Living the Dream – life as a marine mammal observer

By Florence Sullivan, MSc.

Living the dream as a marine mammal observer onboard the R/V Bell Shimada Photo credit: Dave Jacobsen

I first learned that “Marine Mammal Observer” was a legitimate career field during the summer after my junior year at the University of Washington.  I had the good fortune to volunteer for the BASIS fisheries-oceanography survey onboard the R/V Oscar Dyson where I met two wonderful bird observers who taught me how to identify various pelagic bird species and clued me in to just how diverse the marine science job market can be. After the cruise, younger Florence went off with an expanded world view and a small dream that maybe someday she could go out to sea and survey for marine mammals on a regular basis (and get paid for it?!).  Eight years later, I am happy to report that I have just spent the last week as the marine mammal observer on the North California Current Survey on the Dyson’s sister ship, the R/V Bell M. Shimada.  While we may not have seen as many marine mammals as I would have liked, the experience has still been everything younger Florence hoped it would be.

Finally leaving port a few days behind schedule due to stormy weather! photo credit: Florence Sullivan

If you’ve ever wondered why the scientists in your life may refer to summer as “field work season”, it’s because attempting to do research outside in the winter is an exercise in frustration, troubleshooting, and flexibility. Case in point; this cruise was supposed to sail away from port on the 24th of February, but did not end up leaving until the 27th due to bad weather.  This weather delay meant that we had to cut some oceanographic stations we would like to have sampled, and even when we made it out of the harbor, the rough weather made it impossible to sample some of the stations we still had left on our map.  That being said, we still got a lot of good work done!

The original station map. The warm colors are the west coast of the US, the cold colors are the ocean, and the black dots are planned survey stations

The oceanographers were able to conduct CTD casts at most planned stations, as well as sample the water column with a vertical zooplankton net, a HAB net (for looking for the organisms that cause Harmful Algal Blooms),  and a Bongo Net (a net that specializes in getting horizontal samples of the water column).  When it wasn’t too windy, they were also able to sample with the Manta net (a net specialized for surface sampling – it looks like a manta ray’s mouth) and at certain near-shore stations they did manage to get some bottom beam trawls in to look at the benthic community of fishes and invertebrates.  All this was done while dodging multitudes of crab pots and storm fronts.  The NOAA corps officers who drive the boat, and the deck crew who handle all the equipment deployments and retrievals really did their utmost to make sure we were able to work.

Stormy seas make for difficult sampling conditions! photo credit: Florence Sullivan

For my part, I spent the hours between stations searching the wind-tossed waves for any sign of marine mammals. Over the course of the week, I saw a few Northern fur seals, half a dozen gray whales, and a couple of unidentified large cetaceans.  When you think about the productivity of the North Pacific Ecosystem this may not seem like very much.  But remember, it is late winter, and I do not have x-ray vision to see through the waves.  It is likely that I missed a number of animals simply because the swell was too large, and when we calculate our “detection probability” these weather factors will be taken into account. In addition, many of our local marine mammals are migrators who might be in warmer climates, or are off chasing different food sources at the moment.  In ecology, when you want to know how a population of animals is distributed across a land- or sea-scape, it is just as important to understand where the animals are NOT as where they ARE. So all of this “empty” water was very important to survey simply because it helps us refine our understanding of where animals don’t want to be.  When we know where animals AREN’T we can ask better questions about why they occur where they ARE.

Black Footed Albatross soars near the boat. Photo credit: Florence Sullivan

Notable species of the week aside from the marine mammals include Laysan and Black Footed Albatrosses, a host of Vellella vellella (sailor by the wind hydroid colonies) and the perennial favorite of oceanographers; the shrinking Styrofoam cup.  (See pictures)

We sent these styrofoam cups down to 1800 meters depth. The pressure at those depths causes all the air to escape from the styrofoam, and it shrinks! This is a favorite activity of oceanographers to demonstrate the effects on increased pressure!

These sorts of interdisciplinary cruises are quite fun and informative to participate in because we can build a better picture of the ecosystem as a whole when we use a multitude of methods to explore it.  This strength of cooperation makes me proud to add my little piece to the puzzle. As I move forward in life, whether I get to be the marine mammal observer, the oceanographer, or perhaps an educator, I will always be glad to contribute to collaborative research.


Grad School: Nothing Lasts, Nothing is Perfect, Nothing is Finished.

By Florence Sullivan, MSc

Last week, I attended the Seattle Garden Show with my mom and a friend of hers.  We particularly enjoyed the West Seattle Nursery’s entry that was intended to reflect on the idea that “Nothing Lasts, Nothing is Perfect, and Nothing is Finished.”  My mom and her friend proceeded to articulate a feeling I think many of us have struggled with.  Not quite “imposter syndrome” because the feeling is not limited to your job, it pervades the whole human experience. Rather, we talked about the idea that as a child, you have an impression that adults have everything figured out in life, but as you grow older, you realize that everyone is just muddling along as best they can. The most important take-away for me in listening to two late-middle-age women have this conversation was: the feeling of being unprepared never goes away, but you have to tackle life head on anyways.

When I finally finished my master’s degree, a similar feeling of ‘what do I do now?!’ caught me by surprise. I was fully cognizant of all the hard work I had done, but my mentally and emotionally exhausted brain could no longer compute how this accomplishment translated to real world skills. I could no longer see the whole of my work, I could only stress out about the bits that I felt were weak or could have been done better.  I was lost in that insidious trap of thinking that because I felt like I still had so much to learn, that my peers had their lives and their research figured out so much more effectively than my own. Time and distance, counseling, and listening to many conversations like my mom’s, helped me to break away from this trap and remember that “Nothing Lasts [Grad school took 3 years], Nothing is Perfect [My work does not need to be perfect in order to matter], and Nothing is Finished [I will never be done learning]”.

Before I moved away from the lab, I was asked to compile my institutional knowledge into a “How to” guide for new GEMM Lab members.  It really does cover a wide range of topics.  There are tips about computer log-ons, where to find certain administrative paperwork and when to fill it out, how to make a post on this blog, protocols for photo-ID work and other routine lab tasks, and even some favorite recipes for lab meetings. Setting this guide up was another helpful step on my journey to remember how much I have learned in the last 3 years, and how much I am capable of contributing to a group.

Team Ro-buff-stus in August 2017.
Team Ro-buff-stus in 2016
Our team name is derived from the scientific name of the gray whale: E. robustus, and the colorful “buff” scarves you can see us wearing on most days. 2015

I’m now actively job hunting, and while this has been stressful, it has also been strangely encouraging as I reframe the variety of skills I picked up in grad school and realize just how much is hidden in that new line on my resume. There are so many common application bullet points that I can answer with confidence. Yes! I have teaching and leadership experience because I trained and supervised 3 generations of interns in the gray whale foraging ecology project. Yes! I have data processing and analysis experience through my classwork and my successfully defended thesis.  Yes! I have scientific writing experience – one of my thesis chapters has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Wildlife Management.  With every Yes! my confidence grows, and I get more excited to start the newest chapter in my life.  I recognize that many of my applications will be rejected, because there are many other qualified applicants out there, but I will keep trying, because Nothing lasts [The job search is temporary], Nothing is Perfect [I do not need to be perfect to get the job], and Nothing is Finished [There will always be room for me to grow].

Moving Day! The GEMM Lab helps Kelly and Florence pack their house.

I am incredibly thankful to everyone who supported my journey.  My advisor Leigh, has been a fabulous mentor in the best sense of the word from day one.  My lab mates Amanda, Rachael, Dawn, Solene, Leila, Erin, Alexa, and Dom have been excellent confidantes, cheerleaders, and sources of inspiration.  My husband, Kelly made sure that I always had a cup of tea, a warm meal, and a hug to keep me going. My interns, Sarah, Cricket, Justin, Kelli, Catherine, Cathryn, Maggie, Nathan and Quince made my field work both possible and enjoyable.  My family and friends at home kept me grounded even at a distance, and my Corvallis contra dancing community reminds me to dance my cares away, because nothing lasts, nothing is perfect, and nothing is finished.

Skype a Scientist – Are you smarter than a middle schooler?

By Florence Sullivan, MSc

What do baby whales eat?

Does the mom whale take care of the baby whale alone?

How do whales communicate?

What are their behaviors?

These are the questions 4th grade students half a world away asked me.  They are studying biodiversity and were very curious to meet a real life scientist.  It was 2:00pm on a Tuesday here in Newport, OR, while in Australia, this classroom full of students was sitting in their 9:00am Wednesday science class.  We had an hour-long conversation about gray whale behaviors, habitat, life cycle, and general biology – all thanks to the wonders of science, technology and the computer program, Skype. The next day, I did it all again, and Skyped in to a classroom in British Columbia, to field questions about gray whales, right whales and science careers from a group of enthusiastic 5th and 6th grade students.


A class of Australian 4th graders had many imaginative questions for me through the Skype a Scientist Program.

But how in the world did I end up answering questions over Skype for a classroom full of kids in the first place? Like many good things, it began with a conversation.  During the 2016 USA election cycle, it became apparent that many people in this country distrust scientists. Sarah McAnulty, a PhD student at the University of Connecticut who studies the immune system of bob tail squid, had already been engaging in informal science communication through a profile on tumblr.  But posting things on tumblr is like preaching to the choir – your audience tends to be people who are already interested in your subject. If the problem is trying to change the public perception of scientists from aloof and insular to trustworthy and approachable, you need to start by finding people who have a lot of questions, and few pre-existing prejudices.  Who fits the bill perfectly? Kids!

After conversations with colleagues, she came up with the idea of using Skype to reach classrooms of students outside of the range where scientists usually congregate (large cities and universities).  Sarah started by connecting a handful of UConn colleagues with K-12 teachers through Facebook, but the idea quickly gained steam through mentions at a scientific conference, posts on the ‘March for Science’ Facebook group, media coverage, and word-of-mouth sharing between colleagues on both the teaching and the research side of the story.  Now, there is a full-fledged website ( where teachers and scientists can sign up to be matched based on availability, topic, and sometimes, demographic.  When pairing classrooms and scientists, Sarah makes an effort for minority students (whether this means race, gender, disability, language, or other) to see themselves represented in the scientists they get to talk to, if possible.  Representation matters –we are beyond the age of old white men in lab coats being the only ‘real scientists’ represented in media, but unfortunately, the stereotype is not dead yet! In less than a year, the program has grown to over 1900 scientists, with new fields of expertise being added frequently as people spread the word and get interested.  The program has been, and promises to continue being, an excellent resource for teachers who want to show the relevance of the subjects being discussed in their classrooms. As evidenced by the fact that I spoke with a classroom in Australia, this is a global program – check out the maps below to see where students and scientists are coming from!

This map shows the locations of all participating classrooms, current on Oct 12, 2017.
This map shows the locations of all participating scientists, current on October 22, 2017.

As for myself, I got involved because my lab mate, Alexa, mentioned how much fun she had Skyping with students.  The sign-up process was incredibly easy, and when I got matched with two classrooms, the organizers even provided a nice mad-libs style ‘fill in the blank’ introduction letter so that I didn’t waste time agonizing over how to introduce myself.

Introductory Mad-libs for scientists. Courtesy of the Skype a Scientist program.

I sent the classrooms the youtube video of my field work, and a couple of these blog posts, and waited to hear back.  I was very impressed with the 5th/6th grade class from British Columbia because the teacher actually let the students take the lead from the get-go.  One of the students replied to my email, told me what they were studying, and started the process of scheduling a meeting time that would work for both of us. When I called in, two other students took the reins, and acted as spokespeople for the rest of their classmates by repeating questions from the back of the room so that I could hear everything clearly. It was so fun to see and hear the enthusiasm of the students as they asked their questions.  Their deep curiosity and obvious excitement about the subject matter was contagious, and I found my own tone, body language, and attitude shifting to match theirs as I helped them discover the building blocks of marine ecology that I have long accepted as normal. This two way street of learning is a good reminder that we all start somewhere.

If you are interested in the program at all, I encourage you to sign up at this link: ( Who knows, engaging with kids like this just might remind you of the innocent curiosity of childhood that brought you to your scientific career in the first place.


Here are some of my favorite question that I was asked, and the responses I gave:

  • How do gray whales communicate?

With songs and underwater sounds! Check out this great website for some great examples, and prepare to be amazed! (I played the Conga and the belch-like call during the skype session, much to the amusement of the students)

  • What do baby whales eat?

Whales are mammals just like us, so believe it or not, baby whales drink their mother’s milk!

  • How long have you been a marine special ecologist for?

My favorite bit here was the mis-spelling, which made me a ‘special’ ecologist instead of a ‘spatial’ ecologist.  So I talked about how spatial ecology is a special type of ecology where we look at how big things move in the ocean!

  • My question is, can a grey whale bite people if people come close to them?
    This was a chance to show off our lab baleen samples!  I also took the time to look this up, and it turns out that bite is defined as “using teeth to cut into something” and a gray whale doesn’t have teeth!  Instead, they have baleen, which they use to sieve stuff out of the water.  So I don’t think you need to worry about getting bitten by a gray whale. That being said, it’s important not to get close to them, because they are so much bigger than us that they could hurt us on accident.


  • When you go out to see the whales, why don’t you use slightly bigger boats so you don’t flip over if the whale gets too close to you, or when you get to close to the whale?
    Our research kayak is a never-ending delight. It’s less expensive than a bigger boat, and doesn’t use fossil fuels. We want to be quiet in the water and not disturb the whale, and actively avoid getting within 100 yards so there shouldn’t be any danger. Sometimes the whales surprise us though, and we have to be careful. In this case, everyone has safety training and is able to rescue themselves if the boat should flip.

(This led to an entertaining discussion of field safety, and the appalling idea that I would make my interns jump out of the kayak into cold Pacific water on purpose during safety training)

There were many more questions, but why don’t you give the program a try, and see what kind of questions you get to answer?!

Safety First! 

Observing humpback whales through the clear New Caledonian waters

Solène Derville, Entropie Lab, French National Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD – UMR Entropie), Nouméa, New Caledonia

Ph.D. student under the co-supervision of Dr. Leigh Torres

Drone technology has illustrated itself as particularly useful to the study of cetacean in the GEMM Lab (see previous post by Dawn and Leila) and in the marine mammal research community in general. The last Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in Halifax staged several talks and posters describing the great potential of drones for observing animal behaviors, collecting blow samples, estimating the size and health of animals, or estimating densities. The GEMM Lab has been conducting leading research in this field, from capturing exceptional footages of lunge feeding blue whales in New Zealand, to measuring gray whale health on the Oregon coast.

Using drones in New Caledonia

In September 2017 I participated in a scientific cruise undertaken by Opération Cétacés /IRD to study New Caledonian humpback whales, and we were lucky to be joined by Nicolas Job, a professional diver, photographer and drone pilot. It was one of those last minute decisions: one of our crewmates canceled the week before the survey and we thought “who could we bring on instead?”. We barely knew the man but figured it would be good to get a few humpback whale drone images… We invited him to join us on the research expedition only a few days before the trip but this is not the kind of opportunity that a photographer would pass on!

Far from trying to acquire scientific data in the way the GEMM Lab does with blue whales and gray whales, we were only hoping to take “pretty pictures”… we were not disappointed.

Once we got past a few unexpected issues (YES you need to wear gloves to protect your fingers when trying to catch a flying drone (Fig 1), and NO frigate birds will not attack drones as long as they don’t smell like fish), Nicolas managed to fly the drone above our small research boat and capture footage of several humpback whale groups, including mothers with calf and competitive groups.

Figure 1: Frigate birds are known to attack birds in flight to steal their meal straight from their beak…luckily they did not attack our drone! On the contrary, it seems like they could help scientists one day as it has been suggested that UAV builders could learn from their exceptional soaring behavior that allows months-long transoceanic flights (photo credit: Henri Zemerskirch CEBC CNRS) .

As I said, no groundbreaking science here, but this experience convinced me that drones can bring a new perspective to the way we observe and interpret animal behavior. As a known statistics/R-lover in the lab, I often get so excited by the intricacies of data analysis that I forget I am studying these giant, elegant, agile, and intelligent sea creatures (Fig 2). And the video clips that Nicolas put together just reminded me of that.

The clear waters of the Natural Park of the Coral Sea allowed us to see whales as far as 30 meters deep in some areas! This perspective turned our usual surface observations into 3D. We could see escorts guarding maternal females and preventing other males from approaching by producing bubble trails. Escorts also extended their pectoral fins on either side of their body, a behavior supposed to make them look more imposing in the presence of a challenger. Competitive groups were also very impressive from above. During the breeding season, competitive groups form when several males aggregate around a female and compete for it. These groups typically travel at high speed and are characterized by active surface behaviors such as tail slaps, head lunges, and bubble trails.

Figure 2: This female humpback whale was encountered in 2016 and 2017. Her white flanks make her particularly easy to recognize. On both occasions it put on a show and kept circling the Amborella oceanographic vessel for more than an hour. To provide a sense of scale, the vessel on this drone footage is 24 m long (photo credit: Nicolas Job).

Drones and seamounts

Since the discovery of humpback whale offshore breeding areas in Antigonia seamount in 2007 and Orne bank in 2016, a lot of research has been conducted to better understand habitat preferences, distributions and connectivity in oceanic waters of New Caledonia (see previous post). Surveys have always been strongly multidisciplinary, including boat-based observation, biopsy sampling, and photo-identification, satellite tracking, in situ oceanographic measurements and acoustics. Will drones soon become an essential component of this toolbox?

One potential application I could imagine for my personal research questions would be to use aerial photogrammetry to measure the size of newborn calves. Indeed, we have found that offshore seamounts are used by a relatively great number of mothers with calf (Derville, Torres & Garrigue, In Press JMAMM). This finding is counter intuitive to the paradigm that maternal females prefer sheltered, shallow and coastal waters as shown in many breeding grounds around the world. Yet, we believe unsheltered oceanic areas might become more attractive to maternal females as the calf grows bigger and more robust to harsh sea states and encounters with competitive adult males. Drone photogrammetry of calves could likely help us confirm this hypothesis.

But for now, I will leave the science behind for a bit and let you enjoy the sheer beauty of this footage!

Film directed by Nicolas Job (Heos Marine) with images collected during the MARACAS3 survey (Marine Mammals of the Coral Sea: IRD/ UMR Entropie/Opération Cétacés/ WWF/ Ministère de la Transition écologique et solidaire).

A Marine Mammal Odyssey, Eh!

By Leila Lemos, PhD student

Dawn Barlow, MS student

Florence Sullivan, MS

The Society for Marine Mammalogy’s Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals happens every two years and this year the conference took place in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Logo of the Society for Marine Mammalogy’s 22nd Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, 2017: A Marine Mammal Odyssey, eh!

The conference started with a welcome reception on Sunday, October 22nd, followed by a week of plenaries, oral presentations, speed talks and posters, and two more days with different workshops to attend.

This conference is an important event for us, as marine mammalogists. This is the moment where we get to share our projects (how exciting!), get important feedback, and hear about different studies that are being conducted around the world. It is also an opportunity to network and find opportunities for collaboration with other researchers, and of course to learn from our colleagues who are presenting their work.

The GEMM Lab attending the opening plenaries of the conference!

The first day of conference started with an excellent talk from Asha de Vos, from Sri Lanka, where she discussed the need for increased diversity (in all aspects including race, gender, nationality, etc.) in our field, and advocated for the end of “parachute scientists” who come into a foreign (to them) location, complete their research, and then leave without communicating results, or empowering the local community to care or act in response to local conservation issues.  She also talked about the difficulty that researchers in developing countries face accessing research that is hidden behind journal pay walls, and encouraged everyone to get creative with communication! This means using blogs and social media, talking to science communicators and others in order to get our stories out, and no longer hiding our results behind the ivory tower of academia.  Overall, it was an inspirational way to begin the week.

On Thursday morning we heard Julie van der Hoop, who was this year’s recipient of the F.G. Wood Memorial Scholarship Award, present her work on “Drag from fishing gear entangling right whales: a major extinction risk factor”. Julie observed a decrease in lipid reserves in entangled whales and questioned if entanglements are as costly as events such as migration, pregnancy or lactation. Tags were also deployed on whales that had been disentangled from fishing gear, and researchers were able to see an increase in whale speed and dive depth.

Julie van der Hoop talks about different drag forces of fishing gears
on North Atlantic Right Whales.

There were many other interesting talks over the course of the week. Some of the talks that inspired us were:

— Stephen Trumble’s talk “Earplugs reveal a century of stress in baleen whales and the impact of industrial whaling” presented a time-series of cortisol profiles of different species of baleen whales using earplugs. The temporal data was compared to whaling data information and they were able to see a high correlation between datasets. However, during a low whaling season concurrent to the World War II in the 40’s, high cortisol levels were potentially associated to an increase in noise from ship traffic.

— Jane Khudyakov (“Elephant seal blubber transcriptome and proteome responses to single and repeated stress”) and Cory Champagne (“Metabolomic response to acute and repeated stress in the northern elephant seal”) presented different aspects of the same project. Jane looked at down/upregulation of genes (downregulation is when a cell decreases the quantity of a cellular component, such as RNA or protein, in response to an external stimulus; upregulation is the opposite: when the cell increases the quantity of cellular components) to check for stress. She was able to confirm an upregulation of genes after repeated stressor exposure. Cory checked for influences on the metabolism after administering ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone: a stimulating hormone that causes the release of glucocorticoid hormones by the adrenal cortex. i.e., cortisol, a stress related hormone) to elephant seals. By looking only at the stress-related hormone, he was not able to differentiate acute from chronic stress responses. However, he showed that many other metabolic processes varied according to the stress-exposure time. This included a decrease in amino acids, mobilization of lipids and upregulation of carbohydrates.

— Jouni Koskela (“Fishing restrictions is an essential protection method of the Saimaa ringed seal”) talked about the various conservation efforts being undertaken for the endangered Lake Saimaa ringed seal. Gill nets account for 90% of seal pup mortality, but if new pups can reach 20kg, only 14% of them will drown in these fishing net entanglements. Working with local industry and recreational interests, increased fishing restrictions have been enacted during the weaning season. In addition to other year-round restrictions, this has led to a small, but noticeable upward trend in pup production and population growth! A conservation success story is always gratifying to hear, and we wish these collaborative efforts continued future success.

— Charmain Hamilton (“Impacts of sea-ice declines on a pinnacle Arctic predator-prey relationship: Habitat, behaviour, and spatial overlap between coastal polar bears and ringed seals”) gave a fascinating presentation looking at how changing ice regimes in the arctic are affecting spatial habitat use patterns of polar bears. As ice decreases in the summer months, the polar bears move more, resulting in less spatial overlap with ringed seal habitat, and so the bears have turned to targeting ground nesting seabirds.  This spatio-temporal mismatch of traditional predator/prey has drastic implications for arctic food web dynamics.

— Nicholas Farmer’s presentation on a Population Consequences of Disturbance (PCoD) model for assessing theoretical impacts of seismic survey on sperm whale population health had some interesting parallels with new questions in our New Zealand blue whale project. By simulating whale movement through modeled three-dimensional sound fields, he found that the frequency of the disturbance (i.e., how many days in a row the seismic survey activity persisted) was very important in determining effects on the whales. If the seismic noise persists for many days in a row, the sperm whales may not be able to replenish their caloric reserves because of ongoing disturbance. As you can imagine, this pattern gets worse with more sequential days of disturbance.

— Jeremy Goldbogen used suction cup tags equipped with video cameras to peer into an unusual ecological niche: the boundary layer of large whales, where drag is minimized and remoras and small invertebrates compete and thrive. Who would have thought that at a marine mammal conference, a room full of people would be smiling and laughing at remoras sliding around the back of a blue whale, or barnacles filter feeding as they go for a ride with a humpback whale? Insights from animals that occupy this rare niche can inform improvements to current tag technologies.

The GEMM Lab was well represented this year with six different talks: four oral presentations and two speed talks! It is evident that all of our hard work and preparation, such as practicing our talks in front of our lab mates two weeks in advance, paid off.  All of the talks were extremely well received by the audience, and a few generated intelligent questions and discussion afterwards – exactly as we hoped.  It was certainly gratifying to see how packed the room was for Sharon’s announcement of our new method of standardizing photogrammetry from drones, and how long the people stayed to talk to Dawn after her presentation about an unique population of New Zealand blue whales – it took us over an hour to be able to take her away for food and the celebratory drinks she deserved!

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


GEMM Lab members at the closing celebration. From left to right: Florence Sullivan, Leila Lemos, Amanda Holdman, Solène Derville, and Dawn Barlow.
We are not always serious, we can get silly sometimes!

The weekend after the conference many courageous researchers who wanted to stuff their brains with even more specialized knowledge participated in different targeted workshops. From 32 different workshops that were offered, Leila chose to participate in “Measuring hormones in marine mammals: Current methods, alternative sample matrices, and future directions” in order to learn more about the new methods, hormones and matrices that are being used by different research groups and also to make connections with other endocrinologist researchers. Solène participated in the workshop “Reproducible Research with R, Git, and GitHub” led by Robert Shick.  She learned how to better organize her research workflow and looks forward to teaching us all how to be better collaborative coders, and ensure our analysis is reproducible by others and by our future selves!

On Sunday none of us from the GEMM Lab participated in workshops and we were able to explore a little bit of the Bay of Fundy, an important area for many marine mammal species. Even though we didn’t spot any marine mammals, we enjoyed witnessing the enormous tidal exchange of the bay (the largest tides in the world), and the fall colors of the Annaoplis valley were stunning as well. Our little trip was fun and relaxing after a whole week of learning.

The beauty of the Bay of Fundy.
GEMM Lab at the Bay of Fundy; from left to right: Kelly Sullivan (Florence’s husband and a GEMM Lab fan), Florence Sullivan, Dawn Barlow, Solène Derville, and Leila Lemos.
We do love being part of the GEMM Lab!

It is amazing how refreshing it is to participate in a conference. So many ideas popping up in our heads and an increasing desire to continue doing research and work for conservation of marine mammals. Now it’s time to put all of our ideas and energy into practice back home! See you all in two years at the next conference in Barcelona!

Flying out of Halifax!

New steps towards community engagement: introducing high schoolers to the field

By Florence Sullivan, MSc, GEMM Lab Research Assistant

This summer, I had the pleasure of returning to Port Orford to lead another field season of the GEMM Lab’s gray whale foraging ecology research project.  While our goal this summer was to continue gathering data on gray whale habitat use and zooplankton community structure in the Port Orford region, we added in a new and exciting community engagement component: We integrated local high school students into our research efforts in order to engage with the local community to promote interest in the OSU field station and the research taking place in their community. Frequent blog readers will have seen the posts written by this year’s interns (Maggie O’Rourke Liggett, Nathan Malamud, and Quince Nye) as they described how they became interns, their experience doing fieldwork, and some lessons they’ve learned from the project. I am very impressed with the hard work and effort that all three of them put into making this field season a success.  (Getting out of a warm bed, and showing up at the field station at 6am sharp for five weeks straight is no easy feat for high-schoolers or an undergrad student during summer break!)

Quince hard at work scanning the horizon for whale spouts. photo credit: Alexa Kownacki

During the month of August, our team collected the following data on whale distribution and behavior:

  •  Spent 108 hours on the cliff looking for whales
  • Spent 11 hours actively tracking whales with the theodolite
  • Collected 19 whale tracklines
  • Identified 15 individual whales using photo-ID – Two of those whales came back 3 times each, and one of them was a whale nick-named “Buttons” who we had tracked in 2016 as well.

We also collected data on zooplankton – gray whale prey – in the area:

  • Collected 134 GoPro videos of the water column at the 12 kayak sample sites
  • Did approximately 147 zooplankton net tows
  • Collected 64 samples for community analysis to see what species of zooplankton were present
  • Collected 115 samples for energetic analysis to determine how many calories can be derived from each zooplankton
The 2017 field team. From left to right: Tom Calvanese (Field Station Manager), Florence Sullivan (Project Lead), Quince Nye, Maggie O’Rourke-Liggett, and Nathan Malamud. Photo credit: Alexa Kownacki

Since I began this project in 2015, I have been privileged to work with some truly fantastic interns.  Each year, I learned new lessons about how to be an effective mentor, and how to communicate our research goals and project needs more clearly. This year was no exception, and I worked hard to bring some of the things I’ve learned into my project planning.  As the team can tell you, science communication, and the benefits of building good will and strong community relationships were heavily emphasized over the course of the internship.  Everyone was encouraged to use every opportunity to engage with the public, explain our work, and pass on new things they had learned.  Whenever the team encountered other kayakers out on the water, we took the time to share any cool zooplankton samples we gathered that day, and explain the goals of our research.  Maggie and I also took the opportunity to give a pair of evening lectures at Humbug Mountain State Park, which were both well attended by curious campers.

Florence and Maggie give evening lectures at Humbug Mountain State Park

In addition, the team held a successful final community presentation on September 1 at the Port Orford Field Station that 45 people attended!  In the week leading up to the presentation, Quince and Nathan spent many long hours working diligently on the powerpoint presentation, while Maggie put together a video presentation of “the intern experience” (Click here for the video showcased on last week’s blog).  I am incredibly proud of Nathan and Quince, and the clear and confident manner in which they presented their experience to the audience who showed up to support them.  They easily fielded the following questions:

Q: “How do you tell the difference between a whale that is searching or foraging?”

A: When we look at the boundaries of our study site, a foraging whale consistently comes up to breathe in the same spot, while a searching whale covers a lot of distance going back and forth without leaving the general area.

Q: “How do we make sure that this program continues?”

A: Stay curious and support your students as they take on internships, support the field station as it seeks to provide resources, and if possible, donate to funds that raise money for research efforts.

Nathan talks about the plankton results during the final community presentation. photo credit: Alexa Kownacki
The audience during the final community presntation. photo credit: Alexa Kownacki
Quince and Nathan answer questions at the end of the community presentation. photo credit: Alexa Kownacki

When communicating science, it is important to results into context.  In addition to showcasing the possibilities of excellent research with positive community support, and just how much a trio of young people can grow over the course of 6 weeks, this summer has highlighted the value of long term monitoring studies, particularly when studying long-lived animals such as whales. We saw far fewer whales this summer than compared to the two previous years, and the whales spent much less time in the Port Orford area (Table 1). As a scientist, knowing where whales are not (absence data) is just as important as knowing where whales are (presence data), and these marked differences drive our hypotheses! What has changed in the system? What can explain the differences in whale behavior between years?  Does it have to do with food quality or availability?  (This is why we have been gathering all those zooplankton samples.) Does it have to do with other oceanographic factors or human activities?

Table 1. Summary of whale tracking efforts for the three seasons of field work in Port Orford.   Notice how in 2017 we only collected 194 whale location points (theodolite marks). This is about 92% less than in the previous years.

2015 2016 2017
Hours spent watching 72:49 148:30 108
Hours spent tracking 80:39* 82:30 11
Number of individuals 43 50 15
Number of theodolite marks 2483 2414 194

*we often tracked more than one individual simultaneously in 2015

Long term monitoring projects give us a chance to notice differences between years, and ask questions about what are normal fluctuations in the system, and what are abnormal. On top of that, projects like this create the opportunity for additional internships, and to mentor more students in the scientific method of investigation.  There is so much still to be explored in the Port Orford ecosystem, and I truly hope this program is able to continue.  If you are interested in making a monetary contribution to sustain this research and internship program, donations can be accepted here (gemm lab fund) and here (field station fund).

Quince records zooplankon sample weights in the wet lab.
Quince sorts through a zooplankton sample in the wet lab.
Nathan stores zooplankton community analysis samples
Maggie and Nathan out in the kayak
Quince and Maggie in the kayak
Maggie, Florence and Quince enjoy the eclipse!
Quince and Maggie bundle up on the cliff as they watch for whales.
Nathan and Quince organize data on the computer at the end of the day.
Quince and Nathan build sand castles as we wait for the fog to clear before launching the research kayak

This research and  student internships would not have been possible without the generous support from Oregon Sea Grant, the Oregon Coast STEM hub, the Port Orford Field Station, South Coast Tours, partnerships with the Bernard and Chapman labs, the OSU Marine Mammal Institute, and the Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab.

Through the intern’s eyes; a video log of the 2017 gray whale foraging ecology project.

By: Maggie O’Rourke-Liggett, GEMM lab summer intern, Oregon State University

Enjoy this short video showcasing the intern experience from the gray whale foraging ecology project this summer. Check back next week for a recap of our preliminary results.

The passion of a researcher

By Quince Nye, GEMM Lab Summer Intern, Pacific High School Junior

I have spent a lot of my life surrounded by nature. I like to backpack, bike, dive, and kayak in these natural environments. I also have the luck of having parents who are always planning to take me on another adventure where I get to see nature and its inhabitants in ways most people don’t get to enjoy.

Through my backyard explorations, I have begun to realize that Port Orford has an amazing ecosystem in the coves and rivers that are very tied into our community. I’ve fished and swam in these rivers, gone on kayaking tours in these coves (with a great kayak company called South Coast Tours that we partner with), and I’ve seen the life that dwells in them.

Nathan and Maggie paddle out to Mill Rocks for early morning sample collection

Growing up in a school of less than 100 kids I have learned to never reject an opportunity to be a part of something bigger and learn from that experience. So when one of my close friends told me about an OSU project (a college I’m interested in attending) that needed interns to help collect data on gray whales, and kayak almost every day, I signed up without a doubt in my mind.

The team gets some good practice tracking Buttons (Whale #3).  Left to right; Quince, Nathan, Maggie, Florence.

Fast forward a month, and I wake up at 5:20 am. I eat breakfast and get to the Port Orford Field Station. We make a plan for the operations of both the kayak team and cliff team. Today, I’m part of the cliff team, so I head up above the station to Fort Point. Florence and I set up the theodolite and computer at the lookout point and start taking half hour watch shifts searching the horizon for the spout of a gray whale.  Sometimes you see one right away, but other times it feels like the whales are actively hiding from you. These are the times I wish Maggie was here with her endless supply of Disney soundtracks to help pass the hours.

Imitating a ship’s captain, Quince points toward our whale while shouting “Mark”.

A whale spouts out at Mill Rocks and starts heading across to the jetty. Hurray, its data collection time! I try to quickly move the cross-hairs of the theodolite onto the position of the whale using a set of knobs like those on an etch-a-sketch. As you may understand, it’s not an easy task at first but I manage to do it because I’ve been practicing for three weeks. I say “Mark!” cueing Florence to click a button in the program Pythagoras on the computer to record the whale’s position.

The left hand side of Buttons – notice the scatter of white markings on the upper back.

Meanwhile, Florence sees that the whale has two white spots where the fluke meets the knuckles. Those are identifying marks of the beloved whale, Buttons. This whale has been seen here since 2016 and is a fan favorite for our on-going research program. Florence gets just as excited every time and texts her eagerly awaiting interns of previous years all about the sighting. Of course Buttons is not the only whale to have identifying marks such as scars and pigmentation marks. This is why we make sure to get photos of the whales we spot, allowing us to do photo-ID analysis on them through comparison to our database of pictures from previous years.

Quince practices CPR protocol on a training mannequin on his first day.

So far I have gained skill after skill in this internship. I got CPR certified, took a kayak training class, learned how to use a theodolite, and have spent many educational (and frustrating) hours entering data in Excel. I joined the program because I was interested in all of these things. It surprised me that I was developing a relationship with the whales I’m researching. By the end of August I’m now sure that I will also know many of the whales by name. I will probably be much better at using an etch-a-sketch, and I will have had my first taste at what being a scientist is like. What I strive for, however, is to have the same look in my eyes that appears in Florence’s whenever a familiar whale decides to browse our kelp beds.

Curiosity and Community, new ways of exploring our environment.

By Nathan Malamud, GEMM Lab summer intern, Pacific High School senior

I am someone who has lived in a small town for all his life. Pretty much everyone knows each other by their first name and my graduating class only has around 20 people. Everywhere you look you will find a farm, ranch, or cranberry bog (even our school has two bogs of their own!). Because of my small town life, I have a strong sense of community. However, I have also developed a curiosity about natural and global phenomena. I try to connect these two virtues by participating in scientific efforts that help my community. When I heard that the OSU Port Orford Field Station was offering internships, I knew right away that it would definitely be a great experience for me.

The view from our field site at Fort Point in Port Orford

Port Orford, on Oregon’s southern coast, is a town that is closely tied to the ocean. So naturally, it’s important to understand and monitor our surroundings so that our town can thrive. Last year, my Marine Science class helped me further understand the complexity of the ocean. Our first semester taught us all about marine biology, zoology, and ecology. Our second semester immersed us into oceanography, ocean geology, and ocean chemistry. During the second semester, we also took trips to our town’s marine science center and to the marine reserve near Rocky Point. I loved this course and decided to try to expand my knowledge about the subject by going to the OSU Field Station.

Our safety instructor teaches takes us through basic paddling techniques

As an intern, I am currently working with three teammates to understand the feeding behavior of gray whales – what places they like to eat zooplankton the most and why they like to eat there. This whale project helps our community by Port Orford enabling high school students to perform college-level scientific research and inquiry, as well as allowing us to learn valuable skills such as CPR, surveying using a theodolite, working with chemicals in a lab, and data processing.

We had to learn how to rescue ourselves just in case we have an accident in the boat.
We all made it back in the boat!

This internship with OSU’s GEMM Lab has taught me many new skills and given me new experiences that I have never had before. Before this internship, I had never been in a kayak. Now, I go out on the water nearly every other day! When on the water, I always try to sharpen my navigating skills. I use a GPS to pinpoint the locations of our sampling stations, and I communicate to my partner where we need to go and how we will get there.

Its very important to stretch before kayaking every morning.

Once we are there, it is my job to keep the boat close to the station location so that my partner can get accurate samples. This part is a very tricky task, because not only do I have to pay attention to the GPS to make sure we are within 10 meters of the spot, but I also have to pay attention to my surroundings. I have to look at the ocean, and figure out what direction the waves are coming from. I have to watch how external forces, like wind and currents, can cause the boat to drift far from station, and I have to correct drifting with gentle paddle strokes. This is hard, especially since the kayak is so light and easy to get pushed around by the wind. However, despite the difficulty, I have learned that it is crucial not to panic. Frustration only makes things worse. The key is to maintain a harmonic balance of concentration and zen.

I have also learned that when collecting data in the field, it’s important to observe and document as much as possible. When we are in the kayak, we have 12 stations that we try to visit every day (as long as the weather cooperates). At each station, we first use a secchi disk to test the water clarity, then lower the GoPro to film the water column and see where the zooplankton are. Sometimes we catch other interesting things on the video too, such as siphonophores (my personal favorites are jellies and salps) and rockfish.

A siphonophore
A rockfish captured with our GoPro.

Next we tow a zooplankton net through the water, and let it collect zooplankton of all shapes and sizes, from tiny mysids to skeleton shrimp. Then we proceed to the next station and repeat the process. We have to remember to label everything, and tell the GoPro camera what station we’re at so we can sort all the information correctly when we get back to the field station. At the end of the day, we log our data into a computer, and preserve half our plankton samples with ethanol, so that we can identify the species present.  The other half gets frozen for caloric content analysis by our collaborator Dr. Kim Bernard to help us understand how much zooplankton a whale needs to eat to meet its energy needs each day.

By repeating this entire process every day, we are able to look at daily changes, which also helps us to better understand why whales spend time in certain areas and not others. Be sure to check out my teammate Maggie’s blog post about some of the tools and technologies we use to track the whales!

This whale project has been, and definitely still is, a great experience for me! I have learned a lot and have worked with some amazing people. I believe that I am learning many valuable skills, and that the skills I learn will allow me to help my community.

A Little Slice of Heaven

Guest writer: Maggie O’Rourke-Liggett, GEMM Lab summer intern, Oregon State University,

One of the biggest obstacles an undergraduate can face is fulfilling the degree requirement of completing an internship or research opportunity. With almost every university and degree program requiring it for graduation and many employers requiring prior experience, the amount of pressure and competition is intense.

After being rejected from the internships I applied for earlier in the year, I heard about Dr. Leigh Torres’s research with the Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna (GEMM) Lab . I decided to email her and ask if she had any open positions. Fast-forward a few weeks and I am collaborating with Florence Sullivan, a recent masters graduate from OSU, on the logistics of my Gray Whale Foraging Behavior internship with the GEMM Lab.


My workstation while I conduct photo identification analysis in the field station classroom. The photos are displayed and organized in Adobe Bridge. Source: Maggie O’Rourke-Liggett

During my time with the GEMM Lab team, I have been assisting with photo identification analysis of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus), using a theodolite and Pythagoras computer program to track their movements, collecting samples of the zooplankton they eat, and recording other oceanographic data with our time-depth recorder. This project is hoping to identify the drivers of gray whale fine-scale foraging behavior.  For instance: Why do gray whales spend more time in some areas than others?  Does the type or density of prey affect their behavior? Do the whales use static features like kelp beds to help find their food? As a senior currently studying oceanography, who desires to study whale behavior in the future, this internship is like finding a gold mine.

Nathan Malamud, our other high school intern, and I working together to set up the theodolite in backyard during a practice run. Source: Florence Sullivan

Ever since day one at Hatfield Marine Science Center, I’ve been working with people who share the same passions for marine mammals as me. Spending hours upon hours sorting thousands of pictures may seem like a painful, tedious job, but knowing my work helps others to update existing identification catalogs makes it worthwhile. Plus, who wouldn’t want to look at whales all day?! After a while, you start to recognize specific individuals based on their various pigment configurations and scars. Once you can recognize individuals, it makes the sorting go by faster and helps with recognizing individual whales in the wild faster. It’s always exciting to sort through the photos and observe from the cliff or kayak and recognize a whale from the photo identification work.

After Florence taught me how to set up and operate the theodolite, a survey tool used to track a whale’s movements, we taught a class to undergrads on how to use it. I’ll never get over how people’s faces lit up when we discussed how the instrument works and its role in the overall mission.

Quince Nye, one of our high school interns, using side strokes to stabilize the kayak while I deploy our zooplankton net over the side with a down rigger. Source: Florence Sullivan

These past two weeks at OSU’s Port Orford Field Station have been like living on a little slice of heaven. My days are filled with clear views of the coast and the sound of waves crashing serve as a backdrop on my home for the month, the bed-and-breakfast turned field station. Each morning, the sun fills my room as I gather my gear for the day and help my teammates load the truck. We spend long days on the water collecting zooplankton samples and GoPro video or on the cliff recording whale behavior through the theodolite. To anyone searching for an internship and feeling burnt out from completing application after application, don’t give up. You’ll find your slice of heaven too.