Gray Whale Goofs

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.

A foraging behavior where the whale turns on its side in shallow water. The triangle of the fluke resembles a shark fin
Sharking: A foraging behavior where the whale turns on its side in shallow water. The triangle of the fluke resembles a shark fin

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!

If you dont have your hemisphere correctly labeled, you end up in China instead of Oregon.
If you don’t have your hemisphere correctly labeled, you end up in China instead of Oregon.

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.

If the azimuth is incorrectly referenced, you might end up on land instead of in the water.
If the azimuth is incorrectly referenced, you might end up on land instead of in the water.

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.

Once all the kinks got worked out - the real trackline!  Dont worry, whale 60 did not go through the jetty, thats an artifact of the program wanting to draw straight lines from point a to b.  more likely we simply missed a surface as it transited around the point of the jetty.
Once all the kinks got worked out – the real trackline! Dont worry, whale 60 did not go through the jetty, thats an artifact of the program wanting to draw straight lines from point a to b. more likely we simply missed a surface as it transited around the point of the jetty.

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:

http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/archives/2015/aug/researchers-studying-oregon%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%9Cresident-population%E2%80%9D-gray-whales

More shallow sharking behavior
More shallow sharking behavior
Well known for having the shortest, toughest baleen of any of the great whales, here you can see the plates in its mouth!
Well known for having the shortest, toughest baleen of any of the great whales, here you can see the plates in its mouth!

Until next time,

Team Ro”buff”stus

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2 thoughts on “Gray Whale Goofs”

  1. Hey we are in Yachats and wondered what we were seeing…a couple of pairs were heading north and then we saw a fin/fluke and a strange spouting behavior and realized it was sharing as per your video. Of course this is very cool! Are they the new residents? And what muddy critters are they eating?
    Off the Fireside.

    1. Hello Ryan,

      Thanks for the update from Yachats – you are likely seeing the first whales of the Pacific Coast Feeding Group arriving on our shores for the summer foraging period! They are probably eating mysid – a small crustacean. This summer, we are continuing our foraging behavior study down in Port Orford – and will be using go-pro cameras to assess what the whales are eating, so stay tuned for more updates (and cool videos) on that front!

      Fair winds,
      Florence

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