Coastal oceanography takes patience

Joe Haxel, Acoustician, Assistant Professor, CIMRS/OSU

Greetings GEMM Lab blog readers. My name is Joe Haxel and I’m a close collaborator with Leigh and other GEMM lab members on the gray whale ecology, physiology and noise project off the Oregon coast. Leigh invited me for a guest blog appearance to share some of the acoustics work we’ve been up to and as you’ve probably guessed by now, my specialty is in ocean acoustics. I’m a PI in NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory’s Acoustics Program and OSU’s Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies where I use underwater sound to study a variety of earth and ocean processes.

As a component of the gray whale noise project, during the field seasons of 2016 and 2017 we recorded some of the first measurements of ambient sound in the shallow coastal waters off Oregon between 7 and 20 meters depth. In the passive ocean acoustics world this is really shallow, and with that comes all kinds of instrument and logistical challenges, which is probably one of the main reasons there is little or no acoustic baseline information in this environment.

For instance, one of the significant challenges is rooted in the hydrodynamics surrounding mobile recording systems like the drifting hydrophone we used during the summer field season in 2016 (Fig 1). Decoupling motion of the surface buoy (e.g., caused by swell and waves) from the submerged hydrophone sensor is critical, and here’s why. Hydrophones convert pressure fluctuations at the sensor/ water interface to a calibrated voltage recorded by a logging system. Turbulence resulting from moving the sensor up and down in the water column with surface waves introduces non-acoustic pressure changes that severely contaminate the data for noise level measurements. Vertical and horizontal wave motions are constantly acting on the float, so we needed to engineer compliance between the surface float and the suspended hydrophone sensor to decouple these accelerations. To overcome this, we employed a couple of concepts in our drifting hydrophone design. 1) A 10 cm diameter by 3 m long spar buoy provided floatation for the system. Spar buoys are less affected by wave motion accelerations compared to most other types of surface floatation with larger horizontal profiles and drag. 2) A dynamic shock cord that could stretch up to double its resting length to accommodate vertical motion of the spar buoy; 3) a heave plate that significantly reduced any vertical motion of the hydrophone suspended below it. This was a very effective design, and although somewhat cumbersome in transport with the RHIB between deployment sites, the acoustic data we collected over 40 different drifts around Newport and Port Orford in 2016 was clean, high quality and devoid of system induced contamination.

Figure 1. The drifting hydrophone system used for 40 different drifts recording ambient noise levels in 7-20 m depths in the Newport and Port Orford, OR coastal areas.













Spatial information from the project’s first year acoustic recordings using the drifting hydrophone system helped us choose sites for the fixed hydrophone stations in 2017. Now that we had some basic information on the spatial variability of noise within the study areas we could focus on the temporal objectives of characterizing the range of acoustic conditions experienced by gray whales over the course of the entire foraging season at these sites in Oregon. In 2017 we deployed “lander” style instrument frames, each equipped with a single, omni-directional hydrophone custom built by Haru Matsumoto at our NOAA/OSU Acoustics lab (Fig. 2). The four hydrophone stations were positioned near each of the ports (Yaquina Bay and Port Orford) and in partnership with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Marine Reserves program in the Otter Rock Marine Reserve and the Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve. The hydrophones were programmed on a 20% duty cycle, recording 12 minutes of every hour at 32 kHz sample rate, providing spectral information in the frequency band from 10 Hz up to a 13 kHz.

Figure 2. The hydrophone (black cylinder) on its lander frame ready for deployment.

Here’s where the story gets interesting. In my experience so far putting out gear off the Oregon coast, anything that has a surface expression and is left out for more than a couple of weeks is going to have issues. Due to funding constraints, I had to challenge that theory this year and deploy 2 of the units with a surface buoy. This is not typically what we do with our equipment since it usually stays out for up to 2 years at a time, is sensitive, and expensive. The 2 frames with a surface float were going to be deployed in Marine Reserves far enough from the traffic lanes of the ports and in areas with significantly less traffic and presumably no fishing pressure.  The surface buoy consisted of an 18 inch diameter hard plastic float connected to an anchor that was offset from the instrument frame by a 150 foot weighted groundline. The gear was deployed off Newport in June and Port Orford in July. What could go wrong?

After monthly buoy checks by the project team, including GPS positions, and buoy cleanings my hopes were pretty high that the surface buoy systems might actually make it through the season with recoveries scheduled in mid-October. Had I gambled and won? Nope. The call came in September from Leigh that one of the whale watching outfits in Depoe Bay recovered a free floating buoy matching ours. Bummer. Alternative recovery plans initiated and this is where things began to get hairy. Fortunately, we had an ace in our back pocket. We have collaborators at the Oregon Coast Aquarium (OCA) who have a top-notch research diving team led by Jim Burke. In the last week of October, they performed a successful search dive on the missing unit near Gull Rock and attached a new set of floats directly to the instrument frame. The divers were in the water for a short 20 minutes thanks to the good series of marks recorded during the buoy checks throughout the summer (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. OCA divers, Jenna and Doug, heading out for a search dive to locate and mark the Gull Rock hydrophone lander.






We had surface marker floats on the frame, but there was a new problem. Video taken by Jenna and Doug from the OCA dive team revealed the landers were pretty sanded in from a couple of recent October storms (Fig. 4). Ugghhh!

Figure 4. Sanded in lander at Gull Rock. Notice the sand dollars and bull kelp wrapped on the frame.

Alternative recovery plan adjustment: we’re gonna need a diver assisted recovery with 2 boats. One to bring a dive team to air jet the sand out away from the legs of the frame and another larger vessel with pulling power to recover the freed lander. Enter the R/V Pacific Surveyor and Capt. Al Pazar. Al, Jim and I came up with a new recovery plan and only needed a decent weather window of a few hours to get the job done. Piece of cake in November off the Oregon coast, right?

The weather finally cooperated in early December in-line with the OCA dive team and R/V Pacific Surveyor’s availability. The 2 vessels and crew headed up to Gull Rock for the first recovery operation of the day. At first we couldn’t locate the surface floats. Oh no. It seemed the rough fall/ winter weather and high seas since late October were too much for the crab floats? As it turns out, we eventually found the floats eastward about 200 m but couldn’t initially see them in the glare and whitecapping conditions that morning. The lander frame had broken loose from its weakened anchor legs in the heavy weather (as it was designed to do through an Aluminum/ Stainless Steel galvanic reaction over time) and rolled or hopped eastward by about 200 m (Fig. 5). Oh dear!

Figure 5. A hydrophone lander after recovery. Notice all but 1 of the concrete anchor legs missing from the recovered lander and the amount of bio-fouling on the hydrophone (compared to Figure 2).







Thankfully, the hydrophone was well protected, and no air jetting was required. With OCA divers out of the water and clear, the Pacific Surveyor headed over to the floats and easily pulled the lander frame and hydrophone on board (Fig. 6). Yipee!

On to the next hydrophone station. This station, deployed ~ 800 m west of the south reef off of South Beach near the Yaquina Bay port entrance. It was deployed entirely subsurface and was outfitted with an acoustic release transponder that I could communicate with from the surface and command to release a pop-up messenger float and line for eventual recovery of the instrument frame. Once on station, communication with the release was established easily (a good start) and we began ranging and moving the OCA vessel Gracie Lynn in to a position within about 2 water depths of the unit (~40 m). I gave the command to the transponder and the submerged release confirmed it was free of its anchor and heading for the surface, but it never made it. Uh oh. Turns out this lander had also broke free of its anchored legs and rolled/ hopped 800 m eastward until it was pinned up against the boulder structure of the south reef. Amazingly, OCA divers Jenna and Doug located the messenger float ~ 5 m below the surface and the messenger line had been fouled by the rolling frame so it could not reach the surface. They dove down the messenger line and attached a new recovery line to the lander frame and the Pacific Surveyor hauled up the frame and hydrophone in-tact (Fig. 6). Double recovery success!

Figure 6. R/V Pacific Surveyor recovering hydrophone landers off Gull Rock and South Beach.

The hydrophone data from both systems looks outstanding and analysis is underway. This recovery effort took a huge amount of patience and the coordination of 3 busy groups (NOAA/OSU, OCA, Capt. Al). Thanks to these incredible collaborations and some heroic diving from Jim Burke and his OCA dive team, we now have a unique and unprecedented shallow water passive acoustic data set from the energetic waters off the Oregon coast.

So that’s some of the story from the 2016 and 2017 field season acoustic point of view. I’ll save the less exciting, but equally successful instrument recoveries from Port Orford for another time.

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.




A new addition to the GEMM Lab

By Dr. Leigh Torres, GEMM Lab, OSU, Marine Mammal Institute

Prepping for fieldwork is always a complex mental and physical juggling act, especially for an equipment-rich, multi-disciplinary, collaborative project like our research project on the impacts of ocean noise on gray whale physiology. For me, the past couple months has consisted of remembering to coordinate equipment purchasing/testing/updating (cameras, drones, GoPros), obtaining all needed permits/licenses (NMFS, FAA, vessel), prepping data recording and management protocols (data sheets, dropbox), scheduling personnel (7 people over 5 months), organizing sampling gear (fecal nets, zooplankton traps), gathering all needed lab supplies (jars, filters, tubes), and hoping for good weather.

This list would normally be enough to overwhelm me, but this year we have also had the (fortunate) opportunity to outfit our own research vessel. The OSU Marine Mammal Institute (MMI) obtained a surplus 5.4 m coast guard RHIB (rigid inflatable haul boat) and generously handed it off to the GEMM Lab for our coastal Oregon research. Fantastic! But not perfect, of course. What the coast guard needs as a vessel, is not exactly what we need for whale research. When the vessel arrived it had a straddle seat occupying most of the limited interior space, which would make it very hard for three people to ride comfortably during a long day of survey effort or move around during whale sightings.

The RHIB in its original state, with the straddle seat taking up a majority of the interior space.

So, the boat needed a re-fit. And who better to do this re-fit than someone who has spent more than 15 years conducting whale research in a RHIB, is a certified ABYC marine electrician, and runs his own marine repair business? Who has such a qualified resume? My research technician (and husband), Todd Chandler.

Over the last two months Todd has meticulously rearranged the interior of the vessel to maximize the space, prioritize safety and comfort, balance the boat for stability, and allow for effective data collection. He removed the straddle seat, had a light-weight aluminum center console and leaning post built to just the right size and specs, installed and updated electronics (VHF, GPS chart plotter), re-ran the engine wiring (throttle, tilt, kill-switch), patched up a few (8!) leaks in the pontoons, ran new nav lights, installed new fuel tanks, and serviced the engine. Phew! He did an amazing job and really demonstrated his skills, handiwork, and knowledge of field research.

Todd, rightfully proud, with our newly designed RHIB.

The vessel now looks great, runs smoothly, and gives us the space needed for our work. But, she needed a name! So, on Saturday afternoon we hosted a GEMM Lab boat naming BBQ. Our research team and lab gathered in the sun to admire the vessel, eat good food, watch the kids run and play, and come up with boat names.

The gang gets a laugh at another good proposed name.

I was impressed by the appropriate, thoughtful, clever names put forth, like Adam’s rib, Cetacea, Oppo (re-arrange poop), and Whale Done. I was faced with a tough decision so I made everyone vote; three ticks each.

Sharon puts her votes down.

And the winner is…… Ruby: An appropriate name for a research vessel in the GEMM Lab. Perhaps someday we will have a fleet: Ruby, Emerald, Diamond… Ah, a girl can dream.

The kids tally up the votes.
The final count, with Ruby the winner.

Now it’s time for the many hiccups, challenges, and rewards of a field season. So thanks to Todd, the MMI, the GEMM Lab, and our awesome team for getting us ready to go. Stay tuned for updates on the actual research (and how Ruby performs).

RV Ruby, ready to splash and find some whales.

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).

A day in the office

Join us for a couple boat rides as we study blue whales in the South Taranaki Bight of New Zealand.

In both videos below you can see and hear the field team coordinate to capture photo-identification images of the whale(s) while also obtaining a small tissue biopsy sample. It is important to match the individual whale to the sample so we can link biological data obtained from the sample (genetics, hormones, stable isotopes) to the individual whale. We also carefully take notes on where, when and what we collect in order to help us keep track of our data.

In this video clip you can watch as we gently approach two blues surfacing off the starboard bow of the RV Star Keys in order to capture photo-identification images and a small tissue biopsy sample. Callum Lilley (DOC) on the bow; Leigh Torres, Dawn Barlow, and Todd Chandler (OSU) photographing and coordinating from the flying bridge.


We are in the small boat here collecting data on a pair of blue whales. Callum Lilley (DOC) is on the rifle; Leigh Torres (OSU) is on the camera and taking notes; Todd Chandler (OSU) is on the helm.


I love it when a plan comes together

By Dr. Leigh Torres


After four full-on days at sea covering 873 nautical miles, we are back in port as the winds begin to howl again and I now sip my coffee with a much appreciated still horizon. Our dedicated team worked the available weather windows hard and it paid off with more great absence data and excellent presence data too: blue whales, killer whales, common dolphins, and happily swimming pilot whales not headed to nearby Farewell Spit where a sad, massive stranding has occurred. It has been an exhausting, exhilarating, frustrating, exciting, and fulfilling time. As I reflect on all this work and reward, I can’t help but feel gratified for our persistent and focused planning that made it happen successfully. So, as we clean-up, organize data, process samples, and sit in port for a few days I would like to share some of our highlights over the past four days. I hope you enjoy them as much as we did.

The team in action on the RV Star Keys. Callum Lilley (DOC) on the bow waiting for a biopsy opportunity, Dawn Barlow (OSU) on the radio communicating with the small boat, Kristin Hodge (Cornell) taking photos of whales, Captain James Dalzell (Western Work Boats) on the helm, and Chief Engineer Spock (Western Work Boats) keeping his eyes peeled for a blow. (Photo credit: L. Torres)


In the small boat off looking for whales in a lovely flat, calm sea with an oil rig in the background. (Photo credit: D. Barlow)


Small boat action with Todd Chandler (OSU) at the helm, Leigh Torres (OSU) on the camera getting photo-id images, and Callum Lilley (DOC) taking the biopsy shot, and the dart is visible flying toward the whale in the black circle. (Photo credit: D. Barlow)


The stars of the show: blue whales. A photograph captured from the small boat of one animal fluking up to dive down as another whale surfaces close by. (Photo credit: L. Torres)


Collecting oceanographic data: Spock and Jason (Western Work Boats) deploy the CTD from the Star Keys. The CTD is an instrument that measures temperature, salinity, fluorescence and depth continuously as it descends to the bottom and back up again. (Photo credit: L. Torres)


The recently manufactured transducer pole in the water off the RV Star Keys (left) deployed with the echosounder to collect prey availability data, including this image (right) of krill swarms near feeding blue whales. (Photo credit: L. Torres)


The small boat returns to the Star Keys loaded with data and samples, including a large fecal sample in the net: The pooper scooper Leigh Torres (OSU), the biopsy rifle expert Callum Lilley (DOC), and the boat operator Todd Chandler (OSU). (Photo credit: D. Barlow)


Drone operator and videographer, Todd Chandler (OSU) under the towel (crucial piece of gear) to minimize glare on the screen as he locates and records blue whales. (Photo credit: K. Hodge)


A still shot captured from the drone footage of two adult blue whales surfacing in close proximity. (Photo credit: T. Chandler)


The team in action looking for blue whales in ideal survey conditions with Mt. Taranaki in the background. Todd Chandler (OSU) enters survey data while Dawn Barlow (OSU) spies for whale blows. (Photo credit: L. Torres)


A late evening at-sea after a big day sees Callum Lilley (DOC) processing a blue whale biopsy sample for transport, storage and analysis. (Photo credit: K. Hodge)


And we can’t forget why so many have put time, money and effort into this project: These blue whales are feeding and living within a space exploited by humans for multiple purposes, so we must ensure minimal impacts to these whales and their sustained health. (Photo credit: D. Barlow)

The worst summer ever!

By Dr. Leigh Torres

Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

“This is the worst summer ever in New Zealand.” During our four days of prep in Wellington before heading off on our vessel, almost all my friends and colleagues I spoke to said this statement (often with added emphasis). It’s been cold and windy here all summer long, and when the weather has cleared it has brought only brief respite. These comments don’t bode well for our blue whale survey dependent on calm survey conditions, but February is typically the prime month for good weather in New Zealand so I’m holding out hope. And this unpredictable weather is the common denominator of all field work. Despite months (years?) of preparation, with minute attention to all sort of details (e.g., poop net handle length, bag size limits, length of deployment lines), one of the most important factors to success is something we have absolutely no control over: the weather.

After just one day on the water, I can see that the oceanographic conditions this year are nothing like the hot-water El Niño conditions we experienced last summer. Surface water temperatures today ranged between 12.8 and 13.6 ⁰C. These temps are 10 degrees (Celsius) cooler than the 22 ⁰C water we often surveyed last summer. 10 degrees! Additionally, the current windy conditions have stirred up the upper portion of the ocean water column causing the productive mixed layer to be much deeper (therefore larger) than last year. While Kiwis may complain about the ‘terrible’ weather this summer, the resulting cold and productive oceanographic conditions are likely preferable for the whales. But where are the whales and can we find them with all this wind?

Today we had a pocket of calm conditions so our dedicated research team and crew hit it with enthusiasm, and collected a whole lot of great absence data. “Absence data?” you may ask. Absence data is all the information about where the whales are not, and is just as important as presence data (information about where the whales are) because it’s the comparison between the two sets of data (Presence vs Absence) that allows us to describe an animal’s “habitat use patterns”. Today we surveyed a small portion of the South Taranaki Bight for blue whales for about 6 hours, but the only blue animals we saw were little blue penguins and a blue shark (plus fur seals, dolphins, albatrosses, shearwaters, gannets, prions, kahawai, and saury).  But during this survey effort we collected a lot of synoptic environmental data to describe these habitats, including continuous depth and temperature data along our track, nine CTD water column profiles of temperature, salinity and florescence (productivity) from the surface to the seafloor, and continuous prey (zooplankton) availability data with our transducer (echosounder).

So, now that we have absence data, we need presence data. But, the winds are howling again and are predicted to continue for the next few days. As we hunker down in a beautiful protected cove I know the blue whales continue to search this region for dense food patches, unencumbered by human-perceived obstacles of high wind and swell. So, while my Kiwi friends are right – this summer is not like previous years – I also know that it is the effects of these dynamic weather patterns that we have come so far, and worked so hard, to study. Even as my patience wears thin and my frustrations mount, I will continue to wait to pounce on the right weather window to collect our needed presence data (and more absence data too, I’m sure).

Our research team collecting absence data aboard the RV Star Keys:

Sunny south meets windy west

By Lauren Ashley, senior at Savannah State University and current summer intern in the GEMM Lab

Enjoying South Beach, Oregon. Photo by Katherine Bartels
Enjoying South Beach, Oregon. Photo by Katherine Bartels

My name is Lauren Ashley and I am a rising senior from Savannah State University. I am a marine science major, with dreams of becoming a veterinarian. I would have never thought I would experience a summer on the northwest coast. And let me tell you guys, it is a huge adjustment!

I secured an internship with the Living Marine Resources Cooperative Science Center (LMRCSC). I am working in the GEMM Lab at Oregon State University where I am developing an interactive display for the visitor center at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. This display will convey the results from our LMRCSC funded project about the impacts of environmental and climate change on California sea lions and their prey.

I am processing and creating the interactive maps for display through the software ArcGIS 10.3. The amount of challenges I have run into coincide with the amount of things I have learned about the software. The biggest tool I have in my arsenal for problem solving is patience. Somedays, some of the biggest challenges I face, when processing information, seem to have the most simple of solutions, as unconventional and out of the box as they may be. For example, I needed to add a raster depicting the California sea lions forecasted distribution but the files seemed to be incorrect. I went in the conventional way, several times I may add, trying to correct the data. Nothing seemed to work. Eventually my research mentor showed me that the problem could be solve simply by copying the raw data and pasting it to a blank excel file. In a course of a single day the maps can transform based on feedback and edits. And boy does that take time and thought. I am fortunate to be the intern of such a proficient GIS user. Most of what I have learned so far has come at the grace of her teachings.

As I learn to communicate science to a broad audience, most of which have no science background, I have discovered that people learn and process information in many different ways. The biggest challenge thus far is finding a balance where the map conveys information that is not too overwhelming or too broad that it takes away from the true learning outcome. We don’t want to confuse or bore our audience. The outcome of this display is to inform our audience of how environmental change influences the distribution of not just one species at a time, but a community of species through predator and prey interactions.

The very first map that I made for this project, putting it nicely, was terrible. The map, displayed below, had no labeling besides the title whatsoever. The legend was non-existent so even though I knew what the data was no one else knew. And, even though the green shapes of the Pacific northwest were obvious to me, I was told that many viewers would not know that they we looking at Oregon, Washington and Vancouver Island. As time has passed, the maps I produce have developed quite a bit, though I still have many chafes and challenges ahead of me. It is certainly becoming clear to me that effective science communication is a tricky goal.

My first attempt at a map to relate scientific results on sea lion distribution patterns to a general, non-scientific audience.
My first attempt at a map to relate scientific results on sea lion distribution patterns to a general, non-scientific audience.

Upon hearing that this internship, starting in June, would be in Newport, Oregon, my close family and friends grew excited for me, even though I would be away from them for 10 weeks.  I, on the other hand, was not too excited. Truthfully, I was nervous. I did not want to make any assumptions about a place I had barely even heard of.  The southeast USA is my home, and upon arriving in Newport after my four hour flight and a two hour drive I realized that I was transported to a whole new world. Everything was foreign to me, from the living arrangements to the time zone.

The first adjustment I had to make was a time adjustment. In Oregon, I am three hours behind where I usually am, and let me tell you, it is not fun waking up at 3:45 when you are used to waking up at 6:45 ET. To be honest, even after three weeks, I’m still not sure I am completely adjusted to Pacific Time. I have the dark circles to prove it.

Anyone that has ever been to/lived in Georgia can accurately describe the weather in two simple words: HOT and HUMID. I am used to 100 °F days during the summer and here the highest I have yet to experience is 64°F. In other words: I am freezing my tail off! The cold windy days do not usually agree with my choice of attire. I have resorted to wearing long-sleeve shirts and hoodies on a daily basis.

But all of that aside, Oregon is the MOST breathtakingly beautiful place I have ever been to. There is nothing like the Pacific Northwest coast. After my internship is up, I would not be opposed to taking a road trip to explore this whole coast. This first month has consisted of whale watching, hikes along the big creek trails, and long walks on the beach, lots of beer, and plenty of seafood. The atmosphere of this small town is very refreshing compared to life in the city.

At the Yaquina Lighthouse, Photo by Katherine Bartels
At the Yaquina Lighthouse, Photo by Katherine Bartels

Are Oregon gulls trash birds?

By Stephanie Loredo, MSc student

“Violent” and “greedy” are words often used to describe gulls in populous areas where food or trash are readily available.  Humans are used to seeing gulls in parking lots, parks, and plazas eating left over crumbs. Many people have even experienced menacing gulls ripping food away from their hands. Anecdotes like these have caused people to have negative perceptions of gulls. But could the repulsive attitude towards these birds be changed with evidence that not all gulls are the same? Well, Oregon may be home to an odd bunch.

Last year, the Seabird Oceanography Lab in conjunction with the GEMM Lab began putting GPS trackers on western gulls (Laurus occidentalis) off the Oregon Coast. One of the goals was to determine where gulls scavenge for food while raising chicks: at sea or on land in association with humans. We were particularly interested to see if western gulls in Oregon would behave similarly to western gulls in California, some of which make trips to the nearest landfill during the breeding season to bring not only food but also potentially harmful pathogens back to the colony.

During the 2015 breeding season, 10 commercially brand ‘i-gotU’ GPS data loggers were placed on gulls from ‘Cleft-in-the-Rock’ colony in Yachats, Oregon. The tags provided GPS locations at intervals of two minutes that determined the general habitat use areas (marine vs. terrestrial). After a two-week period, we were able to recapture six birds, remove tags, and download the data.   We found that these western gulls stayed close to the colony and foraged in nearby intertidal and marine zones (Figure 1). Birds showed high site faithfulness by visiting the same foraging spots away from colony. It was interesting to see that inland habitat use did not extend past 1.3 miles from shore and the only waste facility within such boundaries did not attract any birds (Figure 1). Tagged birds never crossed the 101 Highway, but rather occurred at beaches in state parks such as Neptune and Yachats Ocean Road.

Figure 1. Tracks from 6 western gulls, each color representing a unique bird, from the Cleft-in-the-Rock colony carrying micro-GPS units.
Figure 1. Tracks from 6 western gulls, each color representing a unique bird, from the Cleft-in-the-Rock colony carrying micro-GPS units.

While it is hard to determine whether gulls avoided anthropogenic sources of food at the beach, preliminary analysis shows a high percentage of time spent in marine and intertidal habitat zones by half of the individuals (Figure 2). At a first glance, this is not as much as it seemed on the tracking map (Figure 1), but it nonetheless confirms that these gulls seek food in natural areas. Moreover, time spent at the colony is represented as time spent on coastal habitat on the graph, and thus “coastal” foraging values are over represented. To get a more exact estimate of coastal habitat use, future analysis will have to exclude colony locations and distinguish foraging versus resting behaviors.

Figure 2. Bar plot of the percentage of time spent in three distinct habitats for each gull carrying a GPS unit. The three-letter code represents the unique Bird ID.
Figure 2. Bar plot of the percentage of time spent in three distinct habitats for each gull carrying a GPS unit. The three-letter code represents the unique Bird ID.

‘Cleft-in-the-Rock’ is unique and its surroundings may explain why there was high foraging in intertidal and marine zones rather than within city limits. (The Cleft colony can also be tricky to get to, with a close eye on the tide at all times – See video below).  The colony site is close to the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area and surrounded by recently established conservation zones: the Cape Perpetua Marine Reserve Area, Marine Protected Area, and Seabird Protected Area (Figure 1).  Each of these areas has different regulatory rules on what is allowed to take, which you can read about here. The implication of these protected areas in place means there is more food for wildlife!  Moreover, the city of Yachats has a small population of 703 inhabitants (based on 2013 U.S Census Bureau). The small population allows the city to be relatively clean, and the waste facility is not spewing rotten odors into the air like in many big cities such as Santa Cruz (population of 62,864) where our collaborative gull study takes place. Thus, in Yachats, there is more limited odor or visual incentive to attract birds to landfills.

Field crew descends headland slope to reach ‘Cleft-in-the-Rock’ gull island in Yachats, OR (colony can be seen in distance across the water). The team must wear wetsuits and carry equipment in dry bags for protection during water crossing.

In order to determine whether gull habitat use in Yachats is a trend for all western gulls in Oregon, we need to track birds at more sites and for a longer time. That is why during the breeding season of 2016, we will be placing 30 new tags on gulls and include a new colony into the study, ‘Hunters Island’. The new colony is situated near the Pistol River, between Gold Beach and Brookings in southern Oregon, and it is part of the Oregon Islands Wildlife Refuge.

We will have 10 ‘i-gotU’ tags (Figure 3) and 20 CATS tags (Figure 4), the latter are solar powered and can collect data for several weeks, months, and hopefully even years! These tags do not need to be retrieved for data download; rather data can be accessed remotely, providing minimal disturbance to the gulls and colony. With long-term data, we can explore further into the important feeding areas for western gulls, examine rates of foraging in different habitats, and determine how extensive intertidal and marine foraging is throughout the year.

Figure 3. Taping an i-gotU tag for temporary attachment on the tail feathers of a gull.
Figure 3. Taping an i-gotU tag for temporary attachment on the tail feathers of a gull.


Figure 4. Rehearsing the placement and harness attachment of a CATS tag which must be secured on the bird‘s back, looping around the wings and hips.

We are excited to kick start our field season in the next couple of weeks and see how well the new tags work. We know that some questions will be solved and many new questions will arise; and we cannot wait to start this gull-filled adventure!


Osterback, A.M., Frechette, D., Hayes, S., Shaffer, S., & Moore, J. (2015). Long-term shifts in anthropogenic subsidies to gulls and implications for an imperiled fish. Biological Conservation191: 606–613.

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.