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!
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.”
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.
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):
By Leila Lemos, Ph.D. Student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, OSU
Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or “drones” are becoming commonly used to observe natural landscapes and wildlife. These systems can provide important information regarding habitat conditions, distribution and abundance of populations, and health, fitness and behavior of the individuals (Goebel et al. 2015, Durban et al. 2016).
The benefits for the use of UAS by researchers and wildlife managers are varied and include reduced errors of population estimations, reduced observer fatigue, increased observer safety, increased survey effort, and access to remote settings and harsh environments (Koski et al. 2010, Vermeulen et al. 2013, Goebel et al. 2015, Smith et al. 2016). Importantly, data gathered from UAS can provide needed information for the conservation and management of several species. Although it is often assumed that wildlife incur minimal disturbance from UAS due to the reduced noise compared to traditional aircraft used for wildlife monitoring (Acevedo-Whitehouse et al. 2010), the impacts of UAS on most wildlife populations is currently unexplored.
Several studies have tried to comprehend the effects of UAS flights over animals and so far there is no evidence of behavioral disturbance. For instance Vermeulen et al. (2013) conducted a study where authors observed a group of elephants’ reaction or warning behavior while a UAS passed ten times over the individuals at altitudes of 100 and 300 meters, and no disturbance was recorded. Furthermore, a study conducted by Acevedo-Whitehouse et al. (2010) reported that six different species of large cetaceans (Bryde’s whale, fin whale, sperm whale, humpback whale, blue whale and gray whale) did not display avoidance behavior when approached by the UAS for blow sampling, suggesting that the system caused minimal distress (negative stress) to the individuals.
However, the fact that we cannot visually see an effect in the animal does not mean that a stress response is not occurring. A study analyzed the effects of UAS flights on movements and heart rate responses of American black bears in northwestern Minnesota (Ditmer et al. 2015). It was observed that all bears, including an individual that was hibernating, responded to UAS flights with increased heart rates (123 beats per minute above the pre-flight baseline). In contrast, no behavioral response by the bears was recorded (Figure 1).
Therefore, behavioral analysis alone may not be able to describe the complete effects of UAS on wildlife, and it is important to consider other possible stress responses of wildlife.
Regarding marine mammals, only a few studies have systematically documented the effects of UAS on these animals. A review of these studies was produced by Smith et al. (2016) and the main factors influencing behavioral disturbance were identified as (1) noise and visual stimulus (from the UAS or its shadow), and (2) flight altitude of the UAS. Thus, studies that approach marine mammals closely with UAS (e.g., blow sampling in cetaceans) should be closely monitored for behavioral reactions because the noise level and visual stimulus will likely be increased.
Fortunately, when UAS work is applied to cetaceans and sirenians (manatees and dugongs) the air-water interface acts as a barrier to sound so these animals are unlikely to be acoustically disturbed by UAS. However, acoustic detection and response are still possible when an animal’s ears are exposed in the air during a surfacing event.
The best way to minimize stress responses in wildlife is to use caution while operating UAS at any altitude. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “UAS can also be disruptive to both people and animals if not used safely, appropriately, or responsibly”. Therefore, since 2012, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has required UAS operators in the United States to have a certified and registered aircraft, a licensed pilot, and operational approval, known as Section 333 Exemption (Note: in late August 2016, the 333 will be replaced by a revision to part 107). These authorizations require an air worthiness statement or certificate and registered aircraft. Public entities, like Oregon State University, operate under a certificate of authorization (COA.) As a public entity OSU certifies its own aircraft and sets standards for UAS operators. These permit requirements discourage illegal operations and improves safety.
Regarding marine mammals, all UAS operators should also be aware of The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972. This law makes it illegal to harass marine mammals in the wild, which may cause disruption to behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering. A close UAS approach has the potential to cause harassments to marine mammals, thus federal guidelines recommend keeping a safe distance from these animals in the wild. The required vertical distance is 1000 ft for most marine mammals, but increases for endangered animals such as the North Atlantic right whales with a required buffer of 1500 ft (http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/uas.html). Therefore, NOAA evaluates all scientific research that use UAS within 1000 ft of marine mammals in order to ensure that the benefits outweigh possible hazards. NOAA distributes research permits accordingly.
Of course, with new technology the rules are always changing. In fact, last week the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the FAA finalized the first operational rules for routine commercial use of small UAS. These new guidelines aim to support new innovations in order to spur job growth, advance critical scientific research and save lives, and are designed to minimize risks to other aircraft and people and property on the ground. These new regulations include several requirements (e.g., height and speed restrictions) and hopefully allow for a streamlined system that enables beneficial and exciting wildlife research.
For my PhD project we are using UAS to collect aerial images from gray whales in order to describe behavioral patterns and apply a photogrammetry methodology. Through these methods we will determine the overall body condition and health of the individuals for comparison to variable ambient ocean noise levels. This project is conducted in collaboration with the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Lab.
Since October 2015, we have conducted 31 over-flights of gray whales using our UAS (DJI Phantom 3) and no behavioral disturbance has been observed. When over the whale(s) we generally fly between 25 and 40 m above the animals. We have a FAA certified UAS operator and fly under our NOAA/NMFS permit 16111. Prior to each flight we ensure that the weather conditions are safe, the whales are behaving normally, and that no on-lookers from shore or other boats will be disturbed.
Here is a video showing the launch and retrieval of the UAS system, our research vessel, the surrounding Oregon coastline beauty and gray whale individuals. The video includes some interesting footage of a gray whale foraging over a shallow reef, indicating that this UAS flight did not disturb the animal’s natural behavior patterns.
We all have the responsibility to help keep wildlife safe. Here in the GEMM Lab, we commit to using UAS safely and responsibly, and aim to use this new and exciting technology to continue our efforts to better protect and understand marine mammals.
Acevedo‐Whitehouse K, Rocha‐Gosselin A and Gendron D. 2010. A novel non‐invasive tool for disease surveillance of free‐ranging whales and its relevance to conservation programs. Anim. Conserv. 13(2):217–225.
Ditmer MA, Vincent JB, Werden LK, Tanner JC, Laske TG, Iaizzo PA, Garshelis DL and Fieberg JR. 2015. Bears Show a Physiological but Limited Behavioral Response to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Current Biology 25:2278–2283.
Durban JW, Moore MJ, Chiang G, Hickmott LS, Bocconcelli A, Howes G, Bahamonde PA, Perryman WL and Leroi DJ. 2016. Photogrammetry of blue whales with an unmanned hexacopter. Marine Mammal Science. DOI: 10.1111/mms.12328.
Goebel ME, Perryman WL, Hinke JT, Krause DJ, Hann NA, Gardner S and LeRoi DJ. 2015. A small unmanned aerial system for estimating abundance and size of Antarctic predators. Polar Biol. 38(5):619-630.
Koski WR, Abgrall P and Yazvenko SB. 2010. An inventory and evaluation of unmanned aerial systems for offshore surveys of marine mammals. J. Cetacean Res. Manag. 11(3):239–247.
Smith CE, Sykora-Bodie ST, Bloodworth B, Pack SM, Spradlin TR and LeBoeuf NR. 2016. Assessment of known impacts of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) on marine mammals: data gaps and recommendations for researchers in the United States1 J. Unmanned Veh. Syst. 4:1–14.
Vermeulen C, Lejeune P, Lisein J, Sawadogo P and Bouché P. 2013. Unmanned aerial survey of elephants. PLoS One. 8(2):e54700.