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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
After four full-on days at sea covering 873 nautical miles, we are back in port as the winds begin to howl again and I now sip my coffee with a much appreciated still horizon. Our dedicated team worked the available weather windows hard and it paid off with more great absence data and excellent presence data too: blue whales, killer whales, common dolphins, and happily swimming pilot whales not headed to nearby Farewell Spit where a sad, massive stranding has occurred. It has been an exhausting, exhilarating, frustrating, exciting, and fulfilling time. As I reflect on all this work and reward, I can’t help but feel gratified for our persistent and focused planning that made it happen successfully. So, as we clean-up, organize data, process samples, and sit in port for a few days I would like to share some of our highlights over the past four days. I hope you enjoy them as much as we did.
“This 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:
By Lauren Ashley, senior at Savannah State University and current summer intern in the GEMM Lab
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.
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.
“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.
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.
‘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.
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 Conservation, 191: 606–613.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Senior Ranger, Marine – Department of Conservation, Taranaki, New Zealand
During the end of January, I had the privilege to be part of the research team studying blue whales in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. My role, along with assisting with visual survey, was to obtain biopsy samples from whales using a Paxarm modified veterinary rifle. This device fires a plastic dart fitted with a sterilized metal tip that takes a small skin and blubber sample for genetic and stable isotope analysis. This process is very carefully managed following procedures to ensure that the whales are not put under any undue stress. Biopsy sampling provides a gold mine of genetic and dietary information to help us understand the dynamics of this whale population.
Although firing a dart at a creature that is considerably larger than a city bus sounds reasonably easy, it is rarely the case. The first challenge is to find whales within a large expanse of ocean. The team then needs to photograph the side of each animal and take note of any distinctive features so that each individual is only sampled once. Sometimes other work will be undertaken (such as collecting fecal samples, or deploying a drifting hydrophone or unmanned aerial system/drone). Finally the team will attempt to get close enough to the whales, while taking care not to unduly disturb them, to get a biopsy sample. Wind, vessel movement, glare, the length of time whales spend underwater and the small target they sometimes present above the water are further challenges.
The video below shows a successful biopsy attempt. It is a well-coordinated team effort that relies on great communication. You can hear observer Todd Chandler direct the skipper of the vessel Ikatere into position while keeping me (the biopsy sampler) informed as to which whale is surfacing and where. From the vantage point of the flying bridge, Todd can see the whales’ position and movement (my view is limited from the lower deck). Todd points out where the whale is surfacing and it momentarily presents a target. This was the second sample from the two racing whales previously discussed by Dr. Torres, so it will be interesting to see their relationship to one-another.
The ideal angle to approach a whale to take a biopsy sample is from behind at a 45 degree angle, as this causes the least disturbance. The following video was taken from an unmanned aerial system. It shows the vessel Ikatere approaching from the whale’s left flank. Department of Conservation (DOC) biodiversity ranger Mike Ogle is on the bow of the vessel and fires a biopsy dart at the whale. After the biopsy is taken the vessel maneuvers to collect the dart/sample from the water while the whale continues to travel.
In addition to blue whale samples, the DOC permit issued to Oregon State University also allowed for opportunistic sampling of other whales. The following video was taken during an encounter with a large pod of pilot whales. The video shows how the lightweight dart bounces off the animal and floats in the water. Care is taken to communicate its location to the skipper who positions the vessel so it can be retrieved with a net.
Once samples have been retrieved they are handled very carefully to prevent contamination. The sample is split, with some preserved for genetic analysis and the rest for stable isotope analysis. Analysis of genetic samples provides information on sex, abundance (through genetic capture-recapture, which is calculated by analyzing the proportion of individuals repeatedly sampled over subsequent seasons), and relationships to other blue whale populations. Stable isotope analysis provides information on diet. Also, a portion of all samples will be stored for potential future opportunities such as hormone and fatty acid analysis. It blows me away how much information can be gleaned from these tiny samples!
Over the past few weeks, we have surveyed the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand, collecting biological and oceanographic data to learn more about the population of blue whales in this region. Our efforts have been successful: we have encountered multiple blue whales, and recorded information about their identification, behavior, and habitat. While our visual survey efforts have provided us with an invaluable dataset, our field season is shortly coming to an end. So how can we continue to learn more about the blue whale population, if we cannot collect visual survey data?
Solution: we will study the sounds they make.
Bioacoustics is a non-invasive method to study acoustically-active animal populations in terrestrial and marine habitats. Scientists can eavesdrop on animals by recording and analyzing their sounds, and in turn gain insights about their occurrence, behavior, and movement patterns. This is especially useful for studying elusive or rare species, such as the blue whale, that can be difficult to find in the field. Since blue whales produce high intensity, infrasonic calls and songs that can travel for many miles across ocean basins, we can capture information regarding their spatial and temporal occurrence, even if we cannot see them. (To listen to a blue whale call recorded off of Chile click here.)
We are using Marine Autonomous Recording Units (MARUs), developed by the Cornell Bioacoustics Research Program, to record blue whales (Fig. 1). The MARU is a digital audio recording system contained in a buoyant sphere, which is deployed on the bottom of the ocean using an anchor. Each MARU has a hydrophone that collects acoustic data, and these sounds are recorded and stored on electronic storage media inside the MARU. The MARUs are programmed to record continuous, low-frequency sounds for approximately six months, after which they pop up to the surface of the ocean, ready to be retrieved for data analysis and redeployed with fresh batteries and storage media.
Over the course of this field season, we strategically deployed five MARUs across the South Taranaki Bight (Fig. 2), and we will record acoustic data in these five sites over the next couple of years. This will allow us to understand patterns of occurrence at larger spatial and temporal scales than we can accomplish with visual survey alone. Our acoustic dataset will complement the biological and oceanographic data we collected on survey, providing a more complete picture of the blue whale population in the bight.
To see us deploy a MARU in New Zealand, check out this video: