By Hunter Warick, Research Technician, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab, Marine Mammal Institute
When monitoring the health of a capital breeding species, such as whales that store energy to support reproduction costs, it is important to understand what processes and factors drive the status of their body condition. Information gained will allow for better insight into their cost of reproduction and overall life history strategies.
For the past four years the GEMM Lab has utilized the perspective that Unoccupied Aerial Systems (UAS; or ‘drones’) provide for observations of marine mammals. This aerial perspective has documented gray whale behavior such as jaw snapping, drooling mud, and headstands, all of which shows or suggest foraging (Torres et al. 2018). However, UAS is limited to a bird’s eye view, allowing us to see WHAT whales are doing, but limited information about the reasons WHY. To overcome this hurdle, Leigh Torres and team have equipped their marine mammal research utility belts with the use of GoPro cameras. They developed a technique known as the “GoPro drop” where a GoPro camera mounted to a weighted pole is lowered off the side of the research vessel in waters < 20 m deep via a line to record video data. This technique allows the team to obtain fine-scale habitat and prey variation information, like what the whale experiences. Along with the context provided by the UAS, this dual camera perspective allows for deeper insight into gray whale foraging strategies and efficiency. Torres’s GoPro data analysis protocol examines kelp density, kelp health, benthic substrate, rock fish density, and mysid density. These characteristics are graded along a scale (Figure 1), allowing for relative comparisons of habitat and prey availability between where whales spend time and forage. These GoPro drops will also help create a fine-scale benthic habitat map of the Newport field area. So, why are these data on gray whale habitat and prey important to understand?
The foraging grounds are the first step in the life history domino chain reaction for many rorqual whales; if this step doesn’t go off cleanly then everything else fails to fall into place. Gray whales partake on a 15,000-20,000 km (round trip) migration, which is the longest of any known mammal (Swartz 1986). During this migration, whales spend around three months fasting in their breeding grounds (Highsmith & Coyle 1992), living only off the energy stores that they accumulated in their feeding grounds (Næss et al. 1998). These extreme conditions of existence for gray whales drive the need to be a successful forager and is why it is so crucial for them to forage in high prey density areas (Newell, C. 2009).
Mysids are a critical part of the gray whale diet in Oregon waters (Newell, C. 2009; Sullivan, F. 2017) and mysids have strong predator-prey relationships with both top-down and bottom-up control (Dunham & Duffus 2001; Newell & Cowles 2006). This unique tie illustrates the great dependency that gray whales have on mysids, further showing the benefit to looking at the density of mysids where gray whales are seen foraging. The quality of mysids may also be as important as quantity; with higher water temperatures resulting in lower lipid content in mysids (Mauchline 1980), suggesting density might not be the only factor for determining efficient whale foraging. The overall goal of gray whales on their foraging grounds is to get as fat as possible in order to reproduce as often as possible. But, this isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Gray whales typically have a two-year breeding interval but can be anywhere from 1-4 years (Blokhin 1984). The longer time it takes to build up adequate energy stores to support reproduction costs, the longer it will take to breed successfully. Building back up these energy stores can prove to be difficult, especially for lactating females (Figure 2).
Being able to track the health and behavior of gray whales on an individual level, including comparisons between variation in body condition, foraging behavior, and fine scale information on benthic communities gained through the use of GoPros, can provide a better understanding of the driving factors and impacts on their health and population trends (Figure 3).
Figure 3. A compilation of video clips captured by the GEMM Lab during their research on gray whale ecology and physiology off Newport, Oregon using Unoccupied Aerial Systems (UAS, or “drones”) and GoPro cameras. UAS are used to observe gray whale behavior and conduct photogrammetry assessment of body condition. GoPro camera drops assess the benthic habitat and prey density across the study region, with a couple chance encounters of whales. Research is conducted under NOAA/NMFS permit # 21678.