Surveying for marine mammals in the Northern California Current

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

There is something wonderful about time at sea, where your primary obligation is to observe the ocean from sunrise to sunset, day after day, scanning for signs of life. After hours of seemingly empty blue with only an occasional albatross gliding over the swells on broad wings, it is easy to question whether there is life in the expansive, blue, offshore desert. Splashes on the horizon catch your eye, and a group of dolphins rapidly approaches the ship in a flurry of activity. They play in the ship’s bow and wake, leaping out of the swells. Then, just as quickly as they came, they move on. Back to blue, for hours on end… until the next stirring on the horizon. A puff of exhaled air from a whale that first might seem like a whitecap or a smudge of sunscreen or salt spray on your sunglasses. It catches your eye again, and this time you see the dark body and distinctive dorsal fin of a humpback whale.

I have just returned from 10 days aboard the NOAA ship Bell M. Shimada, where I was the marine mammal observer on the Northern California Current (NCC) Cruise. These research cruises have sampled the NCC in the winter, spring, and fall for decades. As a result, a wealth of knowledge on the oceanography and plankton community in this dynamic ocean ecosystem has been assimilated by a dedicated team of scientists (find out more via the Newportal Blog). Members of the GEMM Lab have joined this research effort in the past two years, conducting marine mammal surveys during the transits between sampling stations (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Northern California Current cruise sampling locations, where oceanography and plankton data are collected. Marine mammal surveys were conducted on the transits between stations.

The fall 2019 NCC cruise was a resounding success. We were able to survey a large swath of the ecosystem between Crescent City, CA and La Push, WA, from inshore to 200 miles offshore. During that time, I observed nine different species of marine mammals (Table 1). As often as I use some version of the phrase “the marine environment is patchy and dynamic”, it never fails to sink in a little bit more every time I go to sea. On the map in Fig. 3, note how clustered the marine mammal sightings are. After nearly a full day of observing nothing but blue water, I would find myself scrambling to keep up with recording all the whales and dolphins we were suddenly in the midst of. What drives these clusters of sightings? What is it about the oceanography and prey community that makes any particular area a hotspot for marine mammals? We hope to get at these questions by utilizing the oceanographic data collected throughout the surveys to better understand environmental drivers of these distribution patterns.

 Table 1. Summary of marine mammal sightings from the September 2019 NCC Cruise.

Species # sightings Total # individuals
Northern Elephant Seal 1 1
Northern Fur Seal 2 2
Common Dolphin 2 8
Pacific White-sided Dolphin 8 143
Dall’s Porpoise 4 19
Harbor Porpoise 1 3
Sperm Whale 1 1
Fin Whale 1 1
Humpback Whale 22 36
Unidentified Baleen Whale 14 16
Figure 3. Map of marine mammal sighting locations from the September NCC cruise.

It was an auspicious time to survey the Northern California Current. Perhaps you have read recent news reports warning about the formation of another impending marine heatwave, much like the “warm blob” that plagued the North Pacific in 2015. We experienced it first-hand during the NCC cruise, with very warm surface waters off Newport extending out to 200 miles offshore (Fig. 4). A lot of energy input from strong winds would be required to mix that thick, warm layer and allow cool, nutrient-rich water to upwell along the coast. But it is already late September, and as the season shifts from summer to fall we are at the end of our typical upwelling season, and the north winds that would typically drive that mixing are less likely. Time will tell what is in store for the NCC ecosystem as we face the onset of another marine heatwave.

Figure 4. Temperature contours over the upper 150 m from 1-200 miles off Newport, Oregon from Fall 2014-2019. During Fall 2014, the Warm Blob inundated the Oregon shelf. Surface temperatures during that survey were 17°- 18°C along the entire transect. During 2015 and 2016 the warm water (16°C) layer had deepened and occupied the upper 50 m. During 2018, the temperature was 16°C in the upper 20 m and cooler on the shelf, indicative of residual upwelling. During this survey in 2019, we again saw very warm (18°C) temperatures in the upper water column over the entire transect. Image and caption credit: Jennifer Fisher.

It was a joy to spend 10 days at sea with this team of scientists. Insight, collaboration, and innovation are born from interdisciplinary efforts like the NCC cruises. Beyond science, what a privilege it is to be on the ocean with a group of people you can work with and laugh with, from the dock to 200 miles offshore, south to north and back again.

Dawn Barlow on the flying bridge of NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada, heading out to sea with the Newport bridge in the background. Photo: Anna Bolm.
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