Seabed mining permit approved in New Zealand blue whale habitat

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

In late February, we wrapped up our 2017 blue whale survey of the South Taranaki Bight region. Upon returning to port in Wellington, Leigh and I each located our one remaining clean shirt, drank a cup of coffee, and walked into a room full of lawyers in suits where Leigh testified in front of the Environmental Protection Authority’s (EPA) Decision Making Committee. The hearing was for Trans-Tasman Resources, Ltd. (TTR)’s application for a permit to extract 50 million tons of iron sands per year from the sea floor for a 35-year period. Our reason for being there? Leigh was called as an expert witness to present our findings on blue whale distribution and ecology in the region where the proposed mining operation will be so that the potential impacts could be properly evaluated by the Decision Making Committee. Talk about seeing an immediate application of your research!

A pair of blue whales observed in February 2017 in the South Taranaki Bight.

Fast forward several months. The decision of whether or not the permit will be granted has been delayed, more evidence has been requested and considered, Leigh has testified again via skype, and the decision has been delayed yet again. It is a contentious case, and people on both sides have grown impatient, concerned, and frustrated. Finally, the date and time of the decision announcement finds me nervously refreshing my browser window until I see the outcome: the mining permit has been approved.  It was a split decision by the committee of four, with the committee chair casting the deciding vote.

A schematic of the operations of the proposed seabed mine in the South Taranaki Bight. Source: Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (kasm.org.nz).

While the Decision Making Committee was split on whether or not the permit should be approved, the constituency was not. During the hearing process, over 13,700 submissions were received, 99% of which were in opposition to the mining operation. Opposition came from Iwi (Maori tribes), commercial and recreational fishing industries, scientists, and residents of local coastal communities.

What does this mean for New Zealand, for the whales, for the ecosystem, for the future? This decision represents a landmark case that will surely set a new precedent. It is the first of its kind to be approved in New Zealand, and the first commercial scale seabed mining operation in the world. Other permit applications for seabed mines elsewhere will no doubt be submitted in the wake of the approval of TTR’s iron sands mining operation. The groups Kiwis Against Seabed Mining and Greenpeace New Zealand have announced that they will appeal the EPA’s decision in High Court, and TTR cannot begin dredging until all appeals are heard and two years of environmental monitoring have taken place.

So for the time being, life continues as usual for the blue whales. They will carry on feeding and raising their young in the South Taranaki Bight, where they already are surrounded by oil rigs, vessel traffic, and seismic airguns. In the meantime, above the water’s surface, many dedicated individuals are prepared to fight hard for environmental conservation. The blue whales will likely continue to unknowingly play a role in the decision-making process as our data demonstrate the importance of this region to their ecology, and the New Zealand public and media continue to learn about these iconic animals. The research effort I am part of has the potential to immediately and concretely influence policy decisions, and I sincerely hope that our findings will not fall on deaf ears in the appeal process. While we continue to provide biological evidence, politicians, the media, and the public need to emphasize the value of preserving biodiversity. These blue whales can be a figurehead for a more sustainable future for the region.

If you are interested in learning more, I invite you to take a minute to visit the web pages listed below.

Diving Deeper

By Taylor Mock, GEMM Lab intern

Greetings, all!

My name is Taylor Mock. Since February I have been volunteering in the GEMM Lab and am ecstatic to make my online debut as part of the team!

For many years, I had a shallow relationship with Hatfield Marine Science Center. As a Newport native, I would spend mornings and evenings glancing over at the Hatfield buildings while driving over the bridge to and from school. I was always intrigued. Sure, I would hear snippets of research from my peers about what projects their parents were involved in, but the inner workings of the complex mystified me.

Toward the end of my Freshman year in 2012 at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, my mom asked me what my summer plans were. I replied with the typical “I don’t know… Get a job?” She insisted that instead of a job I think about getting an internship; experience that will last more than a summer. I inquired through a family friend (because every person in this little community is woven together some way or another) if any internships or volunteer opportunities were available at Hatfield. She pointed me in the direction of the Environmental Protection Agency and thus began my Hatfield volunteering saga. I worked that summer, and the next, at the EPA under the direction of Ted DeWitt and Jody Stecher on denitrification studies in estuarine marshes. That summer provided me a glorious front row seat to field research and a greater understanding of my potential as a person and as a scientist. Now, this experience was marvelous, but I knew shortly after starting that my heart was elsewhere.

It was during my study abroad semester in Belize as part of my internship at the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) that I realized I wanted to work with marine macroorganisms. At TIDE, I engaged in radio telemetry conservation efforts tracking Hicatee (Dermatemys mawii) aquatic turtles. We would spend days on a small boat floating through canals and setting nets in hopes of capturing individuals of this small population to outfit them with radio tracking devices. These would be later used to track foraging, mating, and travel patterns in the region. It was an amazing time, to say the least. I remember waking up on my 21st birthday from my camping hammock and staring up at the lush rainforest above my head with a warm breeze across my face, followed by spending the day in the presence of these glorious creatures. It was heaven. I returned to Westmont the following term and took a Marine Mammal Eco-Physiology course and absolutely fell in love with Cetacea. Yes, I had always been captivated by this clade of beings (and truthfully when I was eight years old had a book on “How to Become a Marine Mammal Trainer”), but this was deeper. Of course, pinnipeds and otters and polar bears and manatees were enjoyable to learn about. There was something about the Cetacea though and how they migrated up and down the coast (just like me!) that I really connected with. My time learning about these animals created an intimate understanding of another group of species that developed into a rich, indescribable empathetic connection. I had to take a couple years away from scholastics and away from biology for health and wellness reasons. One day, though, a couple years after graduating and returning to Newport I rekindled with Jody from the EPA. He asked me if I would like to volunteer under Leigh Torres in the Marine Mammal Institute at HMSC. I do not think I could have possibly said no. I have been enjoying my time in the GEMM Lab ever since!

Though I am available to help anyone with any task they need, the work I do mostly centers around photogrammetry.

Using photogrammetry skills to measure gray whales in the GEMM Lab.

Photogrammetry, essentially, means geo-spatially measuring objects using photographs. What that looks like for me is taking an aerial photograph (extracted from overhead drone video footage) of a whale, running the image through a computer program called “Matlab”, taking a series of measurements from the whale (e.g., tip of the mandible to the notch of the fluke, distance between each tip of the fluke, and several measurements across the midsection of the whale). Several images of individuals are processed in order to find an average set of measurements for each whale.

Final result of the photogrammetry method on a gray whale

You might be wondering, “How can one measure the distance accurately from just a photograph?” I am glad you asked! The drones are outfitted with a barometer to measure the atmospheric pressure and, in turn, altitude. The changing altitudes are recorded in a separate program that is run simultaneously with the video footage. Thus, we have the altitudinal measurements for every millisecond of the drone’s flight. To monitor the accuracy and functionality of the barometer, calibrations are completed upon deployment and retrieval of each drone flight. To calibrate: the initial takeoff height is measured, a board of known length is thrown into the water, the drone will then rise or lower slowly above the board between 10 and 40 m, photographs of the board are then taken from varying altitudes, and are processed in Matlab.

During my time in the GEMM Lab, I have had the pleasure of completing photogrammetry assignments for both Leila on the Oregon Coast gray whale and for Dawn on the New Zealand blue whale projects. These ladies, and the other members of the GEMM Lab, have been so patient and gracious in educating me on the workings of Matlab and the video processing systems. It is a distinct honor working with them and to delight in the astounding nature of these creatures together. Each day I am struck in sheer awe of how beautiful and powerful these whales truly are. Their graceful presence and movement through the water rivals even the most skillful dancer.

Over the last 6 years, I am delighted to say that my relationship with Hatfield has become much deeper. The people and the experiences I have encountered during my time here, especially in the GEMM Lab, have been nothing short of incredible. I am sincerely grateful for this continued opportunity. It fills my soul with joy to engage in work that contributes to the well being of the ocean and its inhabitants.

Thank you, Leigh and all of the GEMM Lab members. I hope to continue volunteering with you for as long as you will have me.

Finding the edge: Preliminary insights into blue whale habitat selection in New Zealand

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

I was fortunate enough to spend the Austral summer in the field, and so while the winter rain poured down on Oregon I found myself on the water with the sun and wind on my face, looking for blue whales in New Zealand. This spring I switched gears and spent time taking courses to build my analytical toolbox. In a course on technical writing and communication, I was challenged to present my research using only pictures and words with no written text, and to succinctly summarize the importance of my research in an introduction to a technical paper. I attended weekly seminars to learn about the diverse array of marine science being conducted at Oregon State University and beyond. I also took a course entitled “Advanced Spatial Statistics and Geographic Information Science”. In this skill-building course, we were given the opportunity to work with our own data. Even though my primary objective was to expand the tools in my toolbox, I was excited to explore preliminary results and possible insight into blue whale habitat selection in my study area, the South Taranaki Bight region (STB) of New Zealand (Figure 1).

Figure 1. A map of New Zealand, with the South Taranaki Bight (STB) region delineated by the black box. Farewell Spit is denoted by a star, and Kahurangi point is denoted by an X.

Despite the recent documentation of a foraging ground in the STB, blue whale distribution remains poorly understood in New Zealand. The STB is New Zealand’s most industrially active marine region, and the site of active oil and gas extraction and exploration, busy shipping traffic, and proposed seabed mining. This potential space-use conflict between endangered whales and industry warrants further investigation into the spatial and temporal extent of blue whale habitat in the region. One of my research objectives is to investigate the relationship between blue whales and their environment, and ultimately to build a model that can predict blue whale presence based on physical and biological oceanographic features. For this spring term, the question I asked was:

Is the number of blue whales present in an area correlated with remotely-sensed sea surface temperature and chlorophyll-a concentration?

For the purposes of this exploration, I used data from our 2017 survey of the STB. This meant importing our ship’s track and our blue whale sighting locations into ArcGIS, so that the data went from looking like this:

… to this:

The next step was to get remote-sensed images for sea surface temperature (SST) and chlorophyll-a (chl-a) concentration. I downloaded monthly averages from the NASA Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MODIS aqua) website for the month of February 2017 at 4 km2 resolution, when our survey took place. Now, my images looked something more like this:

But, I can’t say anything reliable about the relationships between blue whales and their environment in the places we did not survey.  So next I extracted just the portions of my remote-sensed images where we conducted survey effort. Now my maps looked more like this one:

The above map shows SST along our ship’s track, and the locations where we found whales. Just looking at this plot, it seems like the blue whales were observed in both warmer and colder waters, not exclusively in one or the other. There is a productive plume of cold, upwelled water in the STB that is generated off of Kahurangi point and curves around Farewell Spit and into the bight (Figure 1). Most of the whales we saw appear to be near that plume. But how can I find the edges of this upwelled plume? Well, I can look at the amount of change in SST and chl-a across a spatial area. The places where warm and cold water meet can be found by assessing the amount of variability—the standard deviation—in the temperature of the water. In ArcGIS, I calculated the deviation in SST and chl-a concentration across the surrounding 20 km2 for each 4 km2 cell.

Now, how do I tie all of these qualitative visual assessments together to produce a quantitative result? With a statistical model! This next step gives me the opportunity to flex some other analytical muscles, and practice using another computational tool: R. I used a generalized additive model (GAM) to investigate the relationships between the number of blue whales observed in each 4 km2 cell our ship surveyed and the remote-sensed variables. The model can be written like this:

Number of blue whales ~ SST + chl-a + sd(SST) + sd(chl-a)

In other words, are SST, chl-a concentration, deviation in SST, and deviation in chl-a concentration correlated with the number of blue whales observed within each 4 km2 cell on my map?

This model found that the most important predictor was the deviation in SST. In other words, these New Zealand blue whales may be seeking the edges of the upwelling plume, honing in on places where warm and cold water meet. Thinking back on the time I spent in the field, we often saw feeding blue whales diving along lines of mixing water masses where the water column was filled with aggregations of krill, blue whale prey. Studies of marine mammals in other parts of the world have also found that eddies and oceanic fronts—edges between warm and cold water masses—are important habitat features where productivity is increased due to mixing of water masses. The same may be true for these New Zealand blue whales.

These preliminary findings emphasize the benefit of having both presence and absence data. The analysis I have presented here is certainly strengthened by having environmental measurements for locations where we did not see whales. This is comforting, considering the feelings of impatience generated by days on the water spent like this with no whales to be seen:

Moving forward, I will include the blue whale sighting data from our 2014 and 2016 surveys as well. As I think about what would make this model more robust, it would be interesting to see if the patterns become clearer when I incorporate behavior into the model—if I look at whales that are foraging and traveling separately, are the results different? I hope to explore the importance of the upwelling plume in more detail—does the distance from the edge of the upwelling plume matter? And finally, I want to adjust the spatial and temporal scales of my analysis—do patterns shift or become clearer if I don’t use monthly averages, or if I change the grid cell sizes on my maps?

I feel more confident in my growing toolbox, and look forward to improving this model in the coming months! Stay tuned.

Building scientific friendships: A reflection on the 21st annual meeting of the Northwest Student Chapter of the Society for Marine Mammalogy

By Dawn Barlow, M.Sc. student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

I recently had the opportunity to attend and present my research at the 21st meeting of the Northwest Student Chapter of the Society for Marine Mammalogy. This gathering represented a community of graduate and undergraduate students from the Pacific Northwest, networking and discussing their research on the biology of marine mammals. Dr. John Ford, whose name has become synonymous with killer whale research in the Pacific Northwest, delivered a compelling keynote speech on not only the history of his research, but also the history of the relationships he has built in the field and the people that have shaped the past five decades of killer whale research. This theme of cultivating scientific relationships was a thread that carried us through the weekend. Beautiful weather had us all smiling happily as we ate our lunches outside, musing about science in the sunshine. A philosopher’s café event facilitated roundtable discussions with experts in veterinary science, spatial statistics, management consulting, physiology, and marine pollution. Students were given the space to ask questions ranging from manuscript writing advice to the worth of our work in the current political climate (and write notes or doodle drawings on the paper-covered tables as we listened).

The oral and poster presentations were all very impressive. I learned that bowhead whales are likely feeding year-round in the Canadian Arctic, adjusting their dive depth to the vertical location of their copepod prey. I learned that the aerobic dive limit of stellar sea lions is more of a sliding scale rather than a switch as it is for Weddell seals. I learned that some harbor seals are estuary specialists, feeding on salmon smolt. And I learned about the importance of herring to Northeast Pacific marine mammals through an energy-based ecosystem model. I had the opportunity to present my research on the ecology of New Zealand blue whales to an audience outside of Oregon State University for the first time, and was pleased with how my presentation was received.

Aaron Purdy, MSc student with the University of British Columbia’s Marine Mammal Research Unit, moderates the first oral presentation session wearing the designated “fluke tuke”. I may have giggled at the Canadian word for beanie, but I have to admit, “fluke tuke” has a much better ring to it than “fluke beanie”!

But beyond the scientific research itself, I also learned that there is a strong community of motivated and passionate young scientists in the Pacific Northwest studying marine mammals. Our numbers may not be many and we may be scattered across several different universities and labs, but our work is compelling and valuable. At the end of the weekend, it felt like I was saying goodbye to new friends and future colleagues. And, I learned that the magnificent size of a blue whale never fails to impress and amaze, as all the conference attendees marveled over the blue whale skeleton housed in the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at the University of British Columbia.

Left to right: Michelle Fournet, Samara Haver, myself, and Niki Diogou representing Oregon State University at the student conference. Behind us is a blue whale skeleton, housed in the Beaty Biodiversity Museum on the University of British Columbia campus.

Many thanks to the graduate students from the University of British Columbia who organized such a successful event! At the end of the conference, it was decided that the next meeting of the Northwest Student Chapter will be hosted by the Oregon State University students here at Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. It is a year away, but I am already looking forward to seeing these newfound peers again and hearing how their research has progressed.

A happy student selfie at the end of a successful conference! We are looking forward to a reunion at Hatfield Marine Science Center next May!

New aerial footage captures blue whale lunge feeding!

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

This past field season the New Zealand blue whale team was lucky enough to capture something spectacular – an aerial view of a blue whale surface lunge feeding. I invite you to view the footage and listen to Leigh’s narration of the event in the video below!

Below is the full press release, written by Mark Floyd:

NEWPORT, Ore. – Blue whales didn’t become the largest animals ever to live on Earth by being dainty eaters and new video captured by scientists at Oregon State University shows just how they pick and choose their meals.

There is a reason for their discretion, researchers say. The whales are so massive – sometimes growing to the length of three school buses – that they must carefully balance the energy gained through their food intake with the energetic costs of feeding.

“Modeling studies of blue whales ‘lunge-feeding’ theorize that they will not put energy into feeding on low-reward prey patches,” said Leigh Torres, a principal investigator with the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State, who led the expedition studying the blue whales. “Our footage shows this theory in action. We can see the whale making choices, which is really extraordinary because aerial observations of blue whales feeding on krill are rare.”

“The whale bypasses certain krill patches – presumably because the nutritional payoff isn’t sufficient – and targets other krill patches that are more lucrative. We think this is because blue whales are so big, and stopping to lunge-feed and then speeding up again is so energy-intensive, that they try to maximize their effort.”

The video, captured in the Southern Ocean off New Zealand, shows a blue whale cruising toward a large mass of krill – roughly the size of the whale itself. The animal then turns on its side, orients toward the beginning of the krill swarm, and proceeds along its axis through the entire patch, devouring nearly the entire krill mass.

In another vignette, the same whale approaches a smaller mass of krill, which lies more perpendicular to its approach, and blasts through it without feeding.

“We had theorized that blue whales make choices like this and the video makes it clear that they do use such a strategy,” explained Torres, who works out of Oregon State’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon. “It certainly appears that the whale determined that amount of krill to be gained, and the effort it would take to consume the meal wasn’t worth the effort of slowing down.

“It would be like me driving a car and braking every 100 yards, then accelerating again. Whales need to be choosy about when to apply the brakes to feed on a patch of krill.”

The researchers analyzed the whale’s lunge-feeding and found that it approached the krill patch at about 6.7 miles per hour. The act of opening its enormous mouth to feed slowed the whale down to 1.1 mph – and getting that big body back up to cruising speed again requires a lot of energy.

The rare footage was possible through the use of small drones. The OSU team is trained to fly them over whales and was able to view blue whales from a unique perspective.

“It’s hard to get good footage from a ship,” Torres said, “and planes or helicopters can be invasive because of their noise. The drone allows us to get new angles on the whales without bothering them.”

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

GEMM Lab

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)