Eyes from Space: Using Remote Sensing as a Tool to Study the Ecology of Blue Whales

By Christina Garvey, University of Maryland, GEMM Lab REU Intern

It is July 8th and it is my 4th week here in Hatfield as an REU intern for Dr. Leigh Torres. My name is Christina Garvey and this summer I am studying the spatial ecology of blue whales in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Coming from the east coast, Oregon has given me an experience of a lifetime – the rugged shorelines continue to take my breath away and watching sea lions in Yaquina Bay never gets old. However, working on my first research project has by far been the greatest opportunity and I have learned so much in so little time. When Dr. Torres asked me to contribute to this blog I was unsure of how I would write about my work thus far but I am excited to have the opportunity to share the knowledge I have gained with whoever reads this blog post.

The research project that I will be conducting this summer will use remotely sensed environmental data (information collected from satellites) to predict blue whale distribution in the South Taranaki Bight (STB), New Zealand. Those that have read previous blogs about this research may remember that the STB study area is created by a large indentation or “bight” on the southern end of the Northern Island. Based on multiple lines of evidence, Dr. Leigh Torres hypothesized the presence of an unrecognized blue whale foraging ground in the STB (Torres 2013). Dr. Torres and her team have since proved that blue whales frequent this region year-round; however, the STB is also very industrial making this space-use overlap a conservation concern (Barlow et al. 2018). The increasing presence of marine industrial activity in the STB is expected to put more pressure on blue whales in this region, whom are already vulnerable from the effects of past commercial whaling (Barlow et al. 2018) If you want to read more about blue whales in the STB check out previous blog posts that talk all about it!

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.
Figure 2. South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand, our study site outlined by the red box. Kahurangi Point (black star) is the site of wind-driven upwelling system.

The possibility of the STB as an important foraging ground for a resident population of blue whales poses management concerns as New Zealand will have to balance industrial growth with the protection and conservation of a critically endangered species. As a result of strong public support, there are political plans to implement a marine protected area (MPA) in the STB for the blue whales. The purpose of our research is to provide scientific knowledge and recommendations that will assist the New Zealand government in the creation of an effective MPA.

In order to create an MPA that would help conserve the blue whale population in the STB, we need to gather a deeper understanding of the relationship between blue whales and this marine environment. One way to gain knowledge of the oceanographic and ecological processes of the ocean is through remote sensing by satellites, which provides accessible and easy to use environmental data. In our study we propose remote sensing as a tool that can be used by managers for the design of MPAs (through spatial and temporal boundaries). Satellite imagery can provide information on sea surface temperature (SST), SST anomaly, as well as net primary productivity (NPP) – which are all measurements that can help describe oceanographic upwelling, a phenomena that is believed to be correlated to the presence of blue whales in the STB region.

Figure 3. 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)

Past studies in the STB showed evidence of a large upwelling event that occurs off the coast of Kahurangi Point (Fig. 2), on the northwest tip of the South Island (Shirtcliffe et al. 1990). In order to study the relationship of this upwelling to the distribution of blue whales, I plan to extract remotely sensed data (SST, SST anomaly, & NPP) off the coast of Kahurangi and compare it to data gathered from a centrally located site within the STB, which is close to oil rigs and so is of management interest. I will first study how decreases in sea surface temperature at the site of upwelling (Kahurangi) are related to changes in sea surface temperature at this central site in the STB, while accounting for any time differences between each occurrence. I expect that this relationship will be influenced by the wind patterns, and that there will be changes based on the season. I also predict that drops in temperature will be strongly related to increases in primary productivity, since upwelling brings nutrients important for photosynthesis up to the surface. These dips in SST are also expected to be correlated to blue whale occurrence within the bight, since blue whale prey (krill) eat the phytoplankton produced by the productivity.

Figure 4. A blue whale lunges on an aggregation of krill. UAS piloted by Todd Chandler.

To test the relationships I determine between remotely sensed data at different locations in the STB, I plan to use blue whale observations from marine mammal observers during a seismic survey conducted in 2013, as well as sightings recorded from the 2014, 2016, and 2017 field studies led by Dr. Leigh Torres. By studying the statistical relationships between all of these variables I hope to prove that remote sensing can be used as a tool to study and understand blue whale distribution.

I am very excited about this research, especially because the end goal of creating an MPA really gives me purpose. I feel very lucky to be part of a project that could make a positive impact on the world, if only in just a little corner of New Zealand. In the mean time I’ll be here in Hatfield doing the best I can to help make that happen.


Barlow DR, Torres LG, Hodge KB, Steel D, Baker CS, Chandler TE, Bott N, Constantine R, Double MC, Gill P, Glasgow D, Hamner RM, Lilley C, Ogle M, Olson PA, Peters C, Stockin KA, Tessaglia-hymes CT, Klinck H (2018) Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger Species Res 36:27–40.

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.

Torres LG (2013) Evidence for an unrecognised blue whale foraging ground in New Zealand. New Zeal J Mar Freshw Res 47:235–248.

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2 thoughts on “Eyes from Space: Using Remote Sensing as a Tool to Study the Ecology of Blue Whales”

  1. Christina, I look forward to seeing how effective this use of environmental data is in predicting blue whale movement. Keep up the good work.

  2. Hi Christina,

    Very interested in learning more from you! Enjoyed the blog.
    South Taranaki, NZ resident and community marine Project lead for ‘Project Reef Life’

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