Surveying Harbor Porpoises on the Oregon Coast!

Hello Gemm lab readers!

Spring has officially made it to the Oregon coast.  The smells of blooming flowers are lingering in the air at the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC), the seagulls are hovering around our afternoon BBQ’s, the local whale watching tour boats are zipping through the jetty’s to catch sight of all the whales still hovering in the area, and my team and I are right behind them as the field season is upon us in full force!

My name is Amanda Holdman and I am a master’s student in the Oregon State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and Marine Mammal Institute. Our lab, the geospatial ecology of marine megafuana, or GEMM lab for short, focuseharbor-porpoises_569_600x450s on the ecology, behavior and conservation of marine megafauna including cetaceans, pinnipeds, seabirds, and sharks. My research in particular is centered around the cetacean species that inhabit Oregon’s near coastal waters. While the cetacean order includes over 80 species, 30 of which can be found in Oregon, I am specifically targeting the small and charismatic harbor porpoise! I am hoping to answer questions about seasonal and diel patterns, and the drivers of these patterns to create a better understanding of the porpoise community off the coast of Newport.

To accomplish this, I have been using a couple different survey methods! Over the last year or so I have been conducting marine mammal visual surveys with a crew of observers, binoculars, cameras and lifejackets.  We’ve been very fortunate to work alongside and partner up with a number of labs and projects taking place at HMSC — including Sarah Henkel’s Benthic Ecology Lab, Jay Peterson’s Zooplankton Ecology Project, and Rob Suryan’s Seabird Oceanography Lab — who’ve invited us to share their boat time and join in on cruises to spot marine mammals. We had some motivating cruises with last year’s field season (bow riding pacific white sided dolphins and a possible fin whale sighting!) but now that the summer season is around the corner, It’s time to recruit additional observers and get everyone up to date on their safety certifications (at sea safety, first aid, etc.)

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While we currently have about 6-8 boat trips a month, I am not only just looking  for harbor porpoises, I’m also listening for them. To complement the visual surveys, I’ve added an acoustic component to my research, with the help of the Oregon State Research Collective for Applied Acoustics lab (ORCAA). This allows me to survey for harbor porpoises even under the worst sea conditions, when boat trips are unavailable. Odontocetes, such as the harbor porpoise use echolocation to navigate and forage and can be identified acoustically by their frequency range. While a full-depth analysis of last summer’s data hasn’t yet been accomplished, I was able to take a quick peek and MAN IT LOOKS GOOD! Both harbor porpoise and killer whale vocalizations were identified – you can check out the spectrogram below! This combination of using visual and acoustic surveys will help us answer when the porpoises are in our near waters, and where there primary hang-outs are!

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Visual representation of an echolocation clicks emitted by a feeding harbor porpoise

But springtime isn’t just for fieldwork, it’s also for course work! This quarter, my lab mate Erin Picket and I have enrolled into Julia Jones “Arcaholics anonymous” class, an introductory spatial statistics and GIS course that helps us piece together all the hard work we’ve put towards data collection to look for trends of animal distributions across space and time. This is the first time for both of us that we  get to upgrade our excel spreadsheets into a visual representation of our data! There will be more updates to come soon on how our projects are unfolding, but if you can’t wait til then, feel free to follow along with our class website!

Depoe Bay STEAM fair at Kids Zone

Hello All!

As promised, this weekend, the GEMM lab attended the first ever S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics)  Fair  organized by the friendly folks at the Depoe Bay Kids Zone.  We had a table and a half available for us to showcase some bio-artifacts  such as: harbor seal, northern fur seal, and river otter pelts, skulls from a male California sea lion, a Dahl’s porpoise, and a beaked whale, and a humerus bone from a sea lion as well as several species of whale baleen and teeth – Did you know that you can count growth rings on whale teeth just like tree rings to get an idea of how old they are?

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Our booth, and fearless leader Dr. Torres explaining blubber gloves to guests.

We also had a small hands-on experiment showcasing how whales (and seals) stay warm in the frigid ocean waters. Want to try at home? Here are some directions! You’ll need some (at least 1/4 gallon) zip-lock bags, a container of crisco, a bucket of ice water, a towel and some curiosity.  Fill a ziplock bag about ~1/3 way with crisco. Now turn another bag inside out, squish it into the other bag and zip the two bags together so that you have a continuous layer of crisco sealed between the two bags – no more mess for your hands! Make sure when you place your hand inside this crisco-d bag that the layer of crisco is evenly distributed on all sides -voila! blubber glove!  The crisco is intended to simulate the effect that a nice thick layer of blubber has on cetacean (whale) and pinniped (seals & sea lions) heat retention in water.  Stick one hand in the “blubber glove”, and place it in the icy water.  Simultaneously, place your un-protected hand in the ice water.

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into the icy cold!

How long can you keep your hands in the water?  Can you keep one hand in longer than the other? Which one? Why? Can you think of any technology that humans use to mimic this effect? (Hint: think clothing for surfers and divers)

One of our lab members is studying harbor porpoises by using acoustics (sound), so she brought her laptop and some headphones so that interested folks could listen to all the weird sounds in the ocean and all the crazy cool calls that whales and porpoises and seals make to communicate with each other.

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Amanda helps a pair of students identify sounds in the ocean.

 

One of the difficult things about studying marine mammals is that we can only truly see them when they come to the water’s surface to breathe, so we invited people to learn how to spot whale blows, fins, and flukes (pictures that we had scattered around the hall) and start to get creative about how one can spot these elusive animals.

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Florence and Solene explaining comparative anatomy.

 

All together, it was a lovely, well organized event – among others, we were joined by the OSU Fish and Wildlife club, the Coast Guard, local artists, and many of the students had their own booths showcasing home wind-energy, chemistry and physics experiments that all could try.  We had a lot of fun and will most likely be back in future years! Until next time, Fair winds everyone!