The Season of Big Whale Energy (B.W.E)

By Charlie Ells, incoming freshman, Environmental Science major, College of Arts & Sciences at University of Oregon, GEMM Lab intern

Hi! My name is Charlie Ells and I’m an intern at the Port Orford field station. I’m part of the 8th Gray Whale Foraging Ecology Research Team, named this year Team B.W.E (Big Whale Energy!)

Figure 1: Logo I made for the team using Canva

The inspiration for our team name originated when the cliff team first spotted a whale named Buttons. Luke, another intern, saw Buttons through the Theodolite and said that he had “Big Whale Energy.” Luke was correct. Pictured below is Zoe, a fellow intern whose blog you might have read a couple weeks ago, and Buttons, an adult gray whale who surprised us both when he appeared out of nowhere behind us while in the kayak. The image doesn’t do him justice, but Buttons is absolutely awesome (and I mean that in the literal definition of the word). Buttons is huge; when he surfaces, it is almost like he is showing off. Buttons pulls a lot more of his body out of the water than seems necessary. His blows are deafening, sounding like an 18-wheeler’s brakes applied with full force. He often exhibits a behavior called ‘sharking’, which is when a whale turns on its side on the surface, bringing a part of their fluke out of the water (see GEMM lab video of sharking behavior). The behavior helps gray whales feed in shallow areas, and was named so because someone thought the whale’s fluke looked like a shark’s fin.

Figure 2: Kayak team gets a surprise visit by Buttons. No craft, whether it has a motor or not, should get this close to a whale. See this GEMM lab website with vessel guidelines and more information. In this case, we had seen Buttons at a safe distance (>100 yards) moments before, and moved in the opposite direction we had seen him going to avoid disturbing him. But Buttons had other plans.

Not only does B.W.E apply to the large whale that Buttons is, but it also encapsulates how much more whale activity we’ve seen this year compared to last year. So far, we have over 17 hours of whale observation time this season, which is 15 hours more than the team had in total last year. We’ve ID’d three unique whales using our study area, learned about some of them on the IndividuWhale website, and collected some great behavior data. Meet Rugged, the first whale I ever photographed. She’s young, and a bit smaller than the other adults, but she’s full of personality (to the extent that we can observe a whale’s personality, anyway). 

Figure 3: Rugged. Photo taken from the beach.

Figure 4: Rugged shows us her fluke as she dives behind the jetty.

Rugged likes to feed for a relatively long time; while some whales have searched and left quickly, she often hangs around the foraging grounds for hours. When Rugged travels, she tends to fluke, meaning she brings the end of her tail out of the water (Figure 4), pretty often. She sometimes blows three times in a row, and spends more time at the surface than others typically do. Look closely at Figure 3 and you can see a propeller scar, which is sadly new this year but at least these identification marks help us spot her more easily. So far, Rugged has been a regular customer at this season’s Mill Rocks buffet, where she feasts on a variety of zooplankton. We’ve seen her the most frequently of any whale this season, and when she shows up, she can be counted on to stick around and offer us the opportunity to collect a lot of nice whale behavior data.

My favorite part of the TOPAZ project data collection efforts are the photographs of whales I’ve captured. The camera is my favorite piece of our gear, and since using it so much this summer I’ve been seriously considering investing in one for myself. For any photography nerds, the camera is a Canon EOS 90D with a 400mm telephoto lens and auto-stabilization. Using this camera on challenging subjects, like a whale that can travel over a kilometer in a couple minutes, has taught me a lot about photography. I’ve learned a lot of situation-specific tricks as well as some general knowledge I’d like to share. I found that using such a long lens can introduce enough camera shake to ruin a shot. To prevent this, simply cranking the shutter speed up does wonders. In the main menu, I change the shutter speed to something like 1/1000, which means the shutter is open for 1/1000th of a second, minimizing the effect of the shake. I’ve also discovered that with a subject that is only in frame for a second (such as a whale), there just isn’t enough time to manually focus the camera before it’s gone. There are two solutions here: rely on auto-focus, which is fine with this camera, but might not be sufficient on others, or use manual focus before your subject is in frame. This second trick has helped me get much better whale pictures than when I first started this internship, and I use it all the time now.

Capturing these pictures of the whales is a thrilling process. First, the wait. Second, the moment of panicked excitement when someone spots a blow. Third, the breathless callouts of where the whale is and the direction it’s heading. Fourth, the mad scramble to get the whale in frame, in focus, and open the shutter in the few seconds before it returns to the depths. This last step is tough — I end up with more photos of empty water, rocks I mistake for the whale, and blurry nothingness than usable ID photos. But when I do end up with a good picture, it’s a great feeling. 

Figure 5: My best picture yet. This is Rugged, showing off what my teammates have dubbed “RainBlow.” 

Figure 6: Dotty, the third whale we ID’d this season. I hustled to the Battle Rock shoreline to get a better angle of this whale, as the sun was causing too much glare from the Cliff site to obtain a good ID photo.

This internship has affirmed my favorite part of conservation, which is the blending of science and art to inform and inspire. One of the things that first got me into science, besides my excellent science teachers, was watching YouTube videos. People like Mark Rober, Steve Mould, Veritasium, and Physics Girl take the scientific process and turn it into creative, accessible, and understandable videos. These artists and scientists have gifted me so much inspiration, which I personally think is one of the most valuable things you can be given. Inspiration can propel you forward, motivate you, and help you take those first steps towards your goal. This internship has propelled my first steps (via kayak strokes) toward my career goals. I’m looking forward to taking these lessons with me as I go off to U of O to study Environmental science. I created the video below in an attempt to capture our work, show off some highlights, and give people the same inspiration that I was given. I hope you enjoy it. This is Team Big Whale Energy, signing off!

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