The passion of a researcher

By Quince Nye, GEMM Lab Summer Intern, Pacific High School Junior

I have spent a lot of my life surrounded by nature. I like to backpack, bike, dive, and kayak in these natural environments. I also have the luck of having parents who are always planning to take me on another adventure where I get to see nature and its inhabitants in ways most people don’t get to enjoy.

Through my backyard explorations, I have begun to realize that Port Orford has an amazing ecosystem in the coves and rivers that are very tied into our community. I’ve fished and swam in these rivers, gone on kayaking tours in these coves (with a great kayak company called South Coast Tours that we partner with), and I’ve seen the life that dwells in them.

Nathan and Maggie paddle out to Mill Rocks for early morning sample collection

Growing up in a school of less than 100 kids I have learned to never reject an opportunity to be a part of something bigger and learn from that experience. So when one of my close friends told me about an OSU project (a college I’m interested in attending) that needed interns to help collect data on gray whales, and kayak almost every day, I signed up without a doubt in my mind.

The team gets some good practice tracking Buttons (Whale #3).  Left to right; Quince, Nathan, Maggie, Florence.

Fast forward a month, and I wake up at 5:20 am. I eat breakfast and get to the Port Orford Field Station. We make a plan for the operations of both the kayak team and cliff team. Today, I’m part of the cliff team, so I head up above the station to Fort Point. Florence and I set up the theodolite and computer at the lookout point and start taking half hour watch shifts searching the horizon for the spout of a gray whale.  Sometimes you see one right away, but other times it feels like the whales are actively hiding from you. These are the times I wish Maggie was here with her endless supply of Disney soundtracks to help pass the hours.

Imitating a ship’s captain, Quince points toward our whale while shouting “Mark”.

A whale spouts out at Mill Rocks and starts heading across to the jetty. Hurray, its data collection time! I try to quickly move the cross-hairs of the theodolite onto the position of the whale using a set of knobs like those on an etch-a-sketch. As you may understand, it’s not an easy task at first but I manage to do it because I’ve been practicing for three weeks. I say “Mark!” cueing Florence to click a button in the program Pythagoras on the computer to record the whale’s position.

The left hand side of Buttons – notice the scatter of white markings on the upper back.

Meanwhile, Florence sees that the whale has two white spots where the fluke meets the knuckles. Those are identifying marks of the beloved whale, Buttons. This whale has been seen here since 2016 and is a fan favorite for our on-going research program. Florence gets just as excited every time and texts her eagerly awaiting interns of previous years all about the sighting. Of course Buttons is not the only whale to have identifying marks such as scars and pigmentation marks. This is why we make sure to get photos of the whales we spot, allowing us to do photo-ID analysis on them through comparison to our database of pictures from previous years.

Quince practices CPR protocol on a training mannequin on his first day.

So far I have gained skill after skill in this internship. I got CPR certified, took a kayak training class, learned how to use a theodolite, and have spent many educational (and frustrating) hours entering data in Excel. I joined the program because I was interested in all of these things. It surprised me that I was developing a relationship with the whales I’m researching. By the end of August I’m now sure that I will also know many of the whales by name. I will probably be much better at using an etch-a-sketch, and I will have had my first taste at what being a scientist is like. What I strive for, however, is to have the same look in my eyes that appears in Florence’s whenever a familiar whale decides to browse our kelp beds.

A Little Slice of Heaven

Guest writer: Maggie O’Rourke-Liggett, GEMM Lab summer intern, Oregon State University,

One of the biggest obstacles an undergraduate can face is fulfilling the degree requirement of completing an internship or research opportunity. With almost every university and degree program requiring it for graduation and many employers requiring prior experience, the amount of pressure and competition is intense.

After being rejected from the internships I applied for earlier in the year, I heard about Dr. Leigh Torres’s research with the Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna (GEMM) Lab . I decided to email her and ask if she had any open positions. Fast-forward a few weeks and I am collaborating with Florence Sullivan, a recent masters graduate from OSU, on the logistics of my Gray Whale Foraging Behavior internship with the GEMM Lab.

 

My workstation while I conduct photo identification analysis in the field station classroom. The photos are displayed and organized in Adobe Bridge. Source: Maggie O’Rourke-Liggett

During my time with the GEMM Lab team, I have been assisting with photo identification analysis of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus), using a theodolite and Pythagoras computer program to track their movements, collecting samples of the zooplankton they eat, and recording other oceanographic data with our time-depth recorder. This project is hoping to identify the drivers of gray whale fine-scale foraging behavior.  For instance: Why do gray whales spend more time in some areas than others?  Does the type or density of prey affect their behavior? Do the whales use static features like kelp beds to help find their food? As a senior currently studying oceanography, who desires to study whale behavior in the future, this internship is like finding a gold mine.

Nathan Malamud, our other high school intern, and I working together to set up the theodolite in backyard during a practice run. Source: Florence Sullivan

Ever since day one at Hatfield Marine Science Center, I’ve been working with people who share the same passions for marine mammals as me. Spending hours upon hours sorting thousands of pictures may seem like a painful, tedious job, but knowing my work helps others to update existing identification catalogs makes it worthwhile. Plus, who wouldn’t want to look at whales all day?! After a while, you start to recognize specific individuals based on their various pigment configurations and scars. Once you can recognize individuals, it makes the sorting go by faster and helps with recognizing individual whales in the wild faster. It’s always exciting to sort through the photos and observe from the cliff or kayak and recognize a whale from the photo identification work.

After Florence taught me how to set up and operate the theodolite, a survey tool used to track a whale’s movements, we taught a class to undergrads on how to use it. I’ll never get over how people’s faces lit up when we discussed how the instrument works and its role in the overall mission.

Quince Nye, one of our high school interns, using side strokes to stabilize the kayak while I deploy our zooplankton net over the side with a down rigger. Source: Florence Sullivan

These past two weeks at OSU’s Port Orford Field Station have been like living on a little slice of heaven. My days are filled with clear views of the coast and the sound of waves crashing serve as a backdrop on my home for the month, the bed-and-breakfast turned field station. Each morning, the sun fills my room as I gather my gear for the day and help my teammates load the truck. We spend long days on the water collecting zooplankton samples and GoPro video or on the cliff recording whale behavior through the theodolite. To anyone searching for an internship and feeling burnt out from completing application after application, don’t give up. You’ll find your slice of heaven too.

Life in the lab: notes from a lab meeting

By Florence Sullivan, MSc, Oregon State University

One of my favorite parts about working as a member of the GEMM lab is our monthly lab meeting. It’s a chance for everyone to share exciting news or updates about their research, discuss recent advances in our field, and of course, make the schedule for who is in charge of writing the blog each week!  Our fearless leader, Leigh, usually also has an exercise for us to complete. These have varied from writing and editing abstracts for conferences, conducting mock interviews of each other, reading and discussing relevant papers, R coding exercises, and other useful skills. Our most recent meeting featured an exciting announcement, as well as a really interesting discussion of the latest International Whaling Commission (IWC) reports of the scientific committee (SC) that I felt might be interesting to share with our readers.

First, the good news – Six GEMM lab members submitted abstracts to the 2017 Society of Marine Mammalogy Conference, and all six were accepted for either a speed talk or an oral presentation! We are very proud and excited to present our research and support each other at the conference in October.

And now, a little science history:

The IWC was originally formed as a management body, to regulate the global catch of great whales. However, it never had much legal power to enforce its edicts, and was largely ineffective in its task.  By 1986 whale populations had been decimated to such low numbers by commercial whaling efforts that a worldwide moratorium on harvest was imposed. The SC of the IWC meets on an annual basis, and is made up of leading experts in the field who give advice and recommendations to the commission.  If you are interested in seeing reports from over the years, follow this link to the IWC Archive.  The reports presented by the various sub committees of the Scientific Committee are dense, packed full of interesting information, but also contain lots of procedural minutiae.  Therefore, for this lab meeting, each of us took one of the 2017 Annexes, and summarized it for the group.

Alyssa and Dawn reviewed Annex J: Report of the working group on non-deliberate human induced mortality of cetaceans.  The report shared new data about scarring rates of bowhead whales in the Bering Sea, notably, that 2.4% of the population will acquire a new scar each year, and that by the time an individual is 25 years old, it has a 40% chance of being scarred from a human derived interaction. The study noted that advances in drone technology may be an effective tool to assess scarring rates in whale populations, but emphasized that it is important to examine stranded carcasses to ground truth the rates we are able to capture from aerial and boat based photography.  The discussion then turned to the section about ship strikes, where we learned that in a comparison of fresh scars on humpback whales, and rates of voluntarily reported ship strikes, collisions were vastly under reported. Here it was noted that injuries that did not cause visible trauma could still be lethal to cetaceans, and that even moderate speed collisions can cause non-immediate lethal injury.

Leila walked us through Annex K: Report of the standing working group on environmental concerns. This subcommittee was the first one formed by the SC, and their report touched on issues such as bioaccumulation of heavy metals in whales, global oil spill emergency response training, harmful algal blooms (HABs), marine debris, diseases of concern, strandings and related mortality, noise, climate change, loss of arctic sea ice, and models of cetacean reaction to these impacts.

A few notes of particular interest:

-PCBs and other toxins are known to accumulate in killer whales, but this report discussed high levels of lead and cadmium in gray whales, leading to the question of what might be the source – sediment deposits? Fish?

-Lots of research has been done on the outfall of HABs involving domoic acid; now there is a need for research on other types of HABs

-A website has been created to increase surveillance, diagnosis and risk management of cetacean diseases, and is currently being refined: https://cdoc.iwc.int

-Changing climate is prompting distribution shifts in a number of species, putting animals at risk of interactions with shipping lanes, and increasing contact with invasive species.

-Models of cetacean bioenergetics have found that being entangled has energy costs equivalent to migration or pregnancy. Another model found that naval noise increased the metabolic rate of individuals by 30%. Models are becoming more and more accurate and complex every year, and each new one helps provide a framework to begin to assess cumulative impacts of human-cetacean interactions.

To wrap things up, I gave a brief overview of Annex N: Report of the subcommittee on whalewatching. This report gave quick updates on a number of different whale watching research projects around the world:

-Humpback whales in Hawaii change their swim speed and dive time when they encounter vessels.

-Endangered humpbacks in the Arabian Sea may need management intervention because there have been minimal advances in standards and attitudes by whale watching outfits or recreational boaters in Oman.

-Increased interactions and close encounters may be eroding the protective social barriers between bottlenose dolphins and the public.  The committee emphasizes that cetacean habituation to humans is a serious conservation cause of concern.

After research updates, the document then details a review from the working group on swim-with-whale operations. They emphasize the need for a global database, and note that the Convention on Migratory Species and the World Cetacean Alliance are both conducting reviews of this section of the whale watching industry and that a collaboration could be beneficial. Finally, this committee often gives feedback to ongoing projects and local management efforts, but is not convinced that their recommendations are being put into practice.

As one reads this litany of issues that face cetaceans in the modern world, it can be quite disheartening. However, reports like these keep researchers up to date on the current state of knowledge, areas of concern, and questions that need answering.  They help us set our priorities and determine which piece of the puzzle we are capable of tackling.  For more on some of the projects that our lab has under taken to help tackle these issues, check out Leila’s work on stress in gray whales, Dawn’s work looking at blue whales in New Zealand, Solene’s work on humpback habitat selection, or my work on vessel interactions. Individually, it’s easy to feel small, but when you look through the archives of the IWC, and realize how far we’ve come from extractive management to active conservation, you realize that every little project adds to those before it, and together, we can make a difference.

 

 

 

What it looks like when science meets management decisions

Dr. Leigh Torres
GEMM Lab, OSU, Marine Mammal Institute

It’s often difficult to directly see the application of our research to environmental management decisions. This was not the case for me as I stepped off our research vessel Tuesday morning in Wellington and almost directly (after pausing for a flat white) walked into an environmental court hearing regarding a permit application for iron sands mining in the South Taranaki Bight (STB) of New Zealand (Fig. 1). The previous Thursday, while we surveyed the STB for blue whales, I received a summons from the NZ Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) to appear as an expert witness regarding blue whales in NZ and the potential impacts of the proposed mining activity by Trans-Tasman Resources Ltd. (TTR) on the whales. As I sat down in front of the four members of the EPA Decision Making Committee, with lawyers for and against the mining activity sitting behind me, I was not as prepared as I would have liked – no business clothes, no powerpoint presentation, no practiced summary of evidence. But, I did have new information, fresh perspective, and the best available knowledge of blue whales in NZ. I was there to fill knowledge gaps, and I could do that.

Figure 1. Distribution map of blue whale sightings (through Nov 2016) in the South Taranaki Bight (STB) of New Zealand, color-coded by month. Also identified are the current locations of oil and gas platforms (black flags) and the proposed area for seabed mining (yellow polygon). The green stars denote the location of our hydrophones within the STB that record blue whale vocalizations. The source of the upwelling plume at Kahurangi Point, on the NW tip of the South Island, is also identified.

For over an hour I was questioned on many topics. Here are a few snippets:

Why should the noise impacts from the proposed iron sands mining operation on blue whales be considered when seismic survey activity produces noise 1,000 to 100,000 times louder?

My answer: Seismic survey noise is very loud, but it’s important to note that seismic and mining noises are two different types of sound sources. Seismic surveys noise is an impulsive noise (a loud bang every ~8 seconds), while the mining operation will produce non-impulsive (continuous) sound. Also, the mining operation will likely be continuous for 32 years. Therefore, these two sound sources are hard to compare. It’s like comparing the impacts of listening to pile driving for a month, and listening to a vacuum cleaner for 32 years. What’s important here is to considering the cumulative effects of both these noise sources occurring at the same time: pile driving on top of vacuum cleaner.

 

How many blue whales have been sighted within 50 km of the proposed mining site?

My answer: Survey effort in the STB has been very skewed because most marine mammal sighting records have come from marine mammal observers aboard seismic survey vessels that primarily work in the western regions of the STB, while the proposed mining site is in the eastern region. So at first glance at a distribution map of blue whale sightings (Fig. 1) we may think that most of the blue whales are found in the western region of the STB, but this is incorrect because we have not accounted for survey effort.

During our past three surveys in the STB we have surveyed closer to the proposed mining site. In 2014 our closest point of survey approach to the mining site was 26 km, and our closest sighting was 63 km away. In 2016, we found no whales north of 40’ 30” in the STB and the closest sighting was 107 km away from the proposed mining site, but this was a different oceanographic year due to El Niño conditions. During this recent survey in 2017, our closest point of survey approach to the proposed mining site was 22 km, and our closest sighting was 29 km, with a total of 9 sightings of 16 blue whales within 50 km of the proposed mining site. With all reported sighting records of blue whales tabulated, there have been 16 sightings of 33 blue whales within 50 km of the proposed mining site. Considering the minimal survey effort in this region, this is actually a relatively high number of blue whale sighting records near the proposed mining site.

Additionally, we have a hydrophone located 18.8 km from the proposed mining site. We have only analyzed the data from January through June 2016 so far, but during this period we have an 89% daily detection rate of blue whale calls.

 

Why are blue whales in the STB and where else are they found in NZ?

My answer: A  wind-driven upwelling system occurs off Kahurangi Point (Fig. 1) along the NW coast of the South Island. This upwelling brings nutrient rich deep water to the surface where it meets the sunlight causing primary productivity to begin. Currents push these productive plumes of water into the STB and zooplankton, such as krill that is the main prey item of blue whales, aggregate in these productive areas to feed on the phytoplankton. Blue whales spend time in the STB because they depend on the predictability of these large krill aggregations in the STB to feed efficiently.

Sightings of blue whales have been reported in other areas around New Zealand, but nowhere with regular frequency or abundance. There may be other areas where blue whales feed occasionally or regularly in New Zealand waters, but these areas have not been documented yet. We don’t know very much about these newly documented New Zealand blue whales, yet what we do know is that the STB is an important foraging area for these animals.

 

Questions like these went on and on, and I was probed with many insightful questions. Yet, the question that sticks with me now was asked by the Chair of the Decision Making Committee regarding the last sentence in my submitted evidence where I remarked on the importance of recognizing the innate right of animals to live in their habitat without disturbance. “This sounds like an absolute statement,” claimed the Chair, “like no level of disturbance is tolerable”. I was surprised by the Chair’s focus on this statement over others. I reiterated my opinion that we, as a society, need to recognize the right of all animals to live in undisturbed habitats whenever we consider any new human activity. “That’s why we are all here today”, I explained to the committee, “to recognize and evaluate the potential impacts of TTR’s proposed mining operation on blue whales, and other animals, in the STB”. Undisturbed habitat may not always be achievable, but when we make value-based decisions regarding permitting industrial projects we need to recognize biodiversity’s right to live in uncompromised environments.

I do not envy this Decision Making Committee, as over three weeks they are hearing evidence from all sides on a multitude of topics from environmental, to economic, to cultural impacts of the proposed mining operation. They will be left with the very hard task of balancing all this information and deciding to approve or decline the mining permit, which would be a first in NZ and may open the floodgates of seabed mining in the country. My only hope is that our research on blue whales in NZ over the last five years has filled knowledge gaps, allowing the Decision Making Committee to fully appreciate the importance of the STB habitat to NZ blue whales, and appropriately consider the potential impacts of TTR’s proposed mining activities on this unique population.

A blue whale surfaces in a calm sea in the South Taranaki Bight of New Zealand (Photo L. Torres).

….aaaand we’re off! The blue whale team heads to New Zealand

By Dawn Barlow, MSc Student, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Oregon State University

Today we are flying to the other side of the world and boarding a 63-foot boat to study the largest animals ever to have inhabited this planet: blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus). Why do we study them, and how will we do it? Before I tell you, first let me say that no fieldwork is ever straightforward, and consequently no fieldwork lacks exciting learning opportunities. I have learned a lot about the logistics of an international field season in the past month, which I will share with you here!

The South Taranaki Bight, which lies between the north and south islands of New Zealand, is the study area for this survey.
Research vessel Star Keys will be our home for the month of February as we look for whales.

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS, a.k.a. “drones”) are becoming more prevalent in our field as a powerful and minimally invasive tool for studying marine mammals. Last year, our team was able to capture what we believe is the first aerial footage of nursing behavior in baleen whales, in addition to feeding and traveling behaviors. And beyond behavior, these aerial images contain morphological and physiological information about the whales such as how big they are, whether they are pregnant or lactating, and if they are in good health. I’ll start making a packing list for you to follow along with. So far it contains two drones and all of their battery supplies and chargers.

Aerial image of a blue whale mother and calf captured by a drone during the 2016 field season.

Perhaps you read my first GEMM Lab blog post, about identifying individual blue whales from photographs? Using these individual IDs, I plan to generate an abundance estimate for this blue whale population, as well as look at residency and movement patterns of individuals. Needless to say, we will be collecting photo-ID images this year as well! Add two large pelican cases with cameras and long lenses to the packing list.

Blue whale photo-ID image, showing the left and right sides of the same whale. I have identified 99 unique individuals so far, and look forward to adding to our catalog this year!

Now wouldn’t it be great to capture video of animal behavior in some way other than with the UAS? Maybe even from underwater? Add two GoPros and all of their associated paraphernalia to the mounting gear pile.

Now, bear with me. There is a wealth of physiological information contained in blue whale fecal matter. And when hormone analysis from fecal samples is paired with photogrammetry from UAS images, we can develop a valuable picture of individual and population-level health, stress, nutrition, and reproductive status. So, say we are able to scoop up lots of blue whale fecal samples – wouldn’t that be fantastic? Yes! Alright, add two nets, a multitude of jars, squirt bottles, and gloves to the gear list. And then we still need to bring them back to our lab here in Newport. How does that happen? Well, we need to filter out the sea water, transfer the samples to smaller tubes, and freeze them… in the field, on a moving vessel. Include beakers, funnels, spatulas, and centrifuge tubes on the list. Yes, we will be flying back with a Styrofoam cooler full of blue whale “poopsicles”. Of course, we need a cooler!

Alright, and now remember the biopsy sampling that took place last season? Collecting tissue samples allows us to assess the genetic structure of this population, their stable isotopic trophic feeding level, and hormone levels. Well, we are prepared to collect tissue samples once again! Remember to bring small tubes and scalpel blades for storing the samples, and to get ethanol when we arrive in Wellington.

An important piece in investigating the habitat of a marine predator is learning about the prey they are consuming. In the case of our blue whales, this prey is krill (Nyctiphanes australis). We study the prey layer with an echo sounder, which sends out high frequency pings that bounce off anything they come in contact with. From the strength of the signal that bounces back it is possible to tell what the composition of the prey layer is, and how dense. The Marine Mammal Institute here at OSU has an echo sounder, and with the help of colleagues and collaborators, positive attitudes, and perseverance, we successfully got the transducer to communicate with the receiver, and the receiver to communicate with the software, and the software to communicate with the GPS.  Add one large pelican case for the receiver. Can we fit the transducer in there as well? Hmmm, this is going to be heavy…

Blue whale team members and colleagues troubleshoot and test the Simrad EK60 echo sounder before packing it to take to New Zealand.

Now the daunting, ever-growing to-do lists have been checked off and re-written and changed and checked off again. The mountain of research gear has been evaluated and packed and unpacked and moved and re-evaluated and packed again. The countdown to our departure date has ended, and this evening Leigh, Todd, and I fly out of Portland and make our way to Wellington, New Zealand. To think that from here all will be smooth and flawless is naïve, but not being able to contain my excitement seems reasonable. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep, but more likely it’s the dreams coming true for a marine ecologist who loves nothing more than to be at sea with the wind in her face, looking for whales and creatively tackling fieldwork challenges.

In the midst of the flurry of preparations, it can be easy to lose sight of why we are doing this—why we are worrying ourselves over poopsicle transport and customs forms and endless pelican cases of valuable equipment for the purpose of spending several weeks on a vessel we haven’t yet set foot on when we can’t even guarantee that we’ll find whales at all. This area where we will work (Figure 1) is New Zealand’s most industrially active region, where endangered whales share the space with oil rigs, shipping vessels, and seismic survey vessels that have been active since October in search of more oil and gas reserves. It is a place where we have the opportunity to study how these majestic giants fit into this ecosystem, to learn what about this habitat is driving the presence of the whales and how they’re using the space relative to industry. It is an opportunity for me as a scientist to pursue questions in ecology—the field of study that I love. It is also an opportunity for me as a conservation advocate to find my voice on issues of industry presence, resource extraction, and conflicts over ocean spaces that extend far beyond one endangered species and one region of the world.

Fieldwork preparations have made clear to me once again the strength and importance of collaboration in science. Kim Bernard from OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and Craig Hayslip from the Marine Mammal Institute’s Whale Telemetry Group spent half a day troubleshooting the echosounder with us. Western Work Boats has manufactured a pole mount for the echosounder transducer, and Kristin Hodge is joining us from Cornell University’s Bioacoustics Research Program to assist with data collection. Callum Lilley and Mike Ogle from the New Zealand Department of Conservation will join us in Wellington to collect the biopsy samples, and Rochelle Constantine and Scott Baker will facilitate the archiving and transport of the tissue samples back to Newport for analysis. Scientific colleagues at NIWA will collaborate on oceanographic aspects and conduct stable isotope analysis of tissue samples. We are also grateful to the indispensable logistical support from Kathy Minta and Minda Stiles in the OSU Marine Mammal Institute. And, of course we could not do any of this work without the generous funding support from The Aotearoa Foundation, The New Zealand Department of Conservation, Greenpeace Aotearoa New Zealand, OceanCare, The International Fund for Animal Welfare Oceanea Office, Kiwis Against Seabed Mining, the OSU Marine Mammal Institute, and the Thorpe Foundation. Our science is stronger when we pool our energy and expertise, and I am thrilled to be working with this great group of people.

Stay tuned, the next several blogs will be posted from the field by the New Zealand blue whale team!

GEMM Lab 2016: A Year in the Life

By Dawn Barlow, MSc Student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Oregon State University

The year is rapidly coming to a close, and what a busy year it has been in the Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab! In 2016, our members have traveled to six continents for work (all seven if we can carry Rachael’s South African conference over from the end of 2015…), led field seasons in polar, temperate, and tropical waters, presented at international conferences, processed and analyzed data, and published results. Now winter finds us holed up in our offices in Newport, and various projects are ramping up and winding down. With all of the recent turmoil 2016 has brought, it is a nice to reflect on the good work that was accomplished over the last 12 months. In writing this, I am reminded of how grateful I am to work with this talented group of people!

The year started with a flurry of field activity from our southern hemisphere projects! Erin spent her second season on the Antarctic peninsula, where she contributed to the Palmer Station Long Term Ecological Research Project.

Erin collecting a crabeater seal scat sample.
Erin in action collecting a crabeater seal scat sample along the West Antarctic Peninsula.

 

Aerial image of the research vessel and a pair of blue whales during the 2016 New Zealand survey.
Aerial image of the research vessel and a pair of blue whales during the 2016 New Zealand survey.

The New Zealand blue whale project launched a comprehensive field effort in January and February, and it was a fruitful season to say the least. The team deployed hydrophones, collected tissue biopsy and fecal samples, and observed whales feeding, racing and nursing. The data collected by the blue whale team is currently being analyzed to aid in conservation efforts of these endangered animals living in the constant presence of the oil and gas industry.

Midway atoll is home to one of the largest albatross colony in the world, and Rachael visited during the winter breeding season. In addition to deploying tracking devices to study flight heights and potential conflict with wind energy development, she became acutely aware of the hazards facing these birds, including egg predation by mice and the consumption of plastic debris.

Laysan albatross equipped with a GPS data logger.
Laysan albatross equipped with a GPS data logger.
Fledgling from last year with a stomach full of plastic.
Fledgling from last year with a stomach full of plastic.

Early summertime brought red-legged kittiwakes to the remote Pribilof Islands in Alaska to nest, and Rachael met them there to study their physiology and behavior.

Rachael with a noosepole on St. George Island, Alaska
Rachael with a noosepole on St. George Island, Alaska
Solene with Dr. Claire Garrigue during fieldwork at the Chesterfield Reefs, New Caledonia.
Solene with Dr. Claire Garrigue during fieldwork at the Chesterfield Reefs, New Caledonia.

As the weather warmed for us in the northern hemisphere, Solene spent the austral winter with the humpback whales on their breeding grounds in New Caledonia. Her team traveled to the Chesterfield Reefs, where they collected tissue biopsy samples and photo-IDs, and recorded the whale’s songs. But Solene studies far more than just these whales! She is thoroughly examining every piece of environmental, physical, and oceanographic data she can get her hands on in an effort to build a thorough model of humpback whale distribution and habitat use.

A humpback whale in New Caledonia's South Lagoon.
A humpback whale in New Caledonia’s South Lagoon.

Summertime came to Oregon, and the gray whales returned to these coastal waters. Leigh, Leila, and Todd launched into fieldwork on the gray whale stress physiology project. The poop-scooping, drone-flying team has gotten a fair bit of press recently, follow this link to listen to more!

The overhead drone captures a pair of gray whales surfacing between kelp beds off Cape Blanco, Oregon, with the research vessel nearby. Take under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 given to John Calambokidis.
The overhead drone captures a pair of gray whales surfacing between kelp beds off Cape Blanco, Oregon, with the research vessel nearby. Take under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 given to John Calambokidis.

And while Leigh, Leila, and Todd followed the grays from the water, Florence and her team watched them from shore in Port Orford, tracking their movement and behavior. In an effort to gain a better understanding of the foraging ecology of these whales, Florence and crew also sampled their mysid prey from a trusty research kayak.

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Florence and the summer 2016 gray whale field team.
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Kelli Iddings sampling mysid near Port Orford.

With the influx of gray whales came an influx of new and visiting GEMM Lab members, as Florence’s team of interns joined for the summer season. I was lucky enough to join this group as the lab’s newest graduate student!

All summer 2016 GEMM Lab members.
All of the summer 2016 GEMM Lab members.

Our members have presented their work to audiences far and wide. This summer Leigh, Amanda, and Florence attended the International Marine Conservation Congress, and Amanda was awarded runner-up for the best student presentation award! Erin traveled to Malaysia for the Scientific Convention on Antarctic Research, and Rachael and Leigh presented at the International Albatross and Petrel Conference in Barcelona. With assistance from Florence and Amanda, Leigh led an offshore expedition on OSU’s research vessel R/V Oceanus to teach high school students and teachers about the marine environment.

Amanda with her award!
Amanda with her award!
Science Party musters in the dry lab for safety debrief aboard R/V Oceanus.
Science Party musters in the dry lab for safety debrief aboard R/V Oceanus.

Courtney fledged from the GEMM Lab nest before 2016 began, but the work she did while here was published in Marine Mammal Science this year. Congrats Courtney! And speaking of publications, additional congratulations to Solene for her publication in Marine Ecology Progress Series, Rachael for her four publications this year in PLOS ONE, Marine Ecology Progress Series, Marine Ornithology, and the Journal of Experimental Biology, and Leigh for her five publications this year in Polar Biology, Diversity and Distributions, Marine Ecology Progress Series, and Marine Mammal Science!

Wintertime in Newport has us tucked away indoors with our computers, cranking through analyses and writing, and dreaming about boats, islands, seabirds, and whales… Solene visited from the South Pacific this fall, and graced us with her presence and her coding expertise. It is a wonderful thing to have labmates to share ideas, frustrations, and accomplishments with.

No heat in the lab can't stop us from solving a coding problem together on a wintery evening!
Solving a coding problem together on a wintery evening.

As the year comes to a close, we have two newly-minted Masters of Science! Congratulations to Amanda and Erin on successfully defending their theses, and stay tuned for their upcoming publications!

Amanda's post-defense celebration!
Amanda’s post-defense celebration!
Erin's post-defense celebration!
Erin’s post-defense celebration!

We are looking forward to what 2017 brings for this team of marine megafauna enthusiasts. Happy holidays from the GEMM Lab!

Happy GEMM Lab members.
Happy GEMM Lab members, enjoying one another’s company and playing Evolution.

Assembling a Toolbox

By Dawn Barlow, MSc student, Oregon State University

toolbox
Source: https://www.ohrd.wisc.edu/home/portals/0/toolbox.jpg

The season has shifted since the post I wrote this summer about diving into the world of New Zealand blue whales and the beginnings of my masters research. My fieldwork will take place during the upcoming austral summer, which will require me to miss the winter term here on campus. This quarter, I have put my research on the back burner for the time being in favor of a full load of coursework. But my project is still there, simmering subtly and persistently, and giving relevance to the coursework that I’m focusing my energy on this fall term.

As an undergraduate student, I acquired a broad scientific background and had the opportunity to dabble in the areas of biology that piqued my interest. I arrived here with a basic understanding of chemistry, physics, cell biology, anatomy, marine ecology and conservation biology. I gained experience working in the field with intertidal sea stars, snails, mussels, crabs and barnacles, with bottlenose dolphins and with humpback whales. But now my focus has narrowed as I’ve honed in on the specific questions that I will pursue over the next two years. My passion lies in marine ecology and conservation. Now, as a graduate student studying the ecology of a little-known population in a highly industrial area, this passion can come to fruition. For my masters, I hope to do the following:

A) Use photo-identification analysis to obtain a population abundance estimate for blue whales in New Zealand

B) Investigate blue whale residency and distribution patterns in New Zealand waters

C) Develop a comprehensive blue whale habitat use model for the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand, which incorporates physical and biological data

Down the road I hope to have implemented a capture-recapture abundance estimate model that best fits the dynamics of this population of blue whales, to have mapped where sightings have occurred and where the highest densities of blue whales are found in both space and time, and to have paired blue whale presence and absence with prey distribution, remote-sensed environmental data, and in situ oceanographic data. But how does one accomplish these things? I need a toolbox to draw from. And so this fall, I am assembling my toolbox, learning programs and analytical skills. I am taking methods courses—statistics, data management in R, analysis in GIS, methods in physiology and behavior of marine megafauna—that are no longer explorations into the world of natural science, but rather tools for exploring, identifying, and interpreting specific phenomena in ecology. While each comes with its own hiccups and headaches (see Florence’s post about this…), they are powerful tools.

Aside from coursework, the research I’m conducting has gained weight and relevance beyond being an investigation in ecology. My study area lies in the South Taranaki Bight of New Zealand, which is a contentious proposed seabed mining site for iron sands. As an undergraduate student I read case studies and wrote papers on the environmental impacts of industry, and I decided to go graduate school because I want to do research that has direct conservation applications. Last week I compiled all the data I’ve processed on blue whale sightings, seasonal residency, and photo identification for the South Taranaki Bight, which will be included as evidence submitted in environmental court in New Zealand by my advisor, Dr. Leigh Torres. “Applied conservation science” has been an abstract idea that has excited and motivated me for a long time, and now I am partaking in this process, experiencing applied conservation science firsthand.

And so my toolbox is growing, and the scope of my work is simultaneously narrowing in focus and expanding in relevance. The more tools I acquire, the more excited I am to apply them to my research. As I build my toolbox this fall, this process is something I look forward to enhancing while I’m in the field, when I dig deeper into data analysis, and as I grow as a conservation scientist.

A blue whale dives in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Photo by Leigh Torres.
A blue whale dives in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Photo by Leigh Torres.

Oceanus Day Three: Dolphin Delights

by Florence Sullivan, MSc student

Our third day aboard the Oceanus began in the misty morning fog before the sun even rose. We took the first CTD cast of the day at 0630am because the physical properties of the water column do not change much with the arrival of daylight. Our ability to visually detect marine mammals, however, is vastly improved with a little sunlight, and we wanted to make the best use of our hours at sea possible.

Randall Munroe www.XKCD.com

Our focus on day three was the Astoria canyon – a submarine feature just off the Oregon and Washington coast. Our first oceanographic station was 40 miles offshore, and 1300 meters deep, while the second was 20 miles offshore and only 170 meters deep.  See the handy infographic below to get a perspective on what those depths mean in the grand scheme of things.  From an oceanographic perspective, the neatest finding of the day was our ability to detect the freshwater plume coming from the Columbia River at both those stations despite their distance from each other, and from shore! Water density is one of the key characteristics that oceanographers use to track parcels of water as they travel through the ocean conveyor belt. Certain bodies of water (like the Mediterranean Sea, or the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans) have distinct properties that allow us to recognize them easily. In this case, it was very exciting to “sea” the two-layer system we had gotten used to observing overlain with a freshwater lens of much lower salinity, higher temperature, and lower density. This combination of freshwater, saltwater, and intriguing bathymetric features can lead to interesting foraging opportunities for marine megafauna – so, what did we find out there?

Click through link for better resolution: Randall Munroe www.XKCD.com/1040/large

Morning conditions were almost perfect for marine mammal observations – glassy calm with low swell, good, high, cloud cover to minimize glare and allow us to catch the barest hint of a blow….. it should come as no surprise then, that the first sightings of the day were seabirds and tuna!

I didn't catch any photos of the Tuna, so here's some mola mola we spotted. photo credit: Florence Sullivan
I didn’t catch any photos of the tuna, so here’s some sunfish we spotted. photo credit: Florence Sullivan

One of the best things about being at sea is the ability to look out at the horizon and have nothing but water staring back at you. It really drives home all the old seafaring superstitions about sailing off the edge of the world.  This close to shore, and in such productive waters, it is rare to find yourself truly alone, so when we spot a fishing trawler, there’s already a space to note it in the data log.  Ships at sea often have “follower” birds – avians attracted by easy meals as food scraps are dumped overboard. Fishing boats usually attract a lot of birds as fish bycatch and processing leftovers are flushed from the deck.  The birders groan, because identification and counts of individuals get more and more complicated as we approach other vessels.  The most thrilling bird sighting of the day for me were the flocks of a couple hundred fork-tailed storm petrels.

Fork-tailed storm petrels
Fork-tailed storm petrels. photo credit: Florence Sullivan

I find it remarkable that such small birds are capable of spending 80% of their life on the open ocean, returning to land only to mate and raise a chick. Their nesting strategy is pretty fascinating too – in bad foraging years, the chick is capable of surviving for several days without food by going into a state of torpor. (This slows metabolism and reduces growth until an adult returns.)

Just because the bird observers were starting to feel slightly overwhelmed, doesn’t mean that the marine mammal observers stopped their own survey.  The effort soon paid off with shouts of “Wait! What are those splashes over there?!” That’s the signal for everyone to get their binoculars up, start counting individuals, and making note of identifying features like color, shape of dorsal fin, and swimming style so that we can make an accurate species ID. The first sighting, though common in the area, was a new species for me – Pacific white sided dolphins!

Pacific white sided dolphin
A Pacific white sided dolphin leaps into view. photo credit: Florence Sullivan. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis

A pod of thirty or so came to ride our bow wake for a bit, which was a real treat. But wait, it got better! Shortly afterward, we spotted more activity off the starboard bow.  It was confusing at first because we could clearly see a lot of splashes indicating many individuals, but no one had glimpsed any fins to help us figure out the species. As the pod got closer, Leigh shouted “Lissodelphis! They’re lissodelphis!”  We couldn’t see any dorsal fins, because northern right whale dolphins haven’t got one! Then the fly bridge became absolute madness as we all attempted to count how many individuals were in the pod, as well as take pictures for photo ID. It got even more complicated when some more pacific white sided dolphins showed up to join in the bow-riding fun.

Northern right whale dolphins are hard to spot! photo credit: Florence Sullivan Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis
Northern right whale dolphins are hard to spot! photo credit: Florence Sullivan Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis

All told, our best estimates counted about 200 individuals around us in that moment. The dolphins tired of us soon, and things continued to calm down as we moved further away from the fishing vessels.  We had a final encounter with an enthusiastic young humpback who was breaching and tail-slapping all over the place before ending our survey and heading towards Astoria to make our dock time.

Humpback whale breach
Humpback whale breach. photo credit: Florence Sullivan. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis

As a Washington native who has always been interested in a maritime career, I grew up on stories of The Graveyard of the Pacific, and how difficult the crossing of the Columbia River Bar can be. Many harbors have dedicated captains to guide large ships into the port docks.  Did you know the same is true of the Columbia River Bar?  Conditions change so rapidly here, the shifting sands of the river mouth make it necessary for large ships to receive a local guest pilot (often via helicopter) to guide them across.  The National Motor Lifeboat School trains its students at the mouth of the river because it provides some of “the harshest maritime weather conditions in the world”.  Suffice it to say, not only was I thrilled to be able to detect the Columbia River plume in our CTD profile, I was also supremely excited to finally sail across the bar.  While a tiny part of me had hoped for a slightly more arduous crossing (to live up to all the stories you know), I am happy to report that we had glorious, calm, sunny conditions, which allowed us all to thoroughly enjoy the view from the fly bridge.

Cape Disappointment Lighthouse at the Columbia River Bar.
Cape Disappointment Lighthouse at the Columbia River Bar.

Finally, we arrived in Astoria, loaded all our gear into the ship’s RHIB (Ridged Hulled Inflatable Boat), lowered it into the river, descended the rope ladder, got settled, and motored into port. We waved goodbye to the R/V Oceanus, and hope to conduct another STEM cruise aboard her again soon.

Now if the ground would stop rolling, that would be just swell.

Last but not least, here are the videos we promised you in Oceanus Day Two – the first video shows the humpback lunge feeding behavior, while the second shows tail slapping. Follow our youtube channel for more cool videos!

 

Oceanus Day Two: All the Albatrosses

By Amanda Holdman and Florence Sullivan

Today got off to a bright and early start. As soon as daylight permitted, we had spotters out on duty looking for more marine mammals. We began to survey at the north end of Heceta bank, where we again encountered many humpback whales lunge feeding. We broke transect, and got some great video footage of a pair them – so check our youtube channel next week – we’ll upload the video as soon as we get back to better internet (dial up takes some getting used to again – the whales don’t know about highspeed yet).

Humpbacks lunge feeding at surface. photo credit: Leigh Torres. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis.
Humpbacks lunge feeding at surface. photo credit: Leigh Torres. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis.

After working with the humpbacks to capture photo-id data for about an hour, we turned south, and ran parallel to Heceta bank until we reached the southern edge. Along the way, we counted 30 humpbacks, and many California gulls, marbled murrelets, pink footed shearwaters, and sooty shearwaters.

After lunch, we conducted a CTD cast to see how conditions might be different between the southern and northern edges of the bank. Surface temperatures increased from 12.09C to 13.2C while bottom temperatures decreased from 8.7C to 7.8C.  The northern station was a textbook perfect two layer system. It had a well mixed surface layer with a steep pycnocline separating it from the colder, saltier, denser, bottom layer. The southern station still had two layers, but the pycnocline (the depth where a rapid change in density occurs, which delineates the edges of water masses) was not as steep. We are interested in these discreet measurements of ocean conditions because areas of high primary productivity (the green chlorophyll-a line) are often re-occurring hot spots of food for many levels of the food chain. Since we can’t phone the whales and ask them where to meet up, we use clues like these to anticipate the best place to start looking.

Readout of the CTD cast. The left plot has temperature in blue, and salinity in green. The right plot has density in black, chlorophyll-a in green, and oxygen in blue. observe how different variables change with depth!
Readout of the CTD cast. The left plot has temperature in blue, and salinity in green. The right plot has density in black, chlorophyll-a in green, and oxygen in blue. observe how different variables change with depth (on the y-axes)!

We next turned west to transect the continental shelf break. Here, we were hoping to observe changes in species composition as waters got deeper, and habitat changed.  The shelf break is often known as an area of upwelling and increased primary productivity, which can lead to concentrations of marine predators taking advantage of aggregations of prey. As we moved further offshore, everyone was hoping for some sperm whales, or maybe some oceanic dolphin species, and if we’re really lucky, maybe a beaked whale or two.

Black footed Albatross with immature gulls. photo credit: Leigh Torres
Black footed Albatross with immature gulls. photo credit: Leigh Torres

Today our students learned the lesson of how difficult marine mammal observation can be when our target species spend the majority of their lives underwater – where we can’t see them. While there were a couple of hours of mammal empty water in there, observers were kept busy identifying long tailed- jaegers, cassin’s auklets, murrelets, petrels, shearwaters, fulmars, and so many black-footed albatrosses, that they almost became “normal”.  That being said, we did spot a fin whale, a few groups of Dall’s porpoise, and three pacific-white-sided dolphins.  Unexpectedly, we also saw an unidentified shark, and several sunfish (mola mola)!

Humpback whale profile. photo credit: Amanda Holdman. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis.
Humpback whale profile – notice the hump before the dorsal fin. photo credit: Amanda Holdman. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis.
Fin Whale profile. photo credit: Amanda Holdman. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis.
Fin Whale profile – notice how long the back is before the fin, and how pointed the dorsal fin is compared to the humpback. photo credit: Amanda Holdman. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis.

Last but not least, we engaged in a long standing oceanographic tradition, which is to draw on Styrofoam cups, and send them down to Davy Jone’s Locker attached to the CTD.  When you bring them back up, the pressure has caused them to shrink to a fraction of their original size, which is an excellent demonstration of the crushing power of pressure (and why its harder to build a submarine than a rocket).

Shrunken cups! The first row have been sent down to 1400m, while the back row are still full size!
Shrunken cups! The first row have been sent down to 1400m, while the back row are still full size!

Now, we are steaming north toward Astoria Canyon, where we hope to make some more sightings in the morning. Stand by for news from our final day at sea.

Fin Whale. photo credit Amanda Holdman. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis.
Fin Whale. photo credit Amanda Holdman. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis.
Dahl's Porpoise. photo credit: Florence Sullivan. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis.
Dahl’s Porpoise. photo credit: Florence Sullivan. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis.

R/V Oceanus Day One: Hungry Hungry Humpbacks

By Florence Sullivan and Amanda Holdman

The GEMM lab is adventuring out into the wild blue yonder of open ocean sampling and educational outreach! Leigh is the chief scientist onboard the R/V Oceanus for the next two days as we sail through Oregon waters in search of marine megafauna. Also onboard are four local teachers and five high school students who are learning the tricks of the trade. Amanda and I are here to help teach basic oceanography and distance sampling techniques to our enthusiastic students.

Science Party musters in the dry lab for safety debrief. photo credit: Florence Sullivan
Science Party musters in the dry lab for safety debrief. photo credit: Florence Sullivan

We started the morning with safety briefings, and headed out through the Newport breakwater, direction: Stonewall Bank.  Stonewall is a local bathymetric feature where upwelling often occurs, leading to a productive ecosystem for both predators and prey. Even though our main sampling effort will be offshore this trip, we didn’t even make out of the harbor before recording our first gray whale and California sea lion sightings.

California Sea Lions on the Newport buoy. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis
California Sea Lions on the Newport buoy. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis

Our students (and their teachers) are eager and quick to catch on as we teach them new methodologies. Amanda and I had prepared presentations about basic oceanographic and distance sampling methods, but really the best way to learn is to jump in and go. We’ve set up a rotation schedule, and everyone is taking turns scanning the ocean for critters, deploying and recovering the CTD, logging data, and catching plankton.

a small pod of Orca. Photo credit: Florence Sullivan. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis
A small pod of Orca. Photo credit: Florence Sullivan. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis

So far, we have spotted gray whales, sea lions, a pod of (lightning speed) killer whales, lots of seagulls, northern fulmars, sooty shearwaters, storm petrels, and cormorants, but today’s highlight has to the last sighting of ~42 humpback whales. We found them at the Northern edge of Heceta Bank – a large rocky reef which provides structural habitat for a wide variety of marine species. As we approached the area, we spotted one whale, and then another. At first, our spotters had no trouble inputting the data, getting photo-ID shots, and distinguishing one whale from the next, but as we continued, we were soon overwhelmed. With whale blows surrounding us on all sides, it was hard to know where to look first – here a surface lunge, there, a breach, a spout, a fluke, a flipper slap! The surface activity was so dense and enthralling, it took a few moments before realizing there were some sea lions in the feeding frenzy too!

Five humpback whales surface at once. photo credit: Leigh Torres. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis
Five humpback whales surface at once. photo credit: Leigh Torres. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis

We observed the group, and tried to document as many individuals as possible as the sunset faded into night. When poor visibility put a stop to the visuals, we hurried to do a plankton tow and CTD cast to find some environmental insights for such a gathering. The CTD revealed a stratified water column, with two distinct layers, and the plankton tow brought up lots of diatoms and krill. As one of the goals of this cruise is to explore how marine mammals vary with ocean gradients, this is a pretty cool way to start.

A humpback whale lunge feeds. Photo credit: Leigh Torres. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis
A humpback whale lunge feeds. Photo credit: Leigh Torres. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis

A long day observing has left us all exhausted, but not too tired to share our excitement. Stay tuned for more updates from the briny blue!

Follow this link for real time view of our beautiful ship! : http://webcam.oregonstate.edu/oceanus

Humpback flukes for photo ID. photo credit: Leigh Torres. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis
Humpback flukes for photo ID. photo credit: Leigh Torres. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis