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

 

Midway Atoll: Two weeks at the largest albatross colony in the world

By Rachael Orben, Postdoctoral Scholar, Seabird Oceanography Lab & Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab, Oregon State University

In January I was extremely lucky to accompany my former PhD advisor, Scott Shaffer to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument as part of my job as a postdoc working in Rob Suryan’s Seabird Oceanography LabWe were there with the dual purpose of GPS tracking Laysan and Black-footed albatrosses as part of Scott’s long-term research and to collect fine-scale data on flight behavior to develop collision risk models for wind energy development (in other areas of the species ranges such as Oregon). Here are my impressions of this amazing island.

So many albatrosses! Our approximately four hour flight from Honolulu to Midway landed at night and as we stood around on the dark tarmac greeting the human island residents I could just make out the ghostly glistening outlines of albatrosses by moonlight. But I had to wait until the following morning to really take stock of where I had suddenly landed: Midway Atoll, the largest albatross colony in the world. This was my first trip to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, but I have been to other albatross colonies before and Midway is most definitely different.

First of all, it was hot(ish)!

Secondly, I was amazed to see albatrosses nesting everywhere. Unlike the southern hemisphere colonies I have visited, the albatrosses aren’t restricted to their section of the island or even nesting as close to each other as possible. Instead there are nests literally everywhere there might be enough loose substrate! Birds nest in the middle of the roads, in the bike racks (bikes are an easy quick means of transportation), along the paths, next to the extremely loud generator, near piles of old equipment, and around buildings. Hawaiian albatross nests are not much to look at compared to the mud pedestal nests of the southern hemisphere mollymawks (see the photos below) and are often made of just enough sand and vegetation to keep the egg in place. There are no aerial predators of these birds, beyond the occasional vagrant peregrine, and certainly nothing that might rival the tenacity of the skuas in the southern hemisphere. Perhaps it is this naiveté that has lead to their willingness to nest anywhere.

It may also be this naiveté that has facilitated the following unfortunate turn of events. Just before I arrived, the USFWS and a crew of volunteers had just finished up the annual albatross count. During their counting sweeps they noticed injured adults incubating eggs. After setting out trail cams, suspicions were confirmed. The introduced mice on Midway have discovered that albatrosses are a source of food. House mice are known to prey on albatross chicks on Gough and Marion Islands in the South Atlantic (more information here – warning graphic photos), but to my knowledge this is the first time that they have started eating adult birds. You can read the USFWS announcement here. The plane that I flew out on brought in people, traps, and resources to deal with the situation, but stay tuned as I fear this saga is just beginning.

Finally, and on a further less than positive note, I went to Midway fully aware of the problem that plastics pose to these birds and our marine ecosystem, but there is something to be said for seeing it first hand. The chicks were very small when I was there so I didn’t see any direct impacts on them, but see below for photos of carcasses of last year’s fledglings with plastic filled stomachs. Instead, it was the shear amount of random plastic bits strewn around the island and buried layers deep into the sand that struck me. I learned that sometimes the plastic bits are glow-in-the-dark! Sometimes fishing lures have batteries in them – I am not sure what they are used to catch – do you know? And toothbrushes are very common. All of the plastic that I saw among the birds arrived in the stomach of an adult albatross. All-in-all the experience gave me renewed inspiration for continuing to reduce the amount of plastic that I use (click here for more information on albatrosses and plastic, and here and here for info on marine plastic pollution in general). I collected interesting pieces to bring home with me (see the photos below), but it is a non-random sampling of what caught my eye. I left many many plastic shards where they were.

I have written mostly about the birds, but Midway is full of human history. As I biked along the runway, or past the old officer quarters, I often found myself wondering what all these albatrosses have seen over the years and what they might witness in the future. Two weeks was really just a blink-of-an-eye for an albatross that can live over 40 years (or longer like Wisdom the albatross). I was terribly sad to leave such a beautiful place, but I came home with amazing memories, photos, and gigabytes of data that are already giving me a glimpse into the world of albatrosses at sea.

Scratching the Surface

By Dr. Leigh Torres, Assistant Professor, Oregon State University, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

I have been reminded of a lesson I learned long ago: Never turn your back on the sea – it’s always changing.

The blue whales weren’t where they were last time. I wrongly assumed oceanographic patterns would be similar to our last time out in 2014 and that the whales would be in the same area. But the ocean is dynamic – ever changing. I knew this. And I know it better now.

Below (Fig. 1) are two satellite images of sea surface temperature (SST) within the South Taranaki Bight and west coast region of New Zealand that we surveyed in Jan-Feb 2014 and again recently during Jan-Feb 2016. The plot on the left describes ocean surface conditions in 2014 and illustrates how SST primarily ranged between 15 and 18 ⁰C. By comparison, the panel on the right depicts the sea surface conditions we just encountered during the 2016 field season, and a huge difference is apparent: this year SST ranged between 18 and 23 ⁰C, barely overlapping with the 2014 field season conditions.

Figure 1. A comparison of satellite images of sea surface temperature (SST) in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand between late January 2014 and early February 2016. The white circles on each image denote where the majority of blue whales were encountered during each field season.
Figure 1. A comparison of satellite images of sea surface temperature (SST) in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand between late January 2014 and early February 2016. The white circles on each image denote where the majority of blue whales were encountered during each field season.

While whales can live in a wide range of water temperatures, their prey is much pickier. Krill, tiny zooplankton that blue whales seek and devour in large quantities, tend to aggregate in pockets of nutrient-rich, cool water in this region of New Zealand. During the 2014 field season, we encountered most blue whales in an area where SST was about 15 ⁰C (within the white circle in the left panel of Fig. 1). This year, there was no cool water anywhere and we mainly found the whales off the west coast of Kahurangi shoals in about 21 ⁰C water (within the white circle in the right panel of Fig. 1. NB: the cooler water in the Cook Strait in the southeast region of the right panel is a different water mass than preferred by blue whales and does not contain their prey.)

The hot water we found this year across the survey region can likely be attributed, at least in part, to the El Niño conditions that are occurring across the Pacific Ocean currently. El Niño has brought unusually settled conditions to New Zealand this summer, which means relatively few high wind events that normally churn up the ocean and mix the cool, nutrient rich deep water with the hot surface layer water. These are ideal conditions for Kiwi sun-bathers, but the ocean remains highly stratified with a stable layer of hot water on top. However, this stratification does not necessarily mean the ocean is un-productive – it only means that the SST satellite images are virtually useless for helping us to find whales this year.

Although SST data can be informative about ocean conditions, it only reflects what is happening in the thin, top slice of the ocean. Sub-surface conditions can be very different. Ocean conditions during our two survey periods in 2014 and 2016 could be more similar when compared underwater than when viewed from above. This is why sub-surface sensors and data collection is critical to marine studies. Ocean conditions in 2014 and 2016 could both potentially provide good habitat for the whales. In fact, where and when we encountered whales during both 2014 and 2016 we also detected high densities of krill through hydro-acoustics (Fig. 2). However, in 2014 we observed many surface swarms of krill that we rarely saw this recent field season, which could be due to elevated SST. But, we did capture cool drone footage this year of a brief sub-surface foraging event:

An overhead look of a blue whale foraging event as the animal approaches the surface. Note how the distended ventral (throat) grooves of the buccal cavity (mouth) are visible. This is a big gulp of prey (krill) and water. The video was captured using a DJI Phantom 3 drone in the South Taranaki Bight of New Zealand in on February 2, 2016 under a research permit from the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) permit # 45780-MAR issued to Oregon State University.

Figure 2. An echo-sounder image of dense krill patches at 50-80 m depth captured through hydroacoustics in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand.
Figure 2. An echo-sounder image of dense krill patches at 50-80 m depth captured through hydroacoustics in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand.

Below are SST anomaly plots of January 2014 and January 2016 (Fig. 3). These anomaly plots show how different the SST was compared to the long-term average SST across the New Zealand region. As you can see, in 2014 (left panel) SST conditions in our study area were ~1 ⁰C below average, while in 2016 (right panel) SST conditions were ~1 ⁰C above average. So, what are normal conditions? What can we expect next year when we come back to survey again for blue whales across this region? These are challenging questions and illustrate why marine ecology studies like this one must be conducted over many years. One year is just a snap shot in the lifetime of the oceans.

Figure 3. Comparison of sea surface temperature (SST) anomaly plots of the New Zealand region between January 2014 (left) and January 2016 (right). The white box in both plots denotes the general location of our blue whale study region. (Apologies for the different formats of these plots - the underlying data is directly comparable.)
Figure 3. Comparison of sea surface temperature (SST) anomaly plots of the New Zealand region between January 2014 (left) and January 2016 (right). The white box in both plots denotes the general location of our blue whale study region. (Apologies for the different formats of these plots – the underlying data is directly comparable.)

Like all marine megafauna, blue whales move far and fast to adjust their distribution patterns according to ocean conditions. So, I can’t tell you what the ocean will be like in January 2017 or where the whales will be, but as we continue to study this marine ecosystem and its inhabitants our understanding of ocean patterns and whale ecology will improve. With every year of new data we will be able to better predict ocean and blue whale distribution patterns, providing managers with the tools they need to protect our marine environment. For now, we are just beginning to scratch the (sea) surface.

 

 

 

Biopsy sampling blue whales in New Zealand

By: Callum Lilley

Senior Ranger, Marine – Department of Conservation, Taranaki, New Zealand

During the end of January, I had the privilege to be part of the research team studying blue whales in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand.  My role, along with assisting with visual survey, was to obtain biopsy samples from whales using a Paxarm modified veterinary rifle.   This device fires a plastic dart fitted with a sterilized metal tip that takes a small skin and blubber sample for genetic and stable isotope analysis. This process is very carefully managed following procedures to ensure that the whales are not put under any undue stress.  Biopsy sampling provides a gold mine of genetic and dietary information to help us understand the dynamics of this whale population.

Although firing a dart at a creature that is considerably larger than a city bus sounds reasonably easy, it is rarely the case.  The first challenge is to find whales within a large expanse of ocean.  The team then needs to photograph the side of each animal and take note of any distinctive features so that each individual is only sampled once.  Sometimes other work will be undertaken (such as collecting fecal samples, or deploying a drifting hydrophone or unmanned aerial system/drone).  Finally the team will attempt to get close enough to the whales, while taking care not to unduly disturb them, to get a biopsy sample.  Wind, vessel movement, glare, the length of time whales spend underwater and the small target they sometimes present above the water are further challenges.

The video below shows a successful biopsy attempt.  It is a well-coordinated team effort that relies on great communication. You can hear observer Todd Chandler direct the skipper of the vessel Ikatere into position while keeping me (the biopsy sampler) informed as to which whale is surfacing and where.  From the vantage point of the flying bridge, Todd can see the whales’ position and movement (my view is limited from the lower deck).  Todd points out where the whale is surfacing and it momentarily presents a target.  This was the second sample from the two racing whales previously discussed by Dr. Torres, so it will be interesting to see their relationship to one-another.

The ideal angle to approach a whale to take a biopsy sample is from behind at a 45 degree angle, as this causes the least disturbance.  The following video was taken from an unmanned aerial system.  It shows the vessel Ikatere approaching from the whale’s left flank. Department of Conservation (DOC) biodiversity ranger Mike Ogle is on the bow of the vessel and fires a biopsy dart at the whale.  After the biopsy is taken the vessel maneuvers to collect the dart/sample from the water while the whale continues to travel.

In addition to blue whale samples, the DOC permit issued to Oregon State University also allowed for opportunistic sampling of other whales.  The following video was taken during an encounter with a large pod of pilot whales.  The video shows how the lightweight dart bounces off the animal and floats in the water.  Care is taken to communicate its location to the skipper who positions the vessel so it can be retrieved with a net.

Once samples have been retrieved they are handled very carefully to prevent contamination.  The sample is split, with some preserved for genetic analysis and the rest for stable isotope analysis.  Analysis of genetic samples provides information on sex, abundance (through genetic capture-recapture, which is calculated by analyzing the proportion of individuals repeatedly sampled over subsequent seasons), and relationships to other blue whale populations.  Stable isotope analysis provides information on diet.  Also, a portion of all samples will be stored for potential future opportunities such as hormone and fatty acid analysis. It blows me away how much information can be gleaned from these tiny samples!

 

Eavesdropping on blue whales in New Zealand

 

Kristin Brooke Hodge

Research Analyst, Bioacoustics Research Program, Cornell University

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Kristin_Hodge

Over the past few weeks, we have surveyed the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand, collecting biological and oceanographic data to learn more about the population of blue whales in this region.  Our efforts have been successful: we have encountered multiple blue whales, and recorded information about their identification, behavior, and habitat.  While our visual survey efforts have provided us with an invaluable dataset, our field season is shortly coming to an end.  So how can we continue to learn more about the blue whale population, if we cannot collect visual survey data?

Solution: we will study the sounds they make.

Bioacoustics is a non-invasive method to study acoustically-active animal populations in terrestrial and marine habitats.  Scientists can eavesdrop on animals by recording and analyzing their sounds, and in turn gain insights about their occurrence, behavior, and movement patterns.   This is especially useful for studying elusive or rare species, such as the blue whale, that can be difficult to find in the field.  Since blue whales produce high intensity, infrasonic calls and songs that can travel for many miles across ocean basins, we can capture information regarding their spatial and temporal occurrence, even if we cannot see them. (To listen to a blue whale call recorded off of Chile click here.)

We are using Marine Autonomous Recording Units (MARUs), developed by the Cornell Bioacoustics Research Program, to record blue whales (Fig. 1).  The MARU is a digital audio recording system contained in a buoyant sphere, which is deployed on the bottom of the ocean using an anchor.  Each MARU has a hydrophone that collects acoustic data, and these sounds are recorded and stored on electronic storage media inside the MARU.  The MARUs are programmed to record continuous, low-frequency sounds for approximately six months, after which they pop up to the surface of the ocean, ready to be retrieved for data analysis and redeployed with fresh batteries and storage media.

Figure 1. Kristin Hodge about to deploy a Marine Autonomous Recording Unit (MARU) and anchors in the South Taranaki Bight of New Zealand.
Figure 1. Kristin Hodge about to deploy a Marine Autonomous Recording Unit (MARU) and anchors in the South Taranaki Bight of New Zealand.

Over the course of this field season, we strategically deployed five MARUs across the South Taranaki Bight (Fig. 2), and we will record acoustic data in these five sites over the next couple of years.  This will allow us to understand patterns of occurrence at larger spatial and temporal scales than we can accomplish with visual survey alone.  Our acoustic dataset will complement the biological and oceanographic data we collected on survey, providing a more complete picture of the blue whale population in the bight.

Figure 2. Approximate locations of Marine Autonomous Recording Unit (MARU) deployment sites across the South Taranaki Bight of New Zealand.
Figure 2. Approximate locations of Marine Autonomous Recording Unit (MARU) deployment sites across the South Taranaki Bight of New Zealand.

To see us deploy a MARU in New Zealand, check out this video:

 

Racing blues

By Dr. Leigh Torres, Assistant Professor, Oregon State University, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

A week ago we observed two racing blue whales.

Please read my blog about this amazing sighting that was recently posted on The National Geographic Explores webpage. You can also watch these videos:

 

Marine Megafauna Ecology Fund

 

Blues Clues

Although blue whales are big, the South Taranaki Bight is bigger. So finding them is not straight forward. In fact, with little prior research in this area, the main focus of our project is to gain a better understanding of blue whale distribution patterns in the region. So, while bouncing around on the sea, we are collecting habitat data that we relate to whale occurrence data to learn what makes preferred whale habitat.

We conduct CTD casts. CTD stands for Conductivity, Temperature and Depth. This is an instrument we lower down to the bottom of the ocean on a line and along the w ay it records temperature and salinity (conductivity) data at all depths. This data describes the water structure at that location, such as the depth of the thermocline. The ocean is often layered with warm, low-salt water on top, and cooler and salty water at the bottom. This thermocline can act as a boundary above which prey aggregate.

Todd and Andrew deploy the CTD off the R/V Ikatere.
Todd and Andrew deploy the CTD off the R/V Ikatere. (Photo by Callum Lilley)
CTD cast
Example data retrieved from a CTD cast showing how temperature (green line) decreases and salinity (red line) increases as it descends through the water column (depth on y-axis).

We also have a transducer on board that we use to record the presence of biological material in the ocean, like krill (blue whale prey). This transducer emits pings of sound through the water column and the echoes bounce back, either off the seafloor, krill or fish. This glorified echosounder records where blue whale prey is, and is not.

Example display image from our echosounder (EK60) showing patches of prey (likely krill) in the upper surface layer.
Example display image from our echosounder (EK60) showing patches of prey (likely krill) in the upper surface layer.

Additionally, the research vessel is always recording surface temperature (SST). I monitor this SST readout somewhat obsessively while at-sea as well as study the latest SST satellite images. Using these two bits of data as my “blues clues”, we search for blue whales.

After a bumpy ride across the Cook Strait we had a good spell of weather last week. We covered a lot of ground, deploying our 5 hydrophones across the Bight and keeping our eyes peeled for blows. Our first day out we found three whales. Fantastic sightings. But, as we continued to survey through warm, low productivity water we found no signs of blue whales. The third day out was a beauty – the type of day I wish for: low swell and low winds – perfect for whale finding. We covered 220 nautical miles this day (deploying 2 hydrophones) and we searched and searched. But no whales. I could see from the SST satellite image that the whole Bight was really warm: about 20 ⁰C. I could also see a strip of cold water down south, toward Farewell Spit. I said “Let’s go there”.

Sea surface temperature (SST) satellite image of the South Taranaki Bight region in New Zealand that shows mostly warm water with a plume of colder water down south.
Sea surface temperature (SST) satellite image of the South Taranaki Bight region in New Zealand that shows mostly warm water with a plume of colder water down south.

After twelve and a half hours of survey effort through clear, blue, warm water, we finally saw the water temperature drop (to about 18 ⁰C) and the water color turn green. We started to see gannets, petrels, shearwaters, and common dolphins feeding. Then I heard the magic words come from Todd’s mouth: “Blow!” So began our sunset sighting. From 7:30 to 10 pm we worked with four blue whales capturing photographs and biopsy samples, and echosounder prey data.

Diving blue whale in the South Taranaki Bight, NZ (photo by Leigh Torres)
Diving blue whale in the South Taranaki Bight, NZ (photo by Leigh Torres)

This is an example of a species-habitat relationship that marine ecologists like me seek to document. We observe and record patterns like this so that we can better understand and predict the distribution of blue whales. Such information is critical for environmental managers to have in order to effectively regulate where and when human activities that may impact blue whales can occur. Over the next two weeks we will continue to document blue whale habitat in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand.

Blown out.

By Dr. Leigh Torres, Assistant Professor, Oregon State University, Marine Mammal Institute, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Hurry up and wait. Can’t control the weather. All set and nowhere to go.

However you want to say it, despite our best efforts to be ready to sail today, the weather has not agreed with our best-laid plans. It’s blowing 20-30 knots in the South Taranaki Bight, which makes it very difficult to spot a whale from our small (but sturdy) research vessel (NIWA’s R/V Ikatere), and practically impossible to take good photos of the whales or to deploy our hydrophones. So, we wait.

Over the last few days we have been busy tracking down gear, assembling the hydrophones, discussing project logistics, preparing equipment (Fig. 1), provisioning the vessel, getting the crew in place, and practicing vessel operations. We have flown to the other side of the world. We have prepared. We are ready. And we wait. Such is field work. I know this. I’ve been through this many times. But it is always hard to take when you feel the clock ticking on your timeline, the funds flowing from your budget, and your people waiting for action. Fortunately, I have built in contingency time so we will still accomplish our goals. We just have to wait a bit longer. As the Kiwis say, ‘Bugger!’

kristin and hydrophones small
Figure 1. Kristin Brooke Hodge of The Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell University performs a global sound check on the hydrophones (loud bang of hammer to pipe) so that times can all be synced and any clock drift accounted for.

Below is a wind and rain forecast for New Zealand (provide by the MetService). The box in red is our study region of the South Taranaki Bight. We are currently in Wellington where the green star is, but we want to be in Pohara where the yellow star is – this will be our base during the field project, if we can just get there.

NZ wind

Wind strength and direction in these types of maps is depicted by the wind indicator lines: the wind is coming from the tail toward the flag end of the symbol, and the strength is symbolized by the number and size of the barbs on the flag end.

wind barbs

Notice how inside the red box there are lots of barbs on the indicator lines (most saying about 20 knots), but just to the west and north there are few barbs – about 5 to 10 knots. These are great survey conditions, but not where we want to be! A bit heartbreaking. But that’s how it goes, and I know we will get our weather window soon. Until then, we sit tight and watch the wind blow through the pohutukawas and cabbage trees in beautiful Wellington.

An update from the Antarctic Peninsula

By: Erin Pickett

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!

“This is what I would do if I weren’t afraid” – New Zealand blue whale field season 2016

By Dr. Leigh Torres, Assistant Professor, Oregon State University, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Two years ago I documented a blue whale foraging ground in an area of New Zealand called the South Taranaki Bight (STB) – the country’s most industrially active marine area with intense oil and gas exploration and extraction since the 1970’s, elevated vessel traffic, and potential seabed mining (Figure 1). Over just five days of survey effort we observed 50 blue whales and documented foraging behavior. But we still know next to nothing about where and when blue whales are in the STB, how many whales use this area, how important this area is as a feeding area, or to what population the whales belong. Without answers to these questions effective management of human activities in the region to protect the whales and their habitat is unfeasible.

I am now heading back to New Zealand to collect the data needed to answer these questions that will enable successful management. That’s my goal.

Figure 1. Illustration of a space-use conflict between industry activity and blue whales in the South Taranaki Bight, which lies between the north and south islands of New Zealand. Blue whale sightings and strandings recorded between 1970 and 2012.
Figure 1. Illustration of a space-use conflict between industry activity and blue whales in the South Taranaki Bight, which lies between the north and south islands of New Zealand. Blue whale sightings and strandings recorded between 1970 and 2012.

Such research costs money. In collaboration with the Bioacoustic Research Program at Cornell University (birds.cornell.edu/brp), we are deploying five hydrophones to listen for blue whales across the region for 2 years. We will conduct vessel surveys for 1 month in each year to find whales and collect data on their habitat, behavior, and individual occurrence patterns. As far as field research projects go, this work is not very expensive, but we still need to pay for vessel time, equipment, and personnel time to collect and analyze the data. This is an ugly truth of scientific research – it costs money and there is not a lot out there.

For two years I’ve had my fund raising hat on (Not my favorite hat. I much prefer my research hat). I believe that industry groups active in the STB should take an active role in supporting the necessary research. They exploit the natural resources in the region and should therefore take responsibility for ensuring the ecosystem’s sustainability and health. Right? They did not agree.

I emphasized to these groups that by supporting the project they would demonstrate their environmental responsibility and ultimately be engaged in discussions of management options based on project findings. Despite hundreds of emails, phone calls and discussions, all the oil and gas companies, the seabed mining group, and the maritime traffic organization declined to fund the project, claiming lack of funds or lack of relevance to their interests. Meanwhile, other groups who prioritize conservation management are supporting the project. I am grateful to The Aotearoa Foundation, The National Geographic Society Waitt Foundation, The New Zealand Department of Conservation, Greenpeace New Zealand, OceanCare, Kiwis Against Seabed Mining, and an anonymous donor.

Lately I have been reading Sheryl Sandberg’s poignant book, Lean In, which I feel is a call to women to take responsibility for our equality and leadership. Those familiar with this book will recognize the opening of my blog title from her valid push for women to take more risks and push ourselves beyond our comfort zones. In many ways I feel I am doing this now. It would be much easier for me to withdraw from this project, say I tried, and let things carry on until someone else takes the challenge. Funding is short, last minute contract issues abound, equipment logistics are running late, I fear political pushback, and I have a sore throat. But it’s time for this project to happen. It’s time to recognize biodiversity’s innate right to healthy habitat. It’s time for industry groups to acknowledge their potential impacts on blue whales through elevated ocean noise, vessel strikes, and habitat degradation and displacement. It’s time for management to have the tools to act.

Figure 2. A blue whale surfaces in front of an oil rig in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Photo by Deanna Elvines.
Figure 2. A blue whale surfaces in front of an oil rig in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Photo by Deanna Elvines.

I remain hopeful that industry groups will engage in this research effort. Through diplomacy, transparency and robust science I want to bring together industry, NGOs, and management groups to develop effective conservation strategies to protect blue whales and their habitat in the STB. Collaboratively we can balance industry activity and biodiversity protection.

Since reading Lean In, I’ve been wondering if the conservation movement suffers because of women’s reluctance to challenge, take risks, and ‘sit at the table’ as Sandberg says. The conservation field is heavily dominated by women. For progress to happen we must be willing to force issues, be perceived as aggressive, and not be nice all the time. Just like men are expected to be.

Over the next four weeks colleagues and I will conduct research in the STB on blue whales. Stay tuned to this blog for updates.