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

Whale mAPP Goes Global!

By Courtney Hann

The Whale mAPP team of Lei Lani Stelle, Melo King of Smallmelo Geographic Information Services, and me (Courtney Hann) has been busy recruiting ocean enthusiasts and applying for grants to fund volunteer-suggested Whale mAPP revisions. As a refresher, Whale mAPP is an Android-based mobile application that can be used by anyone to record marine mammal (whale, dolphins, porpoises, pinniped) sightings around the world. It is easy to sign up as a beta tester on the Whale mAPP website, www.whalemapp.org, and use the mobile app on your personal device to help scientists and conservationists learn more about marine mammals.

What is most spectacular is that the app has truly gone global! We now have over 100 users and are getting a couple new user requests each week! These volunteers have been busy at work this summer, recording thousands of marine mammal sightings during the summer months. Sightings have streamed in from the U.S. West Coast, Hawaiian, Japanese, and Russian waters, the Caribbean, the middle of the Southern Ocean, and the Greenland Sea. You can click on any sighting on the web map to see details about what species were recorded, how many were seen, what their behavior was like, the weather conditions that day, and other notes.

This map shows global marine mammal sightings recorded by Whale mAPP volunteers. The blue whale tale icons represent whale sightings, the pink dolphin icons represent dolphin or porpoise sightings, and the orange seal icon represents a seal, sea lion, or sea otter sighting. Data recorded during each sighting include the location (automatic), the species, the weather and sea conditions, the number of individuals, and a five-star confidence rating (http://www.whalemapp.org/map/#/, CEBCO, DeLorme | Melodi King, MS GIS Program – Cohort 21, University of Redlands).
This map shows global marine mammal sightings recorded by Whale mAPP volunteers. The blue whale tale icons represent whale sightings, the pink dolphin icons represent dolphin or porpoise sightings, and the orange seal icon represents a seal, sea lion, or sea otter sighting. Data recorded during each sighting include the location (automatic), the species, the weather and sea conditions, the number of individuals, and a five-star confidence rating (http://www.whalemapp.org/map/#/, CEBCO, DeLorme | Melodi King, MS GIS Program – Cohort 21, University of Redlands).

If we zoom into my particular study area of Southeast Alaska, we see that volunteers are still doing a superb job at recording the abundant number of marine mammals in the area.

Zoomed in image of the northeast Pacific, showing marine mammal sightings recorded this summer in Alaska, Southeast Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington (http://www.whalemapp.org/map/#/, CEBCO, DeLorme | Melodi King, MS GIS Program – Cohort 21, University of Redlands).
Zoomed in image of the northeast Pacific, showing marine mammal sightings recorded this summer in Alaska, Southeast Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington (http://www.whalemapp.org/map/#/, CEBCO, DeLorme | Melodi King, MS GIS Program – Cohort 21, University of Redlands).

Initial funding through the California Coastal Commission Whale Tail grant facilitated the creation of the Whale mAPP project, while current funding from the Hatfield Marine Science Center’s Mamie Markham Research Award that I received this Spring 2015 is funding the top two revisions requested by our users:
(1) Enable the user to edit observations during a trip and after a trip has ended. This revision is huge, was requested by almost every user I spoke to in Southeast Alaska, and was shown very evidently in our survey results.
(2) Add site-specific animal behavior and descriptions to Whale mAPP. For Southeast Alaska, this means adding the famous bubble-net feeding behavior to our list, as well as important descriptions of how to identify, recognize, and understand marine mammal behaviors.
In addition to the above two revisions, a few other revisions will be completed by Smallmelo Geographic Information Services this winter. These revisions include improving world-wide coverage of region-specific species lists, creating tools for validating the quality of the data, enabling data downloads directly from the website (www.whalemapp.org), and including the beta-tested “marine mammal fun facts” into the global application.

All of these incredible accomplishments and progress toward a successful, educational, fun, and data-generating marine mammal citizen science project could not have happened without Dr. Lei Lani’s open mind toward incorporating more people, including me, into her Whale mAPP project. Whale mAPP represents a new age of scientists, one of collaboration across disciplines (ecology, statistics, coding, education, and more!), and one that over-steps previous boundaries to re-define science. I hope that my participation with Whale mAPP and future citizen science projects will inspire individuals to know and feel that they can be scientists and that we can inspire the world to work together for the common good of our oceans.

From Oregon to New Caledonia: Crossing latitudes

**GUEST POST** written by Solène Derville from the Institute of Research for Development, Nouméa, New Caledonia. Entropie Lab

Last term I posted about the analysis of Maui dolphin habitat selection I have undergone under Dr Leigh Torres’ supervision at OSU. The results of this work are now compiled in a manuscript which I hope to submit for publication very soon.

Since I last posted on this blog, many things have changed for me: I went back to France at the end of May (with a heavy heart from leaving Newport and my dear lab mates) and I have graduated from the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Lyon and successfully completed my Biology Master’s degree. In September, I will start a PhD on the spatial ecology of Humpback Whales in New Caledonia. I will work at the French ‘Institut de Recherche pour le Développement’ in Nouméa, New Caledonia, under the co-supervision of Dr Claude Payri, Dr Claire Garrigue, Dr Corina Iovan (IRD) and Dr Leigh Torres (GEMM Lab, OSU).

Before telling you a bit more about my project and this summer field season, I would like to introduce the beautiful place where I will be spending the next 3 years. New Caledonia is an archipelago located in the southwest Pacific Ocean, east of Australia. This special overseas French collectivity includes a main island (Grande Terre) and several other islands such as the Loyalty Islands. New Caledonia’s lagoon is the largest in the world and was added to the list of the UNESCO world heritage sites in 2008, because of its exceptional biodiversity including many emblematic species such as humpback whales, dugongs, marine turtles, manta rays…and many others.

).new+caledonia+mapNew Caledonia location in South Pacific Ocean (map: http://springtimeofnations.blogspot.jp

map_of_new-caledonialonelyplanet

Map of the New Caledonian Archipelago (map: http://crosbiew.wordpress.com).

Moreover, the ‘Natural Park of the Coral Sea’ was established very recently by the New Caledonian to protect this biodiversity hotspot. This monumental marine park spans 1.3 million square kilometres and is, to date, the largest protected area on the planet. As the detailed management plan for this park will be progressively established in the coming years, there is a local need for more information about marine mega-fauna space use in order to define key areas for wildlife conservation. Thus, the description of the humpback whales ecological niche in New Caledonian waters is the next logical step to initiate conservation planning. The effect of human activities needs to be investigated as the New Caledonian humpback whales population forms an isolated breeding sub-stock and is exposed to mining industry intensification, shipping, harbour construction and boat recreation associated to tourism development.

The general aim of my project is to investigate how humpback whales are using their habitat within and between reproductive areas of Oceania in order to facilitate their conservation at the scale of giant marine reserves (new generation of marine protected areas over vast surfaces exceeding hundreds of thousands of square kilometres). I will therefore focus on the spatial ecology of humpback whales in the New Caledonian Exclusive Economic Zone, with several specific aims:

1/ to quantify the spatio-temporal patterns and dynamics of humpback whale distribution in New Caledonian waters in order to identify key areas for the species and determine if these areas change over time or depending on social context.

2/ to assess the connectivity and movement patterns between areas of interest at individual scale.

3/ to document humpback whale use of habitat in relation to environmental factors and include these results in the broader-context of the South Pacific Ocean breeding areas.

4/ to provide a spatial and temporal assessment of the anthropogenic activities risks to humpback whales in New Caledonia.

I will rely on a large amount of data collected between 1991 and present, and provided by Opération Cétacés (an NGO involved in scientific research on humpback whales and other marine mammals in Oceania since 1996), including boat-based, land-based and aerial observations, satellite tracking and individual-based information (via Photo-Identification and genotyping).

This year, I am taking part in the summer field mission undergone by Opération Cétacés in the South Lagoon. I am currently living in Prony, a little village located along the southern coast of Grande Terre. No electricity, no internet, whale watching from 7am to 4pm on a daily basis: the real life!

In my next post I will tell you a bit more about this field trip with Opération Cétacés but for now, I will let you enjoy these few pictures!

IMG_3813

Prony Bay (© S. Derville)

IMG_3739

Rémi, Claire and Daisy standing next to the “Cap N’Dua” lighthouse from which land observations are made. Whales can be spotted up to 20 nautical miles offshore (© S. Derville) 

IMG_3820

View to the East of Cap N’Dua (© S. Derville)

2015-08-09-50D- 083
Breach observed a few days ago in the South Lagoon (© C. Garrigue)

2015-08-13-40D- 126

Inverted peduncle slap (the whale is lying upside down in the water and energetically slapping the surface with its fluke) (© S. Derville).

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

 

An insight into what Marine Mammal Observing is really like!

By Amanda Holdman

It’s August of 2015. That means I have exactly 2.5 months left until my field season and data collection for my masters comes to a close. At the end of October, I will have collected exactly 2 years of visual data on marine mammal distributions off of the coast of Newport, Oregon.

This is a bittersweet moment for me. Currently, I am on a 7 hour flight to Scotland to do some initial data analysis on my collected observations, with the help of a workshop offered by the University of St. Andrews. My first time abroad has me pretty restless with excitement on the plane, but with a 9 hour time change, some good rest will be key to being successful at the workshop. As I try to close my eyes, and picture what the next two weeks of what I like to call “Intensive Distance Sampling Summer School” will be like, the stranger next to me inevitably begins to make small talk, beginning with

“So what do you do?”

I usually tend to answer this question in two different ways. When I’m in my science community, I have no hesitation giving my 3 minute elevator speech on what I have been researching for the past year. However, when I’m making small talk with anyone I tend to just say

“I’m a master’s student studying marine mammals”

And that’s about all you need to say to get everyone’s attention around you! With a little more detail, I explain that I run transects to collect visual observation data of marine mammals to assist with understanding their patterns in distribution and habitat use. This explanation is always followed up with:

“Man, you’ve got the coolest job ever! What’s it like doing this all the time?”

Again most of the time I get this question, I’m usually conversing with people visiting the west coast hoping to see a large gray whale on vacation; or  young children who haven’t yet figured out that marine biology isn’t just about dolphins and pretty coral reefs – but it’s still good to inspire them! Just last week even, I ran into someone on the beach that told me his daughter thinks I’m a rock star for teaching her that you can research the sounds that whales, dolphins, and seals make. (His daughter attended Marine Science Day back in April, and I showed her some recordings of sounds – but I’ll carry this compliment with me for a long time)

But when people ask me how awesome my job is, I tend to keep the morale up and I usually answer

“yep, it’s pretty awesome. I love it! ”

But to be honest, sometimes… it isn’t.

For me, there are four components that equate to a great day of fieldwork: ocean conditions, marine mammals, the boat itself, and equipment (hydrophones, GPS, CTD, camera, etc.)

So in reality…

“The flow of research season goes a lot like this: whales are present, but ocean is impossible; or ocean is calm but the whales are gone; or both whales and ocean are good but the boat breaks down; or everything is working but the rain last night brought in some fog and ruined the visibility” (From Hawaii’s Humpbacks: Unveiling the Mysteries)

AND EVEN on the rare chance that everything goes right – observing marine mammals is hard and uncomfortable – 14 hours of standing with back pain, squinting into the sun until you see one part of the water that looks a little different than the others. I mean really there isn’t much on earth that’s more enormous than the ocean.

This sounds like a lot of negativity, but I am in Scotland currently to resolve some of these minor setbacks we encountered during field collection. Using a statistics program called DISTANCE, we can take into account environmental conditions, sea state, observer bias, etc. When we combine all of these factors together we create a detection function or a ratio of the animals we saw, compared to those we missed. Eventually we end up with an abundance estimate of how many animals are in our study area.

Analyzing the results of my observations this week has provided me with the realization that my time on a boat is coming to an end. In my two years of fieldwork collection, marine mammal observing has molded me into the type of person that has what it takes to do this kind of research: dedicated, tolerant to pain, boredom, and frustration, and most importantly passionate about what I am doing.

Passion is definitely a prerequisite for the life of a GEMM student. Graduate school gives you the chance to be reflective and the time to carefully wade through information. I’ve always had a strong desire to learn, and when I get to combine that with my personal interests, it turns out graduate school can be quite the rewarding initiative.

It’s easy to be discouraged sometimes, especially in an intense and competitive environment like scientific research. I can assure you though, even on our unlucky days, when we’ve swallowed all of the truths about the difficulties of what we do and we’re frustrated enough to give up, our luck turns – usually right when we need it to.

I think the BBC Zoologist, Mark Carwardine, knows just how I feel in saying, “There are few things more rewarding than seeing the worlds’s largest animal in its natural habitat!

Thanks for reading!

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!

Outreach and education: sharing the stoke

By Erin Pickett

My friend Matt and I chased after a butterfly waving our nets through the air, jumping and swatting at the trees. For a brief moment I considered how ridiculous I probably looked running around in circles, looking up at the sky and not at my feet or where I was going. I was just about to step on a wasp nest before I came to my senses. The butterfly got away as I looked up to see our group of middle school students walking back to us after finishing their snack break.

It was day three of “Ecosystem sleuths” summer camp, and while Matt and I were helping lead this camp, we were certainly not going to let that stop us from having some good old fashioned fun catching bugs.

Last week my fellow fisheries and wildlife grad students and I walked away from our computers and experiments and took a break from thesis writing and summer field work to spend the week with a group of local middle and high school students. We ran a weeklong ecology-themed summer camp sponsored by Oregon State’s STEM Academy and inspired by our desire to share what we love with young students who are interested in science. This is what I call “sharing the stoke”.

We hoped to teach our students about a few broad and important ecological concepts while introducing them to field methods and sampling techniques. Neither the Corvallis city limits nor IACUC could hold us back and we managed to bring a menagerie of animals into the classroom including polar bears, elk and sharks. We have OSU’s extensive research and teaching collections to thank for giving our students a chance to handle some cool skulls, pelts and other preserved specimens.

One afternoon I led the students in crafting homemade humpback whale flukes, so that we could practice re-sighting them and estimating population sizes using the mark-recapture method. In between lectures and lab activities, with the help of YouTube, we watched two male elephant seals fight for dominance on a northern California beach and got a birds-eye view of a bald eagle soaring through a canyon. One student couldn’t help but jump up and down while watching this video. At the end of the week took the students to Hesthavn Nature Center and spent two afternoons outside collecting terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates, identifying birds, and learning how to pin insects.

After our students left each afternoon we’d all sit down to discuss the next day’s plan. Exhausted, we’d finish the last of the juice boxes and granola bars and wonder how teachers do what they do. Hats off to you, teachers!

 

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

Following Tracks: A Summer of Research in Quantitative Ecology

**GUEST POST** written by Irina Tolkova from the University of Washington.

R, a programming language and software for statistical analysis, gives me an error message.

I mull it over. Revise my code. Run it again.

Hey, look! Two error messages.

I’m Irina, and I’m working on summer research in quantitative ecology with Dr. Leigh Torres in the GEMM Lab. Ironically, as much as I’m interested in the environment and the life inhabiting it, my background is actually in applied math, and a bit in computer science.

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(Also, my background is the sand dunes of Florence, OR, which are downright amazing.)

When I mention this in the context of marine research, I usually get a surprised look. But from firsthand experience, the mindsets and skills developed in those areas can actually be very useful for ecology. This is partly because both math and computer science develop a problem-solving approach that can apply to many interdisciplinary contexts, and partly because ecology itself is becoming increasingly influenced by technology.

Personally, I’m fascinated by the advancement in environmentally-oriented sensors and trackers, and admire the inventors’ cleverness in the way they extract useful information. I’ve heard about projects with unmanned ocean gliders that fly through the water, taking conductivity, temperature, depth measurements (Seaglider project by APL at the University of Washington), which can be used for oceanographic mapping. Arrays of hydrophones along the coast detect and recognize marine mammals through bioacoustics (OSU Animal Bioacoustics Lab), allowing for analysis of their population distributions and potentially movement. In the GEMM lab, I learned about light and small GPS loggers, which can be put on wildlife to learn about their movement, and even smaller lighter ones that determine the animal’s general position using the time of sunset and sunrise. Finally, scientists even made artificial nest mounds which hid a scale for recording the weight of breeding birds — looking at the data, I could see a distinctive sawtooth pattern, since the birds lost weight as they incubated the egg, and gained weight after coming home from a foraging trip…

On the whole, I’m really hopeful for the ecological opportunities opened up by technology. But the information coming in from sensors can be both a blessing and a curse, because — unlike manually collected data — the sample sizes tend to be massive. For statistical analysis, this is great! For actually working with the data… more difficult. For my project, this trade-off shows as R and Excel crash over the hundreds of thousands of points in my dataset… what dataset, you might ask? Albatross GPS tracking data.

In 2011, 2012, and 2013, a group of scientists (including Dr. Leigh!) tagged grey-headed albatrosses at Campbell Island, New Zealand, with small GPS loggers. This was done in the summer months, when the birds were breeding, so the GPS tracks represent the birds’ flights as they incubated and raised their chicks. A cool fact about albatrosses: they only raise one chick at a time! As a result, the survival of the population is very dependent on chick survival, which means that the health of the albatrosses during the breeding season, and in part their ability to find food, is critical for the population’s sustainability. So, my research question is: what environmental variables determine where these albatrosses choose to forage?

The project naturally breaks up into two main parts.

  • How can we quantify this “foraging effort” over a trajectory?
  • What is the statistical relationship between this “foraging effort metric” and environmental variables?

Luckily, R is pretty good for both data manipulation and statistical analysis, and that’s what I’m working on now. I’ve just about finished part (1), and will be moving on to part (2) in the coming week. For a start, here are some color-coded plots showing two different ways of measuring the “foraging value” over one GPS track:

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Most of my time goes into writing code, and, of course, debugging. This might sound a bit dull, but the anticipation of new results, graphs, and questions is definitely worth it. Occasionally, that anticipation is met with a result or plot that I wasn’t quite expecting. For example, I was recently attempting to draw the predicted spatial distribution of an albatross population. I fixed some bugs. The code ran. A plot window opened up. And showed this:

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I stared at my laptop for a moment, closed it, and got some hot tea from the lab’s electronic kettle, all the while wondering how R came up with this abstract art.

All in all, while I spend most of my time programming, my motivation comes from the wildlife I hope to work for. And as any other ecologist, I love being out there on the Oregon coast, with the sun, the rain, sand, waves, valleys and mountains, cliff swallows and grey whales, and the rest of our fantastic wild outdoors.

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Irina5

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