Whales are amazing, and also provide amazing benefits to our oceans and human society

By Alejandro Fernandez Ajo, PhD student at the Department of Biology, Northern Arizona University, Visiting scientist in the GEMM Lab working on the gray whale physiology and ecology project  

Whales are among the most amazing and enigmatic animals in the world. Whales are not only fascinating, they are also biologically special. Due to their key ecological role and unique biological traits (i.e., their large body size, long lifespans, and sizable home ranges), whales are extremely important in helping sustain the entire marine ecosystem.

Working towards the conservation of marine megafauna, and large charismatic animals in general, is often seen as a mere benevolent effort that conservationist groups, individuals, and governments do on behalf of the individual species. However, mounting evidence demonstrates that restoring populations of marine megafauna, including large whales, can help buffer marine ecosystems from destabilizing stresses like human driven CO2 emissions and global change due to their ability to sequester carbon in their bodies (Pershing et al. 2010). Furthermore, whales can enhance primary production in the ocean through their high consumption and defecation rates, which ultimately provides nutrients to the ecosystem and improves fishery yields (Roman-McCarthy, 2010; Morissette et al. 2012).

Relationships between humans and whales have a long history, however, these relationships have changed. For centuries, whales were valued in terms of the number of oil barrels they could yield, and the quality of their baleen and meat. In the North Atlantic, whaling started as early as 1000 AD with “shore whaling” of North Atlantic right whales by Basque whalers. This whaling was initially limited to the mother and calve pairs that were easy to target due to their coastal habits and the fact that calves are more vulnerable and slower (Reeves-Smith, 2006). Once the calving populations of near-shore waters off Europe were depleted, offshore whaling began developing. Whalers of multiple nations (including USA, British, French, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Dutch, among others), targeted whales around the world, mainly impacting the gray whale populations, and all three right whale species along with the related bowhead whale. Later, throughout the phase of modern whaling using industrialized methods, the main target species consisted of the blue, fin, humpback, minke, sei and sperm whale (Schneider- Pearce, 2004).

By the early twentieth century, many of the world´s whale populations where reduced to a small fraction of their historical numbers, and although pre-whaling abundance of whale stocks is a subject of debate, recent studies estimate that at least the 66%, and perhaps as high as 90% for some whale species and populations (Branch-Williams 2006; Christensen, 2006), where taken during this period. This systematic and serial depletion of whale papulations reduced the biomass and abundance of great whales around the world, which has likely altered the structure and function of the oceans (Balance et al. 2006; Roman et al. 2014; Croll, et al. 2006).

After centuries of unregulated whale hunting, commercial whaling was banned in the mid-twentieth century. This ban was the result of multiple factors including reduced whale stocks below the point where commercial whaling would be profitable, and a fortunate shift in public perception of whales and the emergence of conservation initiatives (Schneider- Pearce, 2004). Since this moratorium on whaling, several whale populations have recovered around the world, and some populations that were listed as endangered have been delisted (i.e., the Eastern North Pacific gray whale) and some populations are estimated to have re-bounced to their pre-whaling abundance.

Although, the recovery of some populations has motivate some communities or nations to obtain or extend their whaling quotas (see Blog Post by Lisa Hildebrand), it is important to acknowledge that the management of whale populations is arguably one of the most complicated tasks, and is distinguished from management of normal fisheries due to various biological aspects. Whales are long living mammals with slow reproduction rates, and on average a whale can only produce a calf every two or three years. Hence, the gross addition to the stock rarely would exceed 25% of the number of adults (Schneider- Pearce, 2004), which is a much lower recovery rate that any fish stock. Also, whales usually reach their age of sexual maturity at 6-10 years old, and for many species there are several uncertainties about their biology and natural history that make estimations of population abundance and growth rate even harder to estimate.

Fig 1: Human relationship with whales has changed through history. Once valued for their meat and oil, now they are a natural attraction that amaze and attract crowds to whale watching destinations all over the globe. Photo: Stephen Johnson, Península Valdés-Argentina.

Moreover, while today´s whales are generally not killed directly by hunting, they are exposed to a variety of other increasing human stressors (e.g., entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, shipping noise, and climate change). Thus, scientists must develop novel tools to overcome the challenges of studying whales and distinguish the relative importance of the different impacts to help guide conservation actions that improve the recovery and restoration of whale stocks (Hunt et al. in press). With the restoration of great whale populations, we can expect positive changes in the structure and function of the world’s oceans (Chami et al. 2019; Roman et al. 2010).

So, why it is worth keeping whales healthy?

Whales facilitate the transfer of nutrients by (1) releasing nutrient-rich fecal plumes near the surface after they have feed at depth and (2) by moving nutrients from highly productive, polar and subpolar latitude feeding areas to the low latitude calving areas (Roman et al. 2010). In this way, whales help increase the productivity of phytoplankton that in turn support zooplankton production, and thus have a bottom up effect on the productivity of many species including fish, birds, and marine mammals, including whales. These fertilization events can also facilitate mitigation of the negative impacts of climate change. The amount of iron contained in the whales’ feces can be 10 million times greater than the level of iron in the marine environment, triggering important phytoplankton blooms, which in turn sequester thousands of tons of carbon from, and release oxygen to, the atmosphere annually (Roman et al. 2016; Smith et al. 2013; Willis, 2007). Furthermore, when whales die, their massive bodies fall to the seafloor, making them the largest and most nutritious source of food waste, which is capable of sustaining a succession of macro-fauna assemblages for several decades, including some invertebrate species that are endemic to whale carcasses (Smith et al. 2015).

Figure 2. The figure shows a conceptual model of the “whale pump”. From Roman-McCarthy, 2010.

Despite the several environmental services that whales provide, and the positive impact on local economies that depend on whale watching tourism, which has been valued in millions of dollars per year (Hoyt E., 2001), the return of whales and other marine mammals has often been implicated in declines in fish populations, resulting in conflicts with human fisheries (Lavigne, D.M. 2003). Yet there is insufficient direct evidence for such competition (Morissette et al. 2010). Indeed, there is evidence of the contrary: In ecosystem models where whale abundances are reduced, fish stocks show significant decreases, and in some cases the presence of whales in these models result in improved fishery yields. Consistent with these findings, several models have shown that alterations in marine ecosystems resulting from the removal of whales and other marine mammals do not lead to increases in human fishery yields (Morissette et al. 2010; 2012). Although the environmental services and benefits provided by great whales, which potentially includes the enhancement of fisheries yields, and enhancement on ocean oxygen production and capturing carbon, are evident and make a strong argument for improved whale conservation, it is overwhelming how little we know about many aspects of their lives, their biology, and particularly their physiology.

Figure 3: Whales are the most fascinating animals in the world, but they are not only amazing animals. They are also extremely important in sustaining the entire marine ecosystem. Photo: Alejandro Fernández Ajó -Instituto de Conservación de ballenas.

This lack of knowledge is because whales are really hard to study. For many years research was limited to the observation of the brief surfacing of the whales, yet most of their lives occurs beneath the surface and were completely unknown. Fortunately, new technologies and the creativity of whale researchers are helping us to better understand many aspects of their lives that were cryptic to us even a decade ago. I am committed to filling some of these knowledge gaps. My research examines how different environmental and anthropogenic impacts affect whale health, and particularly how these impacts may relate to cases of large whale mortalities and declines in whale populations. I am applying novel methods in conservation physiology for measuring hormone levels that promise to improve our understanding of the relationship between different (extrinsic and intrinsic) stressors and the physiological response of whales. Ultimately, this research will help address important conservation questions, such as the causes of unusual whale mortality events and declines in whale populations.


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Applying novel methods in conservation physiology to understand cases of large whale mortalities

By Alejandro Fernánez Ajó, PhD student at NAU and GEMM Lab research technician

Although commercial whaling is currently banned and several whale populations show evidence of recovery, today´s whales are exposed to a variety of other human stressors (e.g., entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, shipping noise, climate change, etc.; reviewed in Hunt et al., 2017a). The recovery and conservation of large whale populations is particularly important to the oceanic environment due to their key ecological role and unique biological traits, including their large body size, long lifespan and sizable home ranges (Magera et al., 2013; Atkinson et al., 2015; Thomas and Reeves, 2015). Thus, scientists must develop novel tools to overcome the challenges of studying whale physiology in order to distinguish the relative importance of the different impacts and guide conservation actions accordingly (Ayres et al., 2012; Hunt et al., 2013).

To this end, baleen hormone analysis represents a powerful tool for retrospective assessment of patterns in whale physiology (Hunt et al., 2014, 2016, 2017a, 2017b, 2018; Lysiak et. al., 2018; Fernández Ajó et al., 2018; Rolland et al., 2019). Moreover, hormonal panels, which include multiple hormones, are helping to better clarify and distinguish between the physiological effects of different sources of anthropogenic and environmental stressors (Ayres et al., 2012; Wasser et al., 2017; Lysiak et al., 2018; Romero et al., 2015).

What is Baleen? Baleen is a stratified epithelial tissue consisting of long, fringed plates that grow downward from the upper jaw, which collectively form the whale´s filter-feeding apparatus (Figure 1). This tissue accumulates hormones as it grows. Hormones are deposited in a linear fashion with time so that a single plate of baleen allows retrospective assessment and evaluation of a whales’ physiological condition, and in calves baleen provides a record of the entire lifespan including part of their gestation. Baleen samples are also readily accessible and routinely collected during necropsy along with other samples and relevant information.

Figure 1: Top: A baleen plate from a southern right whale calf (Source: Fernández Ajó et al. 2018). Bottom: A southern right whale with mouth open exposing its baleen (photo credit: Stephen Johnson).

Why are the Southern Right Whales calves (SRW) dying in Patagonia?

I am a Fulbright Ph.D. student in the Buck Laboratory  at Northern Arizona University since Fall 2017, a researcher with the Whale Conservation Institute of Argentina (Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas) and Field Technician for the GEMM Lab over the summer. I focus my research on the application and development of novel methods in conservation physiology to improve our understanding of how physiological parameters are affected by human pressures that impact large whales and marine mammals. I am especially interested in understanding the underlaying causes of large whale mortalities with the aim of preventing their occurrence when possible. In particular, for my Ph.D. dissertation, I am studying a die-off case of Southern Right Whale (SRW) calves, Eubalaena australis, off Peninsula Valdés (PV) in Patagonia-Argentina (Figure 2).

Prior to 2000, annual calf mortality at PV was considered normal and tracked the population growth rate (Rowntree et al., 2013). However, between 2007 and 2013, 558 whales died, including 513 newborn calves (Sironi et al., 2018). Average total whale deaths per year increased tenfold, from 8.2 in 1993-2002 to 80 in 2007-2013. These mortality levels have never before been observed for the species or any other population of whales (Thomas et al., 2013, Sironi et al., 2018).

Figure 2: Study area, the red dots along the shoreline indicate the location where the whales were found stranded at Península Valdés in 2018 (Source: The Right Whale Program Research Report 2018, Sironi and Rowntree, 2018)

Among several hypotheses proposed to explain these elevated calf mortalities, harassment by Kelp Gulls, Larus dominicanus, on young calves stands out as a plausible cause and is a unique problem only seen at the PV calving ground. Kelp gull parasitism on SRWs near PV was first observed in the 1970’s (Thomas, 1988). Gulls primarily harass mother-calf pairs, and this parasitic behavior includes pecking on the backs of the whales and creating open wounds to feed on their skin and blubber. The current intensity of gull harassment has been identified as a significant environmental stressor to whales and potential contributor to calf deaths (Marón et al., 2015b; Fernández Ajó et al., 2018).

Figure 3: The significant preference for calves as a target of gull attacks highlights the impact of this parasitic behavior on this age class. The situation continues to be worrisome and serious for the health and well-being of newborn calves at Península Valdés. Left: A Kelp Gull landing on whale´s back to feed on her skin and blubber (Photo credit: Lisandro Crespo). Right: A calf with multiple lesions on its back produced by repeated gull attacks (Photo credit: ICB).

Quantifying gull inflicted wounds

Photographs of gull wounds on whales taken during necropsies and were quantified and assigned to one of seven objectively defined size categories (Fig. 4): extra-small (XS), small (S), medium (M), large (L), extra-large (XL), double XL (XXL) and triple XL (XXXL). The size and number of lesions on each whale were compared to baleen hormones to determine the effect of the of the attacks on the whales health.

Figure 4. Kelp gull lesion scoring. Source: Maron et al. 2015).

How baleen hormones are applied

Impact factors such as injuries, predation avoidance, storms, and starvation promote an increase in the secretion of the glucocorticoids (GCs) cortisol and corticosterone (stress hormones), which then induce a variety of physiological and behavioral responses that help animals cope with the stressor. Prolonged exposure to chronic stress, however, may exceed the animal’s ability to cope with such stimuli and, therefore, adversely affects its body condition, its health, and even its survival. Triiodothyronine (T3), is the most biologically active form of the thyroid hormones and helps regulate metabolism. Sustained food deprivation causes a decrease in T3 concentrations, slowing metabolism to conserve energy stores. Combining GCs and T3 hormone measures allowed us to investigate and distinguish the relative impacts of nutritional and other sources of stressors.

Combining these novel methods produced unique results about whale physiology. With my research, we are finding that the GCs concentrations measured in calves´ baleen positively correlate with the intensity of gull wounding (Figure 4, 1 and 2), while calf’s baleen thyroid hormone concentrations are relative stable across time and do not correlate with intensity of gull wounding (Figure 4 – 3). Taken together these findings indicate that SRW calves exposed to Kelp gull parasitism and harassment experience high levels of physiological stress that compromise their health and survival. Ultimately these results will inform government officials and managers to direct conservation actions aimed to reduce the negative interaction between Kelp gulls and Southern Right Whales in Patagonia.

Figure 4: Physiological stress correlates with number of gull lesions (1 and 2). According to the best-fit linear model, immunoreactive baleen corticosterone (B) and cortisol (F) concentrations increased with wound severity (i.e. number of gull lesions). However, nutritional status indexed by baleen immunoreactive triiodothyronine (T3) concentrations does not correlate with the number of gull lesions (3). (Fernández Ajó et al. 2019, manuscript under revision)

Baleen hormones as a conservation tool

Baleen hormones represent a powerful tool for retrospective assessments of longitudinal trends in whale physiology by helping discriminate the underlying mechanisms by which different stressors may affect a whale’s health and physiology. Moreover, while most sample types used for studying whale physiology provide single time-point measures of current circulating hormone levels (e.g., skin or respiratory vapor), or information from previous few hours or days (e.g., urine and feces), baleen tissue provides a unique opportunity for longitudinal analyses of hormone patterns. These retrospective analyses can be conducted for both stranded or archived specimens, and can be conducted jointly with other biological markers (e.g., stable isotopes and biotoxins) to describe migration patterns and exposure to pollutants. Further research efforts on baleen hormones should focus on completing biological validations to better understand the hormone measurements in baleen and its correlation with measurements from alternative sample matrices (i.e., feces, skin, blubber, and respiratory vapors).


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Fernández Ajó, A.A., Hunt, K., Uhart, M., Rowntree, V., Sironi, M., Marón, C.F., Di Martino, M., Buck, L., 2018. Lifetime glucocorticoid profiles in baleen of right whale calves: potential relationships to chronic stress of repeated wounding by Kelp Gull. Conserv. Physiol. 6, coy045. https://doi.org/10.1093/conphys/coy045.

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Eyes from Space: Using Remote Sensing as a Tool to Study the Ecology of Blue Whales

By Christina Garvey, University of Maryland, GEMM Lab REU Intern

It is July 8th and it is my 4th week here in Hatfield as an REU intern for Dr. Leigh Torres. My name is Christina Garvey and this summer I am studying the spatial ecology of blue whales in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Coming from the east coast, Oregon has given me an experience of a lifetime – the rugged shorelines continue to take my breath away and watching sea lions in Yaquina Bay never gets old. However, working on my first research project has by far been the greatest opportunity and I have learned so much in so little time. When Dr. Torres asked me to contribute to this blog I was unsure of how I would write about my work thus far but I am excited to have the opportunity to share the knowledge I have gained with whoever reads this blog post.

The research project that I will be conducting this summer will use remotely sensed environmental data (information collected from satellites) to predict blue whale distribution in the South Taranaki Bight (STB), New Zealand. Those that have read previous blogs about this research may remember that the STB study area is created by a large indentation or “bight” on the southern end of the Northern Island. Based on multiple lines of evidence, Dr. Leigh Torres hypothesized the presence of an unrecognized blue whale foraging ground in the STB (Torres 2013). Dr. Torres and her team have since proved that blue whales frequent this region year-round; however, the STB is also very industrial making this space-use overlap a conservation concern (Barlow et al. 2018). The increasing presence of marine industrial activity in the STB is expected to put more pressure on blue whales in this region, whom are already vulnerable from the effects of past commercial whaling (Barlow et al. 2018) If you want to read more about blue whales in the STB check out previous blog posts that talk all about it!

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

Figure 2. South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand, our study site outlined by the red box. Kahurangi Point (black star) is the site of wind-driven upwelling system.

The possibility of the STB as an important foraging ground for a resident population of blue whales poses management concerns as New Zealand will have to balance industrial growth with the protection and conservation of a critically endangered species. As a result of strong public support, there are political plans to implement a marine protected area (MPA) in the STB for the blue whales. The purpose of our research is to provide scientific knowledge and recommendations that will assist the New Zealand government in the creation of an effective MPA.

In order to create an MPA that would help conserve the blue whale population in the STB, we need to gather a deeper understanding of the relationship between blue whales and this marine environment. One way to gain knowledge of the oceanographic and ecological processes of the ocean is through remote sensing by satellites, which provides accessible and easy to use environmental data. In our study we propose remote sensing as a tool that can be used by managers for the design of MPAs (through spatial and temporal boundaries). Satellite imagery can provide information on sea surface temperature (SST), SST anomaly, as well as net primary productivity (NPP) – which are all measurements that can help describe oceanographic upwelling, a phenomena that is believed to be correlated to the presence of blue whales in the STB region.

Figure 3. The stars of the show: blue whales. A photograph captured from the small boat of one animal fluking up to dive down as another whale surfaces close by. (Photo credit: L. Torres)

Past studies in the STB showed evidence of a large upwelling event that occurs off the coast of Kahurangi Point (Fig. 2), on the northwest tip of the South Island (Shirtcliffe et al. 1990). In order to study the relationship of this upwelling to the distribution of blue whales, I plan to extract remotely sensed data (SST, SST anomaly, & NPP) off the coast of Kahurangi and compare it to data gathered from a centrally located site within the STB, which is close to oil rigs and so is of management interest. I will first study how decreases in sea surface temperature at the site of upwelling (Kahurangi) are related to changes in sea surface temperature at this central site in the STB, while accounting for any time differences between each occurrence. I expect that this relationship will be influenced by the wind patterns, and that there will be changes based on the season. I also predict that drops in temperature will be strongly related to increases in primary productivity, since upwelling brings nutrients important for photosynthesis up to the surface. These dips in SST are also expected to be correlated to blue whale occurrence within the bight, since blue whale prey (krill) eat the phytoplankton produced by the productivity.

Figure 4. A blue whale lunges on an aggregation of krill. UAS piloted by Todd Chandler.

To test the relationships I determine between remotely sensed data at different locations in the STB, I plan to use blue whale observations from marine mammal observers during a seismic survey conducted in 2013, as well as sightings recorded from the 2014, 2016, and 2017 field studies led by Dr. Leigh Torres. By studying the statistical relationships between all of these variables I hope to prove that remote sensing can be used as a tool to study and understand blue whale distribution.

I am very excited about this research, especially because the end goal of creating an MPA really gives me purpose. I feel very lucky to be part of a project that could make a positive impact on the world, if only in just a little corner of New Zealand. In the mean time I’ll be here in Hatfield doing the best I can to help make that happen.


Barlow DR, Torres LG, Hodge KB, Steel D, Baker CS, Chandler TE, Bott N, Constantine R, Double MC, Gill P, Glasgow D, Hamner RM, Lilley C, Ogle M, Olson PA, Peters C, Stockin KA, Tessaglia-hymes CT, Klinck H (2018) Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger Species Res 36:27–40.

Shirtcliffe TGL, Moore MI, Cole AG, Viner AB, Baldwin R, Chapman B (1990) Dynamics of the Cape Farewell upwelling plume, New Zealand. New Zeal J Mar Freshw Res 24:555–568.

Torres LG (2013) Evidence for an unrecognised blue whale foraging ground in New Zealand. New Zeal J Mar Freshw Res 47:235–248.

A Weekend of Inspiration in Marine Science: NWSSMM and Dr. Sylvia Earle!

By Karen Lohman, Masters Student in Wildlife Science, Cetacean Conservation and Genomics Lab, Oregon State University

My name is Karen Lohman, and I’m a first-year student in Dr. Scott Baker’s Cetacean Conservation and Genomics Lab at OSU. Dr. Leigh Torres is serving on my committee and has asked me to contribute to the GEMM lab blog from time to time. For my master’s project, I’ll be applying population genetics and genomics techniques to better understand the degree of population mixing and breeding ground assignment of feeding humpback whales in the eastern North Pacific. In other words, I’ll be trying to determine where the humpback whales off the U.S. West Coast are migrating from, and at what frequency.

Earlier this month I joined the GEMM lab members in attending the Northwest Student Society of Marine Mammalogy Conference in Seattle. The GEMM lab members and I made the trip up to the University of Washington to present our work to our peers from across the Pacific Northwest. All five GEMM lab graduate students, plus GEMM lab intern Acacia Pepper, and myself gave talks presenting our research to our peers. I was able to present preliminary results on the population structure of feeding humpback whales across shared feeding habitat by multiple breeding groups in the eastern North Pacific using mitochondria DNA haplotype frequencies. In the end GEMM lab’s Dawn Barlow took home the “Best Oral Presentation” prize. Way to go Dawn!

A few of the GEMM lab members and me presenting our research at the NWSSMM conference in May 2019 at the University of Washington.

While conferences have a strong networking component, this one feels unique.  It is a chance to network with our peers, who are working through the same challenges in graduate school and will hopefully be our future research collaborators in marine mammal research when we finish our degrees. It’s also one of the few groups of people that understand the challenges of studying marine mammals. Not every day is full of dolphins and rainbows; for me, it’s mostly labwork or writing code to overcome small and/or patchy sample size problems.

All of the CCGL and GEMM Lab members excited to hear Dr. Sylvia Earle’s presentation at Portland State University in May 2019 (from L to R: Karen L., Lisa H., Alexa K., Leila L., Dawn B., and Dom K.) . Photo Source: Alexa Kownacki

On the way back from Seattle we stopped to hear the one and only Dr. Sylvia Earle, talk in Portland. With 27 honorary doctorates and over 200 publications, Dr. Sylvia Earle is a legend in marine science. Hearing a distinguished marine researcher talk about her journey in research and to present such an inspiring message of ocean advocacy was a great way to end our weekend away from normal grad school responsibilities. While the entirety of her talk was moving, one of her final comments really stood out. Near the end of her talk she called the audience to action by saying “Look at your abilities and have confidence that you can and must make a difference. Do whatever you’ve got.” As a first-year graduate student trying to figure out my path forward in research and conservation, I couldn’t think of better advice to end the weekend on.


Looking Back: Three Years After Grad School

By Courtney Hann (NOAA Fisheries, West Coast Sustainable Fisheries Division)

Thinking back, as Leigh’s first M.Sc. student for the GEMM Lab, I wonder what poignant insight could have prepared me for my future endeavors. And having faced years of perseverance and dedication in the face of professional unknowns, perhaps the answer is none at all; fore maybe it was the many unknown challenges met that led me to where I am today.

I graduated in December of 2015, with my Masters in Marine Resource Management, and stamped completion of my research with the GEMM Lab. While my research focused on marine mammals, my broader love for the Earth’s oceans and lands guided my determination to help keep our planet’s precious ecosystem resources wild and free. So when I landed a position in terrestrial ecology after graduating, I chose to embrace the challenging decision of jumping away from theoretical research and moving back towards applied research. Consequently, I fell in love with botany, moth identification, birding, and explored the unknowns of a whole new world of conservation biology in Scotland with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Not only was this work incredibly fun, interesting, and spontaneous, it offered me an opportunity to take my knowledge of developing research projects and apply it to nature reserve management. Every survey I completed and dataset I analyzed provided information required to determine the next land management steps for maximizing the conservation of rare and diverse species. From the GEMM Lab, I brought skills on: how to work through what, at times, seemed like an impassible barrier, complete tasks efficiently under a tight deadline, juggle multiple activities and obligations, and still make time to ponder the importance of seeing the bigger picture, while having fun learning new things.

Above: Botanizing and birding in Scotland with the best botanist I have ever known and my boss, Jeff Waddell, with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

For me, the long game of seeing the bigger picture has always been key. And at the end of the day, I remained steadfast in answering the questioned I posed myself: Why do all of this work if not to make a truly positive impact? With that in mind, and with an expiring visa, I moved back to the West Coast of the U.S. and landed a contracting position with NOAA Fisheries. Where I met my second female mentor, Heidi Taylor, who inspired me beyond words and introduced me to the amazing world of fisheries management. All the while, I kept working my second part-time job with the West Coast Regional Planning Body (now called the West Coast Ocean Alliance, WCOA). Working two jobs allowed me to not only accelerate my learning capacity through more opportunities, but also allowed me to extend the reach of growing a positive impact.  For example, I learned about coordinating region-wide ocean management, facilitation of diverse groups, and working with tribes, states, and federal agencies while working for the WCOA. While there were moments that I struggled with overworking and fatigue, my training in graduate school to persevere really kicked in. Driven by the desire to attain a permanent position that complimented my talents and determination to provide sustained help for our Earth’s ecosystems, I worked for what sometimes felt endlessly to reach my goal. Getting there was tough, but well worth it!

One of the most challenging aspects for me was finishing my last publication for the GEMM Lab. I was no longer motivated by the research, since my career path had taken a different turn, and I was already burnt out form working overtime every week. Therefore, if it was not for Leigh’s encouraging words, the promise I made to her to complete the publication, and my other co-author’s invitation to submit a paper for a particular journal, then I likely would have thrown in the towel. I had to re-do the analysis several times, had the paper rejected once, and then ended up re-writing and re-structuring the entire paper for the final publication. In total, it took me two and half years and 100s of hours to complete this paper after graduating. Of course, there was no funding, so I felt a bit like an ongoing graduate student until the paper was finally accepted and the work complete. But the final acceptance of the paper was so sweet, and after years of uncertain challenges, a heavy weight had finally been lifted. So perhaps, if there is one piece of advice I would say to young graduate students, it is to get your work published before you graduate! I had one paper and one book chapter published before I graduated, and that made my life much easier. While I am proud for finishing the final third publication, I would have much preferred to have just taken one extra semester and finished that publication while in school. But regardless, it was completed. And in a catharsis moment, maybe the challenge of completing it taught me the determination I needed to persevere through difficult situations.

Above: Elephant seal expressing my joy of finishing that last publication! Wooohoooooo!

With that publication out of the way, I was able to focus more time on my career. While I no longer use R on a daily basis and do not miss the hours of searching for that one pesky bug, I do analyze, critique, and use scientific literature everyday. Moreover, the critical thinking, creative, and collaborative skills I honed in the GEMM Lab, have been and will be useful for the rest of my life. Those hours of working through complicated statistical analyses and results in Leigh’s office pay off everyday. Reading outside of work, volunteering and working second jobs, all of this I learned from graduate school. Carrying this motivation, hard work, determination, and perseverance on past graduate school was undeniably what led me to where I am today. I have landed my dream job, working for NOAA Fisheries Sustainable Fisheries Division on salmon management and policy, in my dream location, the Pacific Northwest.  My work now ties directly into ongoing management and policy that shapes our oceans, conservation efforts, and fisheries management. I am grateful for all the people who have supported me along the way, with this blog post focusing on the GEMM Lab and Leigh Torres as my advisor. I hope to be a mentor and guide for others along their path, as so many have helped me along mine. Good luck to any grad student reading this now! But more than luck, carry passion and determination forward because that is what will propel you onward on your own path. Thank you GEMM Lab, it is now time for me to enjoy my new job.

Above: Enjoying in my new home in the Pacific Northwest.




Finding the right fit: a journey into cetacean distribution models

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

Species Distribution Models (SDM), also referred to as ecological niche models, may be defined as “a model that relates species distribution data (occurrence or abundance at known locations) with information on the environmental and/or spatial characteristics of those locations” (Elith & Leathwick, 2009)⁠. In the last couple decades, SDMs have become an indispensable part of the ecologists’ and conservationists’ toolbox. What scientist has not dreamed of being able to summarize a species’ environmental requirements and predict where and when it will occur, all in one tiny statistical model? It sounds like magic… but the short acronym “SDM” is the pretty front window of an intricate and gigantic research field that may extend way beyond the skills of a typical ecologist (even so for a graduate student like myself).

As part of my PhD thesis about the spatial ecology of humpback whales in New Caledonia, South Pacific, I was planning on producing a model to predict their distribution in the region and help spatial planning within the Natural Park of the Coral Sea. An innocent and seemingly perfectly feasible plan for a second year PhD student. To conduct this task, I had at my disposal more than 1,000 sightings recorded during dedicated surveys at sea conducted over 14 years. These numbers seem quite sufficient, considering the rarity of cetaceans and the technical challenges of studying them at sea. And there was more! The NGO Opération Cétacés  also recorded over 600 sightings reported by the general public in the same time period and deployed more than 40 satellite tracking tags to follow individual whale movements. In a field where it is so hard to acquire data, it felt like I had to use it all, though I was not sure how to combine all these types of data, with their respective biases, scales and assumptions.

One important thing about SDM to remember: it is like a cracker section in a US grocery shop, there is sooooo much choice! As I reviewed the possibilities and tested various modeling approaches on my data I realized that this study might be a good opportunity to contribute to the SDM field, by conducting a comparison of various algorithms using cetacean occurrence data from multiple sources. The results of this work was just published  in Diversity and Distributions:

Derville S, Torres LG, Iovan C, Garrigue C. (2018) Finding the right fit: Comparative cetacean distribution models using multiple data sources and statistical approaches. Divers Distrib. 2018;00:1–17. https://doi. org/10.1111/ddi.12782

There are simply too many! Anonymous grocery shops, Corvallis, OR
Credit: Dawn Barlow

If you are a new-comer to the SDM world, and specifically its application to the marine environment, I hope you find this interesting. If you are a seasoned SDM user, I would be very grateful to read your thoughts in the comment section! Feel free to disagree!

So what is the take-home message from this work?

  • There is no such thing as a “best model”; it all depends on what you want your model to be good at (the descriptive vs predictive dichotomy), and what criteria you use to define the quality of your models.

The predictive vs descriptive goal of the model: This is a tricky choice to make, yet it should be clearly identified upfront. Most times, I feel like we want our models to be decently good at both tasks… It is a risky approach to blindly follow the predictions of a complex model without questioning the meaning of the ecological relationships it fitted. On the other hand, conservation applications of models often require the production of predicted maps of species’ probability of presence or habitat suitability.

The criteria for model selection: How could we imagine that the complexity of animal behavior could be summarized in a single metric, such as the famous Akaike Information criterion (AIC) or the Area under the ROC Curve (AUC)? My study, and that of others (e.g. Elith & Graham  H., 2009),⁠ emphasize the importance of looking at multiple aspects of model outputs: raw performance through various evaluation metrics (e.g. see AUCdiff; (Warren & Seifert, 2010)⁠, contribution of the variables to the model, shape of the fitted relationships through Partial Dependence Plots (PDP, Friedman, 2001),⁠ and maps of predicted habitat suitability and associated error. Spread all these lines of evidence in front of you, summarize all the metrics, add a touch of critical ecological thinking to decide on the best approach for your modeling question, and Abracadabra! You end up a bit lost in a pile of folders… But at least you assessed the quality of your work from every angle!

  • Cetacean SDMs often serve a conservation goal. Hence, their capacity to predict to areas / times that were not recorded in the data (which is often scarce) is paramount. This extrapolation performance may be restricted when the model relationships are overfitted, which is when you made your model fit the data so closely that you are unknowingly modeling noise rather than a real trend. Using cross-validation is a good method to prevent overfitting from happening (for a thorough review: Roberts et al., 2017)⁠. Also, my study underlines that certain algorithms inherently have a tendency to overfit. We found that Generalized Additive Models and MAXENT provided a valuable complexity trade-off to promote the best predictive performance, while minimizing overfitting. In the case of GAMs, I would like to point out the excellent documentation that exist on their use (Wood, 2017)⁠, and specifically their application to cetacean spatial ecology (Mannocci, Roberts, Miller, & Halpin, 2017; Miller, Burt, Rexstad, & Thomas, 2013; Redfern et al., 2017).⁠
  • Citizen science is a promising tool to describe cetacean habitat. Indeed, we found that models of habitat suitability based on citizen science largely converged with those based on our research surveys. The main issue encountered when modeling this type of data is the absence of “effort”. Basically, we know where people observed whales, but we do not know where they haven’t… or at least not with the accuracy obtained from research survey data. However, with some information about our citizen scientists and a little deduction, there is actually a lot you can infer about opportunistic data. For instance, in New Caledonia most of the sightings were reported by professional whale-watching operators or by the general public during fishing/diving/boating day trips. Hence, citizen scientists rarely stray far from harbors and spend most of their time in the sheltered waters of the New Caledonian lagoon. This reasoning provides the sort of information that we integrated in our modeling approach to account for spatial sampling bias of citizen science data and improve the model’s predictive performance.

Many more technical aspects of SDM are brushed over in this paper (for detailed and annotated R codes of the modeling approaches, see supplementary information of our paper). There are a few that are not central to the paper, but that I think are worth sharing:

  • Collinearity of predictors: Have you ever found that the significance of your predictors completely changed every time you removed a variable? I have progressively come to discover how unstable a model can be because of predictor collinearity (and the uneasy feeling that comes with it …). My new motto is to ALWAYS check cross-correlation between my predictors, and do it THOROUGHLY. A few aspects that may make a big difference in the estimation of collinearity patterns are to: (1) calculate Pearson vs Spearman coefficients, (2) check correlations between the values recorded at the presence points vs over the whole study area, and (3) assess the correlations between raw environmental variables vs between transformed variables (log-transformed, etc). Though selecting variables with Pearson coefficients < 0.7 is usually a good rule (Dormann et al., 2013), I would worry of anything above 0.5, or at least keep it in mind during model interpretation.
  • Cross-validation: If removing 10% of my dataset greatly impacts the model results, I feel like cross-validation is critical. The concept is based on a simple assumption, if I had sampled a given population/phenomenon/system slightly differently, would I have come to the same conclusion? Cross-validation comes in many different methods, but the basic concept is to run the same model several times (number of times may depend on the size of your data set, hierarchical structure of your data, computation power of your computer, etc.) over different chunks of your data. Model performance metrics (e.g., AUC) and outputs (e.g., partial dependence plots) are than summarized on the many runs, using mean/median and standard deviation/quantiles. It is up to you how to pick these chunks, but before doing this at random I highly recommend reading Roberts et al. (2017).

The evil of the R2: I am probably not the first student to feel like what I have learned in my statistical classes at school is in practice, at best, not very useful, and at worst, dangerously misleading. Of course, I do understand that we must start somewhere, and that learning the basics of inferential statistics is a necessary step to, one day, be able to answer your one research questions. Yet, I feel like I have been carrying the “weight of the R2” for far too long before actually realizing that this metric of model performance (R2 among others) is simply not  enough to trust my results. You might think that your model is robust because among the 1000 alternative models you tested, it is the one with the “best” performance (deviance explained, AIC, you name it), but the model with the best R2 will not always be the most ecologically meaningful one, or the most practical for spatial management perspectives. Overfitting is like a sword of Damocles hanging over you every time you create a statistical model All together, I sometimes trust my supervisor’s expertise and my own judgment more than an R2.

Source: internet

A few good websites/presentations that have helped me through my SDM journey:

General website about spatial analysis (including SDM): http://rspatial.org/index.html

Cool presentation by Adam Smith about SDM:


Handling spatial data in R: http://www.maths.lancs.ac.uk/~rowlings/Teaching/UseR2012/introductionTalk.html

“The magical world of mgcv”, a great presentation by Noam Ross: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4_t8jXcQgc


Literature cited

Dormann, C. F., Elith, J., Bacher, S., Buchmann, C., Carl, G., Carré, G., … Lautenbach, S. (2013). Collinearity: A review of methods to deal with it and a simulation study evaluating their performance. Ecography, 36(1), 027–046. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0587.2012.07348.x

Elith, J., & Graham  H., C. (2009). Do they? How do they? WHY do they differ? On finding reasons for differing performances of species distribution models . Ecography, 32(Table 1), 66–77. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0587.2008.05505.x

Elith, J., & Leathwick, J. R. (2009). Species Distribution Models: Ecological Explanation and Prediction Across Space and Time. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 40(1), 677–697. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.110308.120159

Friedman, J. H. (2001). Greedy Function Approximation: A gradient boosting machine. The Annals of Statistics, 29(5), 1189–1232. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2699986

Mannocci, L., Roberts, J. J., Miller, D. L., & Halpin, P. N. (2017). Extrapolating cetacean densities to quantitatively assess human impacts on populations in the high seas. Conservation Biology, 31(3), 601–614. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.12856.This

Miller, D. L., Burt, M. L., Rexstad, E. A., & Thomas, L. (2013). Spatial models for distance sampling data: Recent developments and future directions. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 4(11), 1001–1010. https://doi.org/10.1111/2041-210X.12105

Redfern, J. V., Moore, T. J., Fiedler, P. C., de Vos, A., Brownell, R. L., Forney, K. A., … Ballance, L. T. (2017). Predicting cetacean distributions in data-poor marine ecosystems. Diversity and Distributions, 23(4), 394–408. https://doi.org/10.1111/ddi.12537

Roberts, D. R., Bahn, V., Ciuti, S., Boyce, M. S., Elith, J., Guillera-Arroita, G., … Dormann, C. F. (2017). Cross-validation strategies for data with temporal, spatial, hierarchical or phylogenetic structure. Ecography, 0, 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1111/ecog.02881

Warren, D. L., & Seifert, S. N. (2010). Ecological niche modeling in Maxent: the importance of model complexity and the performance of model selection criteria. Ecological Applications, 21(2), 335–342. https://doi.org/10.1890/10-1171.1

Wood, S. N. (2017). Generalized additive models: an introduction with R (second edi). CRC press.

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/ Gouv.nc/ WWF/ Ministère de la Transition écologique et solidaire).

Exploring the Coral Sea in Search of Humpbacks

By: Solène Derville, Entropie Lab, Institute of Research for Development, Nouméa, New Caledonia (Ph.D. student under the co-supervision of Dr. Leigh Torres)

Once again the austral winter is ending, and with it ends the field season for the scientific team studying humpback whales in New Caledonia. Through my PhD, I have become as migratory as my study species so this is also the time for me to fly back to Oregon for an intense 3 months of data analysis at the GEMM Lab. But before packing, it is time for a sum-up!

In 2014, the government of New Caledonia has declared all waters of the Economic Exclusive Zone to be part of a giant marine protected area: the Natural Park of the Coral Sea. These waters are seasonally visited by a small and endangered population of humpback whales whose habitat use patterns are poorly known. Indeed, the park spans more than 1.3 million km2 and its most remote and pristine areas therefore remained pretty much unexplored in terms of cetacean presence… until recently.

In 2016, the project WHERE “Humpback Whale Habitat Exploration to improve spatial management in the natural park of the CoRal Sea” was launch by my PhD supervisor, Dr. Garrigue, and I, to conduct surveys in remote reefs, seamounts and shallow banks surrounding New Caledonia mainland. The aim of the project is to increase our understanding of habitat use and movements of humpback whales in breeding grounds over a large spatial scale and predict priority conservation areas for the park.

Fig. 1. A humpback whale with our research vessel, the oceanographic vessel Alis, in the background.

This season, three specific areas were targeted for survey during the MARACAS expeditions (Marine Mammals of the Coral Sea):

– Chesterfield and Bellona reefs that surround two huge 30- to 60m-deep plateaus and are located halfway between New Caledonia and Australia (Fig. 4). Considered as part of the most pristine reefs in the Coral Sea, these areas were actually identified as one of the main hotspots targeted by the 19th century commercial whaling of humpback whales in the South Pacific (Oremus and Garrigue 2014). Last year’s surveys revealed that humpback whales still visit the area, but the abundance of the population and its connection to the neighboring breeding grounds of New Caledonia and Australia is yet to establish.

Fig. 2. The tiny islands along the Chesterfield and Bellona reefs also happen to host nesting sites for several species of boobies and terns. Here, a red-footed booby (Sula sula).

– Walpole Island and Orne bank are part of the shallow areas East of the mainland of New Caledonia (Fig. 4), where several previously tagged whales were found to spend a significant amount of time. This area was explored by our survey team for the first time last year, revealing an unexpected density of humpback whales displaying signs of breeding (male songs, competitive groups) and nursing activity (females with their newborn calf).

Fig. 3. The beautiful cliffs of Walpole Island rising from the Pacific Ocean.

Antigonia seamount, an offshore breeding site located South of the mainland (Fig. 4) and known for its amazingly dense congregations of humpback whales.  The seamount rises from the abyssal seabed to a depth of 60 m, with no surfacing island or reef to shelter either the whales or the scientists from rough seas.

Fig. 4. Map of the New Caledonia Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) and the project WHERE study areas (MARACAS expeditions).

During our three cruises, we spent 37 days at-sea while a second team continued monitoring the South Lagoon breeding ground. Working with two teams at the same time, one covering the offshore breeding areas and the other monitoring the coastal long-term study site of the South Lagoon, allowed us to assess large scale movements of humpback whales within the breeding season using photo-ID matches. This piece of information is particularly important to managers, in order to efficiently protect whales both within their breeding spots, and the potential corridors between them.

So how would you study whales over such a large scale?

Well first, find a ship. A LARGE ship. It takes more than 48 hours to reach the Chesterfield reefs. The vessel needs to carry enough gas necessary to survey such an extensive region, plus the space for a dinghy big enough to conduct satellite tagging of whales. All of this could not have been possible without the Amborella, the New Caledonian governement’s vessel, and the Alis, a French oceanographic research vessel.

Second, a team needs to be multidisciplinary. Surveying remote waters is logistically challenging and financially costly, so we had to make it worth our time. This season, we combined 1) photo-identification and biopsy samplings to estimate population connectivity, 2) acoustic monitoring using moored hydrophone (one of which recorded in Antigonia for more than two months, Fig. 5), 3) transect lines to record encounter rates of humpback whales, 4) in situ oceanographic measurements, and finally 5) satellite tracking of whales using the recent SPLASH10 tags (Wildlife Computers) capable of recording dive depths in addition to geographic positions (Fig. 6).

Fig. 5. Claire, Romain and Christophe standing next to our moored hydrophone, ready for immersion.

Satellite tracks and photo-identification have already revealed some interesting results in terms of connectivity within the park and with neighboring wintering grounds.

Preliminary matching of the caudal fluke pictures captured this season and in 2016 with existing catalogues showed that the same individuals may be resighted in different regions of the Park. For instance, some of the individuals photographed in Chesterfield – Bellona, had been observed around New Caledonia mainland in previous years! This match strengthens our hypothesis of a connection between Chesterfield reef complex and New Caledonia.

Yet, because the study of whale behavior is never straightforward, one tagged whale also indicated a potential connection between Chesterfield-Bellona and Australia East coast (Fig. 6). This is the first time a humpback whale is tracked moving between New Caledonia and East Australia within a breeding season. Previous matches of fluke catalogues had shown a few exchanges between these two areas but these comparisons did not include Chesterfield. Is it possible that the Chesterfield-Bellona coral reef complex form a connecting platform between Australia and New Caledonia? The matching of our photos with those captured by our Australian colleagues who collected data at the Great Barrier Reef  in 2016 and 2017 should help answer this question…

Fig. 6. “Splash” was tagged in Chesterfield in August and after spending some time in Bellona it initiated a migration south. Seamounts seem to play an important role for humpback whales in the region, as “Splash” stopped on Kelso and Capel seamount during its trip. It reached the Australian coast a couple of days ago and we are looking forward to discover the rest of its route!

While humpback whales often appear like one of the most well documented cetacean species, it seems that there is yet a lot to discover about them!


These expeditions would not have been possible without the financial and technical support of the French Institute of Research for Development, the New Caledonian government, the French  Ministère de la Transition Ecologique et Solidaire, and the World Wide Fund for Nature. And of course, many thanks to the Alis and Amborella crews, and to our great fieldwork teammates: Jennifer Allen, Claire Bonneville, Hugo Bourgogne, Guillaume Chero, Rémi Dodémont, Claire Garrigue, Nicolas Job, Romain Le Gendre, Marc Oremus, Véronique Pérard, Leena Riekkola, and Mike Williamson.

Fig. 7A. The teams of the three 2017 MARACAS expeditions (Marine Mammals of the Coral Sea).

Fig. 7B. The teams of the three 2017 MARACAS expeditions (Marine Mammals of the Coral Sea).

Fig. 7C. The teams of the three 2017 MARACAS expeditions (Marine Mammals of the Coral Sea).

Getting my Feet Wet: My first Dive into Marine Science

Guest Writer: Alyssa Gomez, GEMM Lab summer intern, University of Idaho, Doris Duke Conservation Scholar


Upon my arrival in Newport, OR, the sand greeted my toes, the sun my skin, and the ocean my heart. I’m an Idahoan and have yearned for the ocean my whole life, only getting glimpses of it here and there while on vacation. I have savored these memories, but for the summer of 2017, I no longer need to rely on the past. I’m only a hop, skip, and a jump away from tides and salty air until August 5th. Despite how distracting the scenery here may be, there is a lot of work to be done, as I am interning in the GEMM Lab, under the supervision of Dr. Leigh Torres, in collaboration with Craig Hayslip (Whale Telemetry Group) and Kaety Jacobson (Oregon Sea Grant).


In the short time I am here, my goal is to find out how probable it is for a gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) to be injured to the point of scarring, and what is causing this scarring. In order to do this, I’m analyzing thousands of photos of gray whales capture in Oregon waters, which span from 2012-2016. In these thousands of images, I am identifying both anthropogenic (i.e., from fishing gear or a vessel propeller) and natural (i.e., killer whale teeth rake marks) scarring, with most focus on the anthropogenic scars. This project is collaborative, not only in terms of the data we are looking at, but in terms of who will be looking at the data. Once I’ve compiled all of the scarred whale photos, we hope to have fishermen asses the photos as well, in order to identify causes of the scars. If they believe the scars are from entanglements in fishing gear, we will ask for their opinion on the type of fishing gear that caused the scar. Hopefully, with this type of collaboration, we will be able to better understand the complex relationship between fisheries and gray whales.

Kaety Jacobson explaining the many types of gear present on vessels docked in Newport, OR.

While whale entanglement events are rare, Dungeness crab fishing gear is often involved. Dungeness crab is a very important fishery for this region, both economically and culturally, with a large commercial fleet and many recreational fishers. Dungeness crab pots are stationary on the sea floor, often placed in near shore waters and left out for many days in between drop off and pickup, and sometimes even abandoned altogether. Because gray whales, specifically the Pacific Coast Feeding Group of gray whales, feed in the same habitat as many Oregon commercial and recreational crab gear, they sometimes get entangled in the lines. Recently, there has been a great deal of discussion on this entanglement issue and how to maintain fishery profits while reducing entanglements. A working group of scientists, crab fishers, and gear experts met in Portland in March of 2017 to discuss this issue. Dr. Leigh Torres was in attendance, and thus, my project was born. Our goal is to identify the body regions most often involved, describe gear types if possible, and quantify healing rates of scars. We are hoping that this information will fill in some knowledge gaps and help us come up with effective solutions to this entanglement issue.

Kaety showing me the ins and outs of crab pots on some abandoned gear.

This seems like a big undertaking for me, as I’ve never been exposed to marine science, let alone marine mammals and all of the analysis programs, protocols, etc., that I am now using daily. There is certainly a learning curve; however, I have exactly the support and the freedom needed in order to prosper and learn in the GEMM Lab. Leigh, Florence, Dawn, Leila, and some honorary guests of this lab have been exceptionally welcoming and inviting, not to mention all others here at Hatfield.  Each day is filled with countless new opportunities, such as dock walks, necropsies, field work, meetings, and seminars.  Although I haven’t been here long, I already know that this lab is a real GEMM. I’m excited for all that is yet to come.

Leigh and I collecting a gray whale fecal sample aboard Ruby.

Reporting back on the Whales in a Changing Ocean Conference

Solène Derville, Entropie Lab, Institute of Research for Development, Nouméa, New Caledonia (Ph.D. student under the co-supervision of Dr. Leigh Torres)

My flight back to New Caledonia gives me time to think and process all that I have experienced in the last few days. From April 4th to 6th, I had the great opportunity to attend the “Whales in a Changing Ocean” conference held in Nuku’alofa, in the Kingdom of Tonga. This conference organized by SPREP (Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme) as part of the “Protect Pacific Whales – Ocean Voyagers” campaign brought together members of the Pacific Island governments, whale-watching operators, NGOs, IGOS and scientists.

Opening ceremony

As a relatively novice PhD student studying humpback whale spatial ecology in New Caledonia this was my first experience attending a conservation and management focused conference. To be completely honest, when I was asked to attend the conference as part of the work I am conducting on the effect of environmental changes on humpbacks of the South Pacific breeding grounds, I gladly accepted the offer, as an opportunity for me to learn more about the political mechanisms underlying international conservation plans. However, I was a little sceptical as to what tangible outputs could come out of such event. How would the science be integrated into this rather political event? How many delegations would be able to make it? Would they manage to agree on strong objectives regarding the conservation of cetaceans in the region?

Leena Riekkola, a PhD student at University of Auckland, and I with traditional flower necklaces offered by the organizers

On the first day of the conference, we sat through several hours of formal opening ceremony and comments from the governmental delegations that had travelled to Tonga from all over the Pacific: Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, Niue, French Polynesia, New Zealand, Australia, the Cook Islands, Palau, Fiji and many others. These comments mainly consisted of a succession of (well deserved) acknowledgments to the Tongan government for hosting the event and the enumeration of the endless list of threats faced by cetaceans in the region. Despite the tedious nature of this inevitable display of etiquette, I was impressed by the sight of all these governmental and non-governmental delegations sitting around the same table to discuss the future of whales. I was surprised to hear a note of emotion in several of the speeches that day. I clearly had not realized how valuable whales are to the Pacific islanders. Valuable economically of course, as whale watching is one of the most important drivers of tourism to several of these islands, most of all to Tonga. But also importantly, whales and dolphins bear a strong cultural value to the people of the Pacific. Many of the attendees shared stories and legends about whales, and I quickly realized that these animals were indeed a “cultural heritage” that people were eager to protect and preserve.

The next two days of the conference were built around a series of plenaries and workshops surrounding 3 themes: sustainable whale-watching, scientific research and emerging threats. While I was initially a bit lost and did not quite understand where all of this was going, I progressively saw several recommendations and objectives emerging from the discussions. By the end of the conference, I realized how much had been accomplished in only three days and that these achievements were more than just words. Four main outcomes resulted from this conference:

  • The commitment to adopt and sign a Pacific Island Year of the Whale Declaration by 11 nations/territories of the region (out of 21), namely: Australia, the Cook Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Tokelau and Tuvalu. Not all of the governmental representatives were able to sign but it is likely that some will join later.

  • The agreement to a voluntary commitment to “Protect, conserve and restore whale populations in the Pacific islands, which will be presented at the UN Oceans conference in June 2017.
  • A technical and scientific input from international working groups to help establish the next SPREP Whale and Dolphin Action Plan for 2018-2023

  • Tonga’s announcement of a whale sanctuary in their waters.

    Governmental representatives group photo after signing the Pacific Island Year of the Whale Declaration

Whether these declarations of intentions and recommendations will actually lead to tangible actions in the short term, I could not tell. But I am glad I got the opportunity to witness the very first regional conference on whales in the Pacific Islands, and the celebration of these beautiful creatures and their place in Pacific cultures.