Updates from the 2023 Port Orford Gray Whale Foraging Ecology Project (team name TBD!)

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

Greetings from the South Coast Outpost, aka the Port Orford Field Station! Long-time GEMM lab blog readers will know that by this time of the year, our TOPAZ and JASPER projects are fully underway. We have officially entered our 9th consecutive year of these two integrated projects, which provides experiential learning internships to high school and undergraduate students while conducting long-term monitoring of gray whale foraging ecology in our small study region.

Much like last year, the Port Orford Field Station is at full capacity, with our team of five plus six other NSF REU, MSI, and Sea Grant interns. The research efforts here span a wide-range of subjects, including the long-standing ORKA kelp-urchin monitoring projects, river otter predation, science communication initiatives with the Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve, and more. This diversity in subject matter makes for excellent discussion during our communal dinners, and keeps the field station’s labs bustling with a variety of samples, gear, and equipment being transported in-and-out on a daily basis. Needless to say, it is a thriving environment for young scientists who are passionate about the community and ecosystems of the southern Oregon Coast. 

This is my third year participating in the project, and my second time as the solo graduate team leader. After having defended my master’s thesis this past June, I have been so excited to return to this incredible study site and share what I have learned about the system here with a new group of interns. I will write about my thesis work in a separate blog soon, but for now, I’d like to introduce you to the excellent group of motivated students that are on the team this year!

Figure 1: Autumn draws a pyramid while learning the equation for estimating zooplankton patch density, as provided in Hermanson, 2019.

First up, we have Autumn Lee.  Autumn is one of the GEMM Lab’s three REU students and together we are diligently working to automate the detection of zooplankton and predator occurrence from our in situ underwater cameras using the program VIAME. We hope to describe the predator-prey dynamics in Port Orford and a new, calculated metric for zooplankton patch density. Autumn moved to Mount Holyoke College, MA after celebrating their high school graduation with a drive-through commencement in Spring 2020. Despite the challenging start to undergrad due to COVID, Autumn is now a rising senior with a major in Neuroscience and Behavior with a certificate in Coastal Marine Sciences. Initially Autumn wanted to be a neurosurgeon or do veterinary medicine, but has always loved the ocean. After taking a few marine science classes back home, they decided to apply for our REU project in hopes of gaining their first marine science fieldwork experience. Autumn is excited to connect with like-minded students, the community, and volunteer with Port Orford Sustainable Seafood with the goal of consuming as much fresh, local seafood as possible in these six weeks.

Figure 2: Natalee beams after having captured two separate whales on camera for the first time.

Next on our team is Natalee Webster! Natalee is originally from St. Helens, OR and has her associates degree from Portland Community College. Natalee was on a nursing track but slowly accumulated environmental and marine biology classes that led her to obtain her first SCUBA diving certification. After this, she was hooked and decided to major in biology with a focus in marine biology. Now, Natalee has earned both her dive master and AAUS scientific dive certifications, and has already helped us deploy our underwater in situ cameras. Like Autumn, Natalee is excited to get involved with the community, meet other interns, and get her first scientific fieldwork experience. In addition to her water sport skills, she is already quite a natural at taking photos from the cliff site.

Figure 3: Aly enjoying a sunny morning on the cliff site with our high-powered binoculars.

Aly is a rising senior at Marshfield High School in Coos Bay, Oregon where her favorite subject is science. In particular, her favorite class is AP environmental where she first learned how to read dissolved oxygen graphs and was fascinated by how this metric can describe water quality for public health considerations. As of now, Aly is considering several colleges, including Oregon State University, with aspirations to major in marine science. Interestingly enough, she used to be afraid of the water. Despite this fear, and being the intrepid person she is, Aly taught herself how to surf during COVID and has since found a new-found respect for the ocean — so much so that she is now ready to make marine conservation her career. Aly is excited for our kayak training session next week and is ready to get in the water to start collecting zooplankton samples. Aly has had a consistently positive attitude during training week, even when learning the most tedious tasks, and can always make our team laugh. 

Figure 4: Jonah poses near Port Orford Sustainable Seafood while listening to the Junket audio tour of the town. 

Jonah is a junior at Pacific High School here in Port Orford where his favorite classes are math and woodshop, and he also loves to get involved in sports such as track and field, soccer, and basketball. As a freshman, Jonah took a 3-D printing class which affirmed his desire to learn more engineering techniques. While considering a summer job, Jonah was excited to watch our recruitment presentation and learn that he could use specialized equipment for marine science applications. He is now considering Oregon State University and Oregon Institute of Technology for his undergraduate career. Jonah has been a quick learner with excellent attention to detail, and is also an excellent cook — which myself and the others are grateful for. He is excited to spend more time on the cliff and wants to perfect his theodolite techniques to track whale movements.

Figure 5: First team photo! We were all very excited and grateful to have been greeted by two whales on our first day together.

In just this first week, we have deployed underwater cameras, tracked multiple whales in one day from the cliff, obtained Basic Life Safety/CPR certifications, and practiced kayak sampling methods from the dock. Next week, we have our kayak safety training, and will have many more days of practicing the cliff and kayak methods before we jump into official data sampling days. I know the team is just as excited as I am for the rest of the season, especially because of this increase in whale activity. It is heartening to see so many whales after our low occurrence year in 2021. Stay tuned for more updates, including what we decide for this year’s team name!

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