Cloudy with a chance of blue whales

By Dawn Barlow, PhD student, Department of Fisheries & Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

As a PhD student studying the ecology of blue whales in New Zealand, my time is occupied by questions such as: When and where are the blue whales? Can we predict where they will be based on environmental conditions? How does their distribution overlap with human activity such as oil and gas exploration?

Leigh and I have just returned from New Zealand, where I gave an oral presentation at the Society for Conservation Biology Oceania Congress entitled “Cloudy with a chance of whales: Forecasting blue whale presence to mitigate industrial impacts based on tiered, bottom-up models”. While the findings I presented are preliminary, an exciting ecological story is emerging, and one with clear management implications.

The South Taranaki Bight (STB) region of New Zealand is an important area for a population of blue whales which are unique to New Zealand. A wind-driven upwelling system brings cold, productive waters into the bight [1], which sustains high densities of krill [2], blue whale prey. The region is also frequented by busy shipping traffic, oil and gas drilling and extraction platforms as well as seismic survey effort for subsurface oil and gas reserves, and is the site of a recently-permitted seabed mine for iron sands (Fig. 1). However, a lack of knowledge on blue whale distribution and habitat use patterns has impeded effective management of these potential anthropogenic threats.

Figure 1. A blue whale surfaces in front of a floating production storage and offloading vessel servicing the oil rigs in the South Taranaki Bight. Photo by D. Barlow.

Three surveys were conducted in the STB region in the summer months of 2014, 2016, and 2017. During that time, we not only looked for blue whales, we also collected oceanographic data and hydroacoustic backscatter data to map and measure aspects of the krill in the region. These data streams will help us understand the functional, ecological relationships between the environment (oceanography), prey (krill), and predators (blue whales) in the ecosystem (Fig. 2). But in practice these data are costly and time-consuming to collect, while other data sources such as satellite imagery are readily accessible to managers at a variety of spatial and temporal scales. Therefore, another one of my aims is to link the data we collected in the field to satellite imagery, so that managers can have a practical tool to predict when and where the blue whales are most likely to be found in the region.

Figure 2. Data streams collected during surveys of the South Taranaki Bight Region in 2014, 2016, and 2017. 

So what did I find? Here are the highlights from my preliminary analyses:

  • The majority of the patterns in blue whale distribution can be explained by the density, depth, and thickness of the krill patches.
  • Patterns in the krill are driven by oceanography.
  • Those same oceanographic parameters that drive the krill can be used to explain blue whale distribution.
  • There are tight relationships between the important oceanographic variables and satellite images of sea surface temperature.
  • Blue whale distribution can, to some degree, be explained using just satellite imagery.

We were able to identify a sea surface temperature range in the satellite imagery of approximately 18°C where the likelihood of finding a blue whale is the highest. Is this because blue whales really like 18° water? Well, more likely this relationship exists because the satellite imagery is reflective of the oceanography, and the oceanography drives patterns in the krill distribution, and the krill drives the distribution of blue whales (Fig. 3). We were able to make each of these functional linkages through our series of models, which is quite exciting.

Figure 3. The tiered modeling approach we took to investigate the ecological relationships between blue whales, krill, oceanography, and satellite imagery. Because of the ecological linkages we made, we are able to say that any relationship between whale distribution and satellite imagery most likely reflects a relationship between the blue whales and their prey. 

That’s all well and good, but we were interested in testing these relationships to see if our identified habitat associations hold up even when we do not have field data (oceanographic, krill, and whale data). This past austral summer, we did not have a field season to collect data, but there was a large seismic airgun survey of the STB region. Seismic survey vessels are required to have trained marine mammal observers on board, and we were given access to the blue whale sightings data they recorded during the survey. In December, when the water was right around the preferred temperature identified by our models (18°C), the observers made 52 blue whale sightings (Fig. 4). In January and February, the waters warmed and only two sightings were made in each month. This is not only reassuring because it supports our model results, it also implies that there is the potential to balance industrial use of the area with protection of blue whale habitat, based on our understanding of the ecology. In January and February, very few blue whales were likely disturbed by the industrial activity in the STB, as conditions were not favorable for foraging at the location of the seismic survey. In contrast, the blue whales that were in the STB region in December may have experienced physiological consequences of sustained exposure to airgun noise since the conditions were favorable for foraging in the STB. In other words, the whales may have tolerated the noise exposure to gain access to good food, but this could have significant biological repercussions such as increased stress [3].

Figure 4. Monthly sea surface temperature (MODIS Aqua) overlaid with blue whale sightings from marine mammal observers aboard seismic survey vessel R/V Amazon Warrior. Black rectangles represent areas of seismic survey effort. Blue whale sighting location data were provided by RPS Energy Pty Ltd & Schlumberger, and Todd Energy.

In the first two weeks of July, we presented these latest findings to managers at the New Zealand Department of Conservation, the Minister of Conservation, the CEO and Policy Advisor of a major oil and gas conglomerate, NGOs, advocacy groups, and scientific colleagues. It was valuable to gather feedback from many different stakeholders, and satisfying to see such a clear interest in, and management application of, our work.

Dr. Leigh Torres and Dawn Barlow in front of Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, following the presentation of their recent findings.

What’s next? We’re back in Oregon, and diving back into analysis. We intend to take the modeling work a step further to make the models predictive—for example, can we forecast where the blue whales will be based on the temperature, productivity, and winds two weeks prior? I am excited to see where these next steps lead!


  1. Shirtcliffe TGL, Moore MI, Cole AG, Viner AB, Baldwin R, Chapman B. 1990 Dynamics of the Cape Farewell upwelling plume, New Zealand. New Zeal. J. Mar. Freshw. Res. 24, 555–568. (doi:10.1080/00288330.1990.9516446)
  2. Bradford-Grieve JM, Murdoch RC, Chapman BE. 1993 Composition of macrozooplankton assemblages associated with the formation and decay of pulses within an upwelling plume in greater cook strait, New Zealand. New Zeal. J. Mar. Freshw. Res. 27, 1–22. (doi:10.1080/00288330.1993.9516541)
  3. Rolland RM, Parks SE, Hunt KE, Castellote M, Corkeron PJ, Nowacek DP, Wasser SK, Kraus SD. 2012 Evidence that ship noise increases stress in right whales. Proc. Biol. Sci. 279, 2363–8. (doi:10.1098/rspb.2011.2429)
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *