By Dawn Barlow, MSc student, Oregon State University
The season has shifted since the post I wrote this summer about diving into the world of New Zealand blue whales and the beginnings of my masters research. My fieldwork will take place during the upcoming austral summer, which will require me to miss the winter term here on campus. This quarter, I have put my research on the back burner for the time being in favor of a full load of coursework. But my project is still there, simmering subtly and persistently, and giving relevance to the coursework that I’m focusing my energy on this fall term.
As an undergraduate student, I acquired a broad scientific background and had the opportunity to dabble in the areas of biology that piqued my interest. I arrived here with a basic understanding of chemistry, physics, cell biology, anatomy, marine ecology and conservation biology. I gained experience working in the field with intertidal sea stars, snails, mussels, crabs and barnacles, with bottlenose dolphins and with humpback whales. But now my focus has narrowed as I’ve honed in on the specific questions that I will pursue over the next two years. My passion lies in marine ecology and conservation. Now, as a graduate student studying the ecology of a little-known population in a highly industrial area, this passion can come to fruition. For my masters, I hope to do the following:
A) Use photo-identification analysis to obtain a population abundance estimate for blue whales in New Zealand
B) Investigate blue whale residency and distribution patterns in New Zealand waters
C) Develop a comprehensive blue whale habitat use model for the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand, which incorporates physical and biological data
Down the road I hope to have implemented a capture-recapture abundance estimate model that best fits the dynamics of this population of blue whales, to have mapped where sightings have occurred and where the highest densities of blue whales are found in both space and time, and to have paired blue whale presence and absence with prey distribution, remote-sensed environmental data, and in situ oceanographic data. But how does one accomplish these things? I need a toolbox to draw from. And so this fall, I am assembling my toolbox, learning programs and analytical skills. I am taking methods courses—statistics, data management in R, analysis in GIS, methods in physiology and behavior of marine megafauna—that are no longer explorations into the world of natural science, but rather tools for exploring, identifying, and interpreting specific phenomena in ecology. While each comes with its own hiccups and headaches (see Florence’s post about this…), they are powerful tools.
Aside from coursework, the research I’m conducting has gained weight and relevance beyond being an investigation in ecology. My study area lies in the South Taranaki Bight of New Zealand, which is a contentious proposed seabed mining site for iron sands. As an undergraduate student I read case studies and wrote papers on the environmental impacts of industry, and I decided to go graduate school because I want to do research that has direct conservation applications. Last week I compiled all the data I’ve processed on blue whale sightings, seasonal residency, and photo identification for the South Taranaki Bight, which will be included as evidence submitted in environmental court in New Zealand by my advisor, Dr. Leigh Torres. “Applied conservation science” has been an abstract idea that has excited and motivated me for a long time, and now I am partaking in this process, experiencing applied conservation science firsthand.
And so my toolbox is growing, and the scope of my work is simultaneously narrowing in focus and expanding in relevance. The more tools I acquire, the more excited I am to apply them to my research. As I build my toolbox this fall, this process is something I look forward to enhancing while I’m in the field, when I dig deeper into data analysis, and as I grow as a conservation scientist.
Our third day aboard the Oceanus began in the misty morning fog before the sun even rose. We took the first CTD cast of the day at 0630am because the physical properties of the water column do not change much with the arrival of daylight. Our ability to visually detect marine mammals, however, is vastly improved with a little sunlight, and we wanted to make the best use of our hours at sea possible.
Our focus on day three was the Astoria canyon – a submarine feature just off the Oregon and Washington coast. Our first oceanographic station was 40 miles offshore, and 1300 meters deep, while the second was 20 miles offshore and only 170 meters deep. See the handy infographic below to get a perspective on what those depths mean in the grand scheme of things. From an oceanographic perspective, the neatest finding of the day was our ability to detect the freshwater plume coming from the Columbia River at both those stations despite their distance from each other, and from shore! Water density is one of the key characteristics that oceanographers use to track parcels of water as they travel through the ocean conveyor belt. Certain bodies of water (like the Mediterranean Sea, or the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans) have distinct properties that allow us to recognize them easily. In this case, it was very exciting to “sea” the two-layer system we had gotten used to observing overlain with a freshwater lens of much lower salinity, higher temperature, and lower density. This combination of freshwater, saltwater, and intriguing bathymetric features can lead to interesting foraging opportunities for marine megafauna – so, what did we find out there?
Morning conditions were almost perfect for marine mammal observations – glassy calm with low swell, good, high, cloud cover to minimize glare and allow us to catch the barest hint of a blow….. it should come as no surprise then, that the first sightings of the day were seabirds and tuna!
One of the best things about being at sea is the ability to look out at the horizon and have nothing but water staring back at you. It really drives home all the old seafaring superstitions about sailing off the edge of the world. This close to shore, and in such productive waters, it is rare to find yourself truly alone, so when we spot a fishing trawler, there’s already a space to note it in the data log. Ships at sea often have “follower” birds – avians attracted by easy meals as food scraps are dumped overboard. Fishing boats usually attract a lot of birds as fish bycatch and processing leftovers are flushed from the deck. The birders groan, because identification and counts of individuals get more and more complicated as we approach other vessels. The most thrilling bird sighting of the day for me were the flocks of a couple hundred fork-tailed storm petrels.
I find it remarkable that such small birds are capable of spending 80% of their life on the open ocean, returning to land only to mate and raise a chick. Their nesting strategy is pretty fascinating too – in bad foraging years, the chick is capable of surviving for several days without food by going into a state of torpor. (This slows metabolism and reduces growth until an adult returns.)
Just because the bird observers were starting to feel slightly overwhelmed, doesn’t mean that the marine mammal observers stopped their own survey. The effort soon paid off with shouts of “Wait! What are those splashes over there?!” That’s the signal for everyone to get their binoculars up, start counting individuals, and making note of identifying features like color, shape of dorsal fin, and swimming style so that we can make an accurate species ID. The first sighting, though common in the area, was a new species for me – Pacific white sided dolphins!
A pod of thirty or so came to ride our bow wake for a bit, which was a real treat. But wait, it got better! Shortly afterward, we spotted more activity off the starboard bow. It was confusing at first because we could clearly see a lot of splashes indicating many individuals, but no one had glimpsed any fins to help us figure out the species. As the pod got closer, Leigh shouted “Lissodelphis! They’re lissodelphis!” We couldn’t see any dorsal fins, because northern right whale dolphins haven’t got one! Then the fly bridge became absolute madness as we all attempted to count how many individuals were in the pod, as well as take pictures for photo ID. It got even more complicated when some more pacific white sided dolphins showed up to join in the bow-riding fun.
All told, our best estimates counted about 200 individuals around us in that moment. The dolphins tired of us soon, and things continued to calm down as we moved further away from the fishing vessels. We had a final encounter with an enthusiastic young humpback who was breaching and tail-slapping all over the place before ending our survey and heading towards Astoria to make our dock time.
As a Washington native who has always been interested in a maritime career, I grew up on stories of The Graveyard of the Pacific, and how difficult the crossing of the Columbia River Bar can be. Many harbors have dedicated captains to guide large ships into the port docks. Did you know the same is true of the Columbia River Bar? Conditions change so rapidly here, the shifting sands of the river mouth make it necessary for large ships to receive a local guest pilot (often via helicopter) to guide them across. The National Motor Lifeboat School trains its students at the mouth of the river because it provides some of “the harshest maritime weather conditions in the world”. Suffice it to say, not only was I thrilled to be able to detect the Columbia River plume in our CTD profile, I was also supremely excited to finally sail across the bar. While a tiny part of me had hoped for a slightly more arduous crossing (to live up to all the stories you know), I am happy to report that we had glorious, calm, sunny conditions, which allowed us all to thoroughly enjoy the view from the fly bridge.
Finally, we arrived in Astoria, loaded all our gear into the ship’s RHIB (Ridged Hulled Inflatable Boat), lowered it into the river, descended the rope ladder, got settled, and motored into port. We waved goodbye to the R/V Oceanus, and hope to conduct another STEM cruise aboard her again soon.
Now if the ground would stop rolling, that would be just swell.
Last but not least, here are the videos we promised you in Oceanus Day Two – the first video shows the humpback lunge feeding behavior, while the second shows tail slapping. Follow our youtube channel for more cool videos!
Today got off to a bright and early start. As soon as daylight permitted, we had spotters out on duty looking for more marine mammals. We began to survey at the north end of Heceta bank, where we again encountered many humpback whales lunge feeding. We broke transect, and got some great video footage of a pair them – so check our youtube channel next week – we’ll upload the video as soon as we get back to better internet (dial up takes some getting used to again – the whales don’t know about highspeed yet).
After working with the humpbacks to capture photo-id data for about an hour, we turned south, and ran parallel to Heceta bank until we reached the southern edge. Along the way, we counted 30 humpbacks, and many California gulls, marbled murrelets, pink footed shearwaters, and sooty shearwaters.
After lunch, we conducted a CTD cast to see how conditions might be different between the southern and northern edges of the bank. Surface temperatures increased from 12.09C to 13.2C while bottom temperatures decreased from 8.7C to 7.8C. The northern station was a textbook perfect two layer system. It had a well mixed surface layer with a steep pycnocline separating it from the colder, saltier, denser, bottom layer. The southern station still had two layers, but the pycnocline (the depth where a rapid change in density occurs, which delineates the edges of water masses) was not as steep. We are interested in these discreet measurements of ocean conditions because areas of high primary productivity (the green chlorophyll-a line) are often re-occurring hot spots of food for many levels of the food chain. Since we can’t phone the whales and ask them where to meet up, we use clues like these to anticipate the best place to start looking.
We next turned west to transect the continental shelf break. Here, we were hoping to observe changes in species composition as waters got deeper, and habitat changed. The shelf break is often known as an area of upwelling and increased primary productivity, which can lead to concentrations of marine predators taking advantage of aggregations of prey. As we moved further offshore, everyone was hoping for some sperm whales, or maybe some oceanic dolphin species, and if we’re really lucky, maybe a beaked whale or two.
Today our students learned the lesson of how difficult marine mammal observation can be when our target species spend the majority of their lives underwater – where we can’t see them. While there were a couple of hours of mammal empty water in there, observers were kept busy identifying long tailed- jaegers, cassin’s auklets, murrelets, petrels, shearwaters, fulmars, and so many black-footed albatrosses, that they almost became “normal”. That being said, we did spot a fin whale, a few groups of Dall’s porpoise, and three pacific-white-sided dolphins. Unexpectedly, we also saw an unidentified shark, and several sunfish (mola mola)!
Last but not least, we engaged in a long standing oceanographic tradition, which is to draw on Styrofoam cups, and send them down to Davy Jone’s Locker attached to the CTD. When you bring them back up, the pressure has caused them to shrink to a fraction of their original size, which is an excellent demonstration of the crushing power of pressure (and why its harder to build a submarine than a rocket).
Now, we are steaming north toward Astoria Canyon, where we hope to make some more sightings in the morning. Stand by for news from our final day at sea.
The GEMM lab is adventuring out into the wild blue yonder of open ocean sampling and educational outreach! Leigh is the chief scientist onboard the R/V Oceanus for the next two days as we sail through Oregon waters in search of marine megafauna. Also onboard are four local teachers and five high school students who are learning the tricks of the trade. Amanda and I are here to help teach basic oceanography and distance sampling techniques to our enthusiastic students.
We started the morning with safety briefings, and headed out through the Newport breakwater, direction: Stonewall Bank. Stonewall is a local bathymetric feature where upwelling often occurs, leading to a productive ecosystem for both predators and prey. Even though our main sampling effort will be offshore this trip, we didn’t even make out of the harbor before recording our first gray whale and California sea lion sightings.
Our students (and their teachers) are eager and quick to catch on as we teach them new methodologies. Amanda and I had prepared presentations about basic oceanographic and distance sampling methods, but really the best way to learn is to jump in and go. We’ve set up a rotation schedule, and everyone is taking turns scanning the ocean for critters, deploying and recovering the CTD, logging data, and catching plankton.
So far, we have spotted gray whales, sea lions, a pod of (lightning speed) killer whales, lots of seagulls, northern fulmars, sooty shearwaters, storm petrels, and cormorants, but today’s highlight has to the last sighting of ~42 humpback whales. We found them at the Northern edge of Heceta Bank – a large rocky reef which provides structural habitat for a wide variety of marine species. As we approached the area, we spotted one whale, and then another. At first, our spotters had no trouble inputting the data, getting photo-ID shots, and distinguishing one whale from the next, but as we continued, we were soon overwhelmed. With whale blows surrounding us on all sides, it was hard to know where to look first – here a surface lunge, there, a breach, a spout, a fluke, a flipper slap! The surface activity was so dense and enthralling, it took a few moments before realizing there were some sea lions in the feeding frenzy too!
We observed the group, and tried to document as many individuals as possible as the sunset faded into night. When poor visibility put a stop to the visuals, we hurried to do a plankton tow and CTD cast to find some environmental insights for such a gathering. The CTD revealed a stratified water column, with two distinct layers, and the plankton tow brought up lots of diatoms and krill. As one of the goals of this cruise is to explore how marine mammals vary with ocean gradients, this is a pretty cool way to start.
A long day observing has left us all exhausted, but not too tired to share our excitement. Stay tuned for more updates from the briny blue!
Follow this link for real time view of our beautiful ship! : http://webcam.oregonstate.edu/oceanus
By Florence Sullivan, MSc Student Oregon State University, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife
It’s been a couple long, busy weeks here at the GEMM lab as my field season has wrapped up and new labmates are just getting started. There are students in the lab at all hours organizing, processing, and analyzing data. Much of our work investigating the spatial and temporal patterns of marine mammals around the globe takes long hours of parsing through information to bring you results. Systematic sampling is an important research tool but, sometimes, exciting discoveries just wash up at your front door.
Just recently on August 7, 2016, a 39 foot, juvenile female Humpback whale stranded at the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal in West Seattle, WA. This is very close to my home town, and a recent GEMM lab intern was in the area at the time, so we have a photo of this event for you! The humpback came ashore while still alive, but despite efforts to keep it comfortable and wet, the whale died before the tide returned.
A cursory necropsy, conducted on site by researchers from NOAA fisheries and the Cascadia Research Collective, showed the animal had multiple internal parasites and injuries associated with beaching, as well as being in poor nutritional condition overall. There were also bites on the lower jaw consistent with killer whale encounters, and a pod of orca had been spotted in the area the previous day. Necropsies are an important source of data about the basic physiology and biology of marine mammals that is not accessible through any other means. The carcass was towed to a deep-water disposal site approved by federal and state agencies and sunk. Humpback whale sightings in the Salish Sea have increased in the last five years. This, together with the fact that this juvenile was in poor nutritional condition, could indicate that there is competition for resources.
New Species Discovered!
There have been two new species of cetaceans discovered in recent months!
The first exciting announcement was published in the journal Marine Mammal Science in July. Japanese fishermen in the North Pacific have long reported a small, black beaked whale they call karasu, “raven.” In 2013, Japanese researchers published a paper about this black, beaked whale variant of the sub-family Berardiinae using three stranded carcasses, but the sample size was too small to make any conclusions. Three years later there is strong genetic evidence that this is a new species of beaked whale based on (1) genetic analysis of samples from a stranded animal on St. George, Alaska (2) skeletons in a high school in Unalaska, Alaska, (3) skeletons in the Smithsonian archives, and (4) skeletons in other museum and institutional collections around the Pacific Rim. The species still needs to be described and named, but some researchers have suggested Berardius beringiae to honor the sea where it was found. What do you think?
The second announcement of a new species came from the Smithsonian Institution earlier this month. A skull of the newly-named Arktocara yakataga species was found more than 60 years ago near the present day city of Yakutat, Alaska. Obviously belonging to a prehistoric dolphin, the skull was kept at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History until new research found that it was actually a previously undiscovered species. A. yakatoga is thought to be a relative of the present day South Asian River Dolphin, and is both the northernmost, and one of the oldest dolphin fossils found to date. This new find is a reminder to everyone that not all discoveries are made in the field. Museum and archival collections continue to play an important role in the advancement of science and knowledge. Check out the link above to see some awesome artistic renderings of the new species, as well as a 3D scan of the skull in question.
Sounds like the next big B-Sci-fi movie doesn’t it? Well, this story is the latest to go viral on the internet. Published on July 20, 216 in the journal Marine Mammal Science, the study investigated accounts of humpback whales interfering with killer whale attacks. Researchers looked at 115 interactions between the two species. Humpbacks initiated 57% of the interactions, and 87% of these moments occurred when the killer whales were attacking or feeding on prey. Surprisingly, only 11% of the prey in these events were humpback whales, while the remaining 89% ranged from other cetaceans to pinnipeds, to a sunfish! The authors suggest that the humpback whales were alerted to attacking killer whales in the area by vocalizations, and that this attracts them to the scene regardless of the species being attacked. Although kin selection (care for or defense of relatives to preserve your family’s genetics even though the action may be detrimental to self), or reciprocity (exchange between individuals for mutual benefit) might explain some of this behavior, the fact that humpback whales so often defended other species means that we cannot rule out the possibility of altruistic behavior. This is a pretty fascinating read, and definitely opens up some new questions for researchers!
By: Kelli Iddings, MSc Student, Duke University, Nicholas School of the Environment
The excitement is palpable as I wait in anticipation. But finally, “Blow!” I shout as I notice the lingering spray of seawater expelled from a gray whale as it surfaces to breathe. The team and I scurry about the field site taking our places and getting ready to track the whale’s movements. “Gray whale- Traveling- Group 1- Mark!” I exclaim mustering enough self-control to ignore the urge to drop everything and stand in complete awe of what in my mind is nothing short of a miracle. I’ve spotted a gray whale searching and foraging for food! As a student of the Master of Environmental Management program at Duke University, I am collaborating on a project in Port Orford, Oregon where my team and I are working to gain a better understanding of the interactions between the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales and their prey. Check out this blog post written earlier by my teammate Florence to learn more about the methods of the project and what motivated us to take a closer look at the foraging behavior of this species.
Understanding the dynamics of gray whale foraging within ecosystems where they are feeding is essential to paint a more comprehensive picture of gray whale health and ecology—often with the intent to protect and conserve them. A lot of our recent effort has been focused on developing and testing methods that will allow us to answer the questions that we are asking. For example, what species of prey are the PCFG whales feeding on in Port Orford? Based on the results of a previous study (Newell and Cowles 2006) that was conducted in Depoe Bay, Oregon, and a lot of great knowledge from the local fisheries and the Port Orford community, we hypothesized that the whales were feeding on a small, shrimp-like crustacean in the order Mysida. Given the results of our videos, and the abundance of mysid, it looks like we are right (Fig. 1)!
Mysids are not typically the primary food source of gray whales. In their feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi Seas near Alaska, the whales feed on benthic amphipods on the ocean floor by sucking up sediment and water and pushing it through baleen plates that trap the food as the water and sediment is filtered out. However, gray whales demonstrate flexible feeding strategies and are considered opportunistic feeders, meaning they are not obligate feeders on one prey item like krill-dependent blue whales. In Oregon, mysid congregate in dense swarms by the billions, which we hypothesize, makes it energetically worthwhile for the massive 13-15m gray whales to hang around and feed! Figure 2 illustrates a mysid swarm of this kind in Tichenor Cove.
Once we know what the gray whales are eating, and why, we ask follow up questions like how is the distribution of mysid changing across space and time, if at all? Are there patterns? If so, are the patterns influencing the feeding behavior and movement of the whales? For the most part, we are having success characterizing the relative abundances of mysid. No conclusions can be made yet, but there are a few trends that we are noticing. For instance, it seems that the mysid are, as we hypothesized, very dense and abundant around the rocky shoreline where there are kelp beds. Could these characteristics be predictors of critical habitat that whales seek as foraging grounds? Is it the presence of kelp that mysid prefer? Or maybe it’s the rocky substrate itself? Distance to shore? Time and data analysis will tell. We have also noticed that mysid seem to prefer to hang out closer to the bottom of the water column. Last, but certainly not least, we are already noticing differences in the sizes and life stages of the mysid over the short span of one week at our research site! We are excited to explore these patterns further.
The biggest thing we’re learning out here, however, is the absolute necessity for patience, ingenuity, adaptability, and perseverance in science. You heard that right, as with most things, I am learning more from our failures, than I am from our successes. For starters, understanding mysid abundance and distribution is great in and of itself, but we cannot draw any conclusions about how those factors are affecting whales if the whales don’t come! We were very fortunate to see whales while training on our instruments in Newport, north of our current study site. We saw whales foraging, whales searching, mother/calf pairs, and even whales breaching! Since we’ve been in Port Orford, we have seen only three whales, thrown in among the long hours of womanpower (#WomenInScience) we have been putting in! We are now learning the realities of ecological science that >gasp< fieldwork can be boring! Nevertheless, we trust that the whales will hear our calls (Yes, our literal whale calls. Like I said, it can get boring up on the cliff) and head on over to give the cliff team in Port Orford some great data—and excitement!
Then, there is the technology. Oh, the joys of technology. You see I’ve never considered myself a “techie.” Honestly, I didn’t even know what a hard drive was until some embarrassing time in the not-so-distant past. And now, here I am working on a project that is using novel, technology rich approaches to study what I am most passionate about. Oh, the irony. Alas, I have been putting on my big girl britches, saddling up, and taking the whale by the fluke. Days are spent syncing a GoPro, Time-Depth Recorder (TDR), GPS, associated software, and our trusty rugged laptop, all the while navigating across multiple hard drives, transferring and organizing massive amounts of data, reviewing and editing video footage, and trouble shooting all of it when something, inevitably, crashes, gets lost, or some other form of small tragedy associated with data management. Sounds fun, right? Nonetheless, within the chaos and despair, I realize that technology is my friend, not my foe. Technology allows us to collect more data than ever before, giving us the ability to see trends that we could not have seen otherwise, and expending much less physical effort doing so. Additionally, technology offers many alternatives to other invasive and potentially destructive methods of data collection. The truth is if you’re not technologically savvy in science these days, you can expect to fall behind. I am grateful to have an incredible team of support and such an exciting project to soften the blow. Below (Fig. 3) is a picture of myself embracing my new friend technology.
Last but not least, there are those moments that can best be explained by the Norwegian sentiment “Uff da!” I was introduced to the expression while dining at The Crazy Norwegian, known famously for having the best fish and chips along the entire west coast and located dangerously close to the field station. The expression dates back to the 19th century, and is used readily to concisely convey feelings of surprise, astonishment, exhaustion, and sometimes dismay. This past week, the team was witness to all of these feelings at once as our GoPro, TDR, and data fell swiftly to the bottom of the 42-degree waters of Tichenor cove after the line snapped during deployment. Uff da!!! With our dive contact out of town, red tape limiting our options, the holiday weekend looming ahead, and the dreadful thought of losing our equipment on a very tight budget, the team banded together to draft a plan. And what a beautiful plan it was! The communities of Port Orford, Oregon State University, and the University of Oregon’s Institute of Marine Biology came together in a successful attempt to retrieve the equipment. We offer much gratitude to Greg Ryder, our retrieval boat operator, OSU dive safety operator Kevin Buch, and our divers, Aaron Galloway and Taylor Eaton! After lying on the bottom of the cove for almost three days, the divers retrieved our equipment within 20 minutes of the dive – thanks to the quick and mindful action of our kayak team to mark a waypoint on the GPS at the time of the equipment loss. Please enjoy this shot (Fig. 4) of Aaron and Taylor surfacing with the gear as much as we do!
The moral of the story is that science isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. It takes hard work, long hours, frustration, commitment, collaboration, and preparedness. But moments come along when your team sits around a dining room table, exhausted from waking and paddling at 5 am that morning, and continues to drive forward. You creatively brainstorm, running on the fumes of the passion and love for the ocean and creatures within it that brought everyone together in the first place; each person growing in his or her own right. Questions are answered, conclusions are drawn, and you go to bed at the end of it all with a smile on your face, anxiously anticipating the little miracles that the next day’s light will bring.
Newell, C. and T.J. Cowles. (2006). Unusual gray whale Eschrichtius robustus feeding in the summer of 2005 off the central Oregon Coast. Geophysical Research Letters, 33:10.1029/2006GL027189
Yesterday someone said to me, “I don’t know if it was sunrise or sunset, but it was beautiful”. So it goes on the R/V Lawrence M. Gould (LMG), the surrounding scenery is incredible but the work schedule on this research ship makes it difficult to remember what time of day it is.
Here on the Antarctic Peninsula, the sun never really sets and our daily schedules are dependent on things like the diel vertical migration of krill, the current wind speed and the amount of sea ice in between us and our study species, the humpback whale. For these reasons, we sometimes find ourselves starting our workday at odd hours, like 11:45 pm (or 4:00 am). As a reminder, I am currently working on research vessel on a project called the Palmer long term ecological research (LTER) project. You can read my first blog post about that here. We are about one week into our journey and so far, so good!
Our journey began in Punta Arenas, Chile, where we spent two days loading our research supplies onto the LMG and getting outfitted with cold weather gear. From Punta Arenas we headed south through the straights of Magellan and then across the Drake Passage. Along the way we spotted a variety of cetaceans including minke, fin, sei and humpback whales, and Commerson’s and Peale’s dolphins. I spent as much of our time in transit as I could looking for seabirds, the most numerous being white-chinned and cape petrels, southern giant petrels, and black-browed albatrosses. Spotting either a royal or a wandering albatross was always exciting. An eleven foot wingspan allows these albatross to glide effortlessly above the water and this makes for a beautiful sight!
We have spent the last four days transiting between various sampling stations around Palmer deep, which is an underwater canyon just south of our home base at Palmer station. When conditions allowed, we loaded up our tagging and biopsy gear into a small boat and went to look for humpback whales. We’ve been incredibly successful with the limited amount of time we’ve had on the water and this morning we finished deploying our sixth tag.
We brought a few different types of satellite tags with us to deploy on humpback whales. One type is an implantable satellite tag that transmits location data over a long period of time. These data allow us to gain a better understanding of the large-scale movement and distribution patterns of these animals. The other tag we deploy is a suction cup tag, so called because four small suction cups attach the tag to the whale. These suction cup tags are multi-sensor tags that measure location as well as fine scale underwater movement (e.g. pitch, roll, and heading). They are also equipped with forward and backward facing cameras and most importantly, radio transmitters! This allows us to recover the tags once they fall off the animal and float to the surface (after about 24 hours). The data we get from these tags will allow us to quantify fine-scale foraging behavior in terms of underwater maneuverability, prey type and the frequency, depth and time of day that feeding occurs.
When we deployed each of these tags we also obtained a biopsy sample and fluke photos. Fluke photos and biopsy samples allow us to distinguish between individual animals, and the biopsy samples will also be used to study the demographics of this population through genetic analysis.
Now that we’ve deployed all of our satellite tags and have recovered the suction cup tag just in the nick of time (!), we are starting our first major transect line toward the continental shelf. We will be continuing south along these grid lines for the next week.
My lab mate Logan Pallin and I will be continuing to write about our trip over the next couple of months on another blog we created especially for this project. You can find it here: blogs.oregonstate.edu/LTERcetaceans
I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite photos of the trip so far!
Ari deploying a suction cup tag on a humpback whale (Photo: D. Nowacek)
Whale tracks along the peninsula, obtained from satellite tags used in the past (credit: D. Johnston)
A few large icebergs remain around Palmer station after most of the smaller pieces were blown out
This navigation chart shows the area that we’ve spent the last week or so
A group of around forty killer whales was spotted not far from Palmer station
Doug listening for whales on an especially calm day in Biscoe bay (photo: A. Friedlaender)
Ari and Erin pose for a lab photo (photo D. Nowacek)
A view of the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer
A suction cup tag
Two humpbacks diving at sunrise (Photo: D. Nowacek)
Ari scanning the horizon for the humpback carrying a suction cup tag
Sunset and a sliver of the moon (if you look real close!)
A crabeater seal contemplating moving farther away from the ship’s path
A crabeater seal hauling itself up out of the water and onto an ice floe (most likely for a nap)
The LMG docked at Palmer station. Still quite a bit of ice around for this time of year
– Oscar Schofield, Professor Bio-Optical Oceanography
By: Erin Pickett
There is nothing like a feature film about an upcoming field research project to get you pumped. I’m talking about Antarctic Edge: 70˚ South (now available on DVD, iTunes and Netflix!). In two months a few of us from the Biotelemetry and Behavioral Ecology Laboratory (BTBEL) will be headed down south to participate in the research project that is documented in this film.
The project is called the Palmer Station Antarctica LTER. LTER stands for long term ecological research. The Palmer site is located along the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) and is part of a network of LTER sites around the world that have been established over the last three decades or so for the purpose of long term ecological monitoring. The WAP is a particularly unique place to monitor the effects of climate change because it is one of the most rapidly warming areas in the world. Temperature increases in this region are six times greater than the global average. As a result of increasing temperatures, the peninsula has experience a decline in the extent, concentration and duration of winter sea ice.
After my first viewing of Antarctic Edge with its graphic scenes of calving glaciers I thought, well, that’s a little dramatic. If you watch the preview you’ll get a taste of what I’m talking about. However, in an ecosystem dependent on sea ice, the loss of three months-worth of ice a year is dramatic! The scientists leading the Palmer LTER project have watched the marine ecosystem at Palmer Station transform radically over the course of their careers. Coastal areas along the peninsula more closely resemble the warmer and moister sub-Antarctic rather than a traditionally cold and arid Antarctic climate. The most visible effect of this southward climate shift has been an expansion of sub-Antarctic, or ice-intolerant species, into areas where ice-dependent species are disappearing. Antarctic Edge attempts to convey the urgency and importance of understanding ecological changes like these.
In January, a team of researchers from all over the country will board the R/V Lawrence M. Gould (LMG) and depart Punta Arenas, Chile. From Chile we’ll cross the Drake Passage and continue south to Anvers Island, where our research station is located. Personnel and research gear will be exchanged and then the LMG will transit south along a pre-established sampling grid. This grid covers the entire Western Antarctic Peninsula, an area the size of Oklahoma (69, 498 square miles). Over the course of a month we will collect samples and data on nearly every possible component of the marine ecosystem, including everything from microbes and zooplankton to cetaceans.
I will be working with folks from OSU’s BTBEL lab and collaborators at Duke University to study the region’s whale populations. We will be focusing our efforts on humpback whales and we will be using methods such as photo identification, tagging and biopsy sampling to understand more about this species in this area and to learn more about the ecological roles that these large baleen whales play in this fragile marine ecosystem. We are especially interested in learning more about the foraging ecology of this species and how their behavior is influenced by their primary prey, Antarctic krill. Many of the region’s top predators share this prey resource, which is declining as a result of sea ice loss. A central objective of our research is to understand how climate induced changes in this polar marine environment are affecting these top predators.
Over the next few months I’ll be keeping you updated on our preparations and journey south. Until then, I encourage you to watch Antarctic Edge: 70˚ South and get pumped!