Dual cameras provide bigger picture

By Hunter Warick, Research Technician, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab, Marine Mammal Institute

When monitoring the health of a capital breeding species, such as whales that store energy to support reproduction costs, it is important to understand what processes and factors drive the status of their body condition. Information gained will allow for better insight into their cost of reproduction and overall life history strategies.

For the past four years the GEMM Lab has utilized the perspective that Unoccupied Aerial Systems (UAS; or ‘drones’) provide for observations of marine mammals. This aerial perspective has documented gray whale behavior such as jaw snapping, drooling mud, and headstands, all of which shows or suggest foraging (Torres et al. 2018). However, UAS is limited to a bird’s eye view, allowing us to see WHAT whales are doing, but limited information about the reasons WHY. To overcome this hurdle, Leigh Torres and team have equipped their marine mammal research utility belts with the use of GoPro cameras. They developed a technique known as the “GoPro drop” where a GoPro camera mounted to a weighted pole is lowered off the side of the research vessel in waters < 20 m deep via a line to record video data. This technique allows the team to obtain fine-scale habitat and prey variation information, like what the whale experiences. Along with the context provided by the UAS, this dual camera perspective allows for deeper insight into gray whale foraging strategies and efficiency. Torres’s GoPro data analysis protocol examines kelp density, kelp health, benthic substrate, rock fish density, and mysid density. These characteristics are graded along a scale (Figure 1), allowing for relative comparisons of habitat and prey availability between where whales spend time and forage. These GoPro drops will also help create a fine-scale benthic habitat map of the Newport field area. So, why are these data on gray whale habitat and prey important to understand?

Figure 1. The top row shows varying degrees of mysid density (low to high, left to right). Middle row illustrates different types of substrate you might encounter (reef, sandy, boulders; left to right). Bottom row shows the different levels of kelp health (poor, medium, good).

The foraging grounds are the first step in the life history domino chain reaction for many rorqual whales; if this step doesn’t go off cleanly then everything else fails to fall into place. Gray whales partake on a 15,000-20,000 km (round trip) migration, which is the longest of any known mammal (Swartz 1986). During this migration, whales spend around three months fasting in their breeding grounds (Highsmith & Coyle 1992), living only off the energy stores that they accumulated in their feeding grounds (Næss et al. 1998). These extreme conditions of existence for gray whales drive the need to be a successful forager and is why it is so crucial for them to forage in high prey density areas (Newell, C. 2009).

Mysids are a critical part of the gray whale diet in Oregon waters (Newell, C. 2009; Sullivan, F. 2017) and mysids have strong predator-prey relationships with both top-down and bottom-up control (Dunham & Duffus 2001; Newell & Cowles 2006). This unique tie illustrates the great dependency that gray whales have on mysids, further showing the benefit to looking at the density of mysids where gray whales are seen foraging. The quality of mysids may also be as important as quantity; with higher water temperatures resulting in lower lipid content in mysids (Mauchline 1980), suggesting density might not be the only factor for determining efficient whale foraging. The overall goal of gray whales on their foraging grounds is to get as fat as possible in order to reproduce as often as possible. But, this isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Gray whales typically have a two-year breeding interval but can be anywhere from 1-4 years (Blokhin 1984). The longer time it takes to build up adequate energy stores to support reproduction costs, the longer it will take to breed successfully. Building back up these energy stores can prove to be difficult, especially for lactating females (Figure 2).

Being able to track the health and behavior of gray whales on an individual level, including comparisons between variation in body condition, foraging behavior, and fine scale information on benthic communities gained through the use of GoPros, can provide a better understanding of the driving factors and impacts on their health and population trends (Figure 3).


Figure 3. A compilation of video clips captured by the GEMM Lab during their research on gray whale ecology and physiology off Newport, Oregon using Unoccupied Aerial Systems (UAS, or “drones”) and GoPro cameras. UAS are used to observe gray whale behavior and conduct photogrammetry assessment of body condition. GoPro camera drops assess the benthic habitat and prey density across the study region, with a couple chance encounters of whales. Research is conducted under NOAA/NMFS permit # 21678.

The five senses of fieldwork

By Leila Lemos, PhD student

 

This summer was full of emotions for me: I finally started my first fieldwork season after almost a year of classes and saw my first gray whale (love at first sight!).

During the fieldwork we use a small research vessel (we call it “Red Rocket”) along the Oregon coast to collect data for my PhD project. We are collecting gray whale fecal samples to analyze hormone variations; acoustic data to assess ambient noise changes at different locations and also variations before, during and after events like the “Halibut opener”; GoPro recordings to evaluate prey availability; photographs in order to identify each individual whale and assess body and skin condition; and video recordings through UAS (aka “drone”) flights, so we can measure the whales and classify them as skinny/fat, calf/juvenile/adult and pregnant/non-pregnant.

However, in order to collect all of these data, we need to first find the whales. This is when we use our first sense: vision. We are always looking at the horizon searching for a blow to come up and once we see it, we safely approach the animal and start watching the individual’s behavior and taking photographs.

If the animal is surfacing regularly to allow a successful drone overflight, we stay with the whale and launch the UAS in order to collect photogrammetry and behavior data.

Each team member performs different functions on the boat, as seen in the figure below.

Figure 1: UAS image showing each team members’ functions in the boat at the moment just after the UAS launch.
Figure 1: UAS image showing each team members’ functions in the boat at the moment just after the UAS launch.

 

While one member pilots the boat, another operates the UAS. Another team member is responsible for taking photos of the whales so we can match individuals with the UAS videos. And the last team member puts the calibration board of known length in the water, so that we can later calculate the exact size of each pixel at various UAS altitudes, which allows us to accurately measure whale lengths. Team members also alternate between these and other functions.

Sometimes we put the UAS in the air and no whales are at the surface, or we can’t find any. These animals only stay at the surface for a short period of time, so working with whales can be really challenging. UAS batteries only last for 15-20 minutes and we need to make the most of that time as we can. All of the members need to help the UAS pilot in finding whales, and that is when, besides vision, we need to use hearing too. The sound of the whale’s respiration (blow) can be very loud, especially when whales are closer. Once we find the whale, we give the location to the UAS pilot: “whale at 2 o’clock at 30 meters from the boat!” and the pilot finds the whale for an overflight.

The opposite – too many whales around – can also happen. While we are observing one individual or searching for it in one direction, we may hear a blow from another whale right behind us, and that’s the signal for us to look for other individuals too.

But now you might be asking yourself: “ok, I agree with vision and hearing, but what about the other three senses? Smell? Taste? Touch?” Believe it or not, this happens. Sometimes whales surface pretty close to the boat and blow. If the wind is in our direction – ARGHHHH – we smell it and even taste it (after the first time you learn to close your mouth!). Not a smell I recommend.

Fecal samples are responsible for the 5th sense: touch!

Once we identify that the whale pooped, we approach the fecal plume in order to collect as much fecal matter as possible (Fig.2).

Figure 2: A: the poop is identified; B: the boat approaches the feces that are floating at the surface (~30 seconds); C: one of the team members remains at the bow of the boat to indicate where the feces are; D: another team member collects it with a fine-mesh net. Filmed under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).
Figure 2: A: the poop is identified; B: the boat approaches the feces that are floating at the surface (~30 seconds); C: one of the team members remains at the bow of the boat to indicate where the feces are; D: another team member collects it with a fine-mesh net. Filmed under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).

 

After collecting the poop we transfer all of it from the net to a small jar that we then keep cool in an ice chest until we arrive back at the lab and put it in the freezer. So, how do we transfer the poop to the jar? By touching it! We put the jar inside the net and transfer each poop spot to the jar with the help of water pressure from a squeeze bottle full of ambient salt water.

Figure 3: Two gray whale individuals swimming around kelp forests. Filmed under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).
Figure 3: Two gray whale individuals swimming around kelp forests. Filmed under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).

 

That’s how we use our senses to study the whales, and we also use an underwater sensory system (a GoPro) to see what the whales were feeding on.

GoPro video of mysid swarms that we recorded near feeding gray whales in Port Orford in August 2016:

Our fieldwork is wrapping up this week, and I can already say that it has been a success. The challenging Oregon weather allowed us to work on 25 days: 6 days in Port Orford and 19 days in the Newport and Depoe Bay region, totaling 141 hours and 50 minutes of effort. We saw 195 whales during 97 different sightings and collected 49 fecal samples. We also performed 67 UAS flights, 34 drifter deployments (to collect acoustic data), and 34 GoPro deployments.

It is incredible to see how much data we obtained! Now starts the second part of the challenge: how to put all of this data together and find the results. My next steps are:

– photo-identification analysis;

– body and skin condition scoring of individuals;

– photogrammetry analysis;

– analysis of the GoPro videos to characterize prey;

– hormone analysis laboratory training in November at the Seattle Aquarium

 

For now, enjoy some pictures and a video we collected during the fieldwork this summer. It was hard to choose my favorite pictures from 11,061 photos and a video from 13 hours and 29 minutes of recording, but I finally did! Enjoy!

Figure 4: Gray whale breaching in Port Orford on August 27th. (Photo by Leila Lemos; Taken under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).
Figure 4: Gray whale breaching in Port Orford on August 27th. (Photo by Leila Lemos; Taken under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).

 

Figure 5: Rainbow formation through sunlight refraction on the water droplets of a gray whale individual's blow in Newport on September 15th. (Photo by Leila Lemos; Taken under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).
Figure 5: Rainbow formation through sunlight refraction on the water droplets of a gray whale individual’s blow in Newport on September 15th. (Photo by Leila Lemos; Taken under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).

 

Likely gray whale nursing behavior (Taken under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis):