Where the Wild Things Are

By Dylan Gregory, GEMM Lab summer 2018 intern, OSU undergraduate transfer

In ecology, biodiversity is a term often touted for its key importance in stable ecosystems. Every organism plays its role in the constant struggle of nature, competing and cooperating with each other for survival. The sun provides the initial energy to primary producers, herbivores eat those producers, and predators then eat the consumers. The food chain is a simplistic way to look at how ecosystems work, and of course, it is more like an intricate web of interactions. Fungus and plants work together to trade nutrients and create a vast network of fertile soils; kelp forests provide habitats and food for a variety of prey that marine predators feed on. There are checks and balances between all these organisms that give breath into the beauty and color we see in ecosystems around the world. And, here in Port Orford is no exception. Coming to the project I expected to see some whales, of course. However only three weeks in and I’ve been absolutely astounded with the amount of marine biodiversity we’ve experienced. These past three weeks have been nothing if, well, wild.

Eschrichtius robustus, The Gray Whale

There was no doubt we would see gray whales, that is what we are here for after all, and studying them in the field has been an incredibly enlightening experience. Watching an animal every day for weeks really gets you into their head. You start to connect with them and think about their behaviors in different ways. You begin to realize that the individuals have unique quirks, habits and tendencies. For example, one whale would feed quickly for a time, and then seem to run out of energy and “log” itself, floating on the surface, taking multiple breaths in succession to recover before diving back down. Many whales come from the south, to feed in Mill Rocks before moving to Tichenor Cove, and then leave our study region through “Hell’s Gate” to the North, often resting a moment, taking multiple breaths and then launching into the open sea. Still, when you think you know these whales, they surprise you with an alarming unpredictability, making tracking them a new experience every day.

Figure 1 A gray whale surprised us by surfacing right next to our kayak during a routine zooplankton sampling. The site has shown to have a significant amount of zooplankton and it must have been very interested in the prey available, completely ignoring our presence. Photo by Haley Kent.

The whale in Fig. 1 surprised us, and honestly, being so close to it was as humbling as it was awesome. I expected to see whales, but never expected such a close encounter. These gentle giants are one of our not so distant relatives in the ocean. Many of us do this kind of research for more than just the science and the data. Many of us do it for the connection we feel to our mammal family.

Phoca vitulina richardii, The Pacific Harbor Seal

I absolutely adore these harbor seals! They’re well known for their friendliness towards humans as their dopey little heads pop up out of the water to greet you with a curious look in their eyes. They like to bob in the surf and stare at us while we’re out sampling in the kayak. At first, we got quite excited seeing one, often startling them as we’d squeal “seal!” to each other and they’d dip back under and scurry away. Now though, they seem more comfortable being around our kayak (Fig. 2).

Figure 2 This harbor seal surfaced next to Haley and me shortly before the whale in Fig 1. We named him Courage, as he stuck around and kept us company during the whole encounter. Photo by Haley Kent.

One day a seal followed Lisa and Hayleigh around the jetty on their way back from sampling, swimming around the kayak and investigating them. Out in Mill Rocks, we often see them stretching on top of the rocks, seemingly doing a little yoga session while basking in the morning sun. Despite their cute and cuddly appearance, they are still predators. With plenty of fish to eat and make them happy, these harbor seals are quite plentiful themselves, and I’d like to think we’ve become quite good friends with the little guys.

Tursiops truncatus, The Bottlenose Dolphin

Figure 3 A shot of the dorsal fin seen on August 9th in Mill Rocks. Photo by Dylan Gregory.

One morning we were in Mill Rocks and a large cloud of fog moved in, so we decided to wait it out before making our passage to Tichenor Cove. While sitting there, enjoying a snack, we noticed some dorsal fins popping up about 100 meters from us. Caught by surprise, Haley and I scrambled for our cameras and lo and behold, we noticed they were a small pod of dolphins! Two adults and a calf. Unfortunately, as you can see from our pictures, it is difficult to identify what species they were exactly.

Figure 4 The head and rostrum of the dolphin seen in Mill Rocks on August 9th. Photo by Dylan Gregory.

After communicating with Lisa and Leigh, we have decided that their dorsal fins were far too big and curved to be harbor porpoises (Fig. 3), and the intersection of the head and rostrum seem to have the classic look of a bottlenose dolphin (Fig. 4).

If these were in fact bottlenose dolphins, why are they here in Port Orford, Oregon? It’s uncommon for them to be so far north in our colder waters. Were they foraging for food? Finding refuge from predators? Is it because our waters are becoming warmer? A sighting like this gives more weight to how climate change is affecting our oceans and how marine animals are responding by adapting their migratory and feeding behaviors.

Pisaster and Pycnopodia, The Common Sea Star and the Sunflower Star

Figure 5 Pisaster sea stars and anemones on a rock in Mill Rocks. No Pycnopodia (often called sunflower stars for their many legs) have been spotted in our study zone. Photo by Haley Kent.

One of the coolest aspects of living at the Port Orford Field Station is the fact that we have access to a lot of engagement with other scientists. For instance, we were able to attend a webinar about Sea Star Wasting Disease (SSWD) research currently happening at OSU by Post Doc Sarah Gravem. In a nutshell, a bacterial disease has been infecting sea stars along the west coast, causing a rapid plummet in their populations. Pisaster and Pycnopodia (Fig. 5) have been particularly affected. They are keystone predators, and as such, hold an important role in intertidal ecosystems. Feeding on snails, urchins, other sea stars and various mollusks, these sea stars maintain species populations and allow for a diverse and stable intertidal zone, which then supports many other near shore marine species. While SSWD’s cause is relatively unknown, Pisaster seems to be recovering while Pycnopodia is still struggling. I’ve even heard some anecdotal reports that fishermen here in Port Orford have noticed the lack of Pycnopodia as well, but they are rather pleased that these “ragmops” have stopped mucking up their lines and crab pots.

Below the Surface

There is a charm to the deep, a mystery and wonder that has captured the imagination of humans ad nauseam. Stories, movies, music and masterpieces of art have been inspired by The Abyss. Below the surface lies a diverse world teeming with life, full of questions and answers to be found. While marine mammals are why we’re here, there’s an entirely different environment under the water that is unseen from the safety of our dry, oxygen rich air. Our research doesn’t involve any diving, and so our eyes under the water are a GoPro camera attached to a downrigger on our kayak. Although designed to measure zooplankton community density, we’ve seen quite a bit more than itty bitty sea bugs in the depths of our little harbor here in Port Orford.

Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, The Purple Sea Urchin

Urchins are known for their bright colors and spiny ball like exterior. Close relatives to the sea stars, urchins inhabit the intertidal zones and also take residence within kelp beds. During our kayak training, we passed by some rocks near the cliffs and it was an awesome sight seeing the diversity of intertidal critters such as anemones, sea stars and sea urchins. However, a week into data collection, we have noticed something startling: a large quantity of the urchins cover the seafloor and the kelp, or at least what was left of the kelp (Fig. 6).

Figure 6 Sea Urchins decimating a kelp bed in Tichenor Cove. Photo captured from GoPro footage.

Sea urchins are important members in their communities. They graze on algae and control it from overwhelming the waters, but when left unchecked urchins can completely decimate kelp beds. This pattern is often referred to as “urchin barrens”. Sea otters and sea stars are the urchin’s main predator, and due to the absence of otters and the emergence of SSWD, the occurrence of urchin barrens has risen. An assessment of the reintroduction of the sea otters to Oregon by Dominique Kone, a GEMM Lab graduate student, is underway, and there is a lot of new research on SSWD, both of which could support the ‘ecosystem control’ of urchin populations. We’ve already spotted the urchins wreaking their havoc on the kelp in two separate sites in Tichenor Cove. Since gray whales primarily feed within these kelp beds, this increase in urchin populations is something that we are monitoring. An urchin barren can happen quickly and causes significant ecosystem damage, so this is not something to ignore. If we lose the kelp, it’s easy to imagine that we may lose the whales.

Alopias vulpinus, The Thresher Shark

Figure 7 A thresher shark spotted in Tichenor Cove in Port Orford, OR. Photo captured by GoPro footage.

By far, the most exciting thing I’ve seen so far has been this lovely creature (Fig. 7). The thresher shark usually inhabits the oceanic and coastal zones in tropical and temperate waters. They feed on pelagic schooling fish, squid and sometimes even shorebirds. They attack by whipping their tails (which grow to be the size of their body!) at their prey to stun them. Threshers are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as “Vulnerable” due to their declining populations. They are often hunted for shark fin soup, or by trophy hunters due to their elegant and unique tails.

Haley, our resident shark enthusiast, was able to tell that this shark was a female by the lack of claspers (male appendages) on her pelvic fin. Why was she here though? During the summer, threshers will migrate to colder yet productive northern waters to feed, and on some rare occasions, such as this one, they will come closer to shore. Perhaps she was chasing prey into the harbor and found it to be full of yummy food, or she is a juvenile, which often stay near the continental shelf.

Either way, we were all surprised and excited to see such an exotic and beautiful species of shark caught on camera in our study zone. She even does a little strut in front of the GoPro camera, showing off her beautiful caudal fin!

Protecting our Wilds      

These are only a few examples of the many different animals at work in Port Orford’s ecosystem. Perhaps the biodiversity here is why this is such a hot spot for our whale friends. The productive and lively waters have shown us so many critters, and likely many more we have yet to see. But alas, we have three more weeks of data collection and new discoveries, and I couldn’t be more excited.

“It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.”

– Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us

This experience only drives me further into my pursuit of ecological research. I believe it’s incredibly important to understand the world and how it functions, and to do so before it’s too late. All too often we have breakthrough discoveries in science because something has already fallen apart. Ecosystems are fragile, and climate change, pollution, and other anthropogenic disturbances all have an impact which damage and alter ecosystems and the services they provide. However, it’s an impact we can control with a fundamental understanding of how nature works. With a little hope, some integrity, and a whole lot of passion, I believe we have the power to truly make a difference.

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