Coming full circle

By Rachel Kaplan, PhD student, OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Returning to a place you once lived always shows how much you and the world around you have changed, offering a new perspective on the time away and where you are now. I’m writing this from my old office at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Maine, where I worked before moving out to Oregon to join the GEMM Lab and start graduate school at OSU. Being back in Maine has made me reflect on how much I’ve learned over the last year, and given me the opportunity to think about what’s ahead.

As a science communications specialist at Bigelow for three years, much of my work involved quickly getting up to speed on new research and writing articles for a general audience about important ocean processes. My first year of grad school has both deepened and broadened my perspective on the ocean, prodding me to think at telescoping temporal and spatial scales. I can tell that I think about the ocean differently now.

In 2019, writing this feature-length article about impacts of changing climate on North Atlantic right whales and their prey was my first introduction to research using environmental models to help mitigate entanglement issues. Now, I’m excited to be pursuing research with these themes as part of the GEMM Lab’s Project OPAL.

Over the last year, my coursework in ocean ecology and biogeochemistry surveyed the physical and chemical workings of the ocean, marine ecosystem dynamics, and the global cycles that control much of life on earth. Through lab activities and fieldwork, I began learning about whales and the marine system off the coast of Oregon, and how to ask questions that occupy the intersection between whales and their environment.

This work and learning have made me think in a new way about whales as agents of biogeochemical cycling: how do they shuttle nutrients across large distances and affect global cycles? In what ways is the biogeography of whales an expression of the global patterns of light availability and nutrient fluxes that support their prey? How is it possible to detangle and encapsulate all of the relevant variability of a natural system into a mathematical model?

All these questions were churning in my mind at the start of this trip, as I spent the bus ride from Boston to Maine reading papers for our monthly GEMM lab meeting. I also remembered the first meeting that I joined, when I was so intimidated that I couldn’t imagine discussing research with this impressive group. This time, I was just as in awe as ever of the lab, but a bit more confident in wielding acronyms and sharing ideas.

I actually attended my first GEMM Lab meeting while still working in Maine, in July 2020. I was joined by my friends’ one-year-old daughter, who alternately tried to chime in on the meeting and shut my laptop. Now, she is a chatty two-year-old kid and newly a big sister. The new baby became part of my PhD this week too, snoozing in my lap as I edited an abstract.

Only 16 days old and already helping write an abstract!

Often, it’s only seeing my friends’ children grow that shows me how much time has passed. This time, I can feel it in myself, as well. I’m excited to have made it through the first year of coursework and to be learning to formulate research questions and think about ocean systems in new ways. I’m happy to be back in this place that inspired me to pursue a PhD, and to be able to share my own work and knowledge with former colleagues.

I gained so much during my time here at Bigelow: the communication and outreach skills in my job, inspiration from the scientific curiosity and passion of my colleagues, and the support of all these people who reassured me that I would get into grad school and that doing a PhD is a good idea. I’m so happy to be able to carry this support and momentum forward with me through the rest of grad school, and excited to return to Oregon and keep going.

Where will the whales be? Ecological forecast models present new tools for conservation

By Dawn Barlow, PhD Candidate, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Dynamic forecast models predict environmental conditions and blue whale distribution up to three weeks into the future, with applications for spatial management. Founded on a robust understanding of ecological links and lags, a recent study by Barlow & Torres presents new tools for proactive conservation.

The ocean is dynamic. Resources are patchy, and animals move in response to the shifting and fluid marine environment. Therefore, protected areas bounded by rigid lines may not always be the most effective way to conserve marine biodiversity. If the animals we wish to protect are not within protected area boundaries, then ocean users pay a price without the conservation benefit. Management that is adaptive to current conditions may more effectively match the dynamic nature of the species and places of concern, but this approach is only feasible if we have the relevant ecological knowledge to implement it.

The South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand is home to a foraging ground for a unique population of blue whales that are genetically distinct and present year-round. The area also sustains New Zealand’s most industrial marine region, including active petroleum exploration and extraction, and vessel traffic between ports.

To minimize overlap between blue whale habitat and human use of the area, we develop and test forecasts of oceanographic conditions and blue whale habitat. These tools enable managers to make decisions with up to three weeks lead time in order to minimize potential overlap between blue whales and other ocean users.

Overlap between blue whale habitat and industry presence in the South Taranaki Bight region. A blue whale surfaces in front of a floating production storage and offloading (FPSO) vessel, servicing the oil rigs in the area. Photo by Dawn Barlow.

Predicting the future

Knowing where animals were yesterday may not create effective management boundaries for tomorrow. Like the weather, our expectation of when and where to find species may be based on long-term averages of previous patterns, real-time descriptions based on recent data, and forecasts that predict the future using current conditions. Forecasts allow us to plan ahead and make informed decisions needed to produce effective management strategies for dynamic systems.

Just as weather forecasts help us make decisions about whether to wear a raincoat or pack sunscreen before leaving the house, ecological forecasts can enable managers to anticipate environmental conditions and species distribution patterns in advance of industrial activity that may pose risk in certain scenarios.

In our recent study, we develop and test models that do just that: forecast where blue whales are most likely to be, allowing informed decision making with up to three weeks lead time.

Harnessing accessible data for an applicable tool

We use readily accessible data gathered by satellites and shore-based weather stations and made publicly available online. While our understanding of the ecosystem dynamics in the South Taranaki Bight is founded on years of collecting data at-sea and ecological analyses, using remotely gathered data for our forecasting tool is critical for making this approach operational, sustainable, and useful both now and into the future.

Measurements of conditions such as wind speed and ocean temperature anomaly are paired with known measurements of the lag times between wind input, upwelling, productivity, and blue whale foraging opportunities to produce forecasted environmental conditions.

Example environmental forecast maps, illustrating the predicted sea surface temperature and productivity in the South Taranaki Bight region, which can be forecasted by the models with up to three weeks lead time.

The forecasted environmental layers are then implemented in species distribution models to predict suitable blue whale habitat in the region, generating a blue whale forecast map. This map can be used to evaluate overlap between blue whale habitat and human uses, guiding management decisions regarding potential threats to the whales.

Example forecast of suitable blue whale habitat, with areas of higher probability of blue whale occurrence shown by the warmer colors and the area classified as “suitable habitat” denoted by the white boundaries. This habitat suitability map can be produced for any day in the past 10 years or for any day up to three weeks in the future.

Dynamic ecosystems, dynamic management

These forecasts of whale distribution can be effectively applied for dynamic spatial management because our models are founded on carefully measured links and lags between physical forcing (e.g., wind drives cold water upwelling) and biological responses (e.g., krill aggregations create feeding opportunities for blue whales). The models produce outputs that are dynamic and update as conditions change, matching the dynamic nature of the ecosystem.

A blue whale raises its majestic fluke on a deep foraging dive in the South Taranaki Bight. Photo by Leigh Torres.

Engagement with stakeholders—including managers, scientists, industry representatives, and environmental organizations—has been critical through the creation and implementation of this forecasting tool, which is currently in development as a user-friendly desktop application.

Our forecast tool provides managers with lead time for decision making and allows flexibility based on management objectives. Through trial, error, success, and feedback, these tools will continue to improve as new knowledge and feedback are received.

The people behind the science, from data collection to conservation application. Left: Dawn Barlow and Dr. Leigh Torres aboard a research vessel in New Zealand in 2017, collecting data on blue whale distribution patterns that contributed to the findings in this study. Right: Dr. Leigh Torres and Dawn Barlow at the Parliament buildings in Wellington, New Zealand, where they discussed research findings with politicians and managers, gathered feedback on barriers to implementation, and subsequently incorporated feedback into the development and implementation of the forecasting tools.

Reference: Barlow, D. R., & Torres, L. G. (2021). Planning ahead: Dynamic models forecast blue whale distribution with applications for spatial management. Journal of Applied Ecology, 00, 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.13992

This post was written for The Applied Ecologist Blog and the Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab Blog

Supporting marine life conservation as an outsider: Blue whales and earthquakes

By Mateo Estrada Jorge, Oregon State University undergraduate student, GEMM Lab REU Intern

Introduction

My name is Mateo Estrada and this past summer I had the pleasure of working with Dawn Barlow and Dr. Leigh Torres as a National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) intern. I had the chance to proactively learn about the scientific method in the marine sciences by studying the acoustic behaviors of pygmy blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda) that are documented residents of the South Taranaki Bight region in New Zealand (Torres 2013, Barlow et al. 2018). I’ve been interested in conducting scientific research since I began my undergraduate education at Oregon State University in 2015. Having the opportunity to apply the skills I gained through my education in this REU has been a blessing. I’m a physics and computer science major, but more than anything I’m a scientist and my passion has taken me in new, unexpected directions that I’m going to share in this blog post. My message for any students who feel like they haven’t found their path yet is: hang in there, sometimes it takes time for things to take shape. That has been my experience and I’m sure it’s been the experience of many people interested in the sciences. I’m a Physics and Computer Science student, so why am I studying blue whales, and more specifically, how can I be doing marine science research having only taken intro to biology 101?

My background

I decided to apply for the REU in the Spring 2021 because it was a chance to use my programming skills in the marine sciences. I’m also passionate about conservation and protecting the environment in a pragmatic way, so I decided to find a niche where I could put my technical skills to good use. Finally, I wanted to explore a scientific field outside of my area of expertise to grow as a student and to learn from other researchers. I was mostly inspired by anecdotal tales of Physicist Richard Feynman who would venture out of the physics department at Caltech and into other departments to learn about what other scientists were investigating to inspire his own work. This summer, I ventured into the world of marine science, and what I found in my project was fascinating.

Whale watching tour

Figure 1. Me standing on a boat on the Pacific Ocean off Long Beach, CA.

To get into the research mode, I decided to go on a whale watching tour with the Aquarium of the Pacific. The tour was two hours long and the sunburn was worth it because we got to see four blue whales off the Long Beach coast in California. I got to see the famous blue whale blow and their splashes. It was the first time I was on a big boat in the ocean, so naturally I got seasick (Fig 1). But it was exciting to get a chance to see blue whales in action (luckily, I didn’t actually hurl). The marine biologist onboard also gave a quick lecture on the relative size of blue whales and some of their behaviors. She also pointed out that they don’t use Sonar to locate whales as this has been shown to disturb their calling behaviors. Instead, we looked for a blow and splashing. The tour was a wonderful experience and I’m glad I got to see some whales out in nature. This experience also served as a reminder of the beauty of marine life and the responsibility I feel for trying to understand and help conserving it.

Context of blue whale calling

Sound plays a significant role in the marine environment and is a critical mode of communication for many marine animals including baleen whales. Blue whales produce different vocalizations, otherwise known as calls.  Blue whale song is theorized to be produced by males of the species as a form of reproductive behavior, similar to how male peacocks engage females by displaying their elongated upper tail covert feathers in iridescent colors as a courtship mechanism. Then there are “D calls” that are associated with social mechanisms while foraging, and these calls are made by both female and male blue whales (Lewis et al. 2018) (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Spectrogram of Pygmy blue whale D calls manually (and automatically) selected, frequency 0-150 Hz.

Understanding research on blue whales

The most difficult part about coming into a project as an outsider is catching up. I learned how anthropogenetic (human made) noise affects blue whale communication. For example, it has been showing that Mid Frequency Active Sonar signals employed by the U.S. Navy affect blue whale D calling patterns (Melcón 2012). Furthermore, noise from seismic airguns used for oil and gas exploration has also impact blue whale calling behavior (Di Lorio, 2010). Understanding the environmental context in which the pygmy blue whales live and the anthropogenic pressures they face is essential in marine conservation. Protecting the areas in which they live is important so they can feed, reproduce and thrive effectively. What began as a slowly falling snowflake at the start of a snowstorm turned into a cascading avalanche of knowledge pouring into my mind in just two weeks.

Figure 3. The white stars show the hydrophone locations (n = 5). A bathymetric scale of the depth is also given.

The research question I set out to tackle in my internship was: do blue whales change their calling behavior in response to natural noise events from earthquake activity? To do this, I used acoustic recordings from five hydrophones deployed in the South Taranaki Bight (Fig. 3), paired with an existing dataset of all recorded earthquakes in New Zealand (GeoNet). I identified known earthquakes in our acoustic recordings, and then examined the blue whale D calls during 4 hours before and after each earthquake event to look for any change in the number of calls, call energy, entropy, or bandwidth.

A great mentor and lab team

The days kept passing and blending into each other, as they often do with remote work. I began to feel isolated from the people I was working with and the blue whales I was studying. The zoom calls, group chats, and working alongside other remote interns kept me afloat as I adapted to a work world fully online. Nevertheless, I was happy to continue working on this project because I felt like I was slowly becoming part of the GEMM Lab. I would meet with my mentor Dawn Barlow at least once a week and we would spend time talking about the project and sorting out the difficult details of data processing. She always encouraged my curiosity to ask questions. Even if they were silly questions, she was happy to ponder them because she is a curious scientist like myself.

What we learned

Pygmy blue whales from the South Taranaki Bight region do not change their acoustic behavior in response to earthquake activity. The energy of the earthquake, magnitude, depth, and distance to the origin all had no influence on the number of blue whale D calls, the energy of their calling, the entropy, and the bandwidth. A likely reason for why the blue whales would have no acoustic response to earthquakes (magnitude < 5) is that the STB region is a seismically active region due to the nearby interface of the Australian and Pacific plates. Because of the plate tectonics, the region averages about 20,000 recorded earthquakes per year (GeoNet: Earthquake Statistics). Given that pygmy blue whales are present in the STB region year-round (Barlow et al. 2018), the blue whales may have adapted to tolerate the earthquake activity (Fig 4).

Figure 4. Earthquake signal from MARU (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and blue whale D calls, Frequency 0-150 Hz.

Looking at the future

I presented my work at the end of my REU internship program, which was a difficult challenge for me because I am often intimidated by public speaking (who isn’t?). Communicating science has always been a big interest of me. I love reading news articles about new breakthroughs and being a small part of that is a huge privilege for me. Finding my own voice and having new insights to contribute to the scientific world has always been my main objective. Now I will get to deliver a poster presentation of my REU work at the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO) Conference in March 2022. I am both excited and nervous to take on this new adventure of meeting seasoned professionals, communicating my results, and learning about the ocean sciences. I hope to gain new inspirations for my future academic and professional work.

References:

About Earthquake Drums – GeoNet. geonet.Org. Retrieved June 23, 2021, from https://www.geonet.org.nz/about/earthquake/drums

Barlow, D. R., Torres, L. G., Hodge, K. B., Steel, D., Scott Baker, C., Chandler, T. E., Bott, N., Constantine, R., Double, M. C., Gill, P., Glasgow, D., Hamner, R. M., Lilley, C., Ogle, M., Olson, P. A., Peters, C., Stockin, K. A., Tessaglia-Hymes, C. T., & Klinck, H. (2018). Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endangered Species Research, 36, 27–40. https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00891

Di Iorio, L., & Clark, C. W. (2010). Exposure to seismic survey alters blue whale acoustic communication. Biology Letters, 6(3), 334–335. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2009.0967

Lewis, L. A., Calambokidis, J., Stimpert, A. K., Fahlbusch, J., Friedlaender, A. S., McKenna, M. F., Mesnick, S. L., Oleson, E. M., Southall, B. L., Szesciorka, A. R., & Sirović, A. (2018). Context-dependent variability in blue whale acoustic behaviour. Royal Society Open Science, 5(8). https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.180241

Melcón, M. L., Cummins, A. J., Kerosky, S. M., Roche, L. K., Wiggins, S. M., & Hildebrand, J. A. (2012). Blue whales respond to anthropogenic noise. PLoS ONE, 7(2), 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0032681

Torres LG. 2013 Evidence for an unrecognised blue whale foraging ground in New Zealand. NZ J. Mar. Freshwater Res. 47, 235–248. (doi:10. 1080/00288330.2013.773919)

A little help from my friends to study gray whales in Port Orford

By Lisa Hildebrand, PhD student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

The 2021 TOPAZ (Theodolite Overlooking Predators And Zooplankton) field season in Port Orford has come to a close. Its close also signals the end of my tenure as field project lead, after I took over from my predecessor Florence Sullivan (OSU/GEMM Lab MSc grad) in the summer of 2018. Allison Dawn, incoming GEMM Lab Master’s student, is my successor and I am excited to pass the torch to her and see what new directions she will take the project. In today’s post, I will not recap the field season as I often do at the end of August. However, I strongly encourage you to read the blog posts written by the JASPER (Journey for Aspiring Scientists Pursuing Ecological Research) interns that made up Team “Heck Yeah”, Nadia Leal, Damian Amerman-Smith, and Jasen White, as they did an excellent job summarizing what we saw and experienced over the last six weeks. Instead, I want to take this opportunity to highlight a few people in Port Orford (and their most memorable gray whale encounters) who created a home away from home for me in Port Orford and played a large part in creating rich and meaningful experiences during my time as field project lead.

Tom Calvanese. Source: WildHuman.

Up first is Tom Calvanese, the OSU Port Orford Field Station manager. The field station can be an extremely busy place, especially during the summer when ideal weather conditions allow many marine scientists to conduct their research. There can be a lot of comings and goings at the field station, with swift turnarounds between groups and individuals from different departments and projects; some staying just one night, while others (such as the TOPAZ field teams) stay for several weeks. Leigh and I like to call Tom “the man behind the machine” because he manages to keep this busy field station running smoothly. From the get go, Tom has been a solid rock for me in Port Orford and he has never hesitated to give me the time and attention I needed, be it because I was seeking him out for advice about how to handle a personnel issue, a lesson in how to tie strong knots, or just a friendly conversation at the end of a long field day. I know that I have found a life-long friend and colleague in Tom through this project and for this I am very grateful.

One of Tom’s most iconic gray whale encounters happened when he was kayak fishing with a few friends in Tichenor Cove (coincidentally one of the two TOPAZ study sites). The individual kayakers were scattered throughout the cove, all in search of a good spot to hook some rockfish or lingcod. The group had not been out on the water for very long, which likely plays a large part in the shock and surprise that comes next, when Tom suddenly heard the blow of whale. He looked up from his fishing in the direction of the blow, only to see that a gray whale was surfacing right underneath one of his kayak fishing friends. Said friend could do nothing as he sat paralyzed in his kayak which slowly slid off the back of the gray whale as it dove once again. Neither whale nor human was harmed in this encounter, as the whale went back to foraging in the area, and the human (after several minutes of incredulity) went back to fishing. Every year, Tom has warned me of this location where this interaction happened (an uncharacteristically deep spot in Tichenor Cove compared to the rest of the area), though his warning is always accompanied with a twinkle in his eye.

An image captured by 2018’s Team “Whale Storm” aboard the kayak while sampling in Tichenor Cove, Port Orford. Source: GEMM Lab.
Dave Lacey. Source: L Hildebrand.

Dave Lacey owns South Coast Tours (SCT), a tour operating business that offers boat, kayak, and snorkeling tours, as well as surf lessons. Dave has been one of the most generous individuals to the TOPAZ/JASPER projects, never hesitating to loan us wetsuits and/or kayaks and allowing us to use his office and storage areas every day. He has also delivered excellent kayak paddle & safety instruction to the field teams over the last two years. Dave has truly become a vital partner during the Port Orford field seasons. It has been such a pleasure to be able to learn from and work with him, as well as see his business grow each year. Even though I will not be leading the project in Port Orford anymore, I am excited to continue my working relationship with Dave through obtaining important photo identification and sighting data of gray whales in the area when the GEMM Lab team is not there.

Although SCT is not even 10 years old (though it will be next year in 2022!), Dave has had so many gray whale encounters that he said it was really hard for him to pick just one. However, he ultimately picked the first time that he smelled a gray whale’s breath. It happened during a kayak tour when the group rounded the corner from Tichenor to Nellie’s Cove and a whale suddenly surfaced right in front of everyone, hitting them with the misty cloud of its blow. Up until this moment, Dave had both seen and heard hundreds of whale blows, but had never smelled one. He says, “to hear and see [the blow] is pretty normal but to get the third sense [of smell] is really phenomenal.”. Upon asking what he thinks of the smell, Dave replied that he does not think it is as gross as some people may think and during tours on his boat, the Black Pearl, he now actually tries to (safely) maneuver the boat downwind of the blow so that his clients can get a whiff as well.

The misty cloud emitted by whales when they come to the surface to breathe is referred to as the “blow”. Source: GEMM Lab.
Mike Baran. Source: L Hildebrand.

Mike Baran is a co-owner of Port Orford Sustainable Seafood (POSS) and he also occasionally guides kayak and snorkel tours for SCT. POSS is a community supported fishery that delivers wild, line-caught seafood direct from Port Orford to communities throughout western Oregon. I developed a great friendship with Mike through seeing him on the water a lot as a kayak guide for SCT in my first summer leading the TOPAZ/JASPER projects (2018), as well as seeing him at the field station on most days since POSS’ office and fish-processing facility are located there as well. If you are a keen follower of the GEMM Lab blog, you will know by now that the field season in Port Orford is short, yet very intense and taxing. Therefore, uplifting and sometimes goofy interactions with someone can really turn an upsetting day (potentially due to kayak gear loss or simply exhaustion) into a better one. Mike provided me with a lot of uplifting and goofy interactions and always helped put a smile on my face. 

As a SCT kayak guide, Mike has also had many gray whale encounters, however none are as memorable as the one he had on August 2nd, 2019. Mike describes it as a typical Port Orford day: “windy with lots of whale activity all morning”, though all of the activity had been at a distance (the whale blows were far away). Yet, on the paddle back through Tichenor Cove along the backside of the port jetty, Mike and his tour glimpsed a whale that was headstanding along the jetty rocks. The paddlers slowed down and kept their distance, watching as the gray whale foraged, diving down for 3-4 minutes at a time before resurfacing in almost the same location as it had surfaced in before. Suddenly, the whale surfaced right in the middle of the kayak group, with Mike to its left, a mere meter or so away, and the rest of the group to its right. Despite the fact that the sudden appearance of the whale scared the living daylights out of Mike, he was able to take a picture of the surfacing, which features one of the tour clients in the background with her hands lifted up to her face in total shock. So, thankfully for us the moment is not just eternalized in Mike’s memory but also in photographic form.

The photo of the gray whale that surfaced right next to Mike’s kayak, which also captured the shock & surprise of one of the tour clients in the background. Source: South Coast Tours.
Tara Ramsey. Source: L Hildebrand.

Last but certainly not least is Tara Ramsey, the coordinator of the Redfish Rocks Community Team since the summer of 2020. Despite arriving to Port Orford and her job in the middle of a pandemic, Tara has developed a lot of exciting new outreach and education material for the Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve, including an excellent walking tour of Port Orford (if you are ever there, I cannot recommend it highly enough – it starts at the Visitor Center!). While I have not known Tara as long as the other individuals featured in this blog, she has become a really great friend of mine, teaching me a lot about the reserve and Port Orford in general, including the best spot on Battle Rock beach for a small nighttime bonfire. 

Tara’s most memorable encounter with a gray whale is in fact her only encounter with a gray whale to date, and it happened just a few weeks ago when she was doing an Instagram livestream of the Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve aboard SCT’s Black Pearl. The purpose of the livestream was to bring the public into the reserve without having to leave the comfort and current safety of their homes. Tara describes the conditions in the reserve as “quite eerie” that day as there was a combination of smoke, fog, and no wind in the air. These conditions resulted in some pretty poor visibility, but gave the reserve an almost mystical appearance. Tara was actually mid-sentence on the livestream, talking about how special this moment was for her because it was her first time being in the reserve, when a whale surfaced a few meters from the boat. While the encounter was brief (the whale only surfaced 3 or 4 times before disappearing into the fog), Tara says the vision will be etched in her memory forever as Redfish Rocks is “a circle of islands, kind of like an amphitheater and it was amazing to see the whale just in the middle of it all.” 

An aerial view of Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve. Source: FishTracker.

I will miss being the field project lead of the TOPAZ and JASPER projects. I will miss kayaking every other day and spying on gray whales from the cliff site. I will miss having the opportunity to work closely with and train a new crop of aspiring marine scientists. I will miss my daily interactions with Tom, Dave, Mike, Tara, and many more individuals, when I do not go to Port Orford for six weeks next summer. I will cherish all the memories I have amassed over my last four summers in Port Orford for a very long time. Most of all, I will always be grateful to the gray whales that brought me back every summer and who (in a way) made all those memories happen.

PI Leigh Torres and Lisa at the end of the 2021 TOPAZ field season in Port Orford after the annual community presentation with Battle Rock Beach, Humbug Mountain, and Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve in the background. Source: L Torres.

The Unpredictable Nature of Field Work & a Mystery Mysid

By Jasen C. White, GEMM Lab summer intern, OSU senior, Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences

Field work is predictably unpredictable. Even with years of experience and exhaustive planning, nature always manages to throw a few curveballs, and this gray whale foraging ecology field season is no exception. We are currently in our sixth week of data collection here in Port Orford, and we have been battling the weather, our equipment, and a notable lack of whales and their zooplankton prey. Throughout all of these setbacks, Team “Heck Yeah” has lived up to its mantra as we have approached each day ready to hit the ground running. When faced with any of our myriad of problems, we have managed to work collaboratively to assess our options and develop solutions to keep the project on track. 

For those of you that are unfamiliar with Port Orford, it is windy here, and when it is not, it can be foggy. Both of these weather patterns have the potential to make unsafe paddling conditions for our kayak sampling team. This summer we have frequently delayed or altered our field work routines to accommodate these weather patterns. Occasionally, we had to call off kayaking altogether as the winds and swell precluded us from maintaining our boat “on station” at the predetermined GPS coordinates during our samples, only for the winds to die down once we had returned to shore and completed the daily gear maintenance. Despite weather challenges, we have made the most of our data collection opportunities over these past six weeks, and we have only been forced to give up four total days of data collection. Flexibility to take advantage of the good weather windows when they arrive is the key!

Equipment issues can be even more unpredictable than the weather. The first major stumbling block for our equipment was a punctured membrane in the dissolved oxygen probe that we lower into the water at each of our twelve sample locations. This puncture was likely the result of a stray urchin’s spine that was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Soon after noticing the problem, we quickly rallied to refurbish the membrane, recalibrate the sensor, and design a protective housing using some plumbing parts from the local hardware store to prevent any future damage to the membrane (Figures 1a-d). Within 6 days, we were back up and running with the dissolved oxygen sensor.

Figure 1. a) Punctured dissolved oxygen sensor membrane; b) plans for constructing a protective housing for the sensor; c) the new protective housing for the dissolved oxygen sensor (yellow) is attached to the sensor array; d) intern Jasen White measuring seawater for the dissolved oxygen sensor calibration after replacing the punctured membrane. Source: A. Dawn

The next major equipment issue involved a GoPro camera whose mounting hardware snapped while being retrieved at a sample site. This event was captured on the camera itself (see below). Fortunately, thanks to our collaborators at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, we were soon able to recover the lost GoPro camera, and in the meantime, we relied on our spare to continue sampling. 

Figure 2. The steel cable of the downrigger used to deploy and retrieve our sensor array had worn down until only two strands remained intact. Source: J. White.

The most recent equipment problem was a fraying cable (Figure 2) on our downrigger. We use the downrigger as a winch to lower and raise our sensor array and zooplankton nets into the water to obtain our samples. Fortunately, keen eyes on our team noticed the fray before it fully separated while the sensor array was in the water which could have resulted in losing our gear. We were quickly able to find the necessary repair part locally and get back on the water to finish out our sample regime within an hour of noticing the problem. 

Finally, as Damian mentioned in his post last week, this season seemed to start much slower than the previous field seasons. In the early weeks, many of our zooplankton sampling nets repeatedly came up almost empty. There was often nothing but murky water to see in the GoPro videos that accompany the zooplankton samples. Likely due to the lack of prey, we have only managed to spot a couple of transitory whales that rarely entered our study area. Those few whales that we did observe were difficult to track as the relatively high winds and waves quickly dissipated the tell-tale blows and camouflaged their briefly exposed backs and flukes. 

Our determination and perseverance have recently started to pay off, however, as the prey abundance in at least some of our sample sites has begun to increase. This increase in prey has also corresponded to a slight increase in whale sightings. One whale even spent nearly 30 minutes around the sampling station that consistently yields the most prey, likely indicating foraging behavior. These modest increases in zooplankton prey and whale sightings provide more evidence in support of the hypothesis Damian mentioned last week that reduced whale abundance in the area is likely the result of low prey abundance.

Figure 3. Example of a previously unidentified mysid that dominates several of our zooplankton samples. Due to the unique fat and flat telson (the “tail”) portion, we have been affectionately calling these “beavertail” mysids. Source: J. White.

As the zooplankton abundance finally started to increase, we noticed an interesting shift in the kinds of prey that we are capturing compared to previous seasons. Donovan Burns, an intern from the 2019 field season, noted in his blog post that the two most common types of zooplankton they found in their samples were the mysid species Holmesimysis sculpta and members of the genus Neomysis. While Neomysis mysid shrimp are continuing to make up a large proportion of our prey samples this year, we have noticed that many of our samples are dominated by a different type of mysid shrimp (Figure 3) which, in previous years, was a very rare capture. After searching through several mysid identification guides, this unknown mysid appears to be a member of the genus Lucifer, identified based on the presence of some distinctive characteristics that are unique to this genus (Omori 1992). 

This observation is interesting because historically, Lucifer mysid shrimp are typically found in warmer tropical and subtropical waters and were rarely reported in the eastern North Pacific Ocean before the year 1992 (Omori 1992). Additionally, a key to common coastal mysid shrimp of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia does not include members of the Lucifer genus, nor does it include any examples of mysids that resemble these new individuals showing up in our zooplankton nets (Daly and Holmquist 1986). If our initial identification of this mysid species is correct, then the sudden rise in the abundance of a typically warm water mysid species in Port Orford may indicate some fascinating shifts in oceanographic conditions that could lend some insight into why our prey and subsequent whale observations are so different this year than in years past.

Figure 4. View from the cliff site where we track gray whales using a theodolite. Source: A. Dawn.

As the 2021 field season draws to a close in Port Orford, I cannot help but reflect on what a wonderful opportunity we have been given through this summer internship program. I have loved the short time that I have spent living in this small but lively community for these past five weeks. Most days we could either be found kayaking around the nearshore to sample for the tiny creatures that our local gray whales call dinner, or we were on a cliff, gazing at the tirelessly beautiful, rugged coastline (Figure 4), hoping to glimpse the blow of a foraging whale so that we could track its course with our theodolite. Though the work can be physically exhausting during long and windy kayaking trips, mentally taxing when processing the data for each of the new samples after a full day of fieldwork, or incredibly frustrating with equipment failures, weather delays and shy whales, it is also tremendously satisfying to know that I contributed in a small but meaningful way to the mission of the GEMM Lab. I cannot imagine a better way to obtain the experience that my fellow interns and I have gained from this work, and I know that it will serve each of us well in our future ambitions.

References

Daly, K. L., and C. Holmquist. 1986. A key to the Mysidacea of the Pacific Northwest. Canadian Journal of Zoology 64:1201–1210.

Omori, M. 1992. Occurrence of Two Species of Lucifer (Dendrobranchiata: Sergestoidea: Luciferidae) off the Pacific Coast of America. Journal of Crustacean Biology 12:104–110.

Where are all the whales: Thoughts from the first half of the Port Orford project 2021

By Damian Amerman-Smith, Pacific High School senior, GEMM Lab summer intern

Left to right: Damian, Nadia, Jasen. The group scans the ocean looking for whales, while Damian puts on sunscreen. Source: A. Dawn. 

Growing up in Port Orford, a short ten-minute walk from the Pacific Ocean, has certainly shaped my life a lot. It has given me a great regard for the ocean, the diversity of life within it, and how life seems to bypass human derived borders in order to go wherever it can. I often marvel at all the beautiful, intricate ecosystems that are able to exist inside of our planet’s vast oceanic expanses. Along with my love of the ocean has come a great regard for marine mammals and the novelties of these animals that allow them to live entirely in the ocean despite not having gills. Every new discovery of these beautiful ocean creatures brings me such simple and pure joy, such as my very recent discovery that baleen whales have two blow holes. These blow holes look so peculiar on the top of their bodies, like a short upside-down nose. 

Photo of a gray whale’s blow hole. Source: NOAA.

My interest in the ocean and its inhabitants was a large part of what made me so enthused to take a part in the gray whale foraging ecology (GWFE) project in Port Orford this summer. When Elizabeth Kelly, my friend and a previous intern for the GWFE project mentioned her experiences from the previous summer, I was very happy when she put me in contact with Lisa Hildebrand and Leigh Torres so that I could apply to be an intern. Since then, I have been very ecstatically awaiting the beginning of the project and could hardly believe it when it finally began, and I was able to meet my fellow team members: Lisa Hildebrand, the PhD student who has been leading the GWFE project for the last four years; Allison Dawn, a Master’s student who is going to take over the project in Lisa’s stead; Nadia Leal, an OSU undergrad hoping to further pursue the field of marine biology; and Jasen White, an OSU undergrad whose time in the Navy has made him a very steeling presence while out on the water. 

The three weeks that we have spent together learning the procedures that make up the project have been well spent, teaching all of us a lot of new things, such as what a theodolite is, how to operate a dissolved oxygen sensor, and (for me) how to use Excel. The first two weeks were largely spent just learning about how we collect data and improving our field skills, but as we have become more comfortable with our skills, we have also begun looking beyond the procedures, towards the data itself and what it can mean. Primarily, we started to notice the distinct lack of gray whales and almost complete lack of zooplankton prey for any gray whales in the area to eat. 

A calm & beautiful, yet whale-less, view from the cliff site. Source: L. Hildebrand.

As we pass the halfway point in the project, we have only witnessed two whales inside our study area. While in the beginning it was not surprising that there were no whales, it has started to become concerning to me. We have a strong working hypothesis about why there have not been many whale sightings in our monitored sites of Mill Rocks and Tichenor’s Cove: there is not nearly enough zooplankton prey to attract them. Monday, August 9th is a good example to support this hypothesis. On that day, when we pulled up our sample net at Tichenor Cove station #1, we collected fifty-three individual Neomysis mysid shrimp, which are a tasty treat for gray whales. However, all the other prey samples from the remaining eleven kayak sampling stations had perhaps a maximum of five assorted zooplankton each, which is certainly not enough to attract the attention of such a large predator as Eschrichtius robustus (a gray whale). Unfortunately, we have yet to see much change in zooplankton prey availability in our sampling nets over the season so far, but we are hopeful that swarms of zooplankton in the area will resurge and the gray whales will begin using the area around the port as their August feeding grounds.

Our hopes aside, it is intriguing to think about why there has been so few zooplankton at our sampling sites. A main factor is likely the decrease of Port Orford’s kelp forests over the past few years. Kelp is very important to zooplankton, particularly mysids, as it allows them to seek shelter from predators. Declines in kelp forests have been documented all along the southern Oregon coast, and are believed to be fueled by many factors (ORKA, 2021). A combination of warming waters with decreasing amount of nutrients available to the kelp (Richardson 2008), and the increasing abundances of purple sea urchins that eat the kelp has vastly impacted the amount of kelp in the area. The decline in local kelp forests may be the reason that we are seeing fewer mysid swarms than in previous years. This reduced kelp and mysid availability could, in turn, be making Port Orford waters an unappetizing area for hungry whales to visit this year. While this trophic cascade is still just an educated hypothesis, it is important for us and others to keep watch on the situation, and to see how it changes. There are organizations such as the Oregon Kelp Alliance (ORKA) that are working hard to study why the kelp populations are hurting and how we can help. We will power through the season with the hopes that the gray whales will come. It is still very possible that the zooplankton will resurge and the whales will return with plenty to feed on.

References

Richardson, Anthony J. 2008. In hot water: zooplankton and climate change, ICES Journal of Marine Science, Volume 65, Issue 3, Pages 279–295, https://doi.org/10.1093/icesjms/fsn028

ORKA, 2021. “Kelp.” Oregon Kelp Alliancewww.oregonkelp.com/.

Food for thought: conscious reasoning among foraging gray whales

By Nadia Leal, GEMM Lab summer intern, OSU senior, Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences

The OSU GEMM Lab gray whale foraging ecology project in Port Orford is in its seventh year of research. I have the honor to serve as a field assistant for the project as part of Team “Heck Yeah” for the summer 2021 field season. In doing so, I have been presented with the opportunity to take part in its enduring legacy. It is a legacy characterized by novel discovery, distinguished leadership, and endless adventure. These particular aspects motivated me to pursue this internship. Further, the desire to seek out gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) — a species epitomizing the ability to exhibit resilience in the face of adversity after having experienced two unusual mortality events (UME) in the past two decades and having recovered from historically low population abundances due to whaling — sparked immeasurable excitement.

Figure 1. Nadia operating the theodolite to calculate the location of a gray whale. Source: A. Dawn.

The skills we are acquiring during this field season are essential to master so that I can pursue my aspirations of becoming a marine conservation biologist. For example, we have learned how to operate a theodolite, which is a surveying tool used regularly in marine mammal research to accurately calculate the location of cetaceans and track their movements (Figure 1). We are also learning how to operate a number of other research equipment, to navigate a tandem kayak using a GPS, to process various forms of data, and to identify gray whales! I have especially enjoyed collecting prey samples and navigating our tandem kayak, as kayaking is a summer tradition for my family and the opportunity to kayak in this context is certainly the high point of this internship. The kayak is named “Robustus” after the scientific name of the gray whale: Eschrichtius robustus! (Figure 2). 

Figure 2. Nadia navigating Robustus, the research kayak.

The Port Orford project aims to determine how gray whale foraging is affected by prey quantity and quality. In fact, gray whales exhibit specificity in their selection of prey on the basis of caloric content (Hildebrand 2020). I am particularly interested in the underlying implications these findings imply: the notion of conscious reasoning and decision-making by individual whales as they seek the most suitable prey for its dietary needs among other options to maximize its survivability. Are gray whales in possession of an awareness that allows them to exhibit intentional preference? Can the behavior be attributed to instinct and/or learned behavior, or to cognition comparable to human preference? These and similar questions are my motivation for studying the realm of marine mammal biology. These questions concern intelligence and evolution, which can be effectively investigated through an analysis of cetacean brain structure, as it likely has compelling relationships to their extensive behavioral abilities (Hof and Van Der Gucht 2007). 

For instance, the brain of the gray whale has expanded and developed extensively over evolutionary time in response to distinct selection pressures. Evidence affirms that the behavioral challenges associated with foraging exert strong selection pressures on the evolution of their brain size and structure (Muller and Montgomery 2019)! Selection pressures associated with social cognition are also believed to have contributed to such growth (Connor et al. 1998; Marino 2002; Shultz and Dunbar 2010 ). Further, their neural organization has increased in complexity, leading to greater function and usage of the cortical portion of the brain, which is the portion responsible for higher level activity (Oelschläger and Oelschläger 2002). 

Figure 3. Structure of humpback whale brain representative of baleen species used to infer about gray whales (Hof and Van Der Gucht 2007). 

Though research about baleen whale brain morphology is not as pervasive as that of toothed whales (due to increased susceptibility of toothed whales to captivity given the feasibility of their capture and subsequent analysis in lab/controlled setting), studies have indicated that the brain of baleen whales share similarities to those of humans (Wade et. al 2012). In particular, similarities exist in the frontal lobe of the brain, which is responsible for the complex activities of self-awareness, reasoning, and behavior, as well as for problem-solving and motivation (Hof and Van Der Gucht 2007) (Figure 3). These findings indicate that baleen whales, including the gray whale, have the capability to exhibit intentional preference and take part in conscious decision-making in the recognition of different prey species. The mechanisms responsible for how gray whales may discern prey likely involve a number of the sensory systems, differing in respect to spatial scale (Torres 2017). Thus, gray whales likely rely on various sensory methods, such as vision, sound perception/reception, chemoreception, or an oceanographic stimulus, at differing scales to locate and discern prey. The sensory method employed is dependent on their distance from prey. 

Though we cannot yet confirm whether and/or how gray whales are capable of distinguishing between prey species, what is certain, is that the gray whale is intelligent and quite similar to us. Moreover, they are representative of strength and endurance, providing lessons we can learn from and qualities we can embody. Despite the threats to the species from fishing gear entanglement, ship collisions, climate change, oil industry developments, and being historically hunted, they have remarkably persisted. Thus, we must ensure the existence of the gray whale so they too may thrive for the rest of time, with healthy lives and habitat that is rightfully theirs.

P.S. I would like to thank the GEMM Lab, Oregon State University, Shalynn Pack, Port Orford Sustainable Seafood, Port Orford Co-op, South Coast Tours, Nicki’s Knick Knacks, Leigh Torres, Lisa Hildebrand, Allison Dawn, Clara Bird, Tom Calvanese, Maddie English, Jasen White, and Damian Amerman-Smith for making the internship as special and memorable as it is/was. 

References

Connor, R. C., Mann, J., Tyack, P. L., and Whitehead, H. (1998). Social evolution in toothed whales. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 13(6): 228– 232. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0169‐5347(98)01326‐3 

Hildebrand, L. (2020). Tonight’s specials include mysids, amphipods, and more: an examination of the zooplankton prey of Oregon gray whales and its impact on foraging choices and prey selection. Master’s thesis, Oregon State University. 

Hof, P.R., and Van Der Gucht, E. (2007). Structure of the cerebral cortex of the humpback whale, Megaptera novaengliae(Cetacea, Mysticeti, Balaenopteridae). The Anatomical Record 290:1-31 doi: 10.1002/ar.a.20407

Marino, L. (2002). Convergence of complex cognitive abilities in cetaceans and primates. Brain, Behavior, and Evolution59: 21–32. doi:  https://doi. org/10.1159/000063731 

Oelschläger, H.A., and Oelschläger, J.S. (2002). Brains. In: Perrin WF, Wu¨ rsig B, Thewissen JGM, editors. Encyclopedia of marine mammals. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. p 133–158.            

Shultz, S., & Dunbar, R. (2010). Encephalization is not a universal macroevolutionary phenomenon in mammals but is associated with sociality. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107(50): 21582–21586. doi: https://doi.org/10.1073/ pnas.1005246107 

Torres, L.G. (2017). A sense of scale: foraging cetaceans’ use of scale-dependent multimodal sensory systems. Marine Mammal Science 33: 1170-1193. doi:  10.1111/mms.12426 

Wade, P.R., Reeves, R.R., and Mesnick, S.L. (2012). Social and behavioral factors in cetacean responses to overexploitation: are odontocetes less “resilient” than mysticetes?. The Journal of Marine Biology 2012: 1-15. doi:10.1155/2012/567276

Team “Heck Yeah!” – Updates from the 2021 Port Orford Gray Whale Foraging Ecology Project

By Allison Dawn, Master’s student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Part 1: Team “Heck Yeah!”

Allison, inspecting a prey sample from the morning’s in situ collection:

Look! It’s dungeness crab larvae.

Damien, squinting to see the tiny megalopa floating in the water:

Oh, heck yeah!

This simple exchange is just a snapshot of the shared excitement the 2021 Port Orford project interns and I have felt since we have arrived at the field station. Whether it was the first time we set up the theodolite correctly, watched our first GoPro footage of the water column, or when we jumped from the dinner table to grab the camera after Lisa spotted a whale foraging in Mill Rocks – this year’s team is full of enthusiasm. Thus, I’m excited to introduce you all to the 2021 summer field team name: Team “Heck Yeah!”.

While the name is unconventional, the phrase “heck yeah” is not just an exclamation we use when excited. We also use it when we know a task will be a challenge to learn, like staying within the correct GPS position for kayak sampling stations during windy conditions. We know some tasks will be difficult, but we now say “heck yeah!” to meet challenges with a focused, positive determination. This positivity in the face of challenges is a great skill to have, especially because these first two weeks have been one steep learning curve for all of us.

If you read my previous blog, you know that I (Allison) am taking over leadership of the Port Orford project next summer. On top of learning the important day-to-day data collection tasks along with the interns, I have also been learning from Lisa how to lead this project. I am very grateful to have her here to guide me, as I have been able to witness that even when you are a seasoned project leader (this is Lisa’s 4th year!) curve balls can and do happen. It has been great to watch as she has adapted to each unexpected challenge so far, and I am learning first-hand how to best prepare for the Port Orford field season – preparation that includes expecting the unexpected.

Before I discuss in more detail the adaptations we have made and what we are seeing so far in the field, I would like to introduce the interns that comprise our JASPER program this year. Adaptability is a key skill to have when dealing with the unexpected, and after two weeks of training in abnormally windy conditions, Team “Heck Yeah!” is ready for this field season. Though it has only been two weeks, I already feel confident it will continue to be a great season and am grateful to have each one of them aboard our team.

Part 2: The 2021 Port Orford Gray Whale Foraging Ecology Team

First, I would like to introduce Jasen White. Jasen is a first generation, non-traditional undergraduate student at Oregon State University. He is a senior majoring in Fisheries and Wildlife Science and has a passion for spatial ecology and resource management. His professional management background in the U.S. Navy combined with his technical skill set has made him a great addition to the team. He has proven to be dependable and has already brought some new ideas to the project, from handling/maintaining gear to task efficiency. While we have yet to see many whales, Jasen is most looking forward to honing his theodolite skills. As we all have learned, theodolite tracking is more involved than simply looking through a scope. I appreciate the motivation he and the other interns have to become experts in each task.

Figure 1. Jasen photographing “Moby Dick”, a PCFG whale familiar to the GEMM lab, who was spotted foraging near the jetty. Port Orford, OR. July 2021.

The next member of our intern team is Nadia Leal. Nadia is also an undergraduate at OSU and is majoring in Marine Mammal Biology and minoring in Marine Conservation Management. She is an aspiring conservation biologist and moved all the way from Nevada to study at Oregon State University. As a previous soccer athlete in high school, teamwork and determination are two of the many skills Nadia has contributed to the Port Orford team this year. Even during the most difficult training days, her positive energy has been infectious to everyone. So far, Nadia’s favorite aspect about living at the field station is how closely she gets to interact with the community. She is fully enjoying the unique networking opportunities here – this internship has allowed her to connect with the team at Port Orford Sustainable Seafood and with other like-minded interns, such as Maddie English, a student conducting research here as part of OSU’s 2021 Marine Studies Initiative.

Figure 2. Nadia using high-powered binoculars to systematically scan the sea for gray whales. Port Orford, OR. July 2021.

Last but not least is our high school intern, Damian Amerman-Smith. Damian is a rising senior at Pacific High School and plans to attend college fall 2022 to pursue a career in engineering. Due to his experience here so far, he is now considering applying to OSU! Damian is a Port Orford local and in addition to sharing his sense of humor and unique stories, he also has demonstrated curiosity, engagement, and attention to detail to every aspect of our work thus far. Damian’s favorite task at this point in the season is observing whale activity from the cliff. He picked up on nuances of the theodolite quickly and has enjoyed learning the various methods for systematic wildlife observation.

Figure 3. Damian learning how to use Pythagoras, the tracking software that accompanies the theodolite. Port Orford, OR. July 2021.

Part 3: Wind, Prey, and Looking Ahead

Now that you are familiar with the 2021 Port Orford team, it is time to discuss updates from the field! It has been particularly windy during the start of this season, and we also have had few whale encounters.

Flexibility during unfavorable weather conditions is important, and for that reason it has made the training period all that more intense. We only have two weeks to master our new skill set before we collect four weeks of standardized data, and therefore we must be sure to choose our days off wisely. Good weather days have been sparse, so we make sure they are used for field work. However, just because the forecast predicts poor conditions does not mean we immediately have the day off. Forecasts are not always accurate, and for the past week the predicted versus actual conditions were not aligned. Hence, we wake up at the usual time and often drive to the Port early to assess the weather conditions in person before deciding what is feasible that day.

Yet, with adaptability, determination, and a close eye on conditions, we have managed to persist with our kayak sampling and theodolite observations. Due to the collective persistence of Team “Heck Yeah!”, we have been able to collect exciting prey data.

Figure 4. Mysid swarm captured on GoPro video at Tichenor Cove, Station 4. Port Orford, OR. July 2021.

It is important to note, however, that increased winds may not be ultimately bad. As Dawn has written about before on the blog, winds often increase upwelling conditions, bringing nutrients to the surface and thus increase prey abundance. In fact, we have seen an uptick in prey abundance in the past few days. In particular, we have captured increased amounts of zooplankton prey at two sampling stations in Tichenor Cove. We have seen Dungeness crab larvae, mysid swarms, and we even counted 438 amphipods that were collected in our prey net last Friday!

When I look back at the past two weeks, I am amazed to recount everything we have learned: First Aid/CPR, kayak paddle & rescue, theodolite tracking, in situ kayak prey sampling, data management, as well as gray whale and zooplankton prey ID. I know I speak for all of us when I say that these training weeks were challenging yet rewarding, and we retained our eagerness to put our new skillset to task. The future is bright as we hope to see a less wind and more whales over the next four weeks. Until then, we are saying “Heck Yeah!” to each challenge and continue to refine our skills so we are prepared when weather conditions are favorable. Stay tuned for more updates from Team “Heck Yeah!”.

Figure 5. Team “Heck Yeah!” excited for the field season. Port Orford, OR. July 2021.

Do gray whales count calories? New GEMM Lab publication compares energetic values of prey available to gray whales on two feeding grounds in the eastern North Pacific

By Lisa Hildebrand, PhD student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Predators have high energetic requirements that must be met to ensure reproductive success and population viability. For baleen whales, this task is particularly challenging since their foraging seasons are typically limited to short temporal windows during summer months when they migrate to productive high latitude environments. Foraging success is a balancing act whereby baleen whales must maximize the amount of energy they intake, while minimizing the amount of energy they expend to obtain food. Maximization of energy intake can be achieved by targeting the most beneficial prey. How beneficial a particular prey type (or prey patch) is can depend on a number of factors such as abundance, density, quality, size, and availability. Determining why baleen whales target particular prey types or patches is an important factor to enhance our understanding of their ecology and can ultimately aid in informing their management and conservation.

The GEMM Lab has several research projects in Newport and Port Orford, Oregon, on the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG), which is a sub-group of gray whales from the Eastern North Pacific (ENP) population. While ENP gray whales feed in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas (Arctic) in the summer months, the PCFG utilizes the range from northern California, USA to northern British Columbia, Canada. Our work to date has revealed a number of new findings about the PCFG including that they successfully gain weight during the summer on Oregon foraging grounds (Soledade Lemos et al. 2020). Furthermore, females that consistently use the PCFG range as their foraging grounds have successfully reproduced and given birth to calves (Calambokidis & Perez 2017). Yet, the abundance of the PCFG (~250 individuals; Calambokidis et al. 2017) is two orders of magnitude smaller than the ENP population (~20,000; Stewart & Weller 2021). So, why do more gray whales not use the PCFG range as their foraging grounds when it provides a shorter migration while also allowing whales to meet their high energetic requirements and ensure reproductive success? There are several hypotheses regarding this ecological mystery including that prey abundance, density, quality, and/or availability are higher in the Arctic than in the PCFG range, thus justifying the much larger number of gray whales that migrate further north for the summer feeding season. 

Figure 1. Locations of prey samples collected with a light trap (open circles) or opportunistic collections of surface swarms of crab larvae (black triangles) in Newport, along the Oregon coast in the Pacific Northwest coast of the United States.

Our recent paper in Frontiers in Marine Science addressed the hypothesis that prey quality in the Arctic is higher than that of PCFG prey. To test this hypothesis, we first determined the quality (energetic value) of nearshore Oregon zooplankton species that PCFG gray whales are assumed to feed on (based on observations of fine-scale spatial and temporal overlap of foraging gray whales and sampled zooplankton). We obtained prey samples from nearshore reefs along the Oregon coast (Figure 1) as part of the GRANITE project using a light trap, which is a modified water jug with a weight and two floats attached to it, allowing the trap to sit approximately 1 meter above the seafloor. The trap contained a light which attracted zooplankton and effectively captured epibenthic prey of gray whales. Traps were left to soak overnight in locations where gray whales had been observed feeding extensively and collected the following morning. After identifying each specimen to species level and sorting them into reproductive stages, we used a bomb calorimeter to determine the caloric content of each species by month, year, and reproductive stage. We then compared these values to the literature-derived caloric value of the predominant benthic amphipod species that  ENP gray whales feed on in the Arctic. These comparisons allowed us to extrapolate the caloric values gained from each prey type to estimated energetic requirements of pregnant and lactating female gray whales (Villegas-Amtmann et al. 2017). 

Figure 2. Median caloric content and interquartile ranges by (A) species, (B) reproductive stage, and (C) month. Sizes of the zooplankton images are scaled at actual ratios relative to one another.

So, what did we find? Our sampling along the Oregon coast revealed six predominant zooplankton species: two mysid shrimp (Neomysis rayiiHolmesimysis sculpta), two amphipods (Atylus tridensPolycheria osborni), and two types of crab larvae (Dungeness crab megalopae, porcelain crab larvae). These six Oregon prey species showed significant differences in their caloric values, with N. rayii and Dungeness crab megalopae having significantly higher calories per gram than the other prey species (Figure 2), though Dungeness crab megalopae stood out as the caloric gold mines for feeding gray whales in the PCFG range. Furthermore, month and reproductive stage also influenced  the caloric content of some prey species, with gravid (aka pregnant) female mysid shrimp significantly increasing in calories throughout the summer (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Caloric content of different reproductive stages as a function of day of year (DOY; ranging from June to October) for the mysids Holmesimysis sculpta and Neomysis rayii, and the amphipod Atylus tridens. A. tridens is only represented on one panel due to small sample size of this species for the empty brood pouch and gravid reproductive stages. Asterisks indicate significant regressions (p<0.05).

The comparison of our Oregon prey caloric values to the predominant Arctic amphipod (Ampelisca macrocephala) proved our hypothesis wrong:  Arctic amphipods do not have higher caloric value than Oregon prey, which would have help to explain why many more gray whales feed in the Arctic. We found that two Oregon prey species (N. rayii and Dungeness crab megalopae) have higher caloric values than A. macrocephala. If we translate the caloric contents of these prey to gray whale energetic needs, these differences mean that lactating and pregnant gray whales feeding in the PCFG area would need between 0.7-1.03 and 0.22-0.33 metric tons of prey less per day if they fed on Dungeness crab megalopae or N. rayii, respectively, than a whale feeding on Arctic A. macrocephala (Figure 4). 

Figure 4. Daily prey requirements (A: metric tons; B: number of individuals) needed by pregnant and lactating female gray whales to meet their energetic requirements on the foraging ground. Energetic requirement estimates obtained from Villegas-Amtmann et al. (2017). Note the logarithmic scale of y-axis in panel (B).

If quality were the only prey metric that gray whales used to evaluate which food to eat, then it would make very little sense for so many gray whales to migrate to the Arctic when there are prey types of equal and greater quality available to them in the PCFG range. However, quality is not the only metric that influences gray whale foraging decisions. We therefore posit that the abundance, density, and availability of benthic amphipods in the Arctic are higher than the prey species found in the PCFG range. In fact, knowledge of the pulsed reproductive cycle of Dungeness and porcelain crabs allows us to conclude that the larvae of these two species are only available for a few weeks in the late spring and early summer on the Oregon coast. While mysid shrimp, such as N. rayii, are continuously available in the PCFG range throughout the summer, they may occur in less dense and more patchy aggregations than Arctic benthic amphipods. However, current estimates of prey density and abundance for either region are not available, and we do not have data on the energetic costs of the different foraging strategies. While there are still several unknowns, we have documented that higher prey quality in the Arctic is not the reason for the difference in gray whale foraging ground use in the eastern North Pacific.

References

Calambokidis, J., & Perez, A. 2017. Sightings and follow-up of mothers and calves in the PCFG and implications for internal recruitment. IWC Report SC/A17/GW/04 for the Workshop on the Status of North Pacific Gray Whales (La Jolla: IWC).

Calambokidis, J., Laake, J., & Perez, A. 2017. Updated analysis of abundance and population structure of seasonal gray whales in the Pacific Northwest, 1996-2015. IWC Report SC/A17/GW/05 for the Workshop on the Status of North Pacific Gray Whales (La Jolla: IWC).

Soledade Lemos, L., Burnett, J. D., Chandler, T. E., Sumich, J. L., & Torres, L. G. 2020. Intra- and inter-annual variation in gray whale body condition on a foraging ground. Ecosphere 11(4):e03094.

Stewart, J. D., & Weller, D. W. 2021. Abundance of eastern North Pacific gray whales 2019/2020. Department of Commerce, NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-SWFSC-639. United States: NOAA. doi:10.25923/bmam-pe91.

Villegas-Amtmann, S., Schwarz, L. K., Gailey, G., Sychenko, O., & Costa, D. P. 2017. East or west: the energetic cost of being a gray whale and the consequence of losing energy to disturbance. Endangered Species Research 34:167-183.

The early phases of studying harbor seal pup behavior along the Oregon coast

By Miranda Mayhall, Masters Student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Recently, when expected to choose a wildlife species for behavioral observation for one of my Oregon State University graduate courses, I immediately chose harbor seals as my focus. Harbor seals (Fig 1) are an abundant species and in proximity to the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) (Steingass et al., 2019) where I will be spending much of my time this summer, making logistics easy. Studying pinnipeds (marine mammals with a finned foot, seals, walrus, and sea lions) is appealing due to their undeniably cute physique, floppy nature on land, and super agile nature in the water. I am working to iron out my methods for this study, which I hope to work through in this initial phase of my research project.

Figure 1. Harbor seal hauling out to rest on rocks off Oregon Coast near HMSC.

Behaviors:

At times it can appear that the most interesting harbor seal behaviors occur under water, and the haul out time is simply time for resting. During mating season, most adult seal behaviors take place in the water, such as the incredible vocal acoustics displayed by the males to attract the females (Matthews et al., 2018). However, I hypothesize that young pups can capitalize on haul out time by practicing becoming adults (while the adults are taking that time to rest) and therefore I plan to observe their haul out behaviors in their first summer of life. Specifically, I will document seal pup vocal behavior to evaluate how they are learning to use sound. I am beginning this study in late July, which is just after pupping season (Granquist et al., 2016). This should give me the opportunity to find pups along the Oregon coast near HMSC, so I intend to visit several locations where harbor seals are known to frequently haul out. Knowing that field work and animal behavior is unpredictable, there is no telling what behaviors I will observe on a given day, or if I will see seals at all. Some days I could come home with lots of seal data and great photos, and other days I could come home with little to report. This will be my first hurdle combined with my time limit (strictly completing this observation in the next five weeks). I intend to schedule at least eight hours of field observation at haul-out sites over the next two weeks and will adjust my schedule based on my success in data collection at that point.  

Figure 2. Harbor Seals hauling out on rocks not too far from HMSC.

Timing:

Prior knowledge on harbor seal haul-out sites along the Oregon coast is clearly important for this project’s success, but I must also pay close attention to the tide cycles. During low tides, haul out locations are exposed and occupied by seals. When the tide is high, the seals are less likely to haul-out (Patterson et al., 2008). Furthermore, according to a recent study conducted on harbor seals residing on the Oregon coast, these seals spend on average 71% of their time in the water and will haul-out for the remainder of their time (Steingass et al., 2019). Therefore, it is crucial to maximize my observation time of hauled out pups wisely.

Concerning timing, I also need to observe locations and periods without too many tourists who can get near the haul-out site. As I learned recently, when children show up and start throwing rocks into the water near where harbor seals are swimming, the seals will recede from the area and no longer be available for observation. As an experiment, I waited for the noisy crowds with unchecked children to leave and only myself, my trusty sidekick (my daughter), and one quiet photographer were left on the beach. Once that happened, we noticed more and more seal heads popping up out of the water. Then they came closer and closer to the beach, splashing around doing somersaults visibly on the surface of the water. It was quite a show. I will either need to account for the presence of humans when evaluating seal behavior or assess only periods without disturbance. Seal pups are easily disturbed by humans, so I will keep a non-invasive distance while positioning myself to hear the vocals.

Figure 3. Hauled-out adult harbor seal on the Oregon coast near HMSC. 

Data Collection and Analysis Approach:

The aspect of this project I am still working out is how to quantify pup vocalizations and their associated behaviors. As I mentioned, I will go out each week for eight hours and record each time I notice a pup exhibiting vocal behavior. I will categorize and describe the sound produced by the pup, and document any associated behavior of the pup or behavioral responses from nearby adult seals. Prior research has found that harbor seals are much attuned to vocal behavior. Mother harbor seals learn to quickly distinguish their own pup’s call within a few days of their birth (Sauve et al. 2015). I hypothesize that pups themselves can discern and use vocalizations, and I am excited to watch them develop over the course of my field observations.

Figure 4. Seal pup on the far-left rock, watching the adults as they appear to rest.

References

Granquist, S.M., & Hauksson, E. (2016). Seasonal, meteorological, tidal, and diurnal effects on haul-out patterns of harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) in Iceland. Polar Biology, 39 (12), 2347-2359.

Matthews, L.P., Blades, B., Parks, S. (2018). Female harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) behavioral response to playbacks of underwater male acoustic advertisement displays. PeerJ, 6, e4547.

Patterson, J., Acevedo-Gutierrez, A. (2008). Tidal influence on the haul-out behavior of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) At all time levels. Northwestern Naturalist, 89 (1), 17-23.

Sauve, C., Beauplet, G., Hammil, M., Charrier, I. (2015). Mother-pup vocal recognition in harbour seals: influence of maternal behavior, pup voice and habitat sound properties. Animal Behavior, 105 (July 2015), 109-120

Steingass, S., Horning, M., Bishop, A. (2019). Space use of Pacific harbor seals (Phoca vitulina richardii) from two haulout locations along the Oregon coast. PloS one. 14 (7), e0219484.