[B]reaching New Discoveries about Gray Whales in Oregon

By Haley Kent, Marine Studies Initiative (MSI) & summer GEMM Lab intern, OSU senior

“BLOW!”, yells a team “Whale Storm” member, as mist remains above the water from an exhaling gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus). While based at the Port Orford Field Station for 6 weeks of my final summer as an undergrad at Oregon State University my heart has only grown fonder for marine wildlife. I am still in awe of this amazing opportunity of researching the foraging ecology of gray whales as a Marine Studies Initiative and GEMM Lab intern. From this field work I have already learned so much about gray whales and their zooplankton prey, and now it’s time to analyze the data we have collected and see what ecological stories we can uncover.

Figure 1. Robyn and Haley enjoy their time in the research kayak. Photo by Lisa Hildebrand.


This internship is my first field work experience and I have learned many skills and demands needed to study marine wildlife: waking up before the sun (every day begins with screaming alarms), being engulfed by nature (Port Orford is a jaw-dropping location with rich biodiversity), packing up damp gear and equipment to only get my feet wet in the morning ocean waves again, and of course waiting on the weather to cooperate (fog, wind, swell). I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Figure 2. Smokey sunrise from the research kayak. Photo by Haley Kent.

Whether it is standing above the ocean on the ‘Cliff Site’ or sitting in our two-man kayak, every day of this internship has been full of new learning experiences. Using various field work techniques, such as using a theodolite (surveying equipment to track whale location and behavior), Secchi disks (to measure water clarity), GoPro data collection, taking photos of wildlife, and many more tools, have given me a new bank of valuable skills that will stick with me into my future career.

Figure 3. Haley drops Secchi disk from the research kayak. Photo by Dylan Gregory.

Data Analysis

To maximize my amazing internship experience, I am conducting a small data analysis project using the data we have collected these past weeks and in previous summers.  There are so many questions that can be asked of these data, but I am particularly interested in how many times individual gray whales return to our study area to forage seasonally or annually, and if these individual whales forage preferentially where certain zooplankton prey are available.

Photo Identification

After many hours of data collection in the field either in the kayak or on the cliff, we get to take a breather in the lab to work on various projects we are each assigned. Some job tasks include processing data, identifying zooplankton, and looking through the photos taken that day to potentially identify a known whale. Once photos are processed and saved onto the rugged laptop, they are ready for some serious one on one. Looking through each of the 300 photos captured each day can be very tedious, but it is worthwhile when a match is found. Within the photos of each individual whale I first determine whether it is the left or right side of the whale – if we are lucky we get both! – and maybe even a fluke (tail) photo!

Figure 4. Buttons’ left side. Photo taken by Gray Whale Team of 2018.
Figure 5. Buttons’ left side. Photo taken by Gray Whale Team of 2017.

The angles of these photos (Fig. 4 & 5) are very different, so it could be difficult to tell these are the same whale. But, have a closer look at the pigmentation patterns on this whale. Focus on a single spot or area of spots, and see how patterns line up. Does that match in the same area in the next photo? If yes, you could have yourself a match!

Buttons, one of the identified gray whales (Fig. 4 & 5), was seen in 2016, 17, and 18. I was so excited to identify Buttons for the 3rd year in a row as this result demonstrates this whale’s preference for foraging in Port Orford.

Zooplankton and whale foraging behavior

By using the theodolite we track the whale’s position from the cliff location. I have plugged these coordinates into Google Earth, and compared the coordinates to our zooplankton sample stations from that same day. These methods allow me to assess where the whale spent time, and where it did not, which I can then relate to the zooplankton species and abundance we caught in our sample tows (we use a net from the research kayak to collect samples throughout the water column).

Figure 6. Holmesimysis sculpta. This species can range between 4-12mm. The size of this zooplankton relative to the large gray whales foraging on it shows the whale’s incredible senses for prey preference. Photo source: Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

Results (preliminary)

‘Eyeball’ is one of our resident whales that we have identified regularly throughout this season here in Port Orford. I have compared the amount of time Eyeball has spent near zooplankton stations to the prey community we captured at each station.

There is a positive trend in the amount of time the whale spent in an area with the percent abundance of Holmesimysis sculpta (Fig. 7: blue trend line).

Figure 7. Comparative plot between the amount of time the whale “Eyeball” spent within 50m of each zooplankton sampling station and the relative amount of zooplankton species caught at each station. Note the positive trend between time and Holmesimysis sculpta, and the negative trend relative to Neomysis sp. or Caprellidae.

Conversely, there is an inverse trend with two other zooplankton species:  Neomysis sp. (grey trend line) and Caprellidae (orange trend line). These results suggest that Eyeball has a foraging preference for areas where Holmesimysis sculpta (Fig. 6) is more abundant. Who would have known a whale could be so picky? Once the season comes to an end, I plan to use more of our data to continue to make discoveries about the foraging preferences of gray whales in Oregon.