GEMM Lab 2017: A Year in the Life

By Dawn Barlow, MSc Student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife

The days are growing shorter, and 2017 is drawing to a close. What a full year it has been for the GEMM Lab! Here is a recap, filled with photos, links to previous blogs, and personal highlights, best enjoyed over a cup of hot cocoa. Happy Holidays from all of us!

The New Zealand blue whale team in action aboard the R/V Star Keys. Photo by L. Torres.

Things started off with a bang in January as the New Zealand blue whale team headed to the other side of the world for another field season. Leigh, Todd and I joined forces with collaborators from Cornell University and the New Zealand Department of Conservation aboard the R/V Star Keys for the duration of the survey. What a fruitful season it was! We recorded sightings of 68 blue whales, collected biopsy and fecal samples, as well as prey and oceanographic data. The highlight came on our very last day when we were able to capture a blue whale surface lunge feeding on krill from an aerial perspective via the drone. This footage received considerable attention around the world, and now has over 3 million views!

A blue whale surfaces just off the bow of R/V Star Keys. Photo by D. Barlow.

In the spring Rachael made her way to the remote Pribilof Islands of Alaska to study the foraging ecology of red-legged kittiwakes. Her objectives included comparing the birds that reproduce successfully and those that don’t, however she was thrown a major curveball: none of the birds in the colony were able to successfully reproduce. In fact, they didn’t even build nests. Further analyses may elucidate some of the reasons for the reproductive failure of this sentinel species of the Bering Sea… stay tuned.

red-legged kittiwakes
Rachael releases a kittiwake on St. George Island. Photo by A. Fleishman.


The 2017 Port Orford field team. Photo by A. Kownacki.

Florence is a newly-minted MSc! In June, Florence successfully defended her Masters research on gray whale foraging and the impacts of vessel disturbance. She gracefully answered questions from the room packed with people, and we all couldn’t have been prouder to say “that’s my labmate!” during the post-defense celebrations. But she couldn’t leave us just yet! Florence stayed on for another season of field work on the gray whale foraging ecology project in Port Orford, this time mentoring local high school students as part of the projectFlorence’s M.Sc. defense!

Upon the gray whales’ return to the Oregon Coast for the summer, Leila, Leigh, and Todd launched right back into the stress physiology and noise project. This year, the work included prey sampling and fixed hydrophones that recorded the soundscape throughout the season. The use of drones continues to offer a unique perspective and insight into whale behavior.

Video captured under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111.


Solene with a humpback whale biopsy sample. Photo by N. Job.

Solene spent the austral winter looking for humpback whales in the Coral Sea, as she participated in several research cruises to remote seamounts and reefs around New Caledonia. This field season was full of new experiences (using moored hydrophones on Antigonia seamount, recording dive depths with SPLASH10 satellite tags) and surprises. For the first time, whales were tracked all the way from New Caledonia to the east coast of Australian. As her PhD draws to a close in the coming year, she will seek to understand the movement patterns and habitat preferences of humpback whales in the region.

A humpback whale observed during the 2017 coral sea research cruise. Photo by S. Derville.

This summer we were joined by two new lab members! Dom Kone will be studying the potential reintroduction of sea otters to the Oregon Coast as a MSc student in the Marine Resource Management program, and Alexa Kownacki will be studying population health of bottlenose dolphins in California as a PhD student in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. We are thrilled to have them on the GEMM Lab team, and look forward to seeing their projects develop. Speaking of new projects from this year, Leigh and Rachael have launched into some exciting research on interactions between albatrosses and fishing vessels in the North Pacific, funded by the NOAA Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program.

During the austral wintertime when most of us were all in Oregon, the New Zealand blue whale project received more and more political and media attention. Leigh was called to testify in court as part of a contentious permit application case for a seabed mine in the South Taranaki Bight. As austral winter turned to austral spring, a shift in the New Zealand government led to an initiative to designate a marine mammal sanctuary in the South Taranaki Bight, and awareness has risen about the potential impacts of seismic exploration for oil and gas reserves. These tangible applications of our research to management decisions is very gratifying and empowers us to continue our efforts.

In the fall, many of us traveled to Halifax, Nova Scotia to present our latest and greatest findings at the 22nd Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals. The strength of the lab shone through at the meeting during each presentation, and we all beamed with pride when we said our affiliation was with the GEMM Lab at OSU. In other conference news, Rachael was awarded the runner-up for her presentation at the World Seabird Twitter Conference!

GEMM Lab members present their research. From left to right, top to bottom: Amanda Holdman, Leila Lemos, Solène Derville, Dawn Barlow, Sharon Nieukirk, and Florence Sullivan.

Leigh had a big year in many ways. Along with numerous scientific accomplishments—new publications, new students, successful fieldwork, successful defenses—she had a tremendous personal accomplishment as well. In the spring she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and after a hard fight she was pronounced cancer-free this November. We are all astounded with how gracefully and fearlessly she navigated these times. Look out world, this lab’s Principle Investigator can accomplish anything!

This austral summer we will not be making our way south to join the blue whales. However, we are keenly watching from afar as a seismic survey utilizing the largest seismic survey vessel in the world has launched in the South Taranaki Bight. This survey has been met with considerable resistance, culminating in a rally led by Greenpeace that featured a giant inflatable blue whale in front of Parliament in Wellington. We are eagerly planning our return to continue this study, but that will hopefully be the subject of a future blog.

New publications for the GEMM Lab in 2017 include six for Leigh, three for Rachael, and two for Alexa. Highlights include Classification of Animal Movement Behavior through Residence in Space and Time and A sense of scale: Foraging cetaceans’ use of scale-dependent multimodal sensory systems. Next year is bound to be a big one for GEMM Lab publications, as Amanda, Florence, Solene, Leila, Leigh, and I all have multiple papers currently in review or revision, and more in the works from all of us. How exciting!

In our final lab meeting of the year, we went around the table to share what we’ve learned this year. The responses ranged from really grasping the mechanisms of upwelling in the California Current to gaining proficiency in coding and computing, to the importance of having a supportive community in graduate school to trust that the right thing will happen. If you are reading this, thank you for your interest in our work. We are looking forward to a successful 2018. Happy holidays from the GEMM Lab!

GEMM Lab members, friends, and families gather for a holiday celebration.

Conservation at the Science-to-Policy Interface

By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management

How can I practice conservation? As an early-career professional and graduate student, this is the very question I ask myself, constantly. In such an interdisciplinary field, there are several ways someone can address issues and affect change in conservation, even if they don’t call themselves a conservationist. However, there’s no one-size-fits-all method. A marine ecologist will likely try to solve a problem differently than a lawyer, advocate, journalist and so forth. Therefore, I want to explain how I practice conservation, how I develop solutions, and how this has factored into my decision to come to grad school and apply my trade to our sea otter project.

Jane Lubchenco – marine ecologist and environmental scientists – replanting coral. Photo Credit: Oregon State University.

Like many others in conservation, I have a deep appreciation for the field of ecology. Yet, I also really enjoy being involved in policy and management issues. Not just how they’re decided upon, but what factors and variables go into those decisions, and ultimately how those choices impact the marine environment. But most importantly, I’m curious about how these two arenas – science and policy – intersect and complement each other. Yet again, there are an endless number of ways one can practice conservation at the science-policy interface.

Think of this science-policy space as a spectrum or a continuum, if you will. For those who fall on one end of the spectrum, their work may be heavily dominated by pure science or research. While those who fall on the other end, conduct more policy-oriented work. And those in the middle do some combination of the two. Yet, what connects us all is the recognition of the value in science-based decision-making. Because a positive conservation result relies on both elements.

Infographic demonstrating the interface between conservation science and policy. Photo Credit: ZSL Institute of Zoology.

I’m fascinated by this science- policy space and the role that science can play in informing the management and protection of at-risk marine species and ecosystems. From my perspective, scientific evidence and the scientific community are essential resources to help society make better-informed decisions. However, we don’t always take advantage of those resources. On the policy end of the spectrum, there may be a lack of understanding of complex scientific concepts. Yet, on the other end, scientists may be inadvertently making their research inaccessible or they may not fully understand the data or knowledge needs of the decision-makers. Therefore, research that was meant to be useful, sometimes completely misses the mark, and therefore has minimal conservation impact.

Recognizing this persistent problem, I practice conservation as a facilitator, where I identify gaps in knowledge and strategically develop science-based solutions aimed at filling those gaps and addressing specific policy or management issues. In my line of work, I’m dedicated to working within the scientific community to develop targeted research projects that are well placed and thought-out to enable a greater impact. While I associate myself with the science end of the spectrum, I also interact with decision-makers on the other end to better understand the various factors and variables considered in decisions. This requires me to have a deeper understanding of the process by which decision-makers formulate policies and management strategies, how science fits within those decision-making process, and any potential gaps in knowledge or data that need to be filled to facilitate responsible decisions.

A commercial fishing vessel. Photo Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

A simple example of this is the use of stock assessments in the management of commercially important fisheries. Catch limits may seem like simple policies, but we often do not think about the “science behind the scenes” and the multitude of data needed by managers to set those limits. Managers must consider many variables to determine catch limits that will not result in depleted stocks. Without robust scientific data, many of these fisheries catch limits would be too high or too low.

Science protest in Washington, DC. Photo Credit: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez.

This may all sound like theoretical mumbo jumbo, but it is real, and I will apply this crossover between science and policy in my thesis. The potential reintroduction of sea otters to Oregon presents a multitude of challenges, but the challenge is exactly why I came to grad school in the first place! This project will allow me to take what I’ve learned and develop research questions specifically aimed at providing data and information that managers must consider in their deliberations of sea otter reintroduction. In this project I will be pushed to objectively assess and analyze – as a scientist – a pressing conservation topic from a variety of angles, gain advice from other experts, and develop and execute research that will influence policy decisions. This project provides the perfect opportunity for me to exercise my creativity, allow my curiosity to run rampant, and practice conservation in my own unique way.


Photo Credit: Smithsonian.

Everyone processes and solves problems differently. For those of us practicing conservation, we each tackle issues in our own way depending on where we fall within the science-to-policy spectrum. For me, I address issues as a scientist, with my techniques and strategies derived from a foundation in the political and management context.

Additional Resources:

Bednarek et al. 2015. Science-policy intermediaries from a practitioner’s perspective: The Lenfest Ocean Program experience. Science and Public Policy. 43(2). p. 291-300. (Link here)

Lackey, R. T. 2007. Science, Scientists, and Policy Advocacy. Conservation Biology. 21(1). p. 12-17. (Link here)

Cortner, H. J. 2000. Making science relevant to environmental policy. Environmental Science & Policy. 3(1). p. 21-30. (Link here)

Hearing is believing

Dr. Leigh Torres, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab, Marine Mammal Institute, Oregon State University

Dr. Holger Klinck, Bioacoustics Research Program, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University

For too long the oil and gas industry has polluted the ocean with seismic airgun noise with little consequence. The industry uses seismic airguns in order to find their next lucrative reserve under the seafloor, and because their operations are out of sight and the noise is underwater many have not noticed this deafening (literally1) noise. As terrestrial and vision-dependent animals, we humans have a hard time appreciating the importance of sound in the marine environment. Most of the ocean is a dark place, where vision does not work well, so many animals are dependent on sound to survive. Especially marine mammals like whales and dolphins.

But, hearing is believing, so let’s have a listen to a recording of seismic airguns firing in the South Taranaki Bight (STB) of New Zealand, a known blue whale feeding area. This is a short audio clip of a seismic airgun firing every ~8 seconds (a typical pattern). Before you hit play, close your eyes and imagine you are a blue whale living in this environment.

Now, put that clip on loop and play it for three months straight. Yes, three months. This consistent, repetitive boom is what whales living in a region of oil and gas exploration hear, as seismic surveys often last 1-4 months.

So, how loud is that, really? Your computer or phone speaker is probably not good enough to convey the power of that sound (unless you have a good bass or sub-woofer hooked up). Industrial seismic airgun arrays are among the loudest man-made sources2 and the noise emitted by these arrays can travel thousands of kilometers3. Noise from a single seismic airgun survey can blanket an area of over 300,000 km2, raising local background noise levels 100-fold4.

Now, oil and gas representatives frequently defend their seismic airgun activities with two arguments, both of which are false. You can hear both these arguments made recently in this interview by a representative of the oil and gas industry in New Zealand defending a proposal to conduct a 3 month-long seismic survey in the STB while blue whales will be feeding there.

First, the oil and gas industry claim that whales and dolphins can just leave the area if they choose. But this is their home, where they live, where they feed and breed. These habitats are not just anywhere. Blue whales come to the STB to feed, to sustain their bodies and reproductive capacity. This habitat is special and is not available anywhere else nearby, so if a whale leaves the STB because of noise disturbance it may starve. Similarly, oil and gas representatives have falsely claimed that because whales stay in the area during seismic airgun activity this indicates they are not being disturbed. If you had the choice of starving or listening to seismic booming you might also choose the latter, but this does not mean you are not disturbed (or annoyed and stressed). Let’s think about this another way: imagine someone operating a nail gun for three months in your kitchen and you have nowhere else to eat. You would stay to feed yourself, but your stress level would elevate, health deteriorate, and potentially have hearing damage. During your next home renovation project you should be happy you have restaurants as alternative eateries. Whales don’t.

Second, the oil and gas industry have claimed that the frequency of seismic airguns is out of the hearing range of most whales and dolphins. This statement is just wrong. Let’s look at the spectrogram of the above played seismic airgun audio clip recorded in the STB. A spectrogram is a visual representation of sound (to help us vision-dependent animals interpret sound). Time is on the horizontal axis, frequency (pitch) is on the vertical axis, and the different colors on the image indicate the intensity of sound (loudness) with bright colors illustrating areas of higher noise. Easily seen is that as the seismic airgun blasts every ~8 seconds, there is elevated noise intensity across all frequencies (bright yellow, orange and green bands). This noise intensity is especially high in the 10 – 80 Hz frequency range, which is exactly where many large baleen whales – like the blue whale – hear and communicate.

A spectrogram of the above played seismic airgun audio clip recorded in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Airgun pulses every ~8 seconds are evident by elevated noise intensity across all frequencies (bright yellow, orange and green bands), which are especially intense in the 10 – 80 Hz frequency range.

In the big, dark ocean, whales use sound to communicate, find food, and navigate. So, let’s try to imagine what it’s like for a whale trying to communicate in an environment with seismic airgun activity. First, let’s listen to a New Zealand blue whale call (vocalization) recorded in the STB. [This audio clip is played at 10X the original speed so that it is more audible to the human hearing frequency range. You can see the real time scale in the top plot.]

Now, let’s look at a spectrogram of seismic airgun pulses and a blue whale call happening at the same time. The seismic airgun blasts are still evident every ~8 seconds, and the blue whale call is also evident at about the 25 Hz frequency (within the pink box). Because blue whales call at such a low frequency humans cannot hear their call when played at normal speed, so you will only hear the airgun pulses if you hit play. But you can see in the spectrogram that five airgun blasts overlapped with the blue whale call.

No doubt this blue whale heard the repetitive seismic airgun blasts, and vocalized in the same frequency range at the same time. Yet, the blue whale’s call was partially drowned out by the intense seismic airgun blasts. Did any other whale hear it? Could this whale hear other whales? Did it get the message across? Maybe, but probably not very well.

Some oil and gas representatives point toward their adherence to seismic survey guidelines and use of marine mammal observers to reduce their impacts on marine life. In New Zealand these guidelines only stop airgun blasting when animals are within 1000 m of the vessel (1.5 km if a calf is present), yet seismic airgun blasts are so intense that the noise travels much farther. So, while these guidelines may be a start, they only prevent hearing damage to whales and dolphins by stopping airguns from blasting right on top of animals.

So, what does this mean for whales and other marine animals living in habitat where seismic airguns are operating? It means their lives are disturbed and dramatically altered. Multiple scientific studies have shown that whales change behavior5, distribution6, and vocalization patterns7 when seismic airguns are active. Other marine life like squid8, spiny lobster9, scallops10, and plankton11 also suffer when exposed to airgun noise. The evidence has mounted. There is no longer a scientific debate: seismic airguns are harmful to marine animals and ecosystems.

What we are just starting to study and understand is the long-term and population level effects of seismic airguns on whales and other marine life. How do short term behavioral changes, movement to different areas, and different calling patterns impact an individual’s ability to survive or a population’s ability to persist? These are the important questions that need to be addressed now.

Seismic airgun surveys to find new oil and gas reserves are so pervasive in our global oceans, that airgun blasts are now heard year round in the equatorial Atlantic3, 12. As reserves shrink on land, the industry expands their search in our oceans, causing severe and persistent consequences to whales, dolphins and other marine life. The oil and gas industry must take ownership of the impacts of their seismic airgun activities. It’s imperative that political, management, scientific, and public pressure force a more complete assessment of each proposed seismic airgun survey, with an honest evaluation of the tradeoff between economic benefits and costs to marine life.

Here are a few ways we can reduce the impact of seismic airguns on marine life and ecosystems:

  • Restrict seismic airgun operation in and near sensitive environmental areas, such as marine mammal feeding and breeding areas.
  • Prohibit redundant seismic surveys in the same area. If one group has already surveyed an area, that data should be shared with other groups, perhaps after an embargo period.
  • Cap the number and duration of seismic surveys allowed each year by region.
  • Promote the use of renewable energy sources.
  • Develop new and quieter survey methods.

Even though we cannot hear the relentless booming, this does not mean it’s not happening and harming animals. Please listen one more time to 1 minute of what whales hear for months during seismic airgun operations.


More information on seismic airgun surveys and their impact on marine life:

Boom, Baby, Boom: The Environmental Impacts of Seismic Surveys

A Review of the Impacts of Seismic Airgun Surveys on Marine Life

Sonic Sea: Emmy award winning film about ocean noise pollution and its impact on marine mammals.

Atlantic seismic will impact marine mammals and fisheries



  1. Gordon, J., et al., A review of the effects of seismic surveys on marine mammals. Marine Technology Society Journal, 2003. 37(4): p. 16-34.
  2. National Research Council (NRC), Ocean Noise and Marine Mammals. 2003, National Academy Press: Washington. p. 204.
  3. Nieukirk, S.L., et al., Sounds from airguns and fin whales recorded in the mid-Atlantic Ocean, 1999–2009. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 2012. 131(2): p. 1102-1112.
  4. Weilgart, L., A review of the impacts of seismic airgun surveys on marine life. 2013, Submitted to the CBD Expert Workshop on Underwater Noise and its Impacts on Marine and Coastal Biodiversity 25-27 February 2014: London, UK. .
  5. Miller, P.J., et al., Using at-sea experiments to study the effects of airguns on the foraging behavior of sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico. Deep Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers, 2009. 56(7): p. 1168-1181.
  6. Castellote, M., C.W. Clark, and M.O. Lammers, Acoustic and behavioural changes by fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) in response to shipping and airgun noise. Biological Conservation, 2012. 147(1): p. 115-122.
  7. Di lorio, L. and C.W. Clark, Exposure to seismic survey alters blue whale acoustic communication. Biology Letters, 2010. 6(1): p. 51-54.
  8. Fewtrell, J. and R. McCauley, Impact of air gun noise on the behaviour of marine fish and squid. Marine pollution bulletin, 2012. 64(5): p. 984-993.
  9. Fitzgibbon, Q.P., et al., The impact of seismic air gun exposure on the haemolymph physiology and nutritional condition of spiny lobster, Jasus edwardsii. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2017.
  10. Day, R.D., et al., Exposure to seismic air gun signals causes physiological harm and alters behavior in the scallop Pecten fumatus. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2017. 114(40): p. E8537-E8546.
  11. McCauley, R.D., et al., Widely used marine seismic survey air gun operations negatively impact zooplankton. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 2017. 1(7): p. s41559-017-0195.
  12. Haver, S.M., et al., The not-so-silent world: Measuring Arctic, Equatorial, and Antarctic soundscapes in the Atlantic Ocean. Deep Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers, 2017. 122: p. 95-104.




New Study Looks to Investigate the Potential Reintroduction of Sea Otters to Oregon

By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management

As I begin a new chapter as a grad student in the Marine Resource Management program at Oregon State University, the GEMM Lab is also entering into unchartered waters by expanding its focus to a new species outside the lab’s previous research portfolio. This project – which will be the focus of my thesis – will assess the potential reintroduction of sea otters to the Oregon coast through an examination of available habitat and ecological impacts. Before I explain how this project came to fruition, it’s important to understand why sea otter reintroduction to Oregon is relevant, and why this step is important to advance the conservation of these charismatic species.

While exact historical populations are unknown, sea otters were once abundant along the coasts of northern Japan, across Russia and Alaska, and down North America to Baja California, Mexico[1]. In the United States, specifically, sea otters were native to coastal waters along the entire west coast – including Oregon. However, beginning in the 1740’s sea otters were subject to intense and unsustainable hunting pressure from Russian, British, and American entrepreneurs seeking to sell their highly-valuable pelts in the lucrative fur trade[2].  Historical records suggest these hunters did not arrive in Oregon until the 1780’s, but from that point on the sea otter was exploited over the next several decades until the last known Oregon sea otter was killed in 1906 at Otter Rock, OR[3].

Pictured: Sea otter hunters near Coos Bay, OR in 1856. Photo Credit: The Oregon History Project.

After decades of intense pressure, sea otter numbers dropped to critically low levels and were thought to have gone extinct throughout most of their range. Luckily, remnant populations persisted and were later discovered in parts of Alaska, British Columbia, California, and Mexico beginning in the 1910’s. Since then sea otters have been the focus of intense conservation efforts. With the goal of augmenting their recovery, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game lead a series of translocation projects, where groups of sea otters were transported from Alaska to unoccupied habitats in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon (Note: these were not the only sea otter translocations.)1.

Pictured: Sea otters on glacier ice, northern Prince William Sound, Alaska. Photo Credit: Patrick J. Endres/

Fun Fact: For a marine mammal, sea otters have surprisingly little blubber. Luckily, they also have the densest fur of all animals – an estimated 1,000,000 hairs per square inch – that helps to keep them well-insulated from the cold.

Many of these projects are considered successful as sea otter populations grew, and continue to expand today. With a significant exception: sea otters mysteriously disappeared shortly after reintroduction into Oregon waters and the translocation effort failed. Many hypothesized what could have gone wrong – natural mortality, dispersal, conflicts with humans – but few have concrete answers. Aside from occasional reports of strandings and sightings of sea otters in Oregon coastal waters, no resident populations have formed. This is where my thesis project comes in.

Pictured: Cape Arago, OR – one of the unsuccessful translocation sites along the Oregon coast. Photo Credit:

With renewed interests from scientists, tribes, and the public, we are now revisiting this idea from a scientific perspective. Over the next two years, we will work to objectively assess the ecological aspects of sea otter reintroduction to Oregon to identify and fill current knowledge gaps, which will help inform decision-making processes by environmental managers. Throughout this process we will give consideration to not just the ecology and biology of sea otters, but the cultural, economic, and political relevance and implications of sea otter reintroduction. Much of this work will involve working with state and federal agencies, tribes, and other scientists to gain their insights and perspectives, which we will use to shape our research questions and analyses.

The process to move forward with bringing sea otters back to Oregon will no doubt take great effort by a lot of people, consultation, patience, and time. To date, we have been reviewing the relevant literature and meeting with local experts on this topic. Through these activities, we have determined the types of questions and information – suitable habitat and potential ecological impacts – of most need to managers. My goal is to conduct a meaningful, applied project as an objective scientist, and by gaining this type of feedback at the outset, I am to help managers make better-informed decisions. I hope my thesis can serve as a critical starting point to ensure a solid foundation that future Oregon-specific sea otter research can build from.


[1] Jameson et al. 1982. History and status of translocated sea otter populations in North America. Wildlife Society Bulletin. (10) 2: 100-107.

[2] The Oregon History Project: Sea Otter. Accessed September 2017. <>

[3] The Oregon History Project: Otter Hunting. Accessed September 2017. <>


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 (

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.

Life in the lab: notes from a lab meeting

By Florence Sullivan, MSc, Oregon State University

One of my favorite parts about working as a member of the GEMM lab is our monthly lab meeting. It’s a chance for everyone to share exciting news or updates about their research, discuss recent advances in our field, and of course, make the schedule for who is in charge of writing the blog each week!  Our fearless leader, Leigh, usually also has an exercise for us to complete. These have varied from writing and editing abstracts for conferences, conducting mock interviews of each other, reading and discussing relevant papers, R coding exercises, and other useful skills. Our most recent meeting featured an exciting announcement, as well as a really interesting discussion of the latest International Whaling Commission (IWC) reports of the scientific committee (SC) that I felt might be interesting to share with our readers.

First, the good news – Six GEMM lab members submitted abstracts to the 2017 Society of Marine Mammalogy Conference, and all six were accepted for either a speed talk or an oral presentation! We are very proud and excited to present our research and support each other at the conference in October.

And now, a little science history:

The IWC was originally formed as a management body, to regulate the global catch of great whales. However, it never had much legal power to enforce its edicts, and was largely ineffective in its task.  By 1986 whale populations had been decimated to such low numbers by commercial whaling efforts that a worldwide moratorium on harvest was imposed. The SC of the IWC meets on an annual basis, and is made up of leading experts in the field who give advice and recommendations to the commission.  If you are interested in seeing reports from over the years, follow this link to the IWC Archive.  The reports presented by the various sub committees of the Scientific Committee are dense, packed full of interesting information, but also contain lots of procedural minutiae.  Therefore, for this lab meeting, each of us took one of the 2017 Annexes, and summarized it for the group.

Alyssa and Dawn reviewed Annex J: Report of the working group on non-deliberate human induced mortality of cetaceans.  The report shared new data about scarring rates of bowhead whales in the Bering Sea, notably, that 2.4% of the population will acquire a new scar each year, and that by the time an individual is 25 years old, it has a 40% chance of being scarred from a human derived interaction. The study noted that advances in drone technology may be an effective tool to assess scarring rates in whale populations, but emphasized that it is important to examine stranded carcasses to ground truth the rates we are able to capture from aerial and boat based photography.  The discussion then turned to the section about ship strikes, where we learned that in a comparison of fresh scars on humpback whales, and rates of voluntarily reported ship strikes, collisions were vastly under reported. Here it was noted that injuries that did not cause visible trauma could still be lethal to cetaceans, and that even moderate speed collisions can cause non-immediate lethal injury.

Leila walked us through Annex K: Report of the standing working group on environmental concerns. This subcommittee was the first one formed by the SC, and their report touched on issues such as bioaccumulation of heavy metals in whales, global oil spill emergency response training, harmful algal blooms (HABs), marine debris, diseases of concern, strandings and related mortality, noise, climate change, loss of arctic sea ice, and models of cetacean reaction to these impacts.

A few notes of particular interest:

-PCBs and other toxins are known to accumulate in killer whales, but this report discussed high levels of lead and cadmium in gray whales, leading to the question of what might be the source – sediment deposits? Fish?

-Lots of research has been done on the outfall of HABs involving domoic acid; now there is a need for research on other types of HABs

-A website has been created to increase surveillance, diagnosis and risk management of cetacean diseases, and is currently being refined:

-Changing climate is prompting distribution shifts in a number of species, putting animals at risk of interactions with shipping lanes, and increasing contact with invasive species.

-Models of cetacean bioenergetics have found that being entangled has energy costs equivalent to migration or pregnancy. Another model found that naval noise increased the metabolic rate of individuals by 30%. Models are becoming more and more accurate and complex every year, and each new one helps provide a framework to begin to assess cumulative impacts of human-cetacean interactions.

To wrap things up, I gave a brief overview of Annex N: Report of the subcommittee on whalewatching. This report gave quick updates on a number of different whale watching research projects around the world:

-Humpback whales in Hawaii change their swim speed and dive time when they encounter vessels.

-Endangered humpbacks in the Arabian Sea may need management intervention because there have been minimal advances in standards and attitudes by whale watching outfits or recreational boaters in Oman.

-Increased interactions and close encounters may be eroding the protective social barriers between bottlenose dolphins and the public.  The committee emphasizes that cetacean habituation to humans is a serious conservation cause of concern.

After research updates, the document then details a review from the working group on swim-with-whale operations. They emphasize the need for a global database, and note that the Convention on Migratory Species and the World Cetacean Alliance are both conducting reviews of this section of the whale watching industry and that a collaboration could be beneficial. Finally, this committee often gives feedback to ongoing projects and local management efforts, but is not convinced that their recommendations are being put into practice.

As one reads this litany of issues that face cetaceans in the modern world, it can be quite disheartening. However, reports like these keep researchers up to date on the current state of knowledge, areas of concern, and questions that need answering.  They help us set our priorities and determine which piece of the puzzle we are capable of tackling.  For more on some of the projects that our lab has under taken to help tackle these issues, check out Leila’s work on stress in gray whales, Dawn’s work looking at blue whales in New Zealand, Solene’s work on humpback habitat selection, or my work on vessel interactions. Individually, it’s easy to feel small, but when you look through the archives of the IWC, and realize how far we’ve come from extractive management to active conservation, you realize that every little project adds to those before it, and together, we can make a difference.




Celebrating Hydrothermal Vents!

By Florence Sullivan, MSc Student OSU

40 years ago, in 1977 OSU researchers led an NSF funded expedition to the Galapagos on a hunt for suspected hydrothermal vents. From the 1960s to the mid-1970s, mounting evidence such as (1) temperature anomalies found deep in the water column, (2) conduction heat flow probes at mid ocean ridges recording temperatures much lower than expected, (3) unusual mounds found on benthic mapping surveys, and (4) frequent, small, localized earthquakes at mid oceanic ridges, had the oceanographic community suspecting the existence of deep sea hydrothermal vents. However, until the 1977 cruise, no one had conclusive evidence that they existed.  During the discovery cruise at the Galapagos rift, the PI (principle investigator), Dr. Jack Corliss from OSU, used tow-yos (a technique where you drag a CTD up and down through the water in a zig zag pattern – see gif) to pinpoint the location of the hydrothermal vent plume. The team then sent the Deep Submergence Vehicle (DSV) Alvin to investigate and returned with the first photographs and samples from a hydrothermal vent. While discovery of the vent systems helped answer many questions about chemical and heat fluxes in the deep sea, it generated so many new questions that novel fields of study were created in biology, microbiology, marine chemistry, marine geology, planetary science, astrobiology and the study of the origin of life.

 “Literally every organism that came up was something that was unknown to science up until that time. It made it terribly exciting. Anything that came [up] on that basket was a new discovery,” – Dr. Richard Lutz (Rutgers University)

In celebration of this great discovery, OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences sponsored a seminar looking at the past, present, and future of hydrothermal vent sciences. Dr. Robert Collier began with a timeline of how the search for hydrothermal vents began, and a commemoration of all the excellent researchers and collaborations between institutions and agencies that made the discovery possible. He acknowledged that such collaborations are often somewhat tense in terms of who gets credit for which discovery, and that while Oregon State University was the lead of the project, it takes a team to get the work done.  Dr. Jack Corliss proudly followed up with a wonderful rambling explanation of how vent systems work, and a brief dip into his ground breaking paper, “An Hypothesis concerning the relationship between submarine hot springs and the origin of life on Earth.” Published in 1981, with co-authors Dr. John Baross and Dr. Sarah Hoffman, they postulate that the temperature and chemical gradients seen at hydrothermal vents provide pathways for the synthesis of chemical compounds, formation and evolution of ‘precells’ and eventually, the evolution of free living organisms.

Dr. Corliss, Dr. Baross, and Dr. Hoffman were the first to suggest the now popular theory of the origin of life at hydrothermal vents. (click on image to read full paper)

Because of time constraints, the podium was swiftly handed over to Dr. Bill Chadwick (NOAA PMEL/ HMSC CIMRS) who brought us forward to the present day with an exciting overview of current vent research.  He began by saying “at the beginning, we thought, ‘No one has seen one of these systems before, they must be very rare…’ Now, we have found them [hydrothermal vents] in every ocean basin – including the arctic and southern oceans. We just needed to know how to look!”  Dr. Chadwick also reminded us that even 40 years later, new discoveries are still being made. For example, on his most recent cruise aboard the R/V Falkor in December 2016, they found a sulfur chimney that was alternately releasing bubbles of gas (sulfur, CO2 or other, hard to know without sampling) or bubbles of liquid sulfur! Check out the video below:

Some of the goals for this recent cruise included mapping new areas of the Mariana back-arc, and investigating differences in the biological communities between vents in the Mariana trench region (a subduction zone) and vents in the back arc (a spreading zone) to see if geology plays a role in biological community composition.  For some very cool video footage of the expedition and the various dives performed by the brand new ROV SUBastian (because all scientists love puns), check out the Schmidt Ocean Institute youtube channel.

Dr. Chadwick showed this video to highlight results from his last cruise.

Finally, Dr. Andrew Thurber wrapped up the session with some thoughts about hydrothermal vents from the perspective of an ecosystem services model. Even after 40 years of research, there are still many unknowns about these ecosystems.  Individual vent systems are inherently unique due to their deep sea isolation. However, most explored sites have revealed metals and mineral deposits that have generated a lot of interest from commercial sea floor mining companies. Exploitation of these deposits would be an example of ecosystem “provisioning services” (products that are obtained from the ecosystem). Other examples include the biology of the vents as a source of new genetic material, and the thermal and chemical gradients as natural laboratories that could lead to breakthroughs in pharmaceutical research. Cultural services are those non-material benefits that people obtain from an ecosystem. At hydrothermal vents these include new scientific discoveries, educational uses (British children’s television show “The Octonauts,” has several episodes featuring hydrothermal vent creatures), and creative inspiration for artists and others. Dr. Thurber cautions that there are ethical questions to be answered before considering exploitation of these resources, but there is a lot of potential for commercial and non-commercial use of vent ecosystems.

Vent inspired art by Lily Simonson

As an undergraduate at the University of Washington, I spent time as a research assistant in Dr. John Baross’ astrobiology lab. We studied evolutionary pathways of hydrothermal vent viruses and bacteria to inform the search for life on exoplanets such as Jupiter’s moon Europa.  It was very fun and exciting for me to attend this seminar, hear stories from pioneers in the field, and remember the systems I worked on in undergrad.  I may have moved up the food chain a little now, but as we all work on our pieces of the puzzle, it is important for scientists to remember the interdisciplinary nature of our work, and how there is always something more to learn.



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).

Assembling a Toolbox

By Dawn Barlow, MSc student, Oregon State University


The season has shifted since the post I wrote this summer about diving into the world of New Zealand blue whales and the beginnings of my masters research. My fieldwork will take place during the upcoming austral summer, which will require me to miss the winter term here on campus. This quarter, I have put my research on the back burner for the time being in favor of a full load of coursework. But my project is still there, simmering subtly and persistently, and giving relevance to the coursework that I’m focusing my energy on this fall term.

As an undergraduate student, I acquired a broad scientific background and had the opportunity to dabble in the areas of biology that piqued my interest. I arrived here with a basic understanding of chemistry, physics, cell biology, anatomy, marine ecology and conservation biology. I gained experience working in the field with intertidal sea stars, snails, mussels, crabs and barnacles, with bottlenose dolphins and with humpback whales. But now my focus has narrowed as I’ve honed in on the specific questions that I will pursue over the next two years. My passion lies in marine ecology and conservation. Now, as a graduate student studying the ecology of a little-known population in a highly industrial area, this passion can come to fruition. For my masters, I hope to do the following:

A) Use photo-identification analysis to obtain a population abundance estimate for blue whales in New Zealand

B) Investigate blue whale residency and distribution patterns in New Zealand waters

C) Develop a comprehensive blue whale habitat use model for the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand, which incorporates physical and biological data

Down the road I hope to have implemented a capture-recapture abundance estimate model that best fits the dynamics of this population of blue whales, to have mapped where sightings have occurred and where the highest densities of blue whales are found in both space and time, and to have paired blue whale presence and absence with prey distribution, remote-sensed environmental data, and in situ oceanographic data. But how does one accomplish these things? I need a toolbox to draw from. And so this fall, I am assembling my toolbox, learning programs and analytical skills. I am taking methods courses—statistics, data management in R, analysis in GIS, methods in physiology and behavior of marine megafauna—that are no longer explorations into the world of natural science, but rather tools for exploring, identifying, and interpreting specific phenomena in ecology. While each comes with its own hiccups and headaches (see Florence’s post about this…), they are powerful tools.

Aside from coursework, the research I’m conducting has gained weight and relevance beyond being an investigation in ecology. My study area lies in the South Taranaki Bight of New Zealand, which is a contentious proposed seabed mining site for iron sands. As an undergraduate student I read case studies and wrote papers on the environmental impacts of industry, and I decided to go graduate school because I want to do research that has direct conservation applications. Last week I compiled all the data I’ve processed on blue whale sightings, seasonal residency, and photo identification for the South Taranaki Bight, which will be included as evidence submitted in environmental court in New Zealand by my advisor, Dr. Leigh Torres. “Applied conservation science” has been an abstract idea that has excited and motivated me for a long time, and now I am partaking in this process, experiencing applied conservation science firsthand.

And so my toolbox is growing, and the scope of my work is simultaneously narrowing in focus and expanding in relevance. The more tools I acquire, the more excited I am to apply them to my research. As I build my toolbox this fall, this process is something I look forward to enhancing while I’m in the field, when I dig deeper into data analysis, and as I grow as a conservation scientist.

A blue whale dives in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Photo by Leigh Torres.
A blue whale dives in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Photo by Leigh Torres.

Scratching the Surface

By Dr. Leigh Torres, Assistant Professor, Oregon State University, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

I have been reminded of a lesson I learned long ago: Never turn your back on the sea – it’s always changing.

The blue whales weren’t where they were last time. I wrongly assumed oceanographic patterns would be similar to our last time out in 2014 and that the whales would be in the same area. But the ocean is dynamic – ever changing. I knew this. And I know it better now.

Below (Fig. 1) are two satellite images of sea surface temperature (SST) within the South Taranaki Bight and west coast region of New Zealand that we surveyed in Jan-Feb 2014 and again recently during Jan-Feb 2016. The plot on the left describes ocean surface conditions in 2014 and illustrates how SST primarily ranged between 15 and 18 ⁰C. By comparison, the panel on the right depicts the sea surface conditions we just encountered during the 2016 field season, and a huge difference is apparent: this year SST ranged between 18 and 23 ⁰C, barely overlapping with the 2014 field season conditions.

Figure 1. A comparison of satellite images of sea surface temperature (SST) in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand between late January 2014 and early February 2016. The white circles on each image denote where the majority of blue whales were encountered during each field season.
Figure 1. A comparison of satellite images of sea surface temperature (SST) in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand between late January 2014 and early February 2016. The white circles on each image denote where the majority of blue whales were encountered during each field season.

While whales can live in a wide range of water temperatures, their prey is much pickier. Krill, tiny zooplankton that blue whales seek and devour in large quantities, tend to aggregate in pockets of nutrient-rich, cool water in this region of New Zealand. During the 2014 field season, we encountered most blue whales in an area where SST was about 15 ⁰C (within the white circle in the left panel of Fig. 1). This year, there was no cool water anywhere and we mainly found the whales off the west coast of Kahurangi shoals in about 21 ⁰C water (within the white circle in the right panel of Fig. 1. NB: the cooler water in the Cook Strait in the southeast region of the right panel is a different water mass than preferred by blue whales and does not contain their prey.)

The hot water we found this year across the survey region can likely be attributed, at least in part, to the El Niño conditions that are occurring across the Pacific Ocean currently. El Niño has brought unusually settled conditions to New Zealand this summer, which means relatively few high wind events that normally churn up the ocean and mix the cool, nutrient rich deep water with the hot surface layer water. These are ideal conditions for Kiwi sun-bathers, but the ocean remains highly stratified with a stable layer of hot water on top. However, this stratification does not necessarily mean the ocean is un-productive – it only means that the SST satellite images are virtually useless for helping us to find whales this year.

Although SST data can be informative about ocean conditions, it only reflects what is happening in the thin, top slice of the ocean. Sub-surface conditions can be very different. Ocean conditions during our two survey periods in 2014 and 2016 could be more similar when compared underwater than when viewed from above. This is why sub-surface sensors and data collection is critical to marine studies. Ocean conditions in 2014 and 2016 could both potentially provide good habitat for the whales. In fact, where and when we encountered whales during both 2014 and 2016 we also detected high densities of krill through hydro-acoustics (Fig. 2). However, in 2014 we observed many surface swarms of krill that we rarely saw this recent field season, which could be due to elevated SST. But, we did capture cool drone footage this year of a brief sub-surface foraging event:

An overhead look of a blue whale foraging event as the animal approaches the surface. Note how the distended ventral (throat) grooves of the buccal cavity (mouth) are visible. This is a big gulp of prey (krill) and water. The video was captured using a DJI Phantom 3 drone in the South Taranaki Bight of New Zealand in on February 2, 2016 under a research permit from the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) permit # 45780-MAR issued to Oregon State University.

Figure 2. An echo-sounder image of dense krill patches at 50-80 m depth captured through hydroacoustics in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand.
Figure 2. An echo-sounder image of dense krill patches at 50-80 m depth captured through hydroacoustics in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand.

Below are SST anomaly plots of January 2014 and January 2016 (Fig. 3). These anomaly plots show how different the SST was compared to the long-term average SST across the New Zealand region. As you can see, in 2014 (left panel) SST conditions in our study area were ~1 ⁰C below average, while in 2016 (right panel) SST conditions were ~1 ⁰C above average. So, what are normal conditions? What can we expect next year when we come back to survey again for blue whales across this region? These are challenging questions and illustrate why marine ecology studies like this one must be conducted over many years. One year is just a snap shot in the lifetime of the oceans.

Figure 3. Comparison of sea surface temperature (SST) anomaly plots of the New Zealand region between January 2014 (left) and January 2016 (right). The white box in both plots denotes the general location of our blue whale study region. (Apologies for the different formats of these plots - the underlying data is directly comparable.)
Figure 3. Comparison of sea surface temperature (SST) anomaly plots of the New Zealand region between January 2014 (left) and January 2016 (right). The white box in both plots denotes the general location of our blue whale study region. (Apologies for the different formats of these plots – the underlying data is directly comparable.)

Like all marine megafauna, blue whales move far and fast to adjust their distribution patterns according to ocean conditions. So, I can’t tell you what the ocean will be like in January 2017 or where the whales will be, but as we continue to study this marine ecosystem and its inhabitants our understanding of ocean patterns and whale ecology will improve. With every year of new data we will be able to better predict ocean and blue whale distribution patterns, providing managers with the tools they need to protect our marine environment. For now, we are just beginning to scratch the (sea) surface.