By Leila Lemos, PhD student
This summer was full of emotions for me: I finally started my first fieldwork season after almost a year of classes and saw my first gray whale (love at first sight!).
During the fieldwork we use a small research vessel (we call it “Red Rocket”) along the Oregon coast to collect data for my PhD project. We are collecting gray whale fecal samples to analyze hormone variations; acoustic data to assess ambient noise changes at different locations and also variations before, during and after events like the “Halibut opener”; GoPro recordings to evaluate prey availability; photographs in order to identify each individual whale and assess body and skin condition; and video recordings through UAS (aka “drone”) flights, so we can measure the whales and classify them as skinny/fat, calf/juvenile/adult and pregnant/non-pregnant.
However, in order to collect all of these data, we need to first find the whales. This is when we use our first sense: vision. We are always looking at the horizon searching for a blow to come up and once we see it, we safely approach the animal and start watching the individual’s behavior and taking photographs.
If the animal is surfacing regularly to allow a successful drone overflight, we stay with the whale and launch the UAS in order to collect photogrammetry and behavior data.
Each team member performs different functions on the boat, as seen in the figure below.
While one member pilots the boat, another operates the UAS. Another team member is responsible for taking photos of the whales so we can match individuals with the UAS videos. And the last team member puts the calibration board of known length in the water, so that we can later calculate the exact size of each pixel at various UAS altitudes, which allows us to accurately measure whale lengths. Team members also alternate between these and other functions.
Sometimes we put the UAS in the air and no whales are at the surface, or we can’t find any. These animals only stay at the surface for a short period of time, so working with whales can be really challenging. UAS batteries only last for 15-20 minutes and we need to make the most of that time as we can. All of the members need to help the UAS pilot in finding whales, and that is when, besides vision, we need to use hearing too. The sound of the whale’s respiration (blow) can be very loud, especially when whales are closer. Once we find the whale, we give the location to the UAS pilot: “whale at 2 o’clock at 30 meters from the boat!” and the pilot finds the whale for an overflight.
The opposite – too many whales around – can also happen. While we are observing one individual or searching for it in one direction, we may hear a blow from another whale right behind us, and that’s the signal for us to look for other individuals too.
But now you might be asking yourself: “ok, I agree with vision and hearing, but what about the other three senses? Smell? Taste? Touch?” Believe it or not, this happens. Sometimes whales surface pretty close to the boat and blow. If the wind is in our direction – ARGHHHH – we smell it and even taste it (after the first time you learn to close your mouth!). Not a smell I recommend.
Fecal samples are responsible for the 5th sense: touch!
Once we identify that the whale pooped, we approach the fecal plume in order to collect as much fecal matter as possible (Fig.2).
After collecting the poop we transfer all of it from the net to a small jar that we then keep cool in an ice chest until we arrive back at the lab and put it in the freezer. So, how do we transfer the poop to the jar? By touching it! We put the jar inside the net and transfer each poop spot to the jar with the help of water pressure from a squeeze bottle full of ambient salt water.
That’s how we use our senses to study the whales, and we also use an underwater sensory system (a GoPro) to see what the whales were feeding on.
GoPro video of mysid swarms that we recorded near feeding gray whales in Port Orford in August 2016:
Our fieldwork is wrapping up this week, and I can already say that it has been a success. The challenging Oregon weather allowed us to work on 25 days: 6 days in Port Orford and 19 days in the Newport and Depoe Bay region, totaling 141 hours and 50 minutes of effort. We saw 195 whales during 97 different sightings and collected 49 fecal samples. We also performed 67 UAS flights, 34 drifter deployments (to collect acoustic data), and 34 GoPro deployments.
It is incredible to see how much data we obtained! Now starts the second part of the challenge: how to put all of this data together and find the results. My next steps are:
– photo-identification analysis;
– body and skin condition scoring of individuals;
– photogrammetry analysis;
– analysis of the GoPro videos to characterize prey;
– hormone analysis laboratory training in November at the Seattle Aquarium
For now, enjoy some pictures and a video we collected during the fieldwork this summer. It was hard to choose my favorite pictures from 11,061 photos and a video from 13 hours and 29 minutes of recording, but I finally did! Enjoy!
Likely gray whale nursing behavior (Taken under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis):