Gray Whales of the Oregon Coast; Preliminary field season!

Hello all, Florence here with an update from the field!  Its high time that I tell you a little bit about the rather exciting project getting started here at the GEMM lab.  Concerning the foraging ecology of the Pacific Coast feeding aggregation of gray whales, and conveniently having a high potential to improve local conservation practices, my team and I are hoping to (1) document and describe fine-scale foraging behavior of gray whales, (2) assess the impact of vessel disturbance on foraging behavior, and (3) work with local communities, stakeholders, and whale watch operators to create sustainable, scientifically informed guidelines for vessel operations in the presence of gray whales.

As with many things, collaboration is the key to success, and for the past month, I have teamed up with Miche Fournet of the ORCAA lab to run a theodolite-for-marine-mammals training camp.  What is a theodolite you may ask?  A theodolite is a precision surveying instrument used to measure angles in the horizontal and vertical planes.  You may have seen one in use by a road crew or property surveyor. The instrument has also been adapted to marine mammal work because by knowing your own altitude and position, that of a secondary point, and using the telescopic sight to focus on a whale, one is able to calculate the exact location of that whale.   Do this every time the whale comes up to breathe, and pretty soon, you have a fine scale track-line of exactly where that whale has been, for how long, and what it was doing.  It was quite fun to learn the tricks of the trade with Miche and her Acoustic Spyglass crew, and we wish them a successful field season with the Humpbacks up in Glacier Bay, Alaska.

Justin spots a whale while Cricket waits her turn at an early practice session
Justin spots a whale while Cricket waits her turn at an early practice session
Justin and David practice with the Theodolite

Now we all know that a battle plan never survives the first engagement with the enemy, and a new scientific protocol is much the same.  Spring Quarter is finished, and two of my interns, Cricket and Justin arrived here at the GEMM lab on Monday. Together, we have been field testing our new equipment, getting used to working as a team day in and day out and most of all, finding all the little kinks in the survey plans and computer program we are using to log our data.  So far, we’ve seen 8 whales over the course of 4 days, improved our reflexes in scanning the horizon and “fixing” on our targets, managed to misplace a day’s worth of data in the confusion of computer programming, gotten faster at setting up all our equipment, talked with curious passer-bys and spent a lot of time staring at the blue horizon.  And you know what? It’s been brilliant.  This week was specifically set aside to figure out everything that could possible go wrong while there aren’t too many whales around yet.  Now, we’ll be ready to hit the ground running when the real fun starts in July!

Until next time, Fair Winds!

Testing the set up at the Depoe Bay Whale Watch Center with Cricket and Justin interns extraordinaire!
Testing the set up at the Depoe Bay Whale Watch Center with Cricket and Justin: interns extraordinaire!
Gray Whale in Depoe Bay
Gray Whale in Depoe Bay
Thar she blows!
Thar she blows!

Sharing the Science! Outreach at the GEMM Lab

Hello Everyone,

My name is Florence, and I’m here to update you on all the amazing outreach activities that the GEMM lab has participated in this past month!

We started on April 11, with the HMSC-wide Marine Science Day celebrations.  This year was particularly exciting because the Hatfield Marine Science Center is turning 50 years old! Along with the rest of our colleagues at the Marine Mammal Institute, we presented posters detailing our projects, had a few hands on activities such as ‘spot the whale’ – a bit of a scavenger hunt designed to give people a taste of how difficult it can be to spot marine mammals, and answered questions about our work.  It was quite a success!

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Florence representing the GEMM lab and gray whale research in Port Orford
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The Redfish Rocks Community Team table!

On April 19, I went down to Port Orford, OR to participate in “Redfish Rocks on the Docks”  an outreach event showcasing all the exciting research being done in conjunction with the Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve near Port Orford.  I presented a poster about my thesis project: Assessment of vessel disturbance to foraging gray whales on the Oregon Coast to promote sustainable ecotourism, and answered questions while leading folks through our ‘stay warm like a whale’ blubber glove activity.  It was a beautiful sunny day, but so windy that at times we joked that our tables looked more like geology presentations than marine biology due to all the rocks holding everyone’s papers, photos, and flyers down! Many of the folks who I will be collaborating with over the course of this project also had their own informational booths; South Coast Tours, Redfish Rocks Community Team, and the Oregon Marine Reserves Program. The Surfrider Foundation and CoastWatch also had interesting activities and information to share about marine debris and conservation of our oceans.  My favorite moment of the day was when I was explaining to a little girl how gray whales need to eat a lot of mysid shrimp in order to maintain their blubber to stay warm in the frigid ocean – and she intuitively made the jump from the blubber glove to the wetsuit she uses to go swimming!  It was wonderful to see her thinking critically about the different strategies for heat retention in water.

 

Lab group photo
The Ladies of the GEMM Lab! Courtney, Amanda, Dr. Leigh, Florence, Solène
Solene Best presentation (1)
Solène received the Best Presentation Award!

Finally, yesterday, almost the entire lab gave presentations at the Northwest Student Society of Marine Mammals Annual Meeting.  The meeting was attended by ~80 interested students and researchers from a number of outstanding universities including; Western Washington University, University of Washington, Portland State, Stanford University and of course, Oregon State University.  The day began with an excellent introductory presentation by Dr. Ari Friedlander of our sister BTBEL Lab, and then it was on to student presentations.  Courtney and I presented in the ‘Human Dimensions’ forum on the possibilities of citizen science in marine mammal research and gray whale foraging ecology respectively.  At lunch, our valiant leader, Leigh, took part in a discussion panel and fielded questions from the audience concerning current advances in technology and possible applications to field work as well as giving professional development advice.  A few take away messages; Technology can provide wonderful insights, but one should not use a tool just to use a tool.  Rather, it is important to first ask your question, and then build your methodology and choose your tools in a manner most precisely able to answer the questions at hand.  In regards to professional development, do not discount the benefit of getting international experience – A broad perspective on possible solutions, and strong international collaborations will be necessary to solve many of the management issues facing our oceans today.  During the ‘Bioacoustics’ session, Amanda presented her work concerning harbor porpoise spatial distribution. Finally, Solène presented her work on Maui’s dolphins during the ‘Space and Time’ Session, and walked out having earned the ‘Best Presentation’ Award!!  Over the past few months that she has been visiting us, she has been a dedicated colleague and a wonderfully cheerful presence in the lab, and it was fantastic to see all her hard work being recognized in this public forum.  Overall, this NWSSMM conference was a great opportunity to see what other students in the Pacific Northwest region are working on, opened doors for future collaborations and gave us ideas for future projects.

 

Sunrise in Port Orford
Sunrise in Port Orford

International Collaborations: What do the Oregon Coast and Maui’s dolphins have in common?

My name is Solène Derville and I am a master’s student in the Department of Biology at the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Lyon, France. As part of my master’s, I am spending a few months in Newport, where I am working under Dr Leigh Torres’s supervision in the GEMM Lab. Hopefully, this will be the starting point for a longer term collaboration, for a PhD project about the spatial ecology of humpback whales in New-Caledonia (South Western Pacific Ocean) which I am currently preparing.

Solene at Crater lake

On an early morning of February 2015, I am waiting at the airport for my flight to PORTLAND/PDX. I’ve had only one day to pack but I feel confident that I’ve made the right choices as my 23kg luggage contains mainly jumpers, sweatshirts, thick socks, and a brand new umbrella. I’ve got everything I need to face my four months internship in rainy Newport, Oregon.

A few disillusionments await me when I finally land: 1) my “saucisson” (fancy sausage) can’t pass customs and ends up in a bin despite my attempts to negotiate with the customs official, and 2) as soon as I am out of the airport, it starts raining. At first sight this looks like the harmless kind of drizzle I’ve experienced in England, until I realize it’s raining sideways! So much for buying a new umbrella…

Luckily, these small inconveniences don’t affect my spirits for long as I get to discover the richnesses Oregon has to offer.

My mouth drops open the first time someone tells me that I can see elk around Newport and that gray whales are commonly observed next to the jetty at this time of year. It’s difficult to describe to someone who’s always been living in this environment how exciting it is to me. I am not used to all this wilderness and certainly not to living so close to it. It’s a thrill to think that I only need to ride my bike for a few miles to meet the amazing local fauna.

Oregon Coast by Solene
Oregon Coast by Solene

Of course, the beauty of Oregon’s landscapes and the richness of its wildlife is not the only thing that catches my attention. I am immediately touched by the kindness of people, the sense of sharing and the deeply rooted sense of community. I feel welcomed at HMSC, and by my colleagues in the GEMM lab and I am eager to start my internship.

So what is my work here exactly?

Well, believe it or not, I’ve crossed the Atlantic Ocean and came to the US to actually work on a species of dolphins endemic to New-Zealand! Dr Leigh Torres, and I are investigating the fine-scale distribution and habitat selection patterns of Maui’s dolphin (Cephalorhyncus hectori maui). This subspecies of the more common Hector’s dolphin (Cephalorhyncus hectori, also endemic to New-Zealand) is the smallest dolphin in the world and unfortunately among the most endangered (listed as “critically endangered” by the IUCN). The Maui’s dolphin population is thought to have decreased to under 100 individuals in the past decades.

Maui's dolphin credit: Will Rayment
Maui’s dolphin credit: Will Rayment

In practice, this means I am doing data analysis so I spend my days in front of my computer. This may sound a bit dull, but computer work is actually a great part of research in ecology (apart from awesome field work stage, but this is only the tip of the iceberg). Speaking for myself, I’ve always found it very exciting to put together all this hard-won data to answer important questions, especially when the conservation of species as emblematic as the Maui’s dolphin is at stake. To tell the truth, the nerdy code writing work is also a lot of fun!

My data set consists of boat-based observations of Maui dolphin groups made during the 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2015 summer surveys. Overall about a hundred groups were observed. Based on these observations we would like to know: WHERE are the Maui dolphins (distribution pattern)? And WHY (habitat preferences)?

New Zealand
New Zealand

My job is first to describe the spatial distribution patterns of these observations given the year, composition of groups, or group behaviour (whether animals were feeding, resting etc.). This can be done using kernel density estimates: a very good method for “smoothing” a distribution in 2 dimensions and highlighting its main characteristics (extent, core areas etc.). This allows us to answer (or try to answer) the “WHERE” question.

Kernel density maps
Kernel density maps

The second stage of my analysis is to describe the environmental conditions at each of the dolphin group locations and compare them with the environmental conditions in surveyed areas where Maui dolphins where not observed. This allows us to better understand the environmental cues that Maui dolphins might be following to find “suitable” places for their every-day activities and therefore try answer the “WHY” question. In statistical jargon, we are exploring the relationship between probability of presence of Maui dolphins and environmental predictors such as: sea surface temperature, turbidity of the water, distance to closest river mouths, distance to the coast and depth.

The resulting models will be used to predict seasonal variations in Maui’s dolphin distribution, notably in winter when direct surveying is difficult because of weather conditions. Based on the resulting dynamic distribution models, we finally aim to predict how Maui’s dolphins might interact with anthropogenic activities or react to changes in their environment.

So far, preliminary results are very promising and I am hoping to share these soon!

Sharing the Coast Conference

GEMM lab recently attended the Sharing the Coast Conference 2015 at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon where graduate student Courtney Hann presented on a marine mammal citizen science project, called Whale mAPP.

The Sharing the Coast Conference was a wonderful opportunity for scientists, researchers, community members, and avid ocean enthusiasts alike to come together and discuss current research on the Oregon Coast, with a focus on citizen science research. Many of the presenters introduced Oregon Coast or online citizen science projects people could participate. Other hands-on activities included field trips to Moolack Beach, Devil’s Punchbowl, along with tutorials on how to monitor marine debris and sea star wasting.

Courtney Hann represented the GEMM lab with her Sunday presentation on Whale mAPP, an Android application that can be used by volunteers, whom we call citizen scientists, to record marine mammal sighting data. The audience was inquisitive and intrigued by this project, along with many of the other wonderful citizen science projects. The American Cetacean Society, Oregon Chapter, will be using the Whale mAPP website (www.whalemapp.org) this whale watching season to record shore-based marine mammal, focusing on grey whale, sightings.

Overall, the Sharing the Coast Conference was an ideal event that brought people from all around Oregon and from multiple organizations (Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition, Northwest Aquatic and Marine Educators, American Cetacean Society, CoastWatch, Hatfield Marine Science Center, GEMM lab, etc.) together to talk about relevant Oregon Coast topics. The focus on engaging volunteers with scientific research represents an exciting turn towards embracing citizen science research, and incorporating free-choice learning opportunities into citizen science projects.

Depoe Bay STEAM fair at Kids Zone

Hello All!

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

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

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

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into the icy cold!

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

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

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

 

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

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Florence and Solene explaining comparative anatomy.

 

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