Port Orford Gray Whale Foraging Ecology Project 2022 Field Season Wrap-Up

Allison Dawn, GEMM Lab Master’s student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab 

The 8th year of Port Orford Gray Whale Foraging Ecology Project (TOPAZ/JASPER) has come to an end and it feels truly bittersweet. Last Friday, the team hosted our annual community presentation to close out the project and I was filled with pride to see them confidently convey all they learned over this summer to an audience of family, friends, and community members.

Figure 1: Team B.W.E poses for the annual team photo after the community presentation alongside Tom Calvanese (field station manager) and Lisa Hildebrand (previous project lead). 

I am amazed by all that you can accomplish in one summer, especially with an enthusiastic and adaptable team. I’ve compiled a “by the numbers” table (Fig. 2) that summarizes our hard work this season. 

Figure 2: Port Orford Gray Whale Forage Ecology (GWFE) field season 2022 by the numbers.

Every Spring, the GEMM lab works diligently to hire a solid team of students for this project, which just finished its 8th consecutive year. These students are initially total strangers who come together to live and work at the Port Orford field station on a project that is as physically and mentally tasking as it is rewarding. Although attention to all the daily details is critical, without a genuine desire to form strong connections and learn from each other – the real “glue” for teamwork – this project would not be as successful as it has been. Like the teams before them, team Big Whale Energy (B.W.E.) started off with little to no gray whale knowledge, sea kayaking experience, zooplankton ID, theodolite operation, or other skills that this project demands. The learning curve required of these students in such a short time is steep, but each year these bright, young scientists prove that with patience, determination, and a positive mindset you can gain not only valuable skills but lifelong connections. 

I also experienced a learning curve as this was my first year leading the project solo. While Leigh and Lisa trained me well last year, and were always a phone call away, there are certain skills that can only truly be honed with experience, many of which must be learned through the inevitable curve balls each new field season brings. During the six week project, Team B.W.E. grew as individuals and as a team as we encountered every challenge with a positive mindset and creative adaptation – from learning new knots to secure our downrigger line, to creating new songs while patiently watching for whales. I know I speak for all of us when I say we are so grateful for everything this 2022 field season experience has taught us about both the process of scientific research and ourselves.

During our community presentation, Leigh wonderfully conveyed how informative and exciting long term data sets can be, especially because 8 years is long enough for us to begin to observe cycles. We have been able to observe cycles in both the ecological changes in Port Orford and in the succession of students who have taken part in the project. Last year, the ecological habitat suitability seemed to have reached a new low, while this year we have seen more kelp and an uptick of whale activity as compared to 2021. We are hopeful this change is indicative of an ecosystem recovery. The cycle of returning project leads and previous interns (both virtual and in person) allows for a meaningful interchange of wisdom, memories, and excitement for the future of this project.

Figure 3: Mosaic of memories for Team B.W.E.

Thank you Team B.W.E. for helping me grow as a leader, contributing to the GEMM lab legacy, and making the 8th year of this project a great success. 

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