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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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
By: Cathryn Wood, Lawrence University ’17, summer REU in the GEMM Lab
Greetings from Port Orford! My name is Cathryn, and I am the fourth member of the GEMM Lab’s gray whale foraging ecology research team, which includes Florence, Kelli, and the other Catherine (don’t worry, I go by Cat). Nearly 5 weeks into field season, I am still completely amazed with my first West Coast experience and doing what I’ve always dreamt of: studying marine mammals. Coming from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, this may seem slightly out of place, but my mom can attest; she read “Baby Beluga” to me every night when I was a toddler. Now a rising senior majoring in biology at Lawrence University, I’ve been focusing my coursework on aquatic and marine ecology to prepare for graduate school where I plan to specialize in marine science. Being part of this research is a very significant step for me into the field.
So how did I end up here, as part of this amazing project and dream, women-in-science team? I am interning through OSU’s Ocean Sciences REU program at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, where the GEMM Lab is located. REU stands for “Research Experience for Undergraduates”, and is an NSF-funded research internship program found in numerous universities around the country. These internships allow undergrads to conduct independent research projects under the guidance of a faculty mentor at the program’s institution. I applied to several REUs this past winter, and was one of 12 undergrads accepted for the program at HMSC. Each of us is paired with different faculty members to work on various projects that cover a diverse range of topics in the marine sciences; everything from estuarine ecology, to bioacoustics. I was ecstatic to learn that I had been paired with Dr. Torres as my faculty mentor to work on Florence’s gray whale project, which had been my first choice during the application process.
My particular research this summer is going to complement Florence’s master’s thesis work by asking new questions regarding the foraging data. While her project focuses on the behavioral states of foraging whales, I will be looking at the whale tracks to see if there are patterns in their foraging behavior found at the individual level. Traditionally, ecological studies have accepted classical niche theory, treating all individuals within a population as ecological equivalents with the same niche width. Any variances present among individuals are often disregarded as having an insignificant consequence on the population dynamics as a whole, but this simplification can overlook the true complexity of that population . The presence of niche variation among conspecifics is known to occur in at least 93 species across a diverse array of taxa, so the concept of individual specialization, and how it can affect ecological processes is gaining recognition progressively in the field (Bolnick et al., 2003). My goal is to determine whether or not the gray whales in this study, and presumably others in the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG), exhibit individual specialization in their foraging strategies . There are many ways in which individuals can specialize in foraging, but I will be specifically determining if fine scale spatial patterns in the location of foraging bouts exists, regardless of time.
To address my question, I am using the whale tracking data from both 2015 and 2016, and learning to use some very important software in the spatial ecology world along the way through a method that Dr. Torres introduced to me. Starting in ArcGIS, I generate a kernel density layer of a raw track (Fig. 1 ), which describes the relative distribution of where the tracked whale spent time (Fig. 2 ). Next, using the isopleth function in the software Geospatial Modelling Environment, I generate a 50% density contour line that distinguishes where the whale spent at least 50% of its time during the track (Fig. 3 ). Under the assumption that foraging took place in these high density areas, we use these 50% contour lines to describe foraging bout locations. I now go back to ArcGIS to make centroids within each 50% line, which mark the exact foraging bout locations (Fig. 4 ).
These centroids will be determined for every track by an individual whale, and then compared relative to foraging locations of all tracked whales to determine if the individual is foraging in different locations than the population. Then, the tracks of individuals who repeatedly visit the site at least three times will be compared with one another to determine if the repeat whales show spatial and/or temporal patterns in their foraging bout locations, and if specialization at a fine scale is occurring in this population. If you did not quite follow all those methods, no worries, it was a lot for me to take in at first too. I’ve finally gotten the hang of it though, and am grateful to now have these skills going into grad school.
Because I am interested in behavioral ecology and the concept of individuality in animal populations, I am extremely excited to see how this research plays out. Results could be very eye-opening into the fine scale foraging specialization of the PCFG sub-population because they already demonstrate diet specialization on mysid (as opposed to their counterparts in the Bering Sea who feed on benthic organisms) and large scale individual residency patterns along the Pacific Northwest (Newell, 2009; Calambokidis et al., 2012). Most significantly, understanding how individuals vary in their feeding strategies could have very important implications for future conservation measures for the whales, especially during this crucial foraging season where they replenish their energy reserves. Management efforts geared for an “average population” of gray whales could ultimately be ineffective if in fact individuals vary from one another in their foraging strategies. Taking into account the ways in which variation occurs amongst individuals is therefore crucial knowledge for successful conservation approaches.
My project is unique from those of the other REUs because I am simultaneously in the midst of assisting in field season number two of Florence’s project. While most of the other interns are back at Hatfield spending their days in the lab and doing data analyses like a 9-5 job, I am with the team down in Port Orford for field season. This means we’re out doing research every dawn as weather allows. Though I may never have an early bird bone in my body, the sleepy mornings are totally worth it because ecology field work is my favorite part of research. To read more about our methods in the field, check out Florence’s post.
Since Catherine’s last update, we’ve had an eventful week. To our dismay, Downrigger Debacle 2.0 occurred. (To read about the first one, see Kelli’s post). This time it was not the line – our new line has been great. It was a little wire that connected the downrigger line to the pipe that the GoPro and TDR are connected to. It somehow snapped due to what I presume was stress from the currents. Again, it was Catherine and I in the kayak, with a very successful morning on the water coming to a close when it happened. Again, I was in the bow, and she was in the stern deploying the equipment – very déjà vu. When she reeled in an equipment-less line, we at first didn’t know how to break it to Florence and Kelli who were up on the cliff that day. Eventually, Catherine radioed “Brace yourselves…” and we told them the bad news. Once again, they both were very level-headed, methodical, and un-blaming in the moments to follow. We put together the same rescue dive team as last time, and less than a week later, they set off on the mission using the GPS coordinates I had marked while in the kayak. Apparently, between the dredging taking place in the harbor and the phytoplankton bloom, visibility was only about 2 feet during the dive, but they still recovered the equipment, with nothing but baked goods and profuse thanks as payment. We are very grateful for another successful recovery, and are confident that our new attachment mechanism for the downrigger will not require a third rescue mission (Fig. 6-8). Losing the equipment twice now has taught us some very important things about field work. For one, no matter how sound you assume your equipment to be, it is necessary to inspect it for weak points frequently – especially when salt water and currents are in the picture. Perhaps even more importantly, we’ve gotten to practice our problem solving skills and see firsthand how necessary it is to act efficiently and calmly when something goes wrong. In ecological field research you have to be prepared for anything.
In other news, unlike our slow-whale days during the first two weeks of the project, we have recently had whales to track nearly every day from the cliff! In fact, the same, small, most likely juvenile, whale pictured in Catherine’s last post has returned several times, and we’ve nicknamed her “Buttons” due to two distinguishing white spots on her tail peduncle near the fluke. Though we tend to refer to Buttons as “her”, we cannot actually tell what the sex is definitively…until now. Remember in Catherine’s post when she described how Buttons defecated a lot, and how our team if, given the opportunity, is supposed to collect the feces when we’re out in the kayak for Leila’s project? Everything from hormone levels to reproductive status to, yes, sex, is held in that poop! Well, Miss (or Mr.) Buttons was in Tichenor Cove today, and to our delight, she performed well in the defecation department once again. Florence and I were on cliff duty tracking her and Kelli and Catherine were in Tichenor on the kayak when we first noticed the defecation. I then radioed down to the kayak team to stop what they were doing and paddle quickly to go collect it before it sank (Fig. 9). Even in these situations, it is important to stay beyond 100 yards of the animal, as required by the MMPA. Florence and I cheered them on and our ladies did indeed get the poop sample, without disturbing the whale (Fig. 10). It was a sight to behold.
We were able to track Buttons for the remainder of our time on the cliff, and were extremely content with the day’s work as we packed all the gear up later in the afternoon. Right before we were about to leave, however, Buttons had one more big treat for us. As we looked to the harbor before starting the trek back to the truck, we paused briefly after noticing a large, white splash in the middle of the harbor, not far from the dock. We paused for a second and thought “No, it can’t be, was that —?” and then we see it again and unanimously yelled “BREACH!” Buttons breached about five times on her way back to Tichenor Cove from where she had been foraging in Mill Rocks. It is rare to see a gray whale breach, so this was really special. Florence managed to capture one of the breaches on video:
At first I thought a big ole humpback had arrived, but nope, it was our Buttons! I am in awe of this little whale, and am forever-grateful to be in the presence of these kinds of moments. She’s definitely made her splash here in Port Orford. I think our team has started to as well.
Bolnick, D. I., Svanback, R., Fordyce, J. A., Yang, L. H., Davis, J. M., Hulsey, C. D., & Forrister, M. L. (2003). Ecology of Individuals: Incidence and Implications of Individual Specialization. The American Naturalist, 161(1), 28.
Calambokidis, J., Laake, J. L., & Klimek, A. (2012). Updated analysis of abundance and population structure of seasonal gray whales in the Pacific Northwest, 1998-2010 (Vol. 2010).
Newell, C. (2009). Ecological Interrelationships Between Summer Resident Gray Whales (Eschrichtius robustus) and Their Prey, Mysid Shrimp (Holmesimysis sculpta and Neomysis rayi) along the Central Oregon Coast.
By: Catherine Lo, Research Intern, Oregon State University ‘16
Hello everyone! My name is Catherine Lo and I am a recent graduate from Oregon State University with a Bachelor’s of Science in Biology with a focus in Marine Biology. It has been an incredible whirlwind leading up to this point: long nights studying for finals, completing my degree, and planning the next steps for my future. I am fortunate to be working as a summer research intern for the GEMM Lab under the supervision of Dr. Leigh Torres and Msc. student Florence Sullivan in their research on the foraging ecology of gray whales. I have dreamed of working with marine mammals, potentially as a research veterinarian and so, capturing this position has been a great opportunity to begin my career.
The days go slow, but the weeks go fast. It’s already week 4 of our field season and the team and I are definitely in the groove of our research. The alarm(s) goes off at 5:00 AM…okay maybe closer to 5:30 AM (oops!), getting dressed for either the kayak or cliff based work, scarfing down breakfast that is usually a diet consisting of toast and peanut butter, and then heading off to the beach to launch the kayak. But this week it was different. A dredging event in Port Orford coordinated by the US Army Corps of Engineers is now taking place right next to the port’s jetty near our study site (Figure 1). This is an important process to move the sediment built up during the year in order for ships to safely navigate in and out of the port. We knew this was going to happen at some point over the summer, and worried that it might impact our research methods and objectives, but at the same time it offers some new opportunities: the chance to see how our GoPro and mysid sampling methods in Tichenor Cove are impacted by the sediment flow from the dredging activities.
My teammate Kelli and I were stationed on the cliff during the first deposit of sediment after the dredge’s first night and morning’s worth of scooping sand. None of us knew where the actual deposit site would be so we kept a good eye on it. The ship headed past the jetty. Turned around and, as a concerned feeling mustered within our field team, it began lowering the platform holding the sand just 250 yards away from our primary study site in Tichenor Cove! At this point, we knew things were going to be different in our samples. Unfortunately along with the sediment stirring up from dredging, we think a phytoplankton bloom is occurring simultaneously. Our GoPro footage lately has been rather clouded making it difficult to identify any mysid relative to our past footage. You can compare Figure 2 to the GoPro image found in Figure 2 of a previous post. It is times like these that we learn how dynamic the ocean is, how human activity can alter the ocean ecosystem, and how to adapt to changes, whether these adaptations are within our reach or not. We are interested to see how our sample sites will change again over time as the dredging operation finishes and the phytoplankton bloom ends.
Aside from the current water clarity situation, we’ve also had some exciting moments! Given how few whales we’ve seen thus far and how the ones we have tracked are predominately hanging by Mill Rocks, which is ~1km east of Tichenor Cove, Dr. Leigh Torres—our head advisor—thought it would be a good idea to check out the mysid scene over there to see what the attraction was. So, we sent our kayak team over there to conduct a few GoPro drops and zooplankton net tows and figure out what is so enticing for the whales.
While conducting this sampling work at Mill Rocks, I and my teammate were lucky enough to encounter a gray whale foraging. And believe me, we were going “off-the-walls” as soon as we heard from the cliff team and saw a blow as the whale surfaced nearby. It was one of those “best time of my life” moments where my dreams of kayaking this close to a whale came true. We fumbled around for our waterproof camera to get clear shots of its lateral flanks for photo identification while also trying to contain our excitement to a more decent level, and at the same time we had to make sure we were not in the whale’s path. There it was; surface after surface, we admired the immense size and beauty of a wild animal before our eyes. The worst part of it was when our camera battery died not long after taking a few pictures, but in a way it gave us a chance to really appreciate the existence of these animals. Note to self during research: always check your batteries are fully charged before heading out!
It baffles me how so often people walk along beaches or drive by without knowing an animal as incredible as this whale is just outside of the shoreline. Every time I’m inside pulling out time stamps or doing photo identification, I always think, “I wonder if there’s a whale in Tichenor Cove or at Mill Rocks right now…Yeah, there probably is one”. Alas, the data management work needs to be done and there’s always the next day for an opportunity of a sighting.
For a few days, our kayak team wasn’t able to work due to a small craft advisory. If you’ve ever been to Port Orford, you’d understand the severity of how windy it gets here. Ranging between 15 knots to 25 knots as early as 7am, so it gets rather difficult to maintain position at each of our sampling stations in our kayak. Fortunately our cliff team was able to set out. We were lucky to see a small whale foraging inside Tichenor Cove and later move onto Mill Rocks. This little one was giving us quite a show! Almost every time it came to the surface, defecation was observed shortly after. As unpleasant as feces might be, it can actually provide an abundance of information about a specific whale including sex, reproductive status, hormone levels, and much more. While doing our research, we are always keeping an eye out for signs of defecation in order to collect samples for another lab member’s PhD work. Here you can check out more information about Leila’s research. Figure 3 depicts a great image of defecation captured by our cliff team.
In addition to helping out Leila’s work, we recently began a collaboration with Aaron Galloway from The Oregon Institute of Marine Biology (OIMB). Aaron and his post-doc are looking at the fatty acid composition of mysid as an approach to eventually infer the diet of an aquatic animal. Check out his website which is linked to his name to learn more about the basis of his approach! While we collect mysid samples for them, in return they give us substantial information about the energy content of the mysid. This information on the energetic content of mysid will help the GEMM Lab answer questions about how much mysid gray whales need to eat.
Oregon State University and University of Oregon have a long-standing, intense rivalry. However, as an Alumna from Oregon State, I am amazed and thrilled to see how these two institutions can come together and collaborate. I mean, we’re all here for the same thing. Science, right? It creates the opportunity to apply integrative research by taking advantage of various expertise and resources. If we have those chances to reach out to others, why not make the most of it? In the end, sound science is what really matters, not rooting for the ducks or beavers.
My marine science background is based on my experiences looking at tidepools and hopping around on rocks to understand how vast intertidal communities range from invertebrates to algae. These experiences were an incredible part of my life, but now I look at the ocean unsure of what animals or environmental situations I might encounter. That’s what makes it so attractive. Don’t get me wrong. The intertidal will always hold a special place in my heart, but the endless possibilities of being a part of this marine mammal research team is priceless. I have learned so much about myself including my strengths and weaknesses. Living in Port Orford, which is a small coastal town with just a little over 1,000 people gives you a new perspective. The community has been very welcoming and I have appreciated how so much interest is placed on the kind of work we do. As I eat my nightly bowl of ice cream, I think about how, from here on out, the good and the bad can only bring a lifetime of skills and memories.
“Violent” and “greedy” are words often used to describe gulls in populous areas where food or trash are readily available. Humans are used to seeing gulls in parking lots, parks, and plazas eating left over crumbs. Many people have even experienced menacing gulls ripping food away from their hands. Anecdotes like these have caused people to have negative perceptions of gulls. But could the repulsive attitude towards these birds be changed with evidence that not all gulls are the same? Well, Oregon may be home to an odd bunch.
Last year, the Seabird Oceanography Lab in conjunction with the GEMM Lab began putting GPS trackers on western gulls (Laurus occidentalis) off the Oregon Coast. One of the goals was to determine where gulls scavenge for food while raising chicks: at sea or on land in association with humans. We were particularly interested to see if western gulls in Oregon would behave similarly to western gulls in California, some of which make trips to the nearest landfill during the breeding season to bring not only food but also potentially harmful pathogens back to the colony.
During the 2015 breeding season, 10 commercially brand ‘i-gotU’ GPS data loggers were placed on gulls from ‘Cleft-in-the-Rock’ colony in Yachats, Oregon. The tags provided GPS locations at intervals of two minutes that determined the general habitat use areas (marine vs. terrestrial). After a two-week period, we were able to recapture six birds, remove tags, and download the data. We found that these western gulls stayed close to the colony and foraged in nearby intertidal and marine zones (Figure 1). Birds showed high site faithfulness by visiting the same foraging spots away from colony. It was interesting to see that inland habitat use did not extend past 1.3 miles from shore and the only waste facility within such boundaries did not attract any birds (Figure 1). Tagged birds never crossed the 101 Highway, but rather occurred at beaches in state parks such as Neptune and Yachats Ocean Road.
While it is hard to determine whether gulls avoided anthropogenic sources of food at the beach, preliminary analysis shows a high percentage of time spent in marine and intertidal habitat zones by half of the individuals (Figure 2). At a first glance, this is not as much as it seemed on the tracking map (Figure 1), but it nonetheless confirms that these gulls seek food in natural areas. Moreover, time spent at the colony is represented as time spent on coastal habitat on the graph, and thus “coastal” foraging values are over represented. To get a more exact estimate of coastal habitat use, future analysis will have to exclude colony locations and distinguish foraging versus resting behaviors.
‘Cleft-in-the-Rock’ is unique and its surroundings may explain why there was high foraging in intertidal and marine zones rather than within city limits. (The Cleft colony can also be tricky to get to, with a close eye on the tide at all times – See video below). The colony site is close to the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area and surrounded by recently established conservation zones: the Cape Perpetua Marine Reserve Area, Marine Protected Area, and Seabird Protected Area (Figure 1). Each of these areas has different regulatory rules on what is allowed to take, which you can read about here. The implication of these protected areas in place means there is more food for wildlife! Moreover, the city of Yachats has a small population of 703 inhabitants (based on 2013 U.S Census Bureau). The small population allows the city to be relatively clean, and the waste facility is not spewing rotten odors into the air like in many big cities such as Santa Cruz (population of 62,864) where our collaborative gull study takes place. Thus, in Yachats, there is more limited odor or visual incentive to attract birds to landfills.
Field crew descends headland slope to reach ‘Cleft-in-the-Rock’ gull island in Yachats, OR (colony can be seen in distance across the water). The team must wear wetsuits and carry equipment in dry bags for protection during water crossing.
In order to determine whether gull habitat use in Yachats is a trend for all western gulls in Oregon, we need to track birds at more sites and for a longer time. That is why during the breeding season of 2016, we will be placing 30 new tags on gulls and include a new colony into the study, ‘Hunters Island’. The new colony is situated near the Pistol River, between Gold Beach and Brookings in southern Oregon, and it is part of the Oregon Islands Wildlife Refuge.
We will have 10 ‘i-gotU’ tags (Figure 3) and 20 CATS tags (Figure 4), the latter are solar powered and can collect data for several weeks, months, and hopefully even years! These tags do not need to be retrieved for data download; rather data can be accessed remotely, providing minimal disturbance to the gulls and colony. With long-term data, we can explore further into the important feeding areas for western gulls, examine rates of foraging in different habitats, and determine how extensive intertidal and marine foraging is throughout the year.
We are excited to kick start our field season in the next couple of weeks and see how well the new tags work. We know that some questions will be solved and many new questions will arise; and we cannot wait to start this gull-filled adventure!
Osterback, A.M., Frechette, D., Hayes, S., Shaffer, S., & Moore, J. (2015). Long-term shifts in anthropogenic subsidies to gulls and implications for an imperiled fish. Biological Conservation, 191: 606–613.
By Olivia Hamilton, PhD Candidate, University of Auckland, New Zealand.
The week leading up to my departure from New Zealand was an emotional rollercoaster. Excited, nervous, eager, reluctant… I did not feel like the fearless adventurer that I thought I was. D-day arrived and I said my final goodbyes to my boyfriend and mother at the departure gate. Off I went on my three-month research stint at the Hatfield Marine Science Center.
Some thirty hours later I touched down in Portland. I collected my bags and headed towards the public transport area at the airport. A young man greeted me, “Would you like to catch a taxi or a shuttle, ma’am?” “A taxi please! I have no idea where I am”, I responded. He nodded and smiled. I could see the confusion all over his face… My thick kiwi accent was going to make for some challenging conversations.
After a few days in Portland acclimatizing to the different way of life in Oregon, it was time to push on to Newport. I hit a stroke of luck and was able take the scenic route with one of the girls in the GEMM lab, Rachael Orben. With only one wrong turn we made it to the Oregon coast. I was instantly hit with a sense of familiarity. The rugged coastline and temperate coastal forest resembled that of the west coast of New Zealand. However, America was not shy in reminding me of where I was with its big cars, drive-through everything, and RVs larger than some small kiwi houses.
We arrived at Hatfield Marine Science Center: the place I was to call home for the next quarter of a year.
So, what am I doing here?
In short, I have come to do computer work on the other side of the world.
Dr. Leigh Torres is on my PhD committee and I am lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to come to Newport and analyze my data under her guidance.
My PhD has a broad interest in the spatial ecology of mega-fauna in the Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand. For my study, megafauna includes whales, dolphins, sharks, rays, and seabirds. The Hauraki Gulf is adjacent to Auckland, New Zealand’s most populated city and home to one of our largest commercial ports. The Hauraki Gulf is a highly productive area, providing an ideal habitat for a number of fish species, thus supporting a number of top marine predators. As with many coastal areas, anthropogenic activities have degraded the health of the Gulf’s ecosystem. Commercial and recreational fishing, run-off from surrounding urban and rural land, boat traffic, pollution, dredging, and aquaculture are some of the main activities that threaten the Gulf and the species that inhabit it. For instance, the Nationally Endangered Bryde’s whale is a year-round resident in the Hauraki Gulf and these whales spend much of their time close to the surface, making them highly vulnerable to injury or death from ship-strikes. In spite of these threats, the Gulf supports a number of top marine predators. Therefore it is important that we uncover how these top predators are using the Gulf, in both space and time, to identify ecologically important parts of their habitat. Moreover, this study presents a unique opportunity to look at the relationships between top marine predators and their prey inhabiting a common area.
To collect the data needed to understand the spatial ecology of these megafauna, we conducted 22 aerial surveys over a year-long period along pre-determined track lines within the Hauraki Gulf. On each flight we had four observers that collected sightings data for cetaceans, sharks, predatory fish, prey balls, plankton, and other rare species such as manta ray. An experienced seabird observer joined us approximately once a month to identify seabirds. We collected environmental data for each sighting including Beaufort Sea State, glare, and water color.
The summary of our sightings show that common dolphins were indeed common, being the most frequent species we observed. The most frequently encountered sharks were bronze whalers, smooth hammerhead sharks, and blue sharks. Sightings of Bryde’s whales were lower than we had hoped, most likely an artifact of our survey design relative to their distribution patterns. In addition, we counted a cumulative total of 11,172 individual seabirds representing 16 species.
Summary of sightings of megafauna in the Hauraki Gulf.
My goal while here at OSU is to develop habitat models for the megafauna species to compare the drivers of their distribution patterns. But, at the moment I am in the less glamorous, but highly important, data processing and decision-making stage. I am grappling with questions like: What environmental variables affected our ability to detect which species on surveys? How do we account for this? Can we clump species that are functionally similar to increase our sample size? These questions are important to address in order to produce reliable results that reflect the megafauna species true distribution patterns.
Once these questions are addressed, we can get on to the fun stuff – the habitat modeling and interpretation of the results. I will hopefully be able to start addressing these questions soon: What environmental and biological variables are important predictors of habitat use for different taxa? Are there interactions (attraction or repulsion) between these top predators? What is driving these patterns? Predator avoidance? Competition? So many questions to ask! I am looking forward to answering these questions and reporting back.
Hello from Hatfield Marine Science Center! This is Justin bringing you the latest and greatest in Gray Whale news. But first, let me fill you folks in with some info about me. I am an undergraduate student, transitioning into my senior year, with Oregon State University’s Fisheries and Wildlife Department. In addition to my major, I am also minoring in statistics; crazy right? I have hopes and dreams of working in Marine Ecology, and I believe working on this Gray Whale project is a fine start! Which means, this summer, I have had the fortunate opportunity to work alongside the lovely Florence van Tulder, the mastermind behind the project, as well as Cricket and Sarah, the other two charismatic interns.
As we were wrapping up our two week stint in Port Orford, We observed the Gray Whales exhibiting some interesting behavior; they seemed to move from kelp patch to kelp patch, almost as if they were searching for something. What could be hiding under the luscious stands of Nereocystis luetkeana, otherwise known as bull kelp? Well, with the presence of defecation ( whale droppings) left behind from diving whales near many of the floating kelp patches, one culprit came to mind- mysid shrimp. Mysid shrimp are believed to be a primary prey source of the Gray whales.
Naturally, my curiosity got the best me and I ended up spending hours on end conducting literature searches and looking for bathymetry maps, thanks to Florence. All joking aside, I asked Florence if we could use our fancy Theodolite to assess or roughly map the distribution of the kelp patches. We would create polygonal shapes of the kelp on a map and observe how the whales move with respect to the kelp. The idea being, to get a better of picture of the relationship between the whales and the kelp, if any relationship exists at all. It is still a work in progress, due to our survey sites getting all kinds of “fogged” up. When the kinks are worked out and we have some useful visual data, we will post an awesome photo.
Port Orford didn’t just bring us sweet whales, it brought the heat! Temperatures were up to almost the nineties the last week in July! We beat the heat with plenty of hydration and sun block and the predicable wind patterns became a savior on those sweltering days giving us temporary relief. The heat seemed to tease out other critters as well. We saw a variety of birds, from turkey vultures, Peregrine Falcons, Ospreys, Bald Eagles, and even Egrets! In the water we saw baby Harbor seals, and some bonus River Otters.
In more recent news, August 8th marked our first full month of surveying between our two whale hotspots. However, the term “hotspot” doesn’t always seem to be fitting. This past week has been a tough one for the team and I up in Boiler Bay due to less than optimal weather conditions and our survey site has been exposed to an abnormal cycle of fog. Our friendly “neighborhood” grays have been a bit sparse, and yet, we have had Humpback Whales grace us with their presence and these whales have been spotted during several survey days this week! ( In the tradition of opportunistic data, we even tracked one of them.)
This summer has been very fun because not only do we get to watch whales every day, but when we are in Boiler Bay, we have the opportunity to meet fascinating people from all over the world! The positive support for the project coming from the community is quite a nice touch to our days in the field. If you are ever in the neighborhood, stop by and say hello, maybe share a whale’s tale or two!
Hello there! Florence here, signing in from Newport. We had a fantastic trip south to Port Orford, and tracked another 53 whales bringing our season total up to 117 so far! This morning, we were back out at Boiler Bay and spent 5 hours staring at empty water – in keeping with the theme of this post, field work does not always go as planned.
Our two study areas couldn’t be more different. At the Boiler Bay State Wayside, we are approximately 18 meters off the water. In Port Orford, we are perched on the side of a 63 meter tall cliff. This extra height greatly increases our range and accuracy as well as changing the angle of our photography and the type of photo analysis we can do. We’re quite excited to have a top down view of our whales, because the photos we are capturing will allow us to use certain photogrammetry techniques to measure the length and girth of the individuals. With luck, when we compare the photos from the beginning of the season (now) to the end of our study (September) we may be able to see a change in the height of the post-cranial fat deposit, which would indicate a successful foraging season. Gray whales do not eat from the beginning of their southward migration, through the breeding and calving season, until they reach productive foraging grounds at the end of their northward migration. This means that all their sustenance for 6+ months is derived from their summer foraging success. Did you know that they even generate their own water through an oxidation reaction which creates ‘metabolic water’ from their blubber stores? So it will be rather fantastic if we manage to measure the change in whale body condition over the course of the summer – particularly if we are able to spot any mother-calf pairs who will have had an especially grueling journey north.
So, while our photo database is advancing nicely, technical difficulties are to be expected when you’re in the field, and sometimes, troubleshooting takes longer than you would like it to. This evening, let me introduce you to the elusive species known as ‘the Chinese land whale.’ It is a very rare breed which spontaneously generates itself from misaligned computer files.
When the theodolite beeps as we ‘mark’ a whale, a pair of horizontal and vertical angles are getting sent from the machine to a program called ‘Pythagoras’ on the laptop. Given our starting coordinates and a few other variables, the program auto-calculates for us the latitude and longitude of that whale. While we hoped it would be a simple matter to upload these coordinates to Google Earth to visualize the tracklines, it turns out that Pythagoras stores the East/West hemisphere information in a separate column, so if we just plot the raw numbers, our whale tracks end up in the middle of a field in rural China! Hence, the rare ‘Chinese land whale’. Now that we know the trick, it is not so difficult to fix, but we were quite surprised the first time it happened!
Of course, that is not the only thing that has gone wrong with visualizing the tracklines. When we first got to Graveyard Point survey site, it turns out that we had set our azimuth (our reference angle) the wrong direction from true north, so all our whales seemed to be foraging near the fish and chips restaurant in the middle of town.
After discovering that in order to rotate something 180degrees, you simply need to alter the azimuth angle by 90degrees, (we’re still not sure why this is working), the whales left the fish and chips to us and returned to the harbor. Anyways, now that we’ve figured out these glitches, we can focus on identifying individual whales, and figuring out which track-lines might be repeat visitors.
In other outreach news, the OSU media department came out to the field and interviewed us a few weeks ago (on a day that the theodolite and computer were refusing to talk to each other due to a faulty connector cable – which is always delightful when one is trying to showcase research in progress). The resulting article has been posted should you wish to take a look:
Greetings fellow marine enthusiasts! My name is Cricket, and I am one of the interns working on Florence’s Gray Whale project! I’m preparing to graduate from Oregon State University in a couple of months with a Bachelors of Science in Biology with the marine option. Before I graduate, I wanted to get some extra experience in the field this summer, which is how I ended up here with Florence, Justin, and Sarah, having surprisingly crazy whale adventures along the Oregon coast!
Today marks the end of our first week in Port Orford. We weren’t sure what we were going to get when we switched sites, though of course we had a few fears: No whales, low visibility, bad weather, etc. Depoe Bay had been good to us so far, and we were slightly worried about the transition. In actuality, Port Orford has been amazing!
Day one was foggy, and we only visited the site briefly to figure out a good location for the theodolite. One of our sites is located on a terrifyingly high cliff, but the view is stellar. We were only there for about an hour and we saw two whales, one of which came up into the cove just beneath us. In fact, one of our concerns with this site is that the whales actually get too close to view through the theodolite. What an unexpected problem to have!
From our vantage point, we can get some incredible photos of these whales. Photo identification is a breeze if the whale decides to come into the cove closest to us. We can watch them under the water, as opposed to in Depoe Bay where we could only really observe them when they surface.
We all get particularly excited when we see the same whale more than once. In Depoe Bay, we had at least four different whales appear on multiple days. We can verify this using the photos we manage to get of the whales, and comparing them between days.
For example, in Port Orford, we spotted a whale on the 20th with a particularly large white spot on the fluke. This spot made the whale easily identifiable, so we were able to get a good focal follow (because we could track this whale amongst other whales with confidence that we were tracking the same one the entire time), which in turn allowed us to create a track line of this whale’s dive patterns. This whale happened to be whale sixty (the 60th whale we’ve seen since the start of our data collection).
Then, days later, we spotted another whale. This was whale 78, and after a few surfaces, we realized this whale had the same white spot! We hesitantly referred to this whale as “sixty” but couldn’t be sure until we compared photos from the days before. And sure enough, it was!
I am particularly enthusiastic about our whale resights, and actively enjoy going through the photos and comparing each one to previous whales to try and identify individuals. It’s tedious, but rewarding when we can begin to learn individuals and identify them in the field. As a sort of rough guide to help us when scrounging through photo ID, I’ve put some of our good comparative photos into a google doc to use as reference. Here’s an example of some of the repeat whales we’ve seen:
Tomorrow will be day two at our second Port Orford site. Today was day one, and we managed to spot two whales, which is definitely promising. We hope we have as much luck finding and tracking whales there as we did on our cliffside!
Hello and greetings from the sort of sunny Oregon Coast! Sarah reporting in to offer an update on Florence’s Gray Whale study now that we’re about ten days into sampling. If you’re new to our blog you can read up on the preliminary field season right here.
Before I get to the project though, let me introduce myself a bit further. As I said, my name’s Sarah – one of the three interns on our whale surveying team. I got my Bachelor of Science in Oceanography at the University of Washington a few years back and have since worked as a lab tech at UW’s Friday Harbor Labs and as an Americorps volunteer serving as a teacher’s aide. Eventually I plan to become a science teacher, but thought a little more field work this summer would be a nice break after two years of service.
Thus, I moved to Newport last week just in time to catch the first day of our main surveying season. And what a season it’s been. We’ve tracked 48 whales since I’ve arrived, averaging about six a day. Of course, those aren’t all 48 different whales. If we lose sight of a whale for longer than 20 minutes, we assume it has left our study area and pronounce it lost, and unless we can identify the next sighting as the same whale based on markings (which we’re getting pretty good at), we give it a new number to keep track. We also give whales we’ve already seen new numbers when we see them on a different day.
You might be wondering how we can tell gray whales apart when they’re mostly, well, gray and underwater. And the short answer is we have a pretty difficult time doing so at first sight. Gray whales aren’t like orcas, whose saddle patch just behind the dorsal fin serves as a fingerprint, nor are they humpbacks, whose patterned flukes are cataloged for easy matching. Gray whales have more of a dorsal hump than a fin, followed by five or six ridges we call knuckles. They aren’t famous for showing their flukes above water either, so unless you get several views of a particular whale’s sides, dorsal, and, if you’re lucky, fluke, it’s hard to have a positive ID for the whale. The good news is, that part of our sampling equipment is a camera with a massive zoom lens, so we can take photos of most of the whales we track with the theodolite (see the previous post to learn about theodolites). From those photos (at least 400 a day) we can look at scars from barnacles and killer whales, pigmentation spots that are part of the whales’ coloring, and parasites like barnacles and amphipods to recognize whales we’ve seen before. Eventually we’ll send all the photos we take to the Cascadia Research Group in Olympia, Washington, that keeps a database of all identified gray whales.
Anyways, thanks for keeping with me to the bottom of the page. It’s been a fun first week-or-so and I’m excited to be heading to our second study site in Port Orford tomorrow after surveying. We’ll be there for 15 days, so next time you hear from us, we’ll be a bit further down the coast.
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.
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.
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.
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)?
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.
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!