From the highs to the lows, that’s just how it blows!

 

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)!

DSCF0776[3]
Figure 1: Mysids, only 5-25mm in length, collected in Tichenor Cove using a downrigger to lower a weighted plankton net into the water column from our kayak.
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.

DCIM102GOPROG0132732.
Figure 2: Image captured using a Hero 4 Black GoPro. Rocky Substrate is visible in lower portion of image and a clear swarm of mysid is aggregated around this area.

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.

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Figure 3: Retrieving the GoPro, and some tag-a-long kelp, from the water after a successful deployment in Tichenor Cove.

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!

Figure 4: Aaron Galloway and Taylor Eaton surface with our lost piece of equipment after a successful dive retrieval mission.
Figure 4: Aaron Galloway and Taylor Eaton surface with our lost piece of equipment after a successful dive retrieval mission.

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.

References

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

The Gray [Whale]s are back in town – Field season 2016 is getting started!

By Florence Sullivan – MSc Student, GEMM Lab

Hello Everyone, and welcome back for season two of our ever-expanding research project(s) about the gray whales of the Oregon coast!

Overall, our goal is document and describe the foraging behavior and ecology of the Pacific Coast Feeding Group of Gray Whales on the Oregon Coast. For a quick recap on the details of this project read these previous posts:

During this summer season, the newest iteration of team ro”buff”stus will be heading back down to Port Orford, Oregon to try to better understand the relationship between gray whales and their mysid prey. Half the team will once again use the theodolite from the top of Graveyard Point to track gray whales foraging in Tichenor Cove, the Port of Port Orford, and the kelp beds near Mill Rocks.  Meanwhile, the other half of the team will use the R/V Robustus (i.e. a tandem ocean kayak named after our study species – Eschrichtius robustus, the gray whale) to repeatedly deploy a GoPro camera at several sampling locations in Tichenor cove. We hope that by filming vertical profiles of the water column, we will be able to create an index of abundance for the mysid to describe their temporal and spatial distribution of their swarms.  We’re particularly interested in the differences between mysid swarm density before and after a whale forages in an area, and how whale behaviors might change based on the relative density of the available prey.

The GEMM lab's new research vessel being launched on her maiden voyage.
Ready to take the R/V Robustus out for her maiden voyage in Port Orford to test some of our new equipment. photo credit: Leigh Torres

In theory, asking these questions seems simple – get in the boat, drop the camera, compare images to the whale tracklines, get an answer!  In reality, this is not the case. A lot of preparatory work has been going on behind the scenes over the last six months. First, we had to decide what kind of camera to use, and decide what sort of weighted frame to build to get it to sink straight to the bottom. Then came the questions of deployment by hand versus using a downrigger,

Example A why it is a bad idea to try to sample during a diatom bloom.
Example A why it is a bad idea to try to sample during a diatom bloom – You can’t see anything but green.

what settings to use on the camera, how fast to send it down and bring it back up, what lens filters are needed (magenta) and other logistical concerns. (Huge thank you to our friends at ODFW Marine Reserves Program for the help and advice they provided on many of these subjects.) We spent some time in late May testing our deployment system, and quickly discovered that sampling during a diatom bloom is completely pointless because visibility is close to nil.

However, this week, we were able to test the camera in non-bloom conditions, and it works!  We were able to capture images of a few small mysid swarms very near the bottom of the water column, and we didn’t need external lights to do it. We were worried that adding extra lights would artificially attract mysid to the camera, and bias our measurements, as well as potentially disturbing the whale’s foraging behavior. (Its also a relief because diving lights are expensive, and would have been one more logistical thing that could go wrong. General advice: Always follow the KISS method when designing a project – keep it simple, ——!)

 

This image is taken at a depth of ~10 meters, with no color corrective filter on the lens
This image is taken at a depth of ~10 meters, with no color corrective filter on the lens – notice how blurry the mysid are.
This is empty water, in the mid water column
This is empty water, in the mid water column
More Mysid! This time with a Magenta filter on the lens to correct the colors for us.
Much clearer Mysid! This time with a magenta filter on the lens to correct the colors for us.

My advisor recently introduced me to the concept of the “7 Ps”; Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.  To our knowledge, we are the first group to try to use GoPro cameras to study the spatial and temporal patterns of zooplankton aggregations. With new technology comes new opportunities, but we have to be systematic and creative in how we use them. Trial and error is an integral part of developing new methods – to find the best technique, and so that our work can be replicated by others. Now that we know the GoPro/Kayak set-up is capable of capturing useable imagery, we need to develop a protocol for how to process and quantify the images, but that’s a work in progress and can wait for another blog post.   Proper planning also includes checking last year’s equipment to make sure everything is running smoothly, installing needed computer programs on the new field laptop, editing sampling protocols to reflect things that worked well last year, and expanding the troubleshooting appendixes so that we have a quick reference guide for when things go wrong in the field.  I am sure that we will run into more weird problems like last year’s “Chinese land whale”, but I also know that we would have many more difficulties if we had not been planning this field effort for the last several months.

Planning our sampling pattern in Tichenor Cove
Planning our sampling pattern in Tichenor Cove.

Team Ro”buff”stus is from all over the place this year – we will have members from Oregon, North Carolina and Michigan – and we are all meeting for the first time this week.  The next two weeks are going to be a whirlwind of introductions, team bonding, and learning how to communicate effectively while using the theodolite, our various computer programs, GoPro, Kayak, and more!  We will keep the blog updated with our progress, and each team member will post at least once over the course of the summer. Wish us luck as we watch for whales, and feel free to join in the fun on pretty much any cliff-side in Oregon (as long as you’ve got a kelp bed nearby, chances are you’ll see them!)

Smile! You’re on Camera!

By Florence Sullivan, MSc. Student, GEMM Lab

Happy Spring everyone!  You may be wondering where the gray whale updates have been all winter – and while I haven’t migrated south to Baja California with them, I have spent many hours in the GEMM Lab processing data, and categorizing photos.

You may recall that one of my base questions for this project is:

Do individual whales have different foraging strategies?

In order to answer this question, we must be able to tell individual gray whales apart. Scientists have many methods for recognizing individuals of different species using tags and bands, taking biopsy samples for DNA analysis, and more. But the method we’re using for this project is perhaps the simplest: Photo-Identification, which relies on the unique markings on individual animals, like fingerprints.  All you need is a camera and rather a lot of patience.

Bottlenose dolphins were some of the first cetaceans to be documented by photo-identification.  Individuals are identified by knicks and notches in their fins. Humpback whales are comparatively easy to identify – the bold black and white patterns on the underside of their frequently displayed flukes are compared.  Orcas, one of the most beloved species of cetaceans, are recognized thanks to their saddle patches – again, unique to each individual. Did you know that the coloration and shape of those patches is actually indicative of the different ecotypes of Orca around the world? Check out this beautiful poster by Uko Gorter to see!

Gray whale photo identification is a bit more subtle since these whales don’t have dorsal fins and do not show the undersides of their fluke regularly.  Because gray whales can have very different patterns on either side of their body, it is also important to get photos of both their right and left sides, as well as the fluke, to be sure of recognizing an individual if it comes around again.   When taking photos of a gray whale, it’s a good idea to include the dorsal hump, where the knuckles start as it dives, as an easy indicator of which side of the body you are looking at when you’re trying to match photos.  Some clues that I often use when identifying an individual include the placement of barnacles, and patterns of pigmentation and scars.  You can see that patience and a talent for pattern recognition come in handy for this sort of work.

While we were in the field, it was important for my team to quickly find reference features to make sure we were always tracking the same whale. If you stopped by to visit our field station, you may have heard use saying things like “68 has white on both fluke-tips”, “70 has a propeller scar on the left side”,  “the barnacles on 54’s head looks like a polyp”, or “27 has a smiley face in front of the first knuckle left side.” Sometimes, if a trait was particularly obvious, and the whale visited our field station more than once, we would give them a name to help us remember them.  These notes were often (but to my frustration, not always!) recorded in our field notebook, and have come in handy this winter as I have systematically gone through the 8000+ photos we took last summer, identifying each individual, and noting whenever one was a repeat visitor. With these individuals labeled, I can now assess their level of behavioral and distribution consistency within and between study sites, and over the course of the summer.

Why don’t you try your luck?  How many individuals are in this photoset? How many repeats?  If I tell you that my team named some of these whales Mitosis, Smiley, Ninja and Keyboard can you figure out which ones they are?

#1
#2
#2
#3
#4
#4
#5
#5
#6
#6
#7
#7
#8
#8
#9
#9
#10
#10

 

Keep scrolling for the answer key ( I don’t want to spoil it too easily!)

 

 

 

 

 

Answers:

There are 7 whales in this photoset. Smiley and Keyboard both have repeat shots for you to find, and Smiley even shows off both left and right sides.

  1. Whale 18 – Mitosis
  2. Whale 70 -Keyboard
  3. Whale 23 -Smiley
  4. Whale 68 – Keyboard
  5. Whale 27 -Smiley
  6. Whale 67
  7. Whale 36 -Ninja
  8. Whale 60 – “60”
  9. Whale 38 – has no nickname even if we’ve seen it 8 times! Have any suggestions? leave it in the comments!
  10. Whale 55 – Smiley

 

Looking back on a busy field season

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

After one month and a half in the field, I am now comfortably sitting at my desk in the Institute of Research for Development (IRD) in Nouméa and I am finally finding the time to look back on my first marine mammal field experience.

The New Caledonian South Lagoon is certainly not the worst place on earth to study whales. While some people spend hours trying to spot extremely rare and shy species living in freezing cold polar waters, I have to endure a 25°C temperature, turquoise waters and a study species desperate for attention (series of a dozen breaches are not uncommon). As with all field work, there were ups and downs but following humpback whales during the 2015 breeding season was by far the most exhilarating field experience I’ve ever had.

During the austral winter, humpback whales are thought to travel and stay in different areas of the New Caledonian Economic Exclusive Zone. Using satellite telemetry, several seamounts (e.g. Antigonia), banks (e.g. Torche bank) and shallow areas have been shown to play an important role for breeding and migrating humpback whales (Garrigue et al. In Press). However, as much as we would like to study whales in these areas, offshore field missions are logistically and financially hard to conduct. This is why most of the data on humpback whales in New Caledonian waters have been collected in coastal waters, and more specifically in the South Lagoon. Opération Cétacés, a local NGO, has been studying whales in this area for about two decades and I was lucky to participate in this year’s field season with their experienced team.

The South Lagoon of New Caledonia
The South Lagoon of New Caledonia

The usual day in Prony (the village that we live in during the whale season) usually starts early. We get up at about 5:30, and start by engulfing a bowl of porridge (nicknamed “globi” and considered as a highly exotic dish). By 6:30 everyone is standing in our rigid-hulled inflatable boat, listening to the weather forecast on the radio. After a 15 minute trip across the bay of Prony, two people disembark and climb to a land-based lookout, the N’Doua Cape, where they will spend the day trying to spot humpback whales and guiding the boat towards their location via VHF radio communication. The vessel-based team slowly approaches the whale groups to do photo-identification (using the unique marks on the ventral surface of the tail flukes), biopsy collection, and behavioral activity monitoring. The particular coastal geography of this study area (see previous post: Crossing Latitudes) allows us to uniquely combine land-based and boat-based surveying. These methods increase our encounter rate and allow us to collect more individual-based data. Yet, compared to a standardized boat-based surveys, our survey effort is much more complex to estimate and account for in a spatial distribution model.

This season, the number of whale encounters was particularly high. We spent 31 days at sea and observed a total of 99 groups. Using photo-identification, we documented 113 different individuals, some of which were first observed more than 15 years ago! Biopsy samples were collected from 139 different individuals and we managed to record 4h of songs performed by six different whales. Given that the size of the New Caledonian population is currently thought to be less than 1000 individuals, our sampling is not too bad!

A calf breaching out of the water on a late afternoon. No wonder humpback whales are favored by whale-watching companies, they can be very active at the surface!
A calf breaching out of the water on a late afternoon. No wonder humpback whales are favored by whale-watching companies, they can be very active at the surface!
These two adult whales were part of a very active competitive group of eight individuals and displayed a peculiar behavior that included gently rolling and rubbing themselves against each other.
These two adult whales were part of a very active competitive group of eight individuals and displayed a peculiar behavior that included gently rolling and rubbing themselves against each other.

Another great achievement of this season was the tagging of two adult humpback whales with ARGOS satellite-tracking devices. It was a thrilling experience to be part of this procedure and witness the level of concentration and experience required to place a tag on a whale. Our two individuals, one a presumed male and the other a female with calf, were respectively baptized Lutèce (the name Romans gave to Paris) and Ovalie (an old fashioned way to call rugby in France). Their tags transmitted for 15 and 20 days respectively, which was not long enough to follow their migration south towards Antarctica. Yet, both whales spent time on seamounts that are known to play an important role for humpback whales in the region. We were very interested in Ovalie’s track (map given below), as she travelled along the Loyalty ridge, a seafloor structure of great interest to us. We suspect that whales could be using this ridge as a navigational aid and/or using shallow areas (seamounts and banks) along the ridge as resting or breeding habitats. The amount of humpback whales present in this area and the eventual role played by oceanic features along the Loyalty ridge will be the subject of my future research.

Raw ARGOS track: Ovalie visiting seamounts south of New Caledonia and then travelling towards the Loyalty ridge (Don’t worry whales didn’t start walking on land since you saw your last National Geographic documentary; the accuracy of the satellite transmitter is to blame. For some of these points accuracy simply can’t be estimated –classes A and B- and unrealistic locations will have to be removed before performing analysis. In general, accuracy of ARGOS locations ranges between 250 and 1500m).
Raw ARGOS track: Ovalie visiting seamounts south of New Caledonia and then travelling towards the Loyalty ridge (Don’t worry whales didn’t start walking on land since you saw your last National Geographic documentary; the accuracy of the satellite transmitter is to blame. For some of these points accuracy simply can’t be estimated –classes A and B- and unrealistic locations will have to be removed before performing analysis. In general, accuracy of ARGOS locations ranges between 250 and 1500m).

 

But now that we have all this data, let’s get back to work! As much as I love being in the field, there comes a time when you have to sit in front of your computer and try to make sense of all this information you collected.

And that is where my collaboration with the GEMM Lab comes in! I am looking forward to visiting Newport once again in December and to start shedding a light on the ‘How’s and ‘Why’s of New Caledonian humpback whales’ space use.

Literature cited:

Garrigue, C., Clapham, P. J., Geyer, Y., Kennedy, A. S., & Zerbini, A. N. (In Press). Satellite tracking reveals novel migratory patterns and the importance of seamounts for endangered South Pacific Humpback Whales. Royal Society Open Science.

 

New Zealand’s mega-fauna come to Newport, Oregon.

By Olivia Hamilton, PhD Candidate, University of Auckland, New Zealand.

The week leading up to my departure from New Zealand was an emotional rollercoaster. Excited, nervous, eager, reluctant… I did not feel like the fearless adventurer that I thought I was. D-day arrived and I said my final goodbyes to my boyfriend and mother at the departure gate. Off I went on my three-month research stint at the Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Some thirty hours later I touched down in Portland. I collected my bags and headed towards the public transport area at the airport. A young man greeted me, “Would you like to catch a taxi or a shuttle, ma’am?” “A taxi please! I have no idea where I am”, I responded. He nodded and smiled. I could see the confusion all over his face… My thick kiwi accent was going to make for some challenging conversations.

After a few days in Portland acclimatizing to the different way of life in Oregon, it was time to push on to Newport. I hit a stroke of luck and was able take the scenic route with one of the girls in the GEMM lab, Rachael Orben. With only one wrong turn we made it to the Oregon coast. I was instantly hit with a sense of familiarity. The rugged coastline and temperate coastal forest resembled that of the west coast of New Zealand. However, America was not shy in reminding me of where I was with its big cars, drive-through everything, and RVs larger than some small kiwi houses.

The Oregon Coast. Photo by Olivia Hamilton.
The Oregon Coast. Photo by Olivia Hamilton.

We arrived at Hatfield Marine Science Center: the place I was to call home for the next quarter of a year.

So, what am I doing here?

In short, I have come to do computer work on the other side of the world.

Dr. Leigh Torres is on my PhD committee and I am lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to come to Newport and analyze my data under her guidance.

My PhD has a broad interest in the spatial ecology of mega-fauna in the Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand. For my study, megafauna includes whales, dolphins, sharks, rays, and seabirds. The Hauraki Gulf is adjacent to Auckland, New Zealand’s most populated city and home to one of our largest commercial ports. The Hauraki Gulf is a highly productive area, providing an ideal habitat for a number of fish species, thus supporting a number of top marine predators. As with many coastal areas, anthropogenic activities have degraded the health of the Gulf’s ecosystem. Commercial and recreational fishing, run-off from surrounding urban and rural land, boat traffic, pollution, dredging, and aquaculture are some of the main activities that threaten the Gulf and the species that inhabit it. For instance, the Nationally Endangered Bryde’s whale is a year-round resident in the Hauraki Gulf and these whales spend much of their time close to the surface, making them highly vulnerable to injury or death from ship-strikes. In spite of these threats, the Gulf supports a number of top marine predators.  Therefore it is important that we uncover how these top predators are using the Gulf, in both space and time, to identify ecologically important parts of their habitat. Moreover, this study presents a unique opportunity to look at the relationships between top marine predators and their prey inhabiting a common area.

The Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand. The purple lines represent the track lines that aerial surveys were conducted along.

 

Common dolphins in the Hauraki Gulf. Photo by Olivia Hamilton
Common dolphins in the Hauraki Gulf. Photo by Olivia Hamilton

 

A Bryde’s whale, common dolphins, and some opportunistic seabirds foraging in the Hauraki Gulf. Photo by Isabella Tortora Brayda di Belvedere.
A Bryde’s whale, common dolphins, and some opportunistic seabirds foraging in the Hauraki Gulf. Photo by Isabella Tortora Brayda di Belvedere.

 

Australisian Gannets and shearwaters foraging on a bait ball in the Hauraki Gulf. Photo by Olivia Hamilton.
Australisian Gannets and shearwaters foraging on a bait ball in the Hauraki Gulf. Photo by Olivia Hamilton.

To collect the data needed to understand the spatial ecology of these megafauna, we conducted 22 aerial surveys over a year-long period along pre-determined track lines within the Hauraki Gulf. On each flight we had four observers that collected sightings data for cetaceans, sharks, predatory fish, prey balls, plankton, and other rare species such as manta ray. An experienced seabird observer joined us approximately once a month to identify seabirds. We collected environmental data for each sighting including Beaufort Sea State, glare, and water color.

The summary of our sightings show that common dolphins were indeed common, being the most frequent species we observed. The most frequently encountered sharks were bronze whalers, smooth hammerhead sharks, and blue sharks. Sightings of Bryde’s whales were lower than we had hoped, most likely an artifact of our survey design relative to their distribution patterns. In addition, we counted a cumulative total of 11,172 individual seabirds representing 16 species.

Summary of sightings of megafauna in the Hauraki Gulf.

Summary of sightings of megafauna in the Hauraki Gulf.My goal while here at OSU is to develop habitat models for the megafauna species to compare the drivers of their distribution patterns. But, at the moment I am in the less glamorous, but highly important, data processing and decision-making stage. I am grappling with questions like: What environmental variables affected our ability to detect which species on surveys? How do we account for this? Can we clump species that are functionally similar to increase our sample size? These questions are important to address in order to produce reliable results that reflect the megafauna species true distribution patterns.

Once these questions are addressed, we can get on to the fun stuff – the habitat modeling and interpretation of the results. I will hopefully be able to start addressing these questions soon: What environmental and biological variables are important predictors of habitat use for different taxa? Are there interactions (attraction or repulsion) between these top predators? What is driving these patterns? Predator avoidance? Competition? So many questions to ask! I am looking forward to answering these questions and reporting back.

Gray whale field work wrap-up; sea you later

Hello everyone,

Florence here with an update about the final numbers from this summer’s gray whale field season.

For folks just hearing about the project, my team of interns and I spent the summer alternating between study sites at Depoe Bay and Port Orford to conduct fine-scale focal follows of gray whales foraging in near-shore Oregon waters using a theodolite.  That is to say, we gathered 10,186 ‘marks’ or ‘locations’ where whales came to the surface, and by connecting the dots, we are able to create tracklines and analyze their movement patterns.  The idea is to document and describe gray whale foraging behavior in order to answer the questions: Are there patterns in how the whales use the space? Is there a relationship between foraging success and proximity to kelp beds? Do behaviors vary between individuals, location, or over time during the season?

All these tracklines are from one whale, Keyboard, visiting the same area multiple times over the course of a month. I'll break this figure down a little later in the post. Notice how the whale consistently returns to the bay just west of the port jetty
All these tracklines are from one whale, Keyboard, visiting the same area multiple times over the course of a month. I’ll break this figure down a little later in the post. Notice how the whale consistently returns to the bay just west of the port jetty

While at our study sites, we often received questions about vessel disturbance on the whale’s behavior. Over the course of the summer, we saw whales completely ignore boats, approach boats, and actively avoid boats. Therefore, we documented these vessel interactions in order to ask questions such as: Does vessel disturbance alter behavior? How close is too close? Does the potential for vessel disturbance vary depending on (1) size of motor, (2) speed of approach, (3) type of vessel, i.e. kayak, fishing boat, tour boat, (4) the number of vessels already in the area, (5) amount of time a vessel has been following a whale, (6) time of season, (7) the presence of a calf or other whales? The end goal, once the data have been analyzed, is to bring our results to local vessel operators (commercial and recreational) and work together to write reasonable, effective, and scientifically informed guidelines for vessel operations in the presence of gray whales.

And now, the numbers you’ve all been waiting for, here is the tally of our data collection this summer:

 

Boiler Bay Graveyard Point Humbug Mountain
Whales total 80 73 28
Boats total 307 105 7
Total survey time (HH:MM:SS) 122:22:41 72:49:17 50:22:35
Total survey time with whales (HH:MM:SS) 64:47:54 80:39:57 22:59:00
Total Marks 4744 4334 1108

Table 1. Summary of survey effort for gray whale foraging ecology field season summer 2015

Whale named "Keyboard" visits graveyard head multiple times. Green track: 7.21.15, Pink track: 7.21.15, Teal track: 7.30.15. The orange polygons are approximate locations of kelp patches.
Whale named “Keyboard” visits graveyard head multiple times. Green track: 7.21.15, Pink track: 7.21.15, Teal track: 7.30.15. The orange polygons are approximate locations of kelp patches.
"Keyboard" continues to visit. Red trackline: 8.27.15, white trackline: 8.28.15, purple trackline: 8.28.15
“Keyboard” continues to visit. Red trackline: 8.27.15, white trackline: 8.28.15, purple trackline: 8.28.15

 

Whale 130 foraged near Boiler Bay for 5.5 hours on Aug 12. Trying to look at the whole trackline in one go is a little complicated, so let’s break it down by hour.
Whale 130 foraged near Boiler Bay for 5.5 hours on Aug 12. Trying to look at the whole trackline in one go is a little complicated, so let’s break it down by hour.
This panel shows hours 4-6 of the track. Things get more complex as various vessels use the same area. Whale 130 is always in red.
This panel shows hours 4-6 of the track. Things get more complex as various vessels use the same area. Whale 130 is always in red.

So, what does this all mean?  Well, the unsatisfying answer is of course: we don’t know yet. However, it is my job to find out!  I will spend the fall and winter processing data, writing and running behavioral models, communicating my successes and frustrations, and finally presenting my results to the community.

The human eye is well adapted to pick out patterns. Test yourself – what trends can you see in these images?  Are there areas that the whales seem to prefer over other areas?  In the Port Orford images with Keyboard & our kelp patches, does our theory of a relationship between whale presence and kelp patches seem valid?

This field season would not have been possible without the help of some truly excellent people.  Thank you Cricket and Justin and Sarah for making up the core of Team Ro”buff”stus. It was a pleasure working with you this summer.  Thank you to guest observers and photographers Era, Steven, Diana, Cory, Kelly, Shea and Brittany for filling in when we needed extra help! Thank you to our support network down in Port Orford: Tom, Tyson and the team at the Port Orford Field Station – we appreciate the housing and warm welcome, and to Jim and Karen Auborn and the Port of Port Orford for allowing us access to such a fantastic viewing location. Thank you to Oregon State Parks for allowing us access to the field sites at Boiler Bay and Humbug. Finally, thank you to Depoe Bay Pirate Coffee Company for keeping us warm and caffeinated on many foggy, cold early mornings. This work was funded by the William and Francis McNeil Fellowship Award, the Wild Rivers Coast Alliance, and the American Cetacean Society: Oregon Chapter.

Fair winds,

Florence

Not Everyday is Gray (just most of them)

As Amanda explains quite nicely in her previous blog post, research is not always glamorous, and we don’t always see the species we’ve come out to the field to study.  However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other cool species out there to spot!  Here are some common (and uncommon) visitors to some of our research sites this summer.

Also, if you continue to the bottom, we’ve included some cool videos of (1) gray whale sharking behaviour, (2) Gray whale swimming (top down full body view), and what it looks and sounds like when we’re doing one of our close-in focal follows. Enjoy!

A very unexpected, but very welcome visitor! Spotted off Boiler Bay August 10.
A very unexpected, but very welcome visitor! Blue Whale spotted off Boiler Bay August 10.
Often in pairs, we've started seeing more of these lately as they come back north from the breeding grounds further south.
Often in pairs, we’ve started seeing more of these California sea lions lately as they come back north from the breeding grounds further south.
fluffy crow
A young crow fluffs up in the breeze
Humpback Whale which has been hanging out around Depoe Bay for the past two weeks.  Its split dorsal fin makes it easy to recognize! Notice the darker color than the grays we usually see.
Humpback Whale which has been hanging out around Depoe Bay for the past two weeks. Its split dorsal fin makes it easy to recognize! Notice the darker color than the grays we usually see.
Spotted at Graveyard Point
A Great Egret spotted at Graveyard Point
Long Billed Curlew
A long billed curlew drops by for a visit
This chick waits patiently for parents to bring a meal
This chick waits patiently for parents to bring a meal
We see the Osprey mutliple times a day in Port Orford as there are a couple of nesting pairs with chicks to feed.
We see the Osprey multiple times a day in Port Orford as there are a couple of nesting pairs with chicks to feed.
Our Oystercatchers at Boiler Bay have also successfully fledged a pair of chicks while we've been watching!
Our Oystercatchers at Boiler Bay have also successfully fledged a pair of chicks while we’ve been watching!
Pelicans
Brown Pelicans
There are at least two pairs of Peregrines with chicks in Port Orford as well.  This one brings home a catch! (possibly murre or guillemot chick?)
There are at least two pairs of Peregrines with chicks in Port Orford as well. This one brings home a catch! (possibly murre or guillemot chick?)
Peregrine
Peregrine Falcon
Pigeon Guillemots
Pigeon Guillemots at Port Orford

 

If you remember a few weeks ago, we shared photos of gray whale “sharking” behaviour.  Well, now we have video!  Enjoy:

Here’s what it looks like from the top of Graveyard Bluff when a whale swims by below us!

We get really excited by this behavior because its positive proof that the whales are successfully foraging!

and here is a fluke!

We’ll be back soon with more updates from Port Orford.

Fair winds,

Florence & the rest of Team Ro”buff”stus

 

We need all the “Kelp” we can get!

Hello from Hatfield Marine Science Center! This is Justin bringing you the latest and greatest in Gray Whale news. But first, let me fill you folks in with some info about me.  I am an undergraduate student, transitioning into my senior year, with Oregon State University’s Fisheries and Wildlife Department. In addition to my major, I am also minoring in statistics; crazy right? I have hopes and dreams of working in Marine Ecology, and I believe working on this Gray Whale project is a fine start! Which means, this summer, I have had the fortunate opportunity to work alongside the lovely Florence van Tulder, the mastermind behind the project, as well as Cricket and Sarah, the other two charismatic interns.

Our team name is derived from the scientific name of the gray whale: E. robustus, and the colorful "buff" scarves you can see us wearing on most days.
Our team name is derived from the scientific name of the gray whale: E. robustus, and the colorful “buff” scarves you can see us wearing on most days. (Left to right: Sarah, Florence, Cricket, Justin)

As we were wrapping up our two week stint in Port Orford, We observed the Gray Whales exhibiting some interesting behavior; they seemed to move from kelp patch to kelp patch, almost as if they were searching for something. What could be hiding under the luscious stands of Nereocystis luetkeana, otherwise known as bull kelp? Well, with the presence of defecation ( whale droppings) left behind from diving whales near many of the floating kelp patches, one culprit came to mind- mysid shrimp. Mysid shrimp are believed to be a primary prey source of the Gray whales.

Calmly approaching the kelp, this whale takes his time to observe his surroundings
Calmly approaching the kelp, this whale takes his time to observe his surroundings

Naturally, my curiosity got the best me and I ended up spending hours on end conducting literature searches and looking for bathymetry maps, thanks to Florence. All joking aside, I asked Florence if we could use our fancy Theodolite to assess or roughly map the distribution of the kelp patches. We would create polygonal shapes of the kelp on a map and observe how the whales move with respect to the kelp. The idea being, to get a better of picture of the relationship between the whales and the kelp, if any relationship exists at all. It is still a work in progress, due to our survey sites getting all kinds of “fogged” up. When the kinks are worked out and we have some useful visual data, we will post an awesome photo.

A quick breather before heading down into the depths near the kelp. (it's even heart shaped!)
A quick breather before heading down into the depths near the kelp. (it’s even heart shaped!)
This large  white tailed beauty bounced between kelp patches  like a pinball!
This large white tailed beauty bounced between kelp patches like a pinball!

Port Orford didn’t just bring us sweet whales, it brought the heat! Temperatures were up to almost the nineties the last week in July! We beat the heat with plenty of hydration and sun block and the predicable wind patterns became a savior on those sweltering days giving us temporary relief.  The heat seemed to tease out other critters as well. We saw a variety of birds, from turkey vultures, Peregrine Falcons, Ospreys, Bald Eagles, and even Egrets!  In the water we saw baby Harbor seals, and some bonus River Otters.

This is our "tripod" of river otters!
This is our “tripod” of river otters!

In more recent news, August 8th marked our first full month of surveying between our two whale hotspots. However, the term “hotspot” doesn’t always seem to be fitting. This past week has been a tough one for the team and I up in Boiler Bay due to less than optimal weather conditions and our survey site has been exposed to an abnormal cycle of fog. Our friendly “neighborhood” grays have been a bit sparse, and yet, we have had Humpback Whales grace us with their presence and these whales have been spotted during several survey days this week! ( In the tradition of opportunistic data, we even tracked one of them.)

The track-line for whale 118 - a humpback who has been hanging out near Boiler Bay all week.
The track-line for whale 118 – a humpback who has been hanging out near Boiler Bay all week.

This summer has been very fun because not only do we get to watch whales every day, but when we are in Boiler Bay, we have the opportunity to meet fascinating people from all over the world! The positive support for the project coming from the community is quite a nice touch to our days in the field. If you are ever in the neighborhood, stop by and say hello, maybe share a whale’s tale or two!

 

Gray whales do not "fluke" very often, so its always a treat when we get a picture of one!
Gray whales do not “fluke” very often, so its always a treat when we get a picture of one!

Gray Whale Goofs

Hello there!  Florence here, signing in from Newport.  We had a fantastic trip south to Port Orford, and tracked another 53 whales bringing our season total up to 117 so far! This morning, we were back out at Boiler Bay and spent 5 hours staring at empty water – in keeping with the theme of this post, field work does not always go as planned.

Our two study areas couldn’t be more different.  At the Boiler Bay State Wayside, we are approximately 18 meters off the water.  In Port Orford, we are perched on the side of a 63 meter tall cliff. This extra height greatly increases our range and accuracy as well as changing the angle of our photography and the type of photo analysis we can do.  We’re quite excited to have a top down view of our whales, because the photos we are capturing will allow us to use certain photogrammetry techniques to measure the length and girth of the individuals.  With luck, when we compare the photos from the beginning of the season (now) to the end of our study (September) we may be able to see a change in the height of the post-cranial fat deposit, which would indicate a successful foraging season.  Gray whales do not eat from the beginning of their southward migration, through the breeding and calving season, until they reach productive foraging grounds at the end of their northward migration.  This means that all their sustenance for 6+ months is derived from their summer foraging success.  Did you know that they even generate their own water through an oxidation reaction which creates ‘metabolic water’ from their blubber stores?  So it will be rather fantastic if we manage to measure the change in whale body condition over the course of the summer – particularly if we are able to spot any mother-calf pairs who will have had an especially grueling journey north.

A foraging behavior where the whale turns on its side in shallow water. The triangle of the fluke resembles a shark fin
Sharking: A foraging behavior where the whale turns on its side in shallow water. The triangle of the fluke resembles a shark fin

So, while our photo database is advancing nicely, technical difficulties are to be expected when you’re in the field, and sometimes, troubleshooting takes longer than you would like it to.  This evening, let me introduce you to the elusive species known as ‘the Chinese land whale.’  It is a very rare breed which spontaneously generates itself from misaligned computer files.

When the theodolite beeps as we ‘mark’ a whale, a pair of horizontal and vertical angles are getting sent from the machine to a program called ‘Pythagoras’ on the laptop. Given our starting coordinates and a few other variables, the program auto-calculates for us the latitude and longitude of that whale.  While we hoped it would be a simple matter to upload these coordinates to Google Earth to visualize the tracklines, it turns out that Pythagoras stores the East/West hemisphere information in a separate column, so if we just plot the raw numbers, our whale tracks end up in the middle of a field in rural China! Hence, the rare ‘Chinese land whale’.  Now that we know the trick, it is not so difficult to fix, but we were quite surprised the first time it happened!

If you dont have your hemisphere correctly labeled, you end up in China instead of Oregon.
If you don’t have your hemisphere correctly labeled, you end up in China instead of Oregon.

Of course, that is not the only thing that has gone wrong with visualizing the tracklines.  When we first got to Graveyard Point survey site, it turns out that we had set our azimuth (our reference angle) the wrong direction from true north, so all our whales seemed to be foraging near the fish and chips restaurant in the middle of town.

If the azimuth is incorrectly referenced, you might end up on land instead of in the water.
If the azimuth is incorrectly referenced, you might end up on land instead of in the water.

After discovering that in order to rotate something 180degrees, you simply need to alter the azimuth angle by 90degrees, (we’re still not sure why this is working), the whales left the fish and chips to us and returned to the harbor.  Anyways, now that we’ve figured out these glitches, we can focus on identifying individual whales, and figuring out which track-lines might be repeat visitors.

Once all the kinks got worked out - the real trackline!  Dont worry, whale 60 did not go through the jetty, thats an artifact of the program wanting to draw straight lines from point a to b.  more likely we simply missed a surface as it transited around the point of the jetty.
Once all the kinks got worked out – the real trackline! Dont worry, whale 60 did not go through the jetty, thats an artifact of the program wanting to draw straight lines from point a to b. more likely we simply missed a surface as it transited around the point of the jetty.

In other outreach news, the OSU media department came out to the field and interviewed us a few weeks ago (on a day that the theodolite and computer were refusing to talk to each other due to a faulty connector cable – which is always delightful when one is trying to showcase research in progress). The resulting article has been posted should you wish to take a look:

http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/archives/2015/aug/researchers-studying-oregon%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%9Cresident-population%E2%80%9D-gray-whales

More shallow sharking behavior
More shallow sharking behavior
Well known for having the shortest, toughest baleen of any of the great whales, here you can see the plates in its mouth!
Well known for having the shortest, toughest baleen of any of the great whales, here you can see the plates in its mouth!

Until next time,

Team Ro”buff”stus

Familiar Flukes and Faces

Greetings fellow marine enthusiasts! My name is Cricket, and I am one of the interns working on Florence’s Gray Whale project! I’m preparing to graduate from Oregon State University in a couple of months with a Bachelors of Science in Biology with the marine option. Before I graduate, I wanted to get some extra experience in the field this summer, which is how I ended up here with Florence, Justin, and Sarah, having surprisingly crazy whale adventures along the Oregon coast!

Panorama of Graveyard Point
Panorama of Graveyard Point

Today marks the end of our first week in Port Orford. We weren’t sure what we were going to get when we switched sites, though of course we had a few fears: No whales, low visibility, bad weather, etc. Depoe Bay had been good to us so far, and we were slightly worried about the transition. In actuality, Port Orford has been amazing!

Our sampling set-up on Graveyard point - above the port of Port Orford
Our sampling set-up on Graveyard point – above the port of Port Orford

Day one was foggy, and we only visited the site briefly to figure out a good location for the theodolite. One of our sites is located on a terrifyingly high cliff, but the view is stellar. We were only there for about an hour and we saw two whales, one of which came up into the cove just beneath us. In fact, one of our concerns with this site is that the whales actually get too close to view through the theodolite. What an unexpected problem to have!

Titchener Cove, Port Orford. Credit: Cricket Carine
Whale 63 Titchener Cove, Port Orford. Credit: Cricket Carine

From our vantage point, we can get some incredible photos of these whales. Photo identification is a breeze if the whale decides to come into the cove closest to us. We can watch them under the water, as opposed to in Depoe Bay where we could only really observe them when they surface.

Whale 59 Surfaces in Titchener Cove, Port Orford credit: Cricket Carine
Whale 59 Surfaces in Titchener Cove, Port Orford credit: Cricket Carine

We all get particularly excited when we see the same whale more than once. In Depoe Bay, we had at least four different whales appear on multiple days. We can verify this using the photos we manage to get of the whales, and comparing them between days.

For example, in Port Orford, we spotted a whale on the 20th with a particularly large white spot on the fluke. This spot made the whale easily identifiable, so we were able to get a good focal follow (because we could track this whale amongst other whales with confidence that we were tracking the same one the entire time), which in turn allowed us to create a track line of this whale’s dive patterns. This whale happened to be whale sixty (the 60th whale we’ve seen since the start of our data collection).

While this is a trackline of whale 82, photo ID confirms that 82,60, and 78 are all the same whale!
While this is a track-line of whale 82, photo ID confirms that 82, 60, and 78 are all the same whale! (The beginning of the track is labeled with the whale ID)

Then, days later, we spotted another whale. This was whale 78, and after a few surfaces, we realized this whale had the same white spot! We hesitantly referred to this whale as “sixty” but couldn’t be sure until we compared photos from the days before. And sure enough, it was!

Seen on July 24
Whale 82, Seen on July 24
Seen on July 20.
Whale 60, Seen on July 20.

I am particularly enthusiastic about our whale resights, and actively enjoy going through the photos and comparing each one to previous whales to try and identify individuals. It’s tedious, but rewarding when we can begin to learn individuals and identify them in the field. As a sort of rough guide to help us when scrounging through photo ID, I’ve put some of our good comparative photos into a google doc to use as reference. Here’s an example of some of the repeat whales we’ve seen:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1KSB67m1julnk2KmH70b9u91OqDqCT4zicuqPHI7ojms/edit

Tomorrow will be day two at our second Port Orford site. Today was day one, and we managed to spot two whales, which is definitely promising. We hope we have as much luck finding and tracking whales there as we did on our cliffside!

Panorama from Humbug State Park survey site
Panorama from Humbug State Park survey site
Surveying our new Humbug site this morning
Surveying our new Humbug site this morning

 

Have a nice Gray!
Cricket