More data, more questions, more projects: There’s always more to learn

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

As you may have read in previous blog posts, my research focuses on the ecology of blue whales in New Zealand. Through my MS research and years of work by a dedicated team, we were able to document and describe a population of around 700 blue whales that are unique to New Zealand, present year-round, and genetically distinct from all other known populations [1]. While this is a very exciting discovery, documenting this population has also unlocked a myriad of further questions about these whales. Can we predict when and where the whales are most likely to be? How does their distribution change seasonally? How often do they overlap with anthropogenic activity? My PhD research will aim to answer these questions through models of blue whale distribution patterns relative to their environment at multiple spatial and temporal scales.

Because time at sea for vessel-based surveys is cost-limited and difficult to come by, it is in any scientist’s best interest to collect as many concurrent streams of data as possible while in the field. When Dr. Leigh Torres designed our blue whale surveys that were conducted in 2014, 2016, and 2017, she really did a miraculous job of maximizing time on the water. With more data, more questions can be asked. These complimentary datasets have led to the pursuit of many “side projects”. I am lucky enough to work on these questions in parallel with what will form the bulk of my PhD, and collaborate with a number of people in the process. In this blog post, I’ll give you some short teasers of these “side projects”!

Surface lunge feeding as a foraging strategy for New Zealand blue whales

Most of what we know about blue whale foraging behavior comes from studies conducted off the coast of Southern California[2,3] using suction cup accelerometer tags. While these studies in the California Current ecosystem have led to insights and breakthroughs in our understanding of these elusive marine predators and their prey, they have also led us to adopt the paradigm that krill patches are denser at depth, and blue whales are most likely to target these deep prey patches when they feed. We have combined our prey data with blue whale behavioral data observed via a drone to investigate blue whale foraging in New Zealand, with a particular emphasis on surface feeding as a strategy. In our recent analyses, we are finding that in New Zealand, lunge feeding at the surface may be more than just “snacking”. Rather, it may be an energetically efficient strategy that blue whales have evolved in the region with unique implications for conservation.

Figure 1. A blue whale lunges on an aggregation of krill. UAS piloted by Todd Chandler.

Combining multiple data streams for a comprehensive health assessment

In the field, we collected photographs, blubber biopsy samples, fecal samples, and conducted unmanned aerial system (UAS, a.k.a. “drone”) flights over blue whales. The blubber and fecal samples can be analyzed for stress and reproductive hormone levels; UAS imagery allows us to quantify a whale’s body condition[4]; and photographs can be used to evaluate skin condition for abnormalities. By pulling together these multiple data streams, this project aims to establish a baseline understanding of the variability in stress and reproductive hormone levels, body condition, and skin condition for the population. Because our study period spans multiple years, we also have the ability to look at temporal patterns and individual changes over time. From our preliminary results, we have evidence for multiple pregnant females from elevated pregnancy and stress hormones, as well as apparent pregnancy from the body condition analysis. Additionally, a large proportion of the population appear to be affected by blistering and cookie cutter shark bites.

Figure 2. An example aerial drone image of a blue whale that will be used to asses body condition, i.e. how healthy or malnourished the whale is. (Drone piloted by Todd Chandler).
Figure 3. Images of blue whale skin condition, affected by A) blistering and B) cookie cutter shark bites.

Comparing body shape and morphology between species

The GEMM Lab uses UAS to quantitatively study behavior[5] and health of large whales. From various projects in different parts of the world we have now assimilated UAS data on blue, gray, and humpback whales. We will measure these images to investigate differences in body shape and morphology among these species. We plan to explore how form follows function across baleen whales, based on their different  life histories, foraging strategies, and ecological roles.

Figure 4 . Aerial images of A) a blue whale in New Zealand’s South Taranaki Bight, B) a gray whale off the coast of Oregon, and C) a humpback whale off the coast of Washington. Drone piloted by Todd Chandler (A and B) and Jason Miranda (C). 

So it goes—my dissertation will contain a series of chapters that build on one another to explore blue whale distribution patterns at increasing scales, as well as a growing number of appendices for these “side projects”. Explorations and collaborations like I’ve described here allow me to broaden my perspectives and diversify my analytical skills, as well as work with many excellent teams of scientists. The more data we collect, the more questions we are able to ask. The more questions we ask, the more we seem to uncover that is yet to be understood. So stay tuned for some exciting forthcoming results from all of these analyses, as well as plenty of new questions, waiting to be posed.


  1. Barlow DR et al. 2018 Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger. Species Res. 36, 27–40. (doi:
  2. Hazen EL, Friedlaender AS, Goldbogen JA. 2015 Blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) optimize foraging efficiency by balancing oxygen use and energy gain as a function of prey density. Sci. Adv. 1, e1500469–e1500469. (doi:10.1126/sciadv.1500469)
  3. Goldbogen JA, Calambokidis J, Oleson E, Potvin J, Pyenson ND, Schorr G, Shadwick RE. 2011 Mechanics, hydrodynamics and energetics of blue whale lunge feeding: efficiency dependence on krill density. J. Exp. Biol. 214, 131–146. (doi:10.1242/jeb.048157)
  4. Burnett JD, Lemos L, Barlow DR, Wing MG, Chandler TE, Torres LG. 2018 Estimating morphometric attributes on baleen whales using small UAS photogrammetry: A case study with blue and gray whales. Mar. Mammal Sci. (doi:10.1111/mms.12527)
  5. Torres LG, Nieukirk SL, Lemos L, Chandler TE. 2018 Drone Up! Quantifying Whale Behavior From a New Perspective Improves Observational Capacity. Front. Mar. Sci. 5. (doi:10.3389/fmars.2018.00319)

More than just whales: The importance of studying an ecosystem


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

I have the privilege of studying the largest animals on the planet: blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus). However, in order to understand the ecology, distribution, and habitat use patterns of these ocean giants, I have dedicated the past several months to studying something much smaller: krill (Nyctiphanes australis). New Zealand’s South Taranaki Bight region (“STB”, Figure 1) is an important foraging ground for a unique population of blue whales [1,2]. A wind-driven upwelling system off of Kahurangi Point (the “X” in Figure 1) generates productivity in the region [3], leading to an abundance of krill [4], the desired blue whale prey [5].

Our blue whale research team collected a multitude of datastreams in three different years, including hydroacoustic data to map krill distribution throughout our study region. The summers of 2014 and 2017 were characterized by what could be considered “typical” conditions: A plume of cold, upwelled water curving its way around Cape Farewell (marked with the star in Figure 1) and entering the South Taranaki Bight, spurring a cascade of productivity in the region. The 2016 season, however, was different. The surface water temperatures were hot, and the whales were not where we expected to find them.

Figure 2. Sea surface temperature maps of the South Taranaki Bight region in each of our three study years. The white circles indicate where most blue whale sightings were made in each year. Note the very warm temperatures in 2016, and more westerly location of blue whale sightings.

What happened to the blue whales’ food source under these different conditions in 2016? Before I share some preliminary findings from my recent analyses, it is important to note that there are many possible ways to measure krill availability. For example, the number of krill aggregations, as well as how deep, thick, and dense those aggregations are in an area will all factor into how “desirable” krill patches are to a blue whale. While there may not be “more” or “less” krill from one year to the next, it may be more or less accessible to a blue whale due to energetic costs of capturing it. Here is a taste of what I’ve found so far:

In 2016, when surface waters were warm, the krill aggregations were significantly deeper than in the “typical” years (ANOVA, F=7.94, p <0.001):

Figute 3. Boxplots comparing the median krill aggregation depth in each of our three survey years.

The number of aggregations was not significantly different between years, but as you can see in the plot below (Figure 4) the krill were distributed differently in space:

Figure 4. Map of the South Taranaki Bight region with the number of aggregations per 4 km^2, standardized by vessel survey effort. The darker colors represent areas with a higher density of krill aggregations. 

While the bulk of the krill aggregations were located north of Cape Farewell under typical conditions (2014 and 2017), in the warm year (2016) the krill were not in this area. Rather, the area with the most aggregations was offshore, in the western portion of our study region. Now, take a look at the same figure, overlaid with our blue whale sighting locations:

Figure 5. Map of standardized number of krill aggregations, overlaid with blue whale sighting locations in red stars.

Where did we find the whales? In each year, most whale encounters were in the locations where the most krill aggregations were found! Not only that, but in 2016 the whales responded to the difference in krill distribution by shifting their distribution patterns so that they were virtually absent north of Cape Farewell, where most sightings were made in the typical years.

The above figures demonstrate the importance of studying an ecosystem. We could puzzle and speculate over why the blue whales were further west in the warm year, but the story that is emerging in the krill data may be a key link in our understanding of how the ecosystem responds to warm conditions. While the focus of my dissertation research is blue whales, they do not live in isolation. It is through understanding the ecosystem-scale story that we can better understand blue whale ecology in the STB. As I continue modeling the relationships between oceanography, krill, and blue whales in warm and typical years, we are beginning to scratch the surface of how blue whales may be responding to their environment.

  1. Torres LG. 2013 Evidence for an unrecognised blue whale foraging ground in New Zealand. New Zeal. J. Mar. Freshw. Res. 47, 235–248. (doi:10.1080/00288330.2013.773919)
  2. Barlow DR et al. 2018 Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger. Species Res. 36, 27–40. (doi:
  3. Shirtcliffe TGL, Moore MI, Cole AG, Viner AB, Baldwin R, Chapman B. 1990 Dynamics of the Cape Farewell upwelling plume, New Zealand. New Zeal. J. Mar. Freshw. Res. 24, 555–568. (doi:10.1080/00288330.1990.9516446)
  4. Bradford-Grieve JM, Murdoch RC, Chapman BE. 1993 Composition of macrozooplankton assemblages associated with the formation and decay of pulses within an upwelling plume in greater cook strait, New Zealand. New Zeal. J. Mar. Freshw. Res. 27, 1–22. (doi:10.1080/00288330.1993.9516541)
  5. Gill P. 2002 A blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) feeding ground in a southern Australian coastal upwelling zone. J. Cetacean Res. Manag. 4, 179–184.

GEMM Lab 2018: A Year in the Life

By Dawn Barlow, PhD student, Department of Fisheries & Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

As 2018 draws to a close, it is gratifying to step back and appreciate the accomplishments of the past year. For all members of the GEMM Lab, 2018 has certainly been one for the books! Here are some of our highlights for your holiday enjoyment.

We conducted fieldwork to collect new data in multiple seasons, multiple hemispheres, and across oceans. For the first time, GEMM Lab members joined the Northern California Current Ecosystem cruises aboard NOAA ship Bell M. Shimada as marine mammal observers—Florence in February, Alexa in May, and me in September.

Summertime in the Pacific Northwest brings the gray whales to the Oregon Coast. The drone-flying, poop-scooping, plankton-trapping team of Leigh, Todd, Leila, Joe, and Sharon took to the water for the third year to investigate the health of this gray whale population. It was a successful field season, ending with 72 fecal samples collected! Visiting students joined our experienced members to shadow the gray whale fieldwork—Julia Stepanuk and Alejandro Fernandez Ajo came from across the country to hop on board with us for a bit. Friendship and collaboration were built quickly in a little boat chasing after whale poop, bonding over peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Another GEMM Lab team tracked the gray whales from the cliff in Port Orford. Lisa Hildebrand joined us as the GEMM Lab’s newest graduate student, and immediately led a team of interns on Oregon’s southern coast to track gray whale movements and sample their prey from a trusty research kayak.

The summer 2018 gray whale foraging ecology team, affectionately known as “team whale storm”, at the Port Orford Field Station.

Rachael observed seabirds from Yaquina Head in May and June, where the colony of common murres had the highest reproductive success in 10 years! Then she left the summertime in July to travel to the other end of the world, braving winter in the remote South Atlantic to study South American fur seals in the Falkland Islands.

Dr. Rachael Orben and Dr. Alistair Bayliss looking out towards the fur seals. Photo: Kayleigh Jones

In New Caledonia, Solene and a research team ventured to Antigonia Seamount and Orne Bank to study the use of these offshore areas by breeding humpback whales. They collected numerous biopsy samples and successfully deployed satellite tags. Solene was also selected to receive the Louis Herman research scholarship to continue studying humpback whale movement and diving behavior around seamounts.

Sorting biopsy samples during a successful expedition to study humpback whales around remote seamounts in the South Pacific.

Beyond fieldwork, our members have been busily disseminating our findings. In July, Leigh and I traveled to Wellington to present our latest findings on New Zealand blue whales to scientists, managers, politicians, industry representatives, and advocacy groups. Because of our documentation of a unique New Zealand blue whale population, which was published earlier this year, the New Zealand government has proposed to create a Marine Mammal Sanctuary for the protection of blue whales. This is quite a feat, considering blue whales were classified as only “migrant” in New Zealand waters prior to our work. Fueled by flat whites in wintery Wellington, we navigated government buildings, discussing blue whale distribution patterns, overlap with the oil and gas industry, what we now know based on our latest analyses, and what we consider to be the most pressing gaps in our knowledge.

Dr. Leigh Torres and Dawn Barlow in front of Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand following the presentation of their recent findings.

Alexa spent the summer and fall in San Diego, where she collaborated with researchers at NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center on her study of about the health of bottlenose dolphins off the California coast. Her time down south has been productive and we look forward to having her back in Oregon with us to round out the second year of her PhD program.

In the fall, Dom and Leigh participated in the first ever Oregon Sea Otter Status of Knowledge Symposium. With growing interest in a potential sea otter reintroduction, the symposium brought together a range of experts – including scientists, managers, and tribes – to discuss what we currently know about sea otters in other regions and how this knowledge could be applied to an Oregon reintroduction effort. Dom was one of many speakers at this event, and gave a well-received talk on Oregon’s previous sea otter reintroduction attempt and brief discussion on his thesis research. Over the next year, Dom not only plans to finish his thesis, but also to join an interdisciplinary research team to further investigate other social, genetic, and ecological implications of a potential sea otter reintroduction.

Sea otter mom and pup. Source: Hakai Magazine.
2018-19 OSU NRT Cohort. Source: Oregon State University.

Several GEMM Lab members reached academic milestones this year. Rachael was promoted to Assistant Professor in the spring! She now leads the Seabird Oceanography Lab, and remains involved in multiple projects studying seabirds and pinnipeds all over the world. Leila passed her PhD qualifying exams and advanced to candidacy in the spring, a major accomplishment toward completing her doctoral degree. I successfully defended my MS degree in June, and my photo was added to our wall gallery of GEMM Lab graduates. I won’t be leaving the GEMM Lab anytime soon, however, as I will be continuing my research on New Zealand blue whales as a PhD student. The GEMM Lab welcomed a new MS student in the summer—Lisa Hildebrand will be studying gray whale foraging ecology on the Oregon Coast. Welcome, Lisa! In early December, Solene successfully defended her PhD, officially becoming Dr. Derville. Congratulations to all on these milestones, and congratulations to Leigh for continuing to grow such a successful lab and guiding us all toward these accomplishments.

Dawn Barlow answers questions during her M.Sc. defense seminar.
Dr. Solene Derville and co-supervisors Dr. Claire Garrigue and Dr. Leigh Torres after a successful PhD Defense!

Perhaps you’re looking to do some reading over the holidays? The GEMM Lab has been publishing up a storm this year! The bulletin board outside our lab is overflowing with new papers. Summarizing our work and sharing our findings with the scientific community is a critical piece of what we do. The 21 new publications this year in 14 scientific journals include contributions from Leigh (13), Rachael (3), Solene (3), Leila (6), Florence (1), Amanda (1), Erin (1), Courtney (1), Theresa (1), and myself (3). Scroll down to the end of this post to see the complete list!

If you are reading this, thank you for your support of our lab, our members, and our work. Our successes come not only from our individual determination, but more importantly from our support of one another and the support of our communities. We look forward to what’s ahead in 2019. Happy holidays from the GEMM Lab!

The whole GEMM Lab (lab dogs included) gathered for an evening playing “Evolution” at Leigh’s house.

Barlow, D. R., Torres, L. G., Hodge, K. B., Steel, D., Baker, C. S., Chandler, T. E., Bott, N., Constantine, R., Double, M. C., Gill, P., Glasgow, D., Hamner, R. M., Lilley, C., Ogle, M., Olson, P. A., Peters, C., Stockin, K. A., Tessaglia-Hymes, C. T., & Klinck, H. (2018). Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endangered Species Research36, 27-40.

Barlow, D. R., Fournet, M., & Sharpe, F. (2018). Incorporating tides into the acoustic ecology of humpback whales. Marine Mammal Science.

Baylis, A. M., Tierney, M., Orben, R. A., Staniland, I. J., & Brickle, P. (2018). Geographic variation in the foraging behaviour of South American fur seals. Marine Ecology Progress Series596, 233-245.

Bishop, A., Brown, C., Rehberg, M., Torres, L., & Horning, M. (2018). Juvenile Steller sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus) utilization distributions in the Gulf of Alaska. Movement ecology6(1), 6.

Burnett, J. D., Lemos, L., Barlow, D., Wing, M. G., Chandler, T., & Torres, L. G. (2018). Estimating morphometric attributes of baleen whales with photogrammetry from small UASs: A case study with blue and gray whales. Marine Mammal Science.

Cardoso, M. D., Lemos, L. S., Roges, E. M., de Moura, J. F., Tavares, D. C., Matias, C. A. R., … & Siciliano, S. (2018). A comprehensive survey of Aeromonas sp. and Vibrio sp. in seabirds from southeastern Brazil: outcomes for public health. Journal of applied microbiology124(5), 1283-1293.

Derville, S., Torres, L. G., Iovan, C., & Garrigue, C. (2018). Finding the right fit: Comparative cetacean distribution models using multiple data sources and statistical approaches. Diversity and Distributions24(11), 1657-1673.

Derville, S., Torres, L. G., & Garrigue, C. (2018). Social segregation of humpback whales in contrasted coastal and oceanic breeding habitats. Journal of Mammalogy99(1), 41-54.

Hann, C. H., Stelle, L. L., Szabo, A., & Torres, L. G. (2018). Obstacles and Opportunities of Using a Mobile App for Marine Mammal Research. ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information7(5), 169.

Holdman, A. K., Haxel, J. H., Klinck, H., & Torres, L. G. (2018). Acoustic monitoring reveals the times and tides of harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) distribution off central Oregon, USA. Marine Mammal Science.

Kirchner, T., Wiley, D. N., Hazen, E. L., Parks, S. E., Torres, L. G., & Friedlaender, A. S. (2018). Hierarchical foraging movement of humpback whales relative to the structure of their prey. Marine Ecology Progress Series607, 237-250.

Moura, J. F., Tavares, D. C., Lemos, L. S., Acevedo-Trejos, E., Saint’Pierre, T. D., Siciliano, S., & Merico, A. (2018). Interspecific variation of essential and non-essential trace elements in sympatric seabirds. Environmental pollution242, 470-479.

Moura, J. F., Tavares, D. C., Lemos, L. S., Silveira, V. V. B., Siciliano, S., & Hauser-Davis, R. A. (2018). Variation in mercury concentration in juvenile Magellanic penguins during their migration path along the Southwest Atlantic Ocean. Environmental Pollution238, 397-403.

Orben, R. A., Kokubun, N., Fleishman, A. B., Will, A. P., Yamamoto, T., Shaffer, S. A., Takahashi, A., & Kitaysky, A. S. (2018). Persistent annual migration patterns of a specialist seabird. Marine Ecology Progress Series593, 231-245.

Orben, R. A., Connor, A. J., Suryan, R. M., Ozaki, K., Sato, F., & Deguchi, T. (2018). Ontogenetic changes in at-sea distributions of immature short-tailed albatrosses Phoebastria albatrus. Endangered Species Research35, 23-37.

Pickett, E. P., Fraser, W. R., Patterson‐Fraser, D. L., Cimino, M. A., Torres, L. G., & Friedlaender, A. S. (2018). Spatial niche partitioning may promote coexistence of Pygoscelis penguins as climate‐induced sympatry occurs. Ecology and Evolution8(19), 9764-9778.

Siciliano, S., Moura, J. F., Tavares, D. C., Kehrig, H. A., Hauser-Davis, R. A., Moreira, I., Lavandier, R., Lemos, L. S., & Quinete, N. S. (2018). Legacy Contamination in Estuarine Dolphin Species From the South American Coast. In Marine Mammal Ecotoxicology (pp. 95-116). Academic Press.

Sullivan, F. A., & Torres, L. G. (2018). Assessment of vessel disturbance to gray whales to inform sustainable ecotourism. The Journal of Wildlife Management82(5), 896-905.

Sztukowski, L. A., Cotton, P. A., Weimerskirch, H., Thompson, D. R., Torres, L. G., Sagar, P. M., Knights, A. M., Fayet, A. L., & Votier, S. C. (2018). Sex differences in individual foraging site fidelity of Campbell albatross. Marine Ecology Progress Series601, 227-238.

Torres, L. G., Nieukirk, S. L., Lemos, L., & Chandler, T. E. (2018). Drone up! Quantifying whale behavior from a new perspective improves observational capacity. Frontiers in Marine Science5.

Yates, K. L., Bouchet, P. J., Caley, M. J., Mengersen, K., Randin, C. F., Parnell, S., … & Sequeira, A. M. M. (2018). Outstanding challenges in the transferability of ecological models. Trends in ecology & evolution.


Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of models: An ecologist’s love for programming

By Dawn Barlow, PhD student, Department of Fisheries & Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

When people hear that I study blue whales, they often ask me questions about what it’s like to be close to the largest animal on the planet, where we do fieldwork, and what data we are interested in collecting. While I love time at sea, my view on a daily basis is rarely like this:

Our small research vessel at sunset in New Zealand’s South Taranaki Bight at the end of a day of blue whale survey. Photo by D. Barlow.

More often than not, it looks something like this:

In my application letter to Dr. Leigh Torres, I wrote something along the lines of “while I relish remote fieldwork, I also find great satisfaction in the analysis process.” This statement is increasingly true for me as I grow more proficient in statistical modeling and computer programming. When excitedly telling my family about how I am trying to model relationships between oceanography, krill, whales, and satellite imagery, I was asked what I meant by “model”. Put simply, a model is a formula or equation that we can use to describe a pattern. I have been told, “all models are wrong, but some models work.” What does this mean? While we may never know exactly every pattern of whale feeding behavior, we can use the data we have to describe some of the important relationships. If our model performance is very good, then we have likely described most of what drives the patterns we see. If model performance is poor, then there is more to the pattern that we have not yet captured in either our data collection or in our analytical methods. Another common saying about models is, “A model is only ever as good as the data you put into it.” While we worked hard during field seasons to collect a myriad of data about what could be influencing blue whale distribution patterns, we inevitably could not capture everything, nor do we know everything that should be measured.

So, how do you go about finding the ‘best’ model? This question is what I’ve been grappling with over the last several weeks. My goal is to describe the patterns in the krill that drive patterns in whale distribution, the patterns in oceanography that drive patterns in the krill, and the patterns in the oceanography that drive patterns in whale distribution. The thing is, we have many metrics to describe oceanographic patterns (surface temperature, mixed layer depth, strength of the thermocline, integral of fluorescence, to name just a few), as well as several metrics to describe the krill (number of aggregations, aggregation density, depth, and thickness). When I multiplied out how many possible combinations of predictor variables and parameters we’re interested in modeling, I realized this meant running nearly 300 models in order to settle on the best ten. This is where programming comes in, I told myself, and caught my breath.

I’ve always loved languages. When I was much younger, I thought I might want to study linguistics. As a graduate student in wildlife science, the language I’ve spent the most time learning, and come to love, is the statistical programming language R. Just like any other language, R has syntax and structure. Like any other language, there are many ways in which to articulate something, to make a particular point or reach a particular end goal. Well-written code is sometimes described as “elegant”, much like a well-articulated piece of writing. While I certainly do not consider myself “fluent” in R, it is a language I love learning. I like to think that the R scripts I write are an attempt to eloquently uncover and describe ecological patterns.

Rather than running 300 models one by one, I wrote an R script to run many models at a time, and then sort the outputs by model performance. I may look at the five best models of 32 options in order to select one. But this is where Leigh reminds me to step back from the programming for a minute and put my ecologist hat back on. Insight on the part of the modeler is needed in order to discern between what are real ecological relationships and what are spurious correlations in the data. It may not be quite as simple as choosing the model with the highest explanatory power when my goal is to make ecological inferences.

So, where does this leave me? Hundreds of models later, I am still not entirely sure which ones are best, although I’ve narrowed it down considerably. My programming proficiency and confidence continue to grow, but that only goes so far in ecology. Knowledge of my study system is equally important. So my workflow lately goes something like this: write code, try to interpret model outputs, consider what I know about the oceanography of my study region, re-write code, re-interpret the revised results, and so on. Hopefully this iterative process is bringing us gradually closer to an understanding of the ecology of blue whales on a foraging ground… stay tuned.

A blue whale lunges on an aggregation of krill in New Zealand’s South Taranaki Bight. Drone piloted by Todd Chandler.

Albatrosses at sunrise, dolphins at sunset: Northern California Current cruise

By Dawn Barlow, PhD student, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Oregon State University

Sun on my face and wind in my hair, scanning the expanse of blue. Forty minutes on, twenty minutes off, from sunrise until sunset, day after day. Hours of seemingly empty blue, punctuated by graceful black-footed albatrosses wheeling and gliding over the swells, by the splashing approach of a curious group of Pacific white-sided dolphins coming to play in the bow of the ship, by whale spouts on the horizon and the occasional breaching humpback. A flurry of data entry—geographic coordinates, bearing and distance from the ship, number of animals, species identification, behavior—and then back to blue.

Scanning for marine mammals from the flying bridge of NOAA ship Bell M. Shimada. Photo: Jess O’Loughlin.

I’ve just returned from the Northern California Current (NCC) ecosystem cruise aboard NOAA ship Bell M. Shimada. My role on board was the marine mammal observer, logging marine mammal sightings during the transits between sampling stations. We surveyed and sampled between Cape Mears, Oregon and Trinidad, California, from right along the coast out to 200 nautical miles offshore. Resources in the marine environment are patchy, and our coastline is highly productive. This diversity in environmental conditions creates niche habitats for many species, which is one reason why surveying and sampling across a broad geographic range can be so informative. We left Newport surrounded by gray whales, feeding in green, chilly waters at temperatures around 12°C. Moving west, the marine mammal and seabird sightings were increasingly sparse, the water increasingly blue, and the surface temperature warmed to a balmy 17°C. We had reached offshore waters, an ocean region sometimes referred to as the “blue desert”. For an entire day I didn’t see a single marine mammal and only just a few seabirds, until a handful of common dolphins—more frequently seen in warm-temperate and tropical waters to the south—joined the ship at sunset. As we transited back inshore over the productive Heceta Bank, the water became cooler and greener. I stayed busy logging sightings of humpback and gray whales, harbor porpoise and Dall’s porpoise, pacific white-sided dolphins and sea lions. These far-ranging marine predators must find a way to make a living in the patchy and dynamic ocean environment, and therefore their distribution is also patchy—aggregated around areas of high productivity and prey availability, and occasionally seen transiting in between.

Here are a few cruise highlights:

Curious groups of common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) came to play in the bow wake of the ship and even checked out the plankton nets when they were deployed. Common dolphins are typically found further south, however we saw several groups of them in the warmer waters far offshore.

Ocean sunfish (Mola mola) will occasionally lay themselves flat at the surface so that seabirds will pick them clean of any parasites. I was delighted to observe this for the first time just off Newport! There were several more sunfish sightings throughout the cruise.

Gull picking parasites off an ocean sunfish (Mola mola). Photo: Dawn Barlow.

A masked booby (Sula dactylatra) hung around the ship for a bit, 16 nautical miles from shore, just south of the Oregon-California border. Considered a tropical species, a sighting this far north is extremely rare. While masked boobies are typically distributed in the Caribbean and tropical Pacific from Mexico to Australia, one found its way to the Columbia River in 2006 (first record in the state of Oregon) and another showed up here to Newport in 2015 – reportedly only the second to be recorded north of Mendocino County, California. Perhaps this sighting is the third?

Masked booby (Sula dactylatra). Photo: Dawn Barlow.

While most of my boat-based fieldwork experiences have been focused on marine mammal research, this was an interdisciplinary cruise aimed at studying multiple aspects of the northern California current ecosystem. There were researchers on board studying oceanography, phytoplankton and harmful algal blooms, zooplankton, and microplastics. When a group of enthusiastic scientists with different areas of expertise come together and spend long days at sea, there is a wonderful opportunity to learn from one another. The hydroacoustic backscatter on the scientific echosounder prompted a group discussion about vertical migration of plankton one evening. Another evening I learned about differences in energetic content between krill species, and together we mused about what that might mean for marine predators. This is how collaborations are born, and I am grateful for the scientific musings with so many insightful people.

Thank you to the Shimada crew and the NCC science team for a wonderful cruise!

The NCC science team after a successful cruise!

Cloudy with a chance of blue whales

By Dawn Barlow, PhD student, Department of Fisheries & Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

As a PhD student studying the ecology of blue whales in New Zealand, my time is occupied by questions such as: When and where are the blue whales? Can we predict where they will be based on environmental conditions? How does their distribution overlap with human activity such as oil and gas exploration?

Leigh and I have just returned from New Zealand, where I gave an oral presentation at the Society for Conservation Biology Oceania Congress entitled “Cloudy with a chance of whales: Forecasting blue whale presence to mitigate industrial impacts based on tiered, bottom-up models”. While the findings I presented are preliminary, an exciting ecological story is emerging, and one with clear management implications.

The South Taranaki Bight (STB) region of New Zealand is an important area for a population of blue whales which are unique to New Zealand. A wind-driven upwelling system brings cold, productive waters into the bight [1], which sustains high densities of krill [2], blue whale prey. The region is also frequented by busy shipping traffic, oil and gas drilling and extraction platforms as well as seismic survey effort for subsurface oil and gas reserves, and is the site of a recently-permitted seabed mine for iron sands (Fig. 1). However, a lack of knowledge on blue whale distribution and habitat use patterns has impeded effective management of these potential anthropogenic threats.

Figure 1. A blue whale surfaces in front of a floating production storage and offloading vessel servicing the oil rigs in the South Taranaki Bight. Photo by D. Barlow.

Three surveys were conducted in the STB region in the summer months of 2014, 2016, and 2017. During that time, we not only looked for blue whales, we also collected oceanographic data and hydroacoustic backscatter data to map and measure aspects of the krill in the region. These data streams will help us understand the functional, ecological relationships between the environment (oceanography), prey (krill), and predators (blue whales) in the ecosystem (Fig. 2). But in practice these data are costly and time-consuming to collect, while other data sources such as satellite imagery are readily accessible to managers at a variety of spatial and temporal scales. Therefore, another one of my aims is to link the data we collected in the field to satellite imagery, so that managers can have a practical tool to predict when and where the blue whales are most likely to be found in the region.

Figure 2. Data streams collected during surveys of the South Taranaki Bight Region in 2014, 2016, and 2017. 

So what did I find? Here are the highlights from my preliminary analyses:

  • The majority of the patterns in blue whale distribution can be explained by the density, depth, and thickness of the krill patches.
  • Patterns in the krill are driven by oceanography.
  • Those same oceanographic parameters that drive the krill can be used to explain blue whale distribution.
  • There are tight relationships between the important oceanographic variables and satellite images of sea surface temperature.
  • Blue whale distribution can, to some degree, be explained using just satellite imagery.

We were able to identify a sea surface temperature range in the satellite imagery of approximately 18°C where the likelihood of finding a blue whale is the highest. Is this because blue whales really like 18° water? Well, more likely this relationship exists because the satellite imagery is reflective of the oceanography, and the oceanography drives patterns in the krill distribution, and the krill drives the distribution of blue whales (Fig. 3). We were able to make each of these functional linkages through our series of models, which is quite exciting.

Figure 3. The tiered modeling approach we took to investigate the ecological relationships between blue whales, krill, oceanography, and satellite imagery. Because of the ecological linkages we made, we are able to say that any relationship between whale distribution and satellite imagery most likely reflects a relationship between the blue whales and their prey. 

That’s all well and good, but we were interested in testing these relationships to see if our identified habitat associations hold up even when we do not have field data (oceanographic, krill, and whale data). This past austral summer, we did not have a field season to collect data, but there was a large seismic airgun survey of the STB region. Seismic survey vessels are required to have trained marine mammal observers on board, and we were given access to the blue whale sightings data they recorded during the survey. In December, when the water was right around the preferred temperature identified by our models (18°C), the observers made 52 blue whale sightings (Fig. 4). In January and February, the waters warmed and only two sightings were made in each month. This is not only reassuring because it supports our model results, it also implies that there is the potential to balance industrial use of the area with protection of blue whale habitat, based on our understanding of the ecology. In January and February, very few blue whales were likely disturbed by the industrial activity in the STB, as conditions were not favorable for foraging at the location of the seismic survey. In contrast, the blue whales that were in the STB region in December may have experienced physiological consequences of sustained exposure to airgun noise since the conditions were favorable for foraging in the STB. In other words, the whales may have tolerated the noise exposure to gain access to good food, but this could have significant biological repercussions such as increased stress [3].

Figure 4. Monthly sea surface temperature (MODIS Aqua) overlaid with blue whale sightings from marine mammal observers aboard seismic survey vessel R/V Amazon Warrior. Black rectangles represent areas of seismic survey effort. Blue whale sighting location data were provided by RPS Energy Pty Ltd & Schlumberger, and Todd Energy.

In the first two weeks of July, we presented these latest findings to managers at the New Zealand Department of Conservation, the Minister of Conservation, the CEO and Policy Advisor of a major oil and gas conglomerate, NGOs, advocacy groups, and scientific colleagues. It was valuable to gather feedback from many different stakeholders, and satisfying to see such a clear interest in, and management application of, our work.

Dr. Leigh Torres and Dawn Barlow in front of Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, following the presentation of their recent findings.

What’s next? We’re back in Oregon, and diving back into analysis. We intend to take the modeling work a step further to make the models predictive—for example, can we forecast where the blue whales will be based on the temperature, productivity, and winds two weeks prior? I am excited to see where these next steps lead!


  1. Shirtcliffe TGL, Moore MI, Cole AG, Viner AB, Baldwin R, Chapman B. 1990 Dynamics of the Cape Farewell upwelling plume, New Zealand. New Zeal. J. Mar. Freshw. Res. 24, 555–568. (doi:10.1080/00288330.1990.9516446)
  2. Bradford-Grieve JM, Murdoch RC, Chapman BE. 1993 Composition of macrozooplankton assemblages associated with the formation and decay of pulses within an upwelling plume in greater cook strait, New Zealand. New Zeal. J. Mar. Freshw. Res. 27, 1–22. (doi:10.1080/00288330.1993.9516541)
  3. Rolland RM, Parks SE, Hunt KE, Castellote M, Corkeron PJ, Nowacek DP, Wasser SK, Kraus SD. 2012 Evidence that ship noise increases stress in right whales. Proc. Biol. Sci. 279, 2363–8. (doi:10.1098/rspb.2011.2429)

“Applied conservation science”

By Dawn Barlow, M.S.
Ph.D. student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Oregon State University

For years, I have said I want to do “applied conservation science”. As an undergraduate student at Pitzer College I was a double major in Biology and Environmental Policy. While I have known that I wanted to study the oceans on some level my whole life, and I have known for about a decade that I wanted to be a scientist, I realized in college that I wanted to learn how science could be a tool for effective conservation of the marine ecosystems that fascinate me.

Answering questions during my public defense seminar. Photo by Leila Lemos.

Just over a week ago, I successfully defended my MS thesis. When Leigh introduced me at the public seminar, she read a line from my initial letter to her expressing my interest in being her graduate student: “My passion for cetacean research lies not only in fascination of the animals but also how to translate our knowledge of their biology and ecological roles into effective conservation and management measures.” I believe I’ve grown and learned a lot in the two and a half years since I crafted that email and nervously hit send, but the statement is still true.

My graduate research in many ways epitomizes what I am passionate about. I am part of a team studying the ecology of blue whales in a highly industrial area of New Zealand. Not only is it a system in which we can address fascinating questions in ecology, it is also a region that experiences extensive pressure from human use and so all of our findings have direct management implications.

We recently published a paper documenting and describing this New Zealand blue whale population, and the findings reached audiences and news outlets far and wide. Leigh and I are headed to New Zealand for the first two weeks in July. During this time we will not only present our latest findings at the Society for Conservation Biology Oceania Conference, we will also meet with managers at the New Zealand Department of Conservation, speak with the Minister of Energy and Resources as well as the Minster of Conservation, meet with the CEO and Policy Advisor of PEPANZ (a representative group of oil and gas companies in New Zealand), and participate in a symposium of scientists and stakeholders aiming to establish goals for the protection of whales in New Zealand. Now, “applied conservation science” extends well beyond a section in the discussion of a paper outlining the implications of the findings for management.

A blue whale surfaces in front of a floating production storage and offloading (FPSO) vessel servicing the oil rigs in the South Taranaki Bight. Photo by Dawn Barlow. 

During our 2017 field season in New Zealand, Leigh and I found ourselves musing on the flying bridge of the research vessel about all the research questions still to be asked of this study system and these blue whales. How do they forage? What are their energetic demands? How does disturbance from oil and gas exploration impact their foraging and their energetic demands? Leigh smiled and told me, “You better watch out, or this will turn into your PhD.” I said that maybe it should. Now I am thrilled to immerse myself into the next phase of this research project and the next chapter of my academic journey as a PhD student. This work is applied conservation science, and I am a conservation biologist. Here’s to retaining my passion for ecology and fascination with my study system, while not losing sight of the implications and applications of my work for conservation. I am excited for what is to come!

Dawn Barlow and Dr. Leigh Torres aboard the R/V Star Keys during the 2017 blue whale field season in New Zealand. Photo by Todd Chandler.

Forecasting blue whale presence: Small steps toward big goals

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

In 2013, Leigh first published a hypothesis that the South Taranaki Bight region between New Zealand’s North and South Islands is important habitat for blue whales  (Torres 2013). Since then, we have collected three years of data and conducted dedicated analyses, so we now understand that a unique population of blue whales is found in New Zealand, and that they are present in the South Taranaki Bight year-round (Barlow et al. in press).

A blue whale surfaces in the South Taranaki Bight. Photo by Leigh Torres.

This research has garnered quite a bit of political and media attention. A major platform item for the New Zealand Green Party around the last election was the establishment of a marine mammal sanctuary in the South Taranaki Bight. When the world’s largest seismic survey vessel began surveying the South Taranaki Bight this summer for more oil and gas reserves using tremendously loud airguns, there were rallies on the lawn in front of Parliament featuring a large inflatable blue whale that the protesters affectionately refer to as “Janet”. Needless to say, blue whales have made their way into the spotlight in New Zealand.

Janet the inflatable blue whale accompanies protesters on the lawn in front of Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand. Image credit: Greenpeace.

Now that we know there is a unique population of blue whales in New Zealand, what is next? What’s next for me is an exciting combination of both ecology and conservation. If an effective sanctuary is to be implemented, it needs to be more than a simple box drawn on a map to check off a political agenda item—the sanctuary should be informed by our best ecological knowledge of the blue whales and their habitat.

In July, Leigh and I will attend the Society for Conservation Biology meeting in Wellington, New Zealand, and I’ll be giving a presentation titled “Cloudy with a chance of whales: Forecasting blue whale presence based on tiered, bottom-up models”. I’ll be the first to admit, I am not yet forecasting blue whale presence. But I am working my way there, step-by-step, through this tiered, bottom-up approach. In cetacean habitat modeling, we often assume that whale distribution on a foraging ground is determined by their prey’s distribution, and that satellite images of temperature and chlorophyll-a provide an accurate picture of what is going on below the surface. Is this true? With our three years of data including in situ oceanography, krill hydroacoustics, and blue whale distribution and behavior, we are in a unique position to test some of those assumptions, as well as provide managers with an informed management tool to predict blue whale distribution.

What questions will we ask using our data? Firstly, can in situ oceanography (i.e., thermocline depth and temperature, mixed layer depth) predict the distribution and density of blue whale prey (krill)? Then, can those prey patterns be accurately predicted in the absence of oceanographic measurements, using just satellite images? Next, we’ll bring the blue whales back into the picture to ask: can we predict blue whale distribution based on our in situ measurements of oceanography and prey? And finally, in the absence of in situ measurements (which is most often the case), can we forecast where the whales will be based just on remotely-sensed images of the region?

The 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 by Leigh Torres.

So, cloudy with a chance of whales? Well, you’ll have to stay tuned for that story in the coming months. In the meantime, I can tell you that as daunting as it is to aggregate so many data streams, each step of the way has a piece of the story to tell. I can’t wait to see how it falls together, both from an ecological modeling perspective and a conservation management objective.

A blue whale surfaces in front of a floating production storage and offloading (FPSO) vessel which services the oil rigs in the South Taranaki Bight. Photo by Dawn Barlow.



Torres, L. G. (2013). Evidence for an unrecognised blue whale foraging ground in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research47(2), 235-248.

Barlow, D. R., Torres, L. G., Hodge, K. B., Steel, D. Baker, C. S., Chandler, T. E., Bott, N., Constantine, R., Double, M. C., Gill, P., Glasgow, D., Hamner, R. M., Lilley, C., Ogle, M., Olson, P. A., Peters, C., Stockin, K. A., Tessaglia-Hymes, C. T., Klinck, H. (in press). Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endangered Species Research. 

There is no such thing as “throwing it away”: Why I try to reduce my plastic consumption

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

Several years ago, I had a profound experience on a remote little coral island in the Kingdom of Tonga, in the middle of the South Pacific. I was a crew member aboard a 46’ sailboat, traveling in Tonga and Fiji. This trip was a time when I became very aware of my consumption because when living on a boat, you carry your waste with you. The South Pacific is a region of little islands scattered across wide ocean spaces, and my eyes were opened to island culture. An island is analogous to a large boat—your waste cannot go far. The idea of “throwing it away” began to seem suspect. Does anything really “go away”?

A seemingly pristine beach on Tungua Island, Kingdom of Tonga. Upon closer inspection, we realized the volume of plastics that could be found even on an island this remote. Photo by D. Barlow.

After spending a night at anchor in the Kingdom of Tonga when I listened through the hull to signing humpback whales and felt their deep tones vibrate our mast, I thought I was in a place as pure and untouched as I would ever experience. The next morning, we ventured to shore on an island that we could circumnavigate in less than an hour on foot. But the soft sand was strewn with more than just conch and cowrie shells. It was also strewn with plastic. I began to pick up the trash items on the beach, and before long I had a large bag filled to the brim with plastic. The captain humored me when I wanted to bring it back to the boat. But what was I going to do with it then? These remote island places have very little infrastructure—they can’t recycle it there. So should I take it to another island where it would likely get barged out and dumped back in the ocean? Or a landfill? What struck me most was the realization that none of these products were manufactured on these islands. Some of this plastic may have been imported to the nearest island with a town or city, while some likely had drifted across the sea to this landing spot. All the plastics that I picked up on that one, small island were just a tiny portion of ocean plastic that wash ashore on the world’s beaches, a tiny glimpse of a much larger issue.

Eight million tons of plastics make their way into the oceans each year. Let that number sink in. There is no such thing as “throwing it away”, because “away” does not exist. “Away” is the ocean.

“What lies under”. Image credit: Ferdi Rizkiyanto.

Before sitting down to write this, I participated in a beach cleanup event here in my local community in Newport, Oregon. Today along the whole Oregon Coast, over 3,000 volunteers removed more than 15,000 pounds of litter and marine debris from the coastal places they love. A few weeks ago Surfrider Foundation screened the documentary Straw, directed by Linda Booker. Following the well-attended screening, a panel of community members from Surfrider, the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and Thomson Sanitary Services answered questions from the audience. In a lively discussion, we learned about why China is no longer accepting our recyclables and consequently we can only recycle plastics #1 and #2 here in Oregon, about how marine animals are rehabilitated after becoming entangled in plastic waste, about how Surfrider is encouraging local businesses to switch to paper straws and only offer them by request. As daunting as it is to think about the scale of our plastic consumption and the damage it causes, I am encouraged by the engagement and bottom-up movement in my community.

My life is shaped by the ocean—it is my inspiration, my work, my passion, my place of adventure and joy, the place that humbles me and heals me. Imagining the relationship between the products I use and the ocean is what makes me think twice before consuming. If I am driving in my car and want to stop for coffee but don’t have a reusable mug with me, I consider “if I were on a boat, would I drink coffee out of a single-use cup and then throw it away, toss it over the rail?” Of course not. So I invite you to think about the plastic in your life—it is everywhere. Think about how that plastic relates to what you love. Will it make its way into the stomach of a baby albatross, a sea turtle, the filter-feeding shellfish and large predatory fish that you love to eat?

Lifestyle changes can be simple and impactful. As a consumer, use your purchase power—when you have the option to buy a product wrapped in plastic or one that is not, opt for no plastic. Show manufacturers what you value. Bring reusable bags to the grocery store. Use waxed paper instead of plastic saran wrap. Talk to others, share your choices with them, encourage them to minimize their plastic use. And if you need context or motivation, imagine the relationship between the products you consume and the places that you love.


With new approaches come new insights: What we do and don’t know about blue whales

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

A few weeks ago, my labmate Dom’s blog reminded me that it is important to step back from the data and appreciate the magnificence of the animals we study from time to time. I have the privilege of studying the largest creatures on the planet. When people hear that I study blue whales, I often get a series of questions: Just how big are they, really? How many are there? Where do they migrate? Where do they breed? Despite the fact that humans hunted blue whales nearly to extinction [1,2], we still know next to nothing about these giants. The short answer to many of those questions is, “Well we don’t really know, but we’re working on it!” Which brings me back to taking time to marvel at these animals for a bit. Isn’t it remarkable that the largest animals on earth can be so mysterious?

A blue whale comes up for air in a calm sea. Photo by Leigh Torres.

Last year at this time we were aboard a research vessel in New Zealand surveying for blue whales and collecting a myriad of biological data to try and glean some insight into their lives. This winter I am processing those data and conducting a literature review to get a firm grasp on what others have found before about blue whale foraging and bioenergetics. On any given Tuesday morning Leigh and I can be found musing about the mechanics of a baleen whale jaw, about what oceanographic boundaries in the water column might be meaningful to a blue whale, about how we might quantify the energy expenditure of a foraging whale. Here are some of those musings.

Approaching a blue whale in a rigid-hull inflatable boat for data collection. UAS piloted by Todd Chandler.

Humans are, for the most part, terrestrial creatures. Even those of us that would prefer to spend most of our time near, on, or in the water are limited in what we can observe of marine life. Much of the early data that was collected on blue whales came from whaling catches. Observations of anatomy and morphology were made once the whales were killed and taken out of their marine environment. This was not long ago—Soviet whaling continued into the 1970’s in New Zealand [3]. Because baleen whales are long lived (exact age unknown for blue whales but a bowhead whale was estimated to be at least 150 years old [4]) it is entirely possible that blue whales living today remember being hunted by whalers. Observing whales in their natural state is not easy, particularly post-commercial whaling when they are few and far between.

Yet, where there is a challenge, clever people develop creative approaches and new technologies, leading to new insights. High-quality cameras have allowed scientists to photograph whales for individual identification—a valuable first step in figuring out how many there are and where they go [5]. Satellite tags have allowed scientists to track the movement of blue whales in the North Pacific and Indian Oceans, a first step in learning where these whales might go to breed. However, no blue whale breeding ground has definitively been discovered yet…

What does a whale do when it is below the surface, out of sight of our terrestrial eyes? A study from 1986 that attempted to calculate the prey demands of a whale assumed that whenever a whale was submerged, it was feeding [6]. A big assumption, but a starting place without any dive data. By 2002, tags equipped with time-depth recorders (TDR) had already revealed that blue whales make dives of variable depths and shapes [7]. But, what determines a whale’s path underwater, where they must conserve as much oxygen as they can while finding and exploiting patches of prey? The advent of digital acoustic recording tags (DTAGs) in the early 2000s have allowed scientists to measure the fine-scale movements of whales in three dimensions [8]. These tags can capture the kinematic signatures (based on pitch, roll, and yaw) of lunge-feeding events below the surface. And with the addition of echosounder technology that allows us to map the prey field, we can now link feeding events with characteristics of the prey present in the area [9]. With this progression of technology, curiosity and insight we now know that blue whales are not indiscriminate grazers, but instead pass up small patches of krill in favor of large, dense aggregations where they will get the most energetic bang for their buck.

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 advent of unmanned aerial systems (UAS, a.k.a. “drones”) have provided yet another unique perspective on the lives of these whales. In 2016, our New Zealand blue whale team recorded nursing behavior between a mother and calf. In 2017, we were able to capture surface lunge feeding behavior from an aerial perspective, both for the first time.

A blue whale lunges on an aggregation of krill. UAS piloted by Todd Chandler.

Through innovative approaches, we are beginning to understand the lives of these mysterious giants. As is true for many things, the more we learn, the more questions we have. Through the GEMM Lab’s blue whale project, we have determined that a unique population of blue whales occupies the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand year-round; they do not simply migrate through as their current threat classification status indicates [10]. But what are their distribution patterns? Can we predict when and where whales are most likely to be in the South Taranaki Bight? Does this population have a different foraging strategy than their Californian, Chilean, or Antarctic counterparts? These are the things we are working on unraveling, and that will aid in their conservation. In the meantime, I’ll keep musing about what we don’t know, and remember to keep marveling at what we do know about the largest creatures on earth.

A blue whale mother and calf surface near Farewell Spit, New Zealand. Photo by D. Barlow.


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  4. George, J. C. et al. Age and growth estimates of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) via aspartic acid racemization. Can. J. Zool. 77, 571–580 (1998).
  5. Sears, R. et al. Photographic identification of the Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus) in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada. Report of the International Whaling Commission Special Issue 335–342 (1990).
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  7. Acevedo-Gutierrez, A., Croll, D. A. & Tershy, B. R. High feeding costs limit dive time in the largest whales. J. Exp. Biol. 205, 1747–1753 (2002).
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  9. Hazen, E. L., Friedlaender, A. S. & Goldbogen, J. A. Blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) optimize foraging efficiency by balancing oxygen use and energy gain as a function of prey density. Sci. Adv. 1, e1500469–e1500469 (2015).
  10. Baker, C. S. et al. Conservation status of New Zealand marine mammals, 2013. (2016).