his eyes peeled for a blow. (Photo credit: L. Torres)


In the small boat off looking for whales in a lovely flat, calm sea with an oil rig in the background. (Photo credit: D. Barlow)


Small boat action with Todd Chandler (OSU) at the helm, Leigh Torres (OSU) on the camera getting photo-id images, and Callum Lilley (DOC) taking the biopsy shot, and the dart is visible flying toward the whale in the black circle. (Photo credit: D. Barlow)


The stars of the show: blue whales. A photograph captured from the small boat of one animal fluking up to dive down as another whale surfaces close by. (Photo credit: L. Torres)


Collecting oceanographic data: Spock and Jason (Western Work Boats) deploy the CTD from the Star Keys. The CTD is an instrument that measures temperature, salinity, fluorescence and depth continuously as it descends to the bottom and back up again. (Photo credit: L. Torres)


The recently manufactured transducer pole in the water off the RV Star Keys (left) deployed with the echosounder to collect prey availability data, including this image (right) of krill swarms near feeding blue whales. (Photo credit: L. Torres)


The small boat returns to the Star Keys loaded with data and samples, including a large fecal sample in the net: The pooper scooper Leigh Torres (OSU), the biopsy rifle expert Callum Lilley (DOC), and the boat operator Todd Chandler (OSU). (Photo credit: D. Barlow)


Drone operator and videographer, Todd Chandler (OSU) under the towel (crucial piece of gear) to minimize glare on the screen as he locates and records blue whales. (Photo credit: K. Hodge)


A still shot captured from the drone footage of two adult blue whales surfacing in close proximity. (Photo credit: T. Chandler)


The team in action looking for blue whales in ideal survey conditions with Mt. Taranaki in the background. Todd Chandler (OSU) enters survey data while Dawn Barlow (OSU) spies for whale blows. (Photo credit: L. Torres)


A late evening at-sea after a big day sees Callum Lilley (DOC) processing a blue whale biopsy sample for transport, storage and analysis. (Photo credit: K. Hodge)


And we can’t forget why so many have put time, money and effort into this project: These blue whales are feeding and living within a space exploited by humans for multiple purposes, so we must ensure minimal impacts to these whales and their sustained health. (Photo credit: D. Barlow)

The worst summer ever!

By Dr. Leigh Torres

Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

“This is the worst summer ever in New Zealand.” During our four days of prep in Wellington before heading off on our vessel, almost all my friends and colleagues I spoke to said this statement (often with added emphasis). It’s been cold and windy here all summer long, and when the weather has cleared it has brought only brief respite. These comments don’t bode well for our blue whale survey dependent on calm survey conditions, but February is typically the prime month for good weather in New Zealand so I’m holding out hope. And this unpredictable weather is the common denominator of all field work. Despite months (years?) of preparation, with minute attention to all sort of details (e.g., poop net handle length, bag size limits, length of deployment lines), one of the most important factors to success is something we have absolutely no control over: the weather.

After just one day on the water, I can see that the oceanographic conditions this year are nothing like the hot-water El Niño conditions we experienced last summer. Surface water temperatures today ranged between 12.8 and 13.6 ⁰C. These temps are 10 degrees (Celsius) cooler than the 22 ⁰C water we often surveyed last summer. 10 degrees! Additionally, the current windy conditions have stirred up the upper portion of the ocean water column causing the productive mixed layer to be much deeper (therefore larger) than last year. While Kiwis may complain about the ‘terrible’ weather this summer, the resulting cold and productive oceanographic conditions are likely preferable for the whales. But where are the whales and can we find them with all this wind?

Today we had a pocket of calm conditions so our dedicated research team and crew hit it with enthusiasm, and collected a whole lot of great absence data. “Absence data?” you may ask. Absence data is all the information about where the whales are not, and is just as important as presence data (information about where the whales are) because it’s the comparison between the two sets of data (Presence vs Absence) that allows us to describe an animal’s “habitat use patterns”. Today we surveyed a small portion of the South Taranaki Bight for blue whales for about 6 hours, but the only blue animals we saw were little blue penguins and a blue shark (plus fur seals, dolphins, albatrosses, shearwaters, gannets, prions, kahawai, and saury).  But during this survey effort we collected a lot of synoptic environmental data to describe these habitats, including continuous depth and temperature data along our track, nine CTD water column profiles of temperature, salinity and florescence (productivity) from the surface to the seafloor, and continuous prey (zooplankton) availability data with our transducer (echosounder).

So, now that we have absence data, we need presence data. But, the winds are howling again and are predicted to continue for the next few days. As we hunker down in a beautiful protected cove I know the blue whales continue to search this region for dense food patches, unencumbered by human-perceived obstacles of high wind and swell. So, while my Kiwi friends are right – this summer is not like previous years – I also know that it is the effects of these dynamic weather patterns that we have come so far, and worked so hard, to study. Even as my patience wears thin and my frustrations mount, I will continue to wait to pounce on the right weather window to collect our needed presence data (and more absence data too, I’m sure).

Our research team collecting absence data aboard the RV Star Keys:

….aaaand we’re off! The blue whale team heads to New Zealand

By Dawn Barlow, MSc Student, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Oregon State University

Today we are flying to the other side of the world and boarding a 63-foot boat to study the largest animals ever to have inhabited this planet: blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus). Why do we study them, and how will we do it? Before I tell you, first let me say that no fieldwork is ever straightforward, and consequently no fieldwork lacks exciting learning opportunities. I have learned a lot about the logistics of an international field season in the past month, which I will share with you here!

The South Taranaki Bight, which lies between the north and south islands of New Zealand, is the study area for this survey.
Research vessel Star Keys will be our home for the month of February as we look for whales.

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS, a.k.a. “drones”) are becoming more prevalent in our field as a powerful and minimally invasive tool for studying marine mammals. Last year, our team was able to capture what we believe is the first aerial footage of nursing behavior in baleen whales, in addition to feeding and traveling behaviors. And beyond behavior, these aerial images contain morphological and physiological information about the whales such as how big they are, whether they are pregnant or lactating, and if they are in good health. I’ll start making a packing list for you to follow along with. So far it contains two drones and all of their battery supplies and chargers.

Aerial image of a blue whale mother and calf captured by a drone during the 2016 field season.

Perhaps you read my first GEMM Lab blog post, about identifying individual blue whales from photographs? Using these individual IDs, I plan to generate an abundance estimate for this blue whale population, as well as look at residency and movement patterns of individuals. Needless to say, we will be collecting photo-ID images this year as well! Add two large pelican cases with cameras and long lenses to the packing list.

Blue whale photo-ID image, showing the left and right sides of the same whale. I have identified 99 unique individuals so far, and look forward to adding to our catalog this year!

Now wouldn’t it be great to capture video of animal behavior in some way other than with the UAS? Maybe even from underwater? Add two GoPros and all of their associated paraphernalia to the mounting gear pile.

Now, bear with me. There is a wealth of physiological information contained in blue whale fecal matter. And when hormone analysis from fecal samples is paired with photogrammetry from UAS images, we can develop a valuable picture of individual and population-level health, stress, nutrition, and reproductive status. So, say we are able to scoop up lots of blue whale fecal samples – wouldn’t that be fantastic? Yes! Alright, add two nets, a multitude of jars, squirt bottles, and gloves to the gear list. And then we still need to bring them back to our lab here in Newport. How does that happen? Well, we need to filter out the sea water, transfer the samples to smaller tubes, and freeze them… in the field, on a moving vessel. Include beakers, funnels, spatulas, and centrifuge tubes on the list. Yes, we will be flying back with a Styrofoam cooler full of blue whale “poopsicles”. Of course, we need a cooler!

Alright, and now remember the biopsy sampling that took place last season? Collecting tissue samples allows us to assess the genetic structure of this population, their stable isotopic trophic feeding level, and hormone levels. Well, we are prepared to collect tissue samples once again! Remember to bring small tubes and scalpel blades for storing the samples, and to get ethanol when we arrive in Wellington.

An important piece in investigating the habitat of a marine predator is learning about the prey they are consuming. In the case of our blue whales, this prey is krill (Nyctiphanes australis). We study the prey layer with an echo sounder, which sends out high frequency pings that bounce off anything they come in contact with. From the strength of the signal that bounces back it is possible to tell what the composition of the prey layer is, and how dense. The Marine Mammal Institute here at OSU has an echo sounder, and with the help of colleagues and collaborators, positive attitudes, and perseverance, we successfully got the transducer to communicate with the receiver, and the receiver to communicate with the software, and the software to communicate with the GPS.  Add one large pelican case for the receiver. Can we fit the transducer in there as well? Hmmm, this is going to be heavy…

Blue whale team members and colleagues troubleshoot and test the Simrad EK60 echo sounder before packing it to take to New Zealand.

Now the daunting, ever-growing to-do lists have been checked off and re-written and changed and checked off again. The mountain of research gear has been evaluated and packed and unpacked and moved and re-evaluated and packed again. The countdown to our departure date has ended, and this evening Leigh, Todd, and I fly out of Portland and make our way to Wellington, New Zealand. To think that from here all will be smooth and flawless is naïve, but not being able to contain my excitement seems reasonable. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep, but more likely it’s the dreams coming true for a marine ecologist who loves nothing more than to be at sea with the wind in her face, looking for whales and creatively tackling fieldwork challenges.

In the midst of the flurry of preparations, it can be easy to lose sight of why we are doing this—why we are worrying ourselves over poopsicle transport and customs forms and endless pelican cases of valuable equipment for the purpose of spending several weeks on a vessel we haven’t yet set foot on when we can’t even guarantee that we’ll find whales at all. This area where we will work (Figure 1) is New Zealand’s most industrially active region, where endangered whales share the space with oil rigs, shipping vessels, and seismic survey vessels that have been active since October in search of more oil and gas reserves. It is a place where we have the opportunity to study how these majestic giants fit into this ecosystem, to learn what about this habitat is driving the presence of the whales and how they’re using the space relative to industry. It is an opportunity for me as a scientist to pursue questions in ecology—the field of study that I love. It is also an opportunity for me as a conservation advocate to find my voice on issues of industry presence, resource extraction, and conflicts over ocean spaces that extend far beyond one endangered species and one region of the world.

Fieldwork preparations have made clear to me once again the strength and importance of collaboration in science. Kim Bernard from OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and Craig Hayslip from the Marine Mammal Institute’s Whale Telemetry Group spent half a day troubleshooting the echosounder with us. Western Work Boats has manufactured a pole mount for the echosounder transducer, and Kristin Hodge is joining us from Cornell University’s Bioacoustics Research Program to assist with data collection. Callum Lilley and Mike Ogle from the New Zealand Department of Conservation will join us in Wellington to collect the biopsy samples, and Rochelle Constantine and Scott Baker will facilitate the archiving and transport of the tissue samples back to Newport for analysis. Scientific colleagues at NIWA will collaborate on oceanographic aspects and conduct stable isotope analysis of tissue samples. We are also grateful to the indispensable logistical support from Kathy Minta and Minda Stiles in the OSU Marine Mammal Institute. And, of course we could not do any of this work without the generous funding support from The Aotearoa Foundation, The New Zealand Department of Conservation, Greenpeace Aotearoa New Zealand, OceanCare, The International Fund for Animal Welfare Oceanea Office, Kiwis Against Seabed Mining, the OSU Marine Mammal Institute, and the Thorpe Foundation. Our science is stronger when we pool our energy and expertise, and I am thrilled to be working with this great group of people.

Stay tuned, the next several blogs will be posted from the field by the New Zealand blue whale team!

Challenges of fecal hormone analyses (Round 2): finally in Seattle!

By Leila Lemos, Ph.D. Student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, OSU

In a previous blog of mine, you could read about the challenges I have been facing while I am learning to analyze the hormone content in fecal samples of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus). New challenges appeared along the way over the last month, while I was doing my training at the Seattle Aquarium (Fig. 1).

Figure 1: View of the Seattle Aquarium.


My training lasted a week and I am truly grateful to the energy and time our collaborators Shawn Larson (research coordinator), Amy Green and Angela Smith (laboratory technicians) contributed. They accompanied me throughout my training to ensure I would be able to conduct hormonal analysis in the future, and to handle possible problems along the way.

The first step was weighing all of the fecal samples (Fig. 2A). Subsequently, the samples were transferred to appropriate glass tubes (Figs. 2B & 2C) for the next laboratorial step.

Figure 2: Analytical processes: (A) Sample weighing; (B) Transference of the sample to a glass tube; (C) Result from the performed steps.


The second conducted step was the hormone extraction. The extraction began with the addition of an organic solvent, called methanol (CH3OH), to the sample tubes (Fig. 3A & 3B). Hormones leach out from the samples and dissolve in the methanol, due to their affinity for this polar solvent.

Tubes were then placed on a plate shaker (Fig. 3C) for 30 minutes, which is used to mix the substances, in order extract the hormones from the fecal samples. The next step was to place the tubes in a centrifuge (Fig. 3D) for 20 minutes. The centrifuge uses the sedimentation principle, causing denser substances or particles to settle to the bottom of the tube, while the less dense substances rise to the top.

Figure 3: Analytical processes: (A) Methanol addition; (B) Sample + methanol; (C) Plate shaker; (D) Centrifuge.


After this process, the two different densities were separated: the high-density particles of the feces were in the bottom of the tube, while the methanol containing the extracted hormones was at the top. The top phase (methanol + hormones) was then pipetted into a different tube (Fig. 4A). The solvent was then evaporated, by using an air dryer apparatus (Fig. 4B), with only the hormones remaining in the tube.

The third performed step was dilution. A specific amount of water, measured in correlation with sample weight and to the amount of the methanol mixed with each sample, was added to each tube (Fig. 4C). Since the hormones were concentrated in the methanol, the readings would exceed the measurement limits of the equipment (plate reader). Thus, in order to prepare the extracts for the immunoassays, different dilutions were made.

Figure 4: Analytical processes: (A) Methanol transference; (B) Methanol drying; (C) Water addition.


The fourth and final step was to finally conduct the assays. Each assay kit is specific to the hormone to be analyzed with specified instructions for each kit. Since we were analyzing four different hormones (cortisol, testosterone, progesterone, and triiodothyronine – T3) we followed four different processes accordingly.

First, a table was filled with the identification numbers of the samples to be analyzed in that specific kit (Fig. 5A). The kit (Fig. 5B) includes the plate reader and several solutions that are used in the process to prepare standard curves, to initiate or stop chemical reactions, among other functions.

A standard curve, also known as calibration curve, is a common procedure in laboratory analysis for determining the concentration of an element in an unknown sample. The concentration of the element is determined by comparison with a set of standard samples of known concentration.

The plate contains several wells (Fig. 5C & 5D), which are filled with the samples and/or these other solutions. When the plate is ready, (Fig.5D) it is carried to the microplate reader that measures the intensity of the color of each of the wells. The intensity of the color is inversely proportional to the concentration of the hormone in both the standards and the samples.

Figure 5: (A) Filling the assay table with the samples to be analyzed; (B) Assay kit to be used; (C) Preparation of the plate; (D) Plate ready to be read.


Since this is the first fecal hormone analysis being performed in gray whales, a validation process of the method is required. Two different tests (parallelism and accuracy) were performed with a pool of three different samples. Parallelism tests that the assay is measuring the antigen (hormone) of interest and also identifies the most appropriate dilution factor to be used for the samples. Accuracy tests that the assay measurement of hormone concentration corresponds to the true concentration of the sample (Brown et al. 2005).

This validation process only needs to be done once. Once good parallelism and accuracy results are obtained, and we have identified the correct dilution factor and approximate concentration of the samples, the samples are ready to be analyzed. Below you can see examples of a good parallelism test (parallel displacement; Fig. 6) and bad parallelism tests (Fig. 7) that indicate no displacement, low concentration or non-parallel displacement; and a good accuracy test (Fig. 8).

Figure 6: Example of a good parallelism test. The dark blue line indicates the standard curve; the pink line indicates a good parallelism test, showing a parallel displacement; and the ratios in black indicate the dilution factors.
Source: Brown et al. (2005)


Figure 7: Examples of bad parallelism tests. The dark blue line indicates the standard curve; the light blue line is an example of no displacement; the pink line is an example of low concentration of the sample; and the green line is an example of non-parallel displacement.
Source: Brown et al. (2005)


Figure 8: Example of a good accuracy test while analyzing hormone levels of pregnanediol glucuronide (Pdg) in elephant urine. The graph shows good linearity (R2 of 0.9986) and would allow for accurate concentration calculations.
Source: Brown et al. (2005)


After the validation tests returned reliable results, the samples were also analyzed. However, many complications were encountered during the assay preparations and important lessons were learned that I know will allow this work to proceed more smoothly and quickly in the future. For instance, I now know to try to buy assay kits of the same brand, and to be extremely careful while reading the manual of the process to be performed with the assay kit. With practice over the coming years, my goal is to master these assay preparations.

Now, the next step will be to analyze all of the results obtained in these analyses and start linking the multiple variables we have from each individual, such as age, sex and body condition. The results of this analysis will lead to a better understanding of how reproductive and stress hormones vary in gray whales, and also link these hormone variations to nutritional status and noise events, one of my PhD research goals.


Cited Literature:

Brown J, Walker S and Steinman K. 2005. Endocrine manual for reproductive assessment of domestic and non-domestic species. Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, Conservation and Research Center, Virginia 1-69.