Hello and greetings from the sort of sunny Oregon Coast! Sarah reporting in to offer an update on Florence’s Gray Whale study now that we’re about ten days into sampling. If you’re new to our blog you can read up on the preliminary field season right here.
Before I get to the project though, let me introduce myself a bit further. As I said, my name’s Sarah – one of the three interns on our whale surveying team. I got my Bachelor of Science in Oceanography at the University of Washington a few years back and have since worked as a lab tech at UW’s Friday Harbor Labs and as an Americorps volunteer serving as a teacher’s aide. Eventually I plan to become a science teacher, but thought a little more field work this summer would be a nice break after two years of service.
Thus, I moved to Newport last week just in time to catch the first day of our main surveying season. And what a season it’s been. We’ve tracked 48 whales since I’ve arrived, averaging about six a day. Of course, those aren’t all 48 different whales. If we lose sight of a whale for longer than 20 minutes, we assume it has left our study area and pronounce it lost, and unless we can identify the next sighting as the same whale based on markings (which we’re getting pretty good at), we give it a new number to keep track. We also give whales we’ve already seen new numbers when we see them on a different day.
You might be wondering how we can tell gray whales apart when they’re mostly, well, gray and underwater. And the short answer is we have a pretty difficult time doing so at first sight. Gray whales aren’t like orcas, whose saddle patch just behind the dorsal fin serves as a fingerprint, nor are they humpbacks, whose patterned flukes are cataloged for easy matching. Gray whales have more of a dorsal hump than a fin, followed by five or six ridges we call knuckles. They aren’t famous for showing their flukes above water either, so unless you get several views of a particular whale’s sides, dorsal, and, if you’re lucky, fluke, it’s hard to have a positive ID for the whale. The good news is, that part of our sampling equipment is a camera with a massive zoom lens, so we can take photos of most of the whales we track with the theodolite (see the previous post to learn about theodolites). From those photos (at least 400 a day) we can look at scars from barnacles and killer whales, pigmentation spots that are part of the whales’ coloring, and parasites like barnacles and amphipods to recognize whales we’ve seen before. Eventually we’ll send all the photos we take to the Cascadia Research Group in Olympia, Washington, that keeps a database of all identified gray whales.
Anyways, thanks for keeping with me to the bottom of the page. It’s been a fun first week-or-so and I’m excited to be heading to our second study site in Port Orford tomorrow after surveying. We’ll be there for 15 days, so next time you hear from us, we’ll be a bit further down the coast.