Building scientific friendships: A reflection on the 21st annual meeting of the Northwest Student Chapter of the Society for Marine Mammalogy

By Dawn Barlow, M.Sc. student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

I recently had the opportunity to attend and present my research at the 21st meeting of the Northwest Student Chapter of the Society for Marine Mammalogy. This gathering represented a community of graduate and undergraduate students from the Pacific Northwest, networking and discussing their research on the biology of marine mammals. Dr. John Ford, whose name has become synonymous with killer whale research in the Pacific Northwest, delivered a compelling keynote speech on not only the history of his research, but also the history of the relationships he has built in the field and the people that have shaped the past five decades of killer whale research. This theme of cultivating scientific relationships was a thread that carried us through the weekend. Beautiful weather had us all smiling happily as we ate our lunches outside, musing about science in the sunshine. A philosopher’s café event facilitated roundtable discussions with experts in veterinary science, spatial statistics, management consulting, physiology, and marine pollution. Students were given the space to ask questions ranging from manuscript writing advice to the worth of our work in the current political climate (and write notes or doodle drawings on the paper-covered tables as we listened).

The oral and poster presentations were all very impressive. I learned that bowhead whales are likely feeding year-round in the Canadian Arctic, adjusting their dive depth to the vertical location of their copepod prey. I learned that the aerobic dive limit of stellar sea lions is more of a sliding scale rather than a switch as it is for Weddell seals. I learned that some harbor seals are estuary specialists, feeding on salmon smolt. And I learned about the importance of herring to Northeast Pacific marine mammals through an energy-based ecosystem model. I had the opportunity to present my research on the ecology of New Zealand blue whales to an audience outside of Oregon State University for the first time, and was pleased with how my presentation was received.

Aaron Purdy, MSc student with the University of British Columbia’s Marine Mammal Research Unit, moderates the first oral presentation session wearing the designated “fluke tuke”. I may have giggled at the Canadian word for beanie, but I have to admit, “fluke tuke” has a much better ring to it than “fluke beanie”!

But beyond the scientific research itself, I also learned that there is a strong community of motivated and passionate young scientists in the Pacific Northwest studying marine mammals. Our numbers may not be many and we may be scattered across several different universities and labs, but our work is compelling and valuable. At the end of the weekend, it felt like I was saying goodbye to new friends and future colleagues. And, I learned that the magnificent size of a blue whale never fails to impress and amaze, as all the conference attendees marveled over the blue whale skeleton housed in the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at the University of British Columbia.

Left to right: Michelle Fournet, Samara Haver, myself, and Niki Diogou representing Oregon State University at the student conference. Behind us is a blue whale skeleton, housed in the Beaty Biodiversity Museum on the University of British Columbia campus.

Many thanks to the graduate students from the University of British Columbia who organized such a successful event! At the end of the conference, it was decided that the next meeting of the Northwest Student Chapter will be hosted by the Oregon State University students here at Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. It is a year away, but I am already looking forward to seeing these newfound peers again and hearing how their research has progressed.

A happy student selfie at the end of a successful conference! We are looking forward to a reunion at Hatfield Marine Science Center next May!

“Marching for Science” takes many forms

By Florence Sullivan, MSc student, Oregon State University.

Earth day is a worldwide event celebrated annually on April 22, and is typically observed with beach, park, or neighborhood clean ups, and outreach events sponsored by environmental groups.  Last year, environmentalists rejoiced when 195 nations signed the Paris Agreement – to “strengthen global response to the threat of climate change by keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees C”.

GEMM Lab member Dawn Barlow helps carry the banner for the Newport, OR March for Science which over 600 people attended. photo credit: Maryann Bozza

This year, the enviro-political mood is more somber. Emotions in the GEMM Lab swing between anger and dismay to cautious optimism and hope. The anger comes from threatened budget cuts, the dismissal of climate science, and the restructuring of government agencies, while we find hope at the outpouring of support from our local communities, and the energy building behind the March for Science movement.

The Newport March for Science. photo credit: Maryann Bozza

What is perhaps most striking about the movement is how celebratory it feels. Instead of marching against something, we are marching FOR science, in all its myriad forms. With clever signs and chants like “The oceans are rising, and so are we”, “Science, not Silence”, and “We’re nerds, we’re wet, we’re really quite upset” (it rained on a lot of marches on Saturday) echoing around the globe, Saturday’s Marches for Science were a cathartic release of energy, a celebration of like-minded people.

Our competition room for NOSB 2017! Game officials are in the front of the picture, competitors at the first two desks, and parents, coaches and supporters in the back.

While millions of enthusiastic people were marching through the streets, I “Ran for Science” at the 20th annual National Ocean Science Bowl (NOSB) – delivering question sheets and scores between competitors and graders as 25 teams competed for the title of national champion! Over the course of the competition, teams of four high school students compete through rounds of buzzer-style multiple choice questions, worksheet style team challenge questions, and the Scientific Expert Briefing, a mock congressional hearing where students present science recommendations on a piece of legislation.  The challenges are unified with a yearly theme, which in 2017 was Blue Energy: powering the planet with our ocean.  Watching the students (representing 33 states!) compete is exciting and inspiring, because they obviously know the material, and are passionate about the subject matter.  Even more encouraging though, is realizing that not all of them plan to look for jobs as research scientists. Some express interest in the arts, some in policy, or teaching or engineering. This competition is not just about fostering the next generation of leading marine scientists, but rather about creating an ocean-literate, and scientifically-literate populace.  So, congratulations to Santa Monica High School, who took home the national title for the first time this year! Would you like to test your knowledge against some of the questions they faced? Try your luck here!

Santa Monica competes in the final round

The GEMM Lab also recently participated in the Hatfield Marine Science Center’s Marine Science Day.  It’s an annual open house where the community is invited to come tour labs, meet scientists, get behind the scenes, and learn about all the exciting research going on.  For us as researchers, it’s a great day to practice explaining our work and its relevance to many different groups, from school children to parents and grandparents, from artists to fishermen to teachers, fellow researchers, and many others.  This year the event attracted over 2,000 people, and the GEMM Lab was proud to be a part of this uniquely interactive day.  Outreach events like this help us feel connected to our community and the excitement present in all the questions field during this event reassure us that the public still cares about the work that we do.

Lab members Florence, Leila, and Dawn (L to R) answer questions from the public.

Our science is interdisciplinary, and we recognize the strength of multiple complimentary avenues of action to affect change.  If you are looking to get involved, consider taking a look at these groups:

500 Women Scientists: “working to promote a diverse and inclusive scientific community that brings progressive science-based solutions to local and global challenges.” Read their take on the March for Science.

314Action: starting from Pi (3.14), their mission is “to (1) strengthen communication among the STEM community, the public and our elected officials, (2) Educate and advocate for and defend the integrity of science and its use, (3) Provide a voice for the STEM community on social issues, (4) Promote the responsible use of data driven fact based approaches in public policy and (5) Increase public engagement with the STEM Community through media.”

She should run: “A movement working to create a culture that inspires women and girls to aspire towards public leadership. We believe that women of all backgrounds should have an equal shot at elected leadership and that our country will benefit from having a government with varied perspectives and experiences.” https://peoplesclimate.org/

And finally, The March for Science is finishing up it’s week of action, culminating in the People’s Climate March on April 29.

How will you carry the cause of science forward?

 

New aerial footage captures blue whale lunge feeding!

By Dawn Barlow, MSc student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

This past field season the New Zealand blue whale team was lucky enough to capture something spectacular – an aerial view of a blue whale surface lunge feeding. I invite you to view the footage and listen to Leigh’s narration of the event in the video below!

Below is the full press release, written by Mark Floyd:

NEWPORT, Ore. – Blue whales didn’t become the largest animals ever to live on Earth by being dainty eaters and new video captured by scientists at Oregon State University shows just how they pick and choose their meals.

There is a reason for their discretion, researchers say. The whales are so massive – sometimes growing to the length of three school buses – that they must carefully balance the energy gained through their food intake with the energetic costs of feeding.

“Modeling studies of blue whales ‘lunge-feeding’ theorize that they will not put energy into feeding on low-reward prey patches,” said Leigh Torres, a principal investigator with the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State, who led the expedition studying the blue whales. “Our footage shows this theory in action. We can see the whale making choices, which is really extraordinary because aerial observations of blue whales feeding on krill are rare.”

“The whale bypasses certain krill patches – presumably because the nutritional payoff isn’t sufficient – and targets other krill patches that are more lucrative. We think this is because blue whales are so big, and stopping to lunge-feed and then speeding up again is so energy-intensive, that they try to maximize their effort.”

The video, captured in the Southern Ocean off New Zealand, shows a blue whale cruising toward a large mass of krill – roughly the size of the whale itself. The animal then turns on its side, orients toward the beginning of the krill swarm, and proceeds along its axis through the entire patch, devouring nearly the entire krill mass.

In another vignette, the same whale approaches a smaller mass of krill, which lies more perpendicular to its approach, and blasts through it without feeding.

“We had theorized that blue whales make choices like this and the video makes it clear that they do use such a strategy,” explained Torres, who works out of Oregon State’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon. “It certainly appears that the whale determined that amount of krill to be gained, and the effort it would take to consume the meal wasn’t worth the effort of slowing down.

“It would be like me driving a car and braking every 100 yards, then accelerating again. Whales need to be choosy about when to apply the brakes to feed on a patch of krill.”

The researchers analyzed the whale’s lunge-feeding and found that it approached the krill patch at about 6.7 miles per hour. The act of opening its enormous mouth to feed slowed the whale down to 1.1 mph – and getting that big body back up to cruising speed again requires a lot of energy.

The rare footage was possible through the use of small drones. The OSU team is trained to fly them over whales and was able to view blue whales from a unique perspective.

“It’s hard to get good footage from a ship,” Torres said, “and planes or helicopters can be invasive because of their noise. The drone allows us to get new angles on the whales without bothering them.”

The best field season ever

By Dawn Barlow, MSc student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

8:35pm on February 20th found the blue whale team smiling, singing, and dancing on the aft deck of the R/V Star Keys as the light faded and the sky glowed orange and we marked our final waypoint of the 2017 blue whale field season. What preceded was a series of days so near perfect that we had barely dared dream of the like. Sighting after sighting, and our team of scientists and the wonderful Star Keys crew began to work like a well-oiled machine—approach the whale gently and observe its behavior, fly the drone, deploy the CTD and echosounder, approach for photos, launch the small boat, approach for biopsy, leave the whale, re-apply sunscreen, find another whale, repeat. This series of events continued from sunrise until sunset, when the sky and water were painted brilliant colors. The sound of big blue whale breaths broke the silence over the glassy water, and the plumes of exhaled air lit up in the last bits of sunlight, lingering there without even a puff of wind to blow them away.

A blue whale mother and calf surface in front of Farewell Spit in calm conditions as the daylight starts to fade. Photo by Leigh Torres.
The small boat returns to R/V Star Keys after collecting the final biopsy sample of the season. Photo by Dawn Barlow.

Despite coming to New Zealand during the “worst summer ever”, I’m pleased to say that this has been the most fruitful field season the New Zealand blue whale project has had. We covered a total of 1,635 nautical miles and recorded sightings of 68 blue whales, in addition to sightings of killer whales, pilot whales, common dolphins, dusky dolphins, sharks, and many seabirds. Five of our blue whale sightings included calves, reiterating that the South Taranaki Bight appears to be an important area for mother-calf pairs. Callum and Mike (Department of Conservation) collected 23 blue whale biopsy samples, more than twice the number collected last year. Todd flew the drone over 35 whales, observing and documenting behaviors and collecting aerial imagery for photogrammetry. We took 9,742 photos, which will be used to determine how many unique individuals we saw and how many of them have been sighted in previous years.

A blue whale surfaces with R/V Star Keys in the background. Photo taken from the small boat by Leigh Torres.

It is always hard to see a wonderful thing come to an end, and we agreed that we would all happily continue this work for much longer if funding and weather permitted. But as the small skiff returned to the Star Keys with our final biopsy sample and the dancing began, we all agreed that we couldn’t have asked for a better note to end on. There has already been plenty of wishful chatter about future field efforts, but in the meantime we’re still floating from this year’s success. I will certainly have my hands full when I return to Oregon, and in the best possible way. It feels good to have an abundance of data from a project I’m passionate about.

A blue whale comes up for air in a calm sea. Photo by Leigh Torres.

Thank you to Western Work Boats and Captain James “Razzle-Dazzle” Dalzell, Spock, and Jason of the R/V Star Keys for their hard work, patience, and good attitudes. James made it clear at the beginning of the trip that this was to be our best year ever, and it was nothing less. The crew went from never having seen a blue whale before the trip to being experts in maneuvering around whales, oceanographic data collection, and whale poop-scooping. Thank you to Callum Lilley and Mike Ogle from the Department of Conservation for their time, impressive marksmanship, and enthusiasm. And once again thank you to all of our colleagues, funders, and supporters—this project is made possible by collaboration. Now that we’ve wrapped up, blue whale team members are heading in different directions for the time being. We’ll be dreaming of blue whales for weeks to come, and looking forward to the next time our paths cross.

Blue whale team members in front of R/V Star Keys in port in Nelson.
The team rejoices after a magnificent final survey day!

 

Keeping up with blue whales in a dynamic environment

By Dawn Barlow, MSc student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

“The marine environment is patchy and dynamic”. This is a phrase I have heard, read, and written repeatedly in my studies of marine ecology, and it has become increasingly tangible during the past several weeks of fieldwork. The presence of the blue whales we’ve come here to study is the culmination of a chain of events that begins with the wind. As we huddle up at anchor or in port while the winds blow through the South Taranaki Bight, the water gets mixed and our satellite images show blooms of little phytoplankton lifeforms. These little phytoplankton provide food for the krill, the main prey item of far larger animals—blue whales. And in this dynamic environment, nothing stays the same for long. As the winds change, aggregations of phytoplankton, krill and whales shift.

When you spend hours and hours scanning for blue whales, you also grow intimately familiar with everything that could possibly look like a blue whale but is not. Teasers include whitecaps, little clouds on the horizon, albatrosses changing flight direction, streaks on your sunglasses, and floating logs. Let me tell you, if we came here to study logs we would have quite the comprehensive dataset! We have had a few days of long hours with good weather conditions and no whales, and it is difficult not to be frustrated at those times—we came here to find whales. But the whale-less days prompt musings of what drives blue whale distribution, foraging energetics, and dreams of elaborate future studies and analyses, along with a whole lot of wishing for whales. Because, let’s admit it, presence data is just more fun to collect.

The view from the flying bridge of R/V Star Keys of Mt. Taranaki and a calm sea with no whales in sight. Photo by D. Barlow.

But we’ve also had survey days filled with so many whales that I can barely keep track of all of them. When as soon as we begin to head in the direction of one whale, we spot three more in the immediate area. Excited shouts of “UP!! Two o’clock at 300 meters!” “What are your frame numbers for your right side photos?” “Let’s come 25 degrees to port” “UUUPPP!! Off the bow!” “POOOOOOP! Grab the net!!” fill the flying bridge as the team springs into action. We’ve now spotted 40 blue whales, collected 8 biopsy samples, 8 fecal samples, flown the drone over 9 whales, and taken 4,651 photographs. And we still have more survey days ahead of us!

A blue whale surfaces just off the bow of R/V Star Keys. Photo by D. Barlow.

In Leigh’s most recent blog post she described our multi-faceted fieldwork here in the South Taranaki Bight. Having a small inflatable skiff has allowed for close approaches to the whales for photo-identification and biopsy sample collection while our larger research vessel collects important oceanographic data concurrently. I’ve been reading numerous papers linking the distribution of large marine animals such as whales with oceanographic features such as fronts, temperature, and primary productivity. In one particular sighting, the R/V Star Keys idled in the midst of a group of ~13 blue whales, and I could see foamy lines on the surface where water masses met and mixed. The whales were diving deep—flukes the size of a mid-sized car gracefully lifting out of the water. I looked at the screen of the echosounder as it pinged away, bouncing off a dense layer of krill (blue whale prey) just above the seafloor at around 100 meters water depth.  As I took in the scene from the flying bridge, I could picture these big whales diving down to that krill layer and lunge feeding, gorging themselves in these cool, productive waters. It is all mostly speculative at this point and lots of data analysis time remains, but ideas are cultivated and validated when you experience your data firsthand.

A blue whale shows its fluke as it dives deep in an area with abundant krill deep in the water column. Photo by L. Torres.

The days filled with whales make the days without whales worthwhile and valuable. To emphasize the dynamic nature of the environment we study, when we returned to an area in which we had seen heaps of whales just 12 hours before, we only found glassy smooth water and no whales whatsoever. Changing our trajectory, we came across nothing for the first half of the day and then one pair of whales after another. Some traveling, some feeding, and two mother-calf pairs.

The dynamic nature of the marine environment and the high mobility of our study species is what makes this work challenging, frustrating, exciting, and fascinating. Now we’re ready to take advantage of our next weather window to continue our survey effort and build our ever-growing dataset. I relish the wind-swept, sunburnt days of scanning and musing, and I also look forward to settling down with all of these data to try my best to compile all of the pieces of this blue whale puzzle. And I know that when I find myself behind a computer screen processing and analyzing photos, survey effort, drone footage, and oceanographic data I will be imagining the blue waters of the South Taranaki Bight, the excitement of seeing the water glow brilliantly just before a whale surfaces off our bow, and whale-filled survey days that end only when the sun sets over the water.

A big moon rises to the east and a bright oil rig on the horizon at the end of a long and fruitful survey day. Photo by L. Torres.
And to the west of the moon and the rig, the sun sets over the South Taranaki Bight. Photo by 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!

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.

Blue whale portraits: pieces of the puzzle

By Dawn Barlow, MSc Student, Oregon State University

Perhaps you’ve read some posts about New Zealand blue whales on this blog from the past field season in the South Taranaki Bight (STB). I know I eagerly awaited updates from the field while the team was in New Zealand and I was in Southern California, finishing undergrad and writing funding proposals and grad school applications. Now that undergrad is done and dusted, I’ve arrived in Newport and begun to settle in to my next chapter as the newest member of the GEMM Lab, joining the blue whale research team as a MSc student in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. Since no blue whale news has made it onto this blog in some time, I’m excited to share what has happened since the team returned from the field!

As you may have heard from Leigh, Callum, and Kristin, 2016 was a fruitful field season. In nearly 1,500 miles of vessel surveys, the team documented blue whale foraging behavior, a pair of racing whales, four mother-calf pairs, what may be the first aerial footage of nursing behavior in baleen whales (video below), and a whale with apparent deformities. Five hydrophones units were deployed, fecal and biopsy samples were collected, oceanographic conditions were measured, and photos were taken.

I was welcomed into the GEMM Lab in early July, and presented with a workspace, a hard drive with thousands of photos, new software programs to learn, wonderfully accessible tea and coffee, and tasked with creating a photo-ID catalog of all the blue whales our team photographed this past field season. Here’s a great thing about blue whales: while they may be tricky to study, when someone sees a blue whale they are often excited to report it. In addition to the data collected by our team during the 2016 season and the 2014 pilot season, we are incorporating many photo-documented sightings of blue whales from all around New Zealand that we have received from collaborative researchers, whale watch organizations, and fishing vessels alike captured between 2004 and 2016. All these photos are precious data to us, as we can use them to better understand their ecology.

There are many unanswered questions about this population of blue whales in New Zealand — How many are there? Just how big are they? Do they stay in New Zealand year-round or are they migratory? Through the photo-ID analysis that I’ve done, we are just beginning to piece together some answers. We have now compiled records of sightings in New Zealand from every month of the year. I’ve identified 94 unique individual blue whales, 26 of which were sighted in the STB during the 2016 season. Five whales were seen in multiple years (Figure 1), including one whale that was seen in three different years, in three different places, and with three different calves! And what might all of this mean? At this point it’s still speculative, but these findings hint at year-round residency and seasonal movement patterns within New Zealand waters… with more data and more analysis I will be able to say these things more conclusively.

New Zealand Blue Whale Photo-ID

NZ Blue Whale Photo-ID
Figure 1. Blue whale photographed off of Westport on 31 January 2013 (above) by the Australian Antarctic Division (data provided by Mike Double), and in the South Taranaki Bight on 2 February 2016 (below). Note how the tear in the dorsal fin has healed over the three-year period.

Perhaps you’ve read Leila’s post about photogrammetry, and how she is able to make measurements using aerial photographs captured using an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS, aka ‘drone’). Using the same method, I will soon be able to tell you how long these whales really are (Figure 2).

sighting 22 UAS reduced
Figure 2. An aerial photograph captured with the UAS during the 2016 season, which will be used to measure the length of these whales using photogrammetry.

How many of them are there? Well, that’s a trickier question. Using a straightforward abundance calculation based on our rate of re-sightings, the estimate I came up with is 594 ± 438. In other words, I can say with 95% confidence that there are between 156 and 1031 blue whales in New Zealand. How helpful is this? Well, not very! The wide confidence intervals in this estimate are problematic, and it is difficult to draw any conclusions when the range of possible numbers is so large. So stay tuned as I will be learning more about modeling population abundance estimates in order to provide a more precise and descriptive answer.

But stepping back for a minute, what does it matter how many whales there are and what they’re doing? In 2014, Leigh demonstrated that the STB is an important foraging ground for these blue whales. However, the STB is also a region heavily used by industry, experiencing active oil and gas extraction (Figure 3), seismic surveying, shipping traffic, and proposed seafloor mining. If we don’t know how the blue whales are using this space, then how can we know what effect the presence of industry will have on their ecology? It is our hope that findings from this study can guide effective conservation and management of these ocean giants as well as the ecosystem they are part of.

Figure 2. A blue whale surfaces in front of an oil rig in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Photo by Deanna Elvines.
Figure 3. A blue whale surfaces in front of an oil rig. Photo by Deanna Elvines.

Keeping these goals in mind, I’m eagerly awaiting the start of our 2017 field season in the STB. As I look through all these photos I feel like I’m getting to know this group of whales just a little bit and I look forward to being on the water seeing them myself, maybe even recognizing some from the 2016 photos. More time on the water and more data will bring us closer to the piecing together the story of these whales, and inevitably open doors to more questions than we started with. And in the meantime, I’m grateful for the community I’ve found here in the GEMM Lab, at Hatfield Marine Science Center, and in Newport.