Cold Fingers and Carabiners

By Hayleigh Middleton, GEMM Lab summer 2018 intern, entering OSU undergrad 

Cold Fingers and Carabiners: that’s what most of the past three weeks have been about. We’ve progressively been getting up earlier—with many thanks to the coffee pot and multiple alarms— in order to be on the water collecting data before the wind and fog decide to kick in. Working on the ocean at 7 am with wet hands, metal equipment, a tight suit, and a “refreshing” breeze while trying to keep an eight-foot sit-on-top kayak from tipping over is challenging to say the least. Making sure the Theodolite is perfectly level on its tripod resting on sand-covered ground at the top of a cliff? Not much easier. The air is cold, the wind is cold, the equipment is cold, I’m cold, and now, everything is wet.

Rugged laptop on the cliff site. Photo by Hayleigh Middleton.

I absolutely love it.

Of all the ways I could have chosen to spend my summer before starting college at OSU, I’m so glad I took a chance and asked to spend it here. The official goals of our research project are to monitor and record the foraging habits of the Pacific Coast Feeding Group of gray whales, attempt to find out if specific individuals tend to have site fidelity and forage here year after year, and why or how they choose certain spots to feed over others. What does that mean for me? I get to kayak and take pictures of whales for six weeks! Of course, there’s a bunch of technical stuff and expensive equipment that took us two weeks to learn, but now we’re off to a great start and ready to learn more about these amazing creatures.

We have such a short amount of time to collect all this data to try and fill in the puzzle that is gray whale behavior, and we’re only a few weeks in, but I feel like I’ve already connected with this group of 60,000-pound mammals. That, in essence, is really what we’re doing here. We’re on top of a 33-meter-high cliff watching empty water for hours on the chance that we’ll be able to see a whale, identify it through photo-ID, track it with the theodolite to figure out its behavior, and use our kayak data to figure out its diet and feeding choices. Even though the whales forage up to two kilometers away from our tracking spot, it feels like they know we’re watching them. Sometimes it feels like they’re teasing us—we’ll see one, and once we get the sights fixed on it, it dives down and doesn’t come back up until we’ve turned our attention. One whale got into a very predictable pattern: three blows and then a deep dive, forage for five minutes, pop up half a viewfinder away, three more blows. We set our sights on the third blow and waited for her to resurface.

…and waited.

…and waited.

She swam away and didn’t show herself again.

Other times it’s like they conspire against us. Earlier this week, we spent most of the morning tracking the same whale. A couple hours into the track, another whale popped up right next to the first. Since we use a computerized tracking program, each whale is assigned a group number. That way, we can track each individual’s path and later match it to the photo identification database and sometimes a nickname. The two whales surfaced at just the right frequency and distance apart that deciding which number was currently up was guesswork for a good 15 minutes, but we gave them new track numbers and were able to sort it out later after reviewing our photos.

Searching for whales. Photo by Haley Kent.

On another day, we surveyed for whales until quitting time, which is 3:00 pm. About 2:30 pm, one was finally spotted. I named her Princess because she couldn’t be bothered to bring her body out of the water enough so we could mark her location or take a picture except for when her pectoral fin, the tip of which was “gloved” in white, came out and made a motion like a princess in a parade. When there are whales around, we can’t just say “oh look, 3:00 pm time to go” because this is important data to collect. So, we decided to wait until 3:30 pm to see if she surfaced again within visual range. 3:30 pm came and still no sign of her, so I packed up the theodolite and tripod. As soon as the box was closed, she blew, and another whale surfaced right in front of the cliff. We got some pictures of the closer one for a bit and decided that was enough. As the camera was being lowered into its case, another whale surfaced in the cove. It felt like the first went and told all the whales heading south “hey, these guys want to leave at 3, so show up right around then.” That day we got back to the lab around 5. Even though this meant being on the cliff for almost 10 hours that day, it was thrilling to have seen so many whales in one day.

Then there are times when the whales seem to beg for attention. On our third day on the cliff, we saw what we believe to be a juvenile come swimming into view. We assume that he was a juvenile because he was “small” and quite blank in terms of pigmentation and scarring. He was adorable. He stayed over at Mill Rocks for a while foraging, all of which we “fixed” into the tracking program via the Theodolite, and then he came toward us into the little kelp patch just in front of our cliff site. He would dive down, scoop up some zooplankton to eat, and resurface right in the middle of the kelp. The cutest part is that he would then proceed to roll around in the kelp and further drape himself in it.

Kelp whale. Photo by Lisa Hildebrand.

Having such a young whale come and forage made us wonder if mothers who have site fidelity then teach their young “hey, you don’t have to go all the way north, there’s a ton of good food here in Port Orford.”  Hopefully that’s one of the things we’ll be able to figure out with the data collected with this longterm study. But in the meantime, I still have three weeks of data to collect and a bunch more whales to meet. 

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