Diving into new experiences

By Natalee Webster, Oregon State University rising senior, GEMM Lab Intern 2023

When I was younger, I was terrified of the water, sobbing on a rock across the river, afraid to be immersed in the unknown. Flash-forward to the present and I have one more year left to finish my undergraduate degree in Biology at Oregon State University with a focus in Marine Biology. I was a little hesitant about choosing a more focused degree since I wasn’t sure what aspect of sciences piqued my interest more. However my curiosity for the ocean grew as I took the PADI Open Water scuba class through school. After earning my certification, I discovered I loved being in the water, and seeing the habitats I read about firsthand. I quickly took my Advanced Scuba and worked my way up to Divemaster, and ultimately AAUS Scientific diving. This new certification provided me with skills for a career in marine biology, performing tasks and taking surveys underwater. Through the diving community at OSU, I met Allison Dawn, our graduate student leader of the TOPAZ/JASPER project studying gray whale foraging ecology. Through meeting her I was informed about this project and decided to apply. Now, as I write, we are working on week three of this project, and I could not be happier with my decision. This internship has already taught me so much about the hard work and logistics that goes into studying the behaviors of large marine mammals in the field, as well as what it is like to closely work with a team to accomplish our goals.

Figure 1. Port of Port Orford at dawn.

Each morning we wake up before the sun with a new set of goals, with a variety of tasks ahead that certainly keeps you on your toes. Long-time readers will know of our kayak and cliff methods, but another aspect of this project is our CamDo underwater cameras. These are cameras that we place in Mill Rocks and Tichenor Cove, our two sampling sites, for a week at a time for longer term footage. In order to deploy these cameras we utilize scuba equipment to properly place them in a location. When the week is up, we go to recover the cameras to gather the data, replace SD card and batteries, and reset them for another week of underwater video footage. 

Although CamDo deployment is not a required part of this internship, I have been able to use my scientific diving certification to assist this project on the dives. I appreciate the opportunity to take apply skills to assist the project from a different perspective. Before my first week here I had never dove off the Oregon coast from a boat, so this task was daunting, as I was still getting to know everyone around the field station, and get a sense of my environment.

Figure 2. Photo of Natalee geared up for a dive in Mill Rocks. 

Our very first dive at Mill Rocks was intimidating but exciting. Allison and I got up before dawn to prepare the cameras and get to the dive boat the Black Pearl. Allison is our dive tender, handling equipment and logistics, and we worked alongside two other divers — Caroline Rice, an intern with ORKA here at the Port Orford field station, and Kevin Buch, our dive leader and the dive safety officer and scientific diving professor at OSU. Once we rolled off the boat and started our descent I began to feel more in my element as the green waters surrounded us. As we continued further and further to the ocean floor, I realized that visibility was turning from a green you could see rays of sunlight through, into a dark black — barely visible further than five inches from my face. We were able to position the camera lander as needed, but we could not secure the camera because of those black-out conditions. While I waited in the waters for direction on the dive, I put my face as close to the rock as the tides would let me and I saw a purple urchin underwater for the first time, and let me tell you, in the dark waters it was eerie. We finally surfaced and got on the boat to venture off to Tichenor Cove in an attempt to deploy the other CAMDO. Here, I realized that despite the best preparation, scientists need to remain adaptable and determined in the face of challenging ocean conditions.  

Figure 3. A screenshot of CAMDO footage showing fish swimming in the water column.

As we prepared for the next dive and began our descent, I silently wondered what I had gotten myself into. I hoped that not all dives off the Oregon Coast were as dark. While slowly descending into Tichenor Cove, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the waters were beautiful in contrast to the darkness of Mill Rocks. Tichenor seemed to be a safe haven in comparison to Mill Rocks; rather than the strong current pushing me along the rocks and urchins, I was able to calmly swim through the rocks and look at the many sea stars, nudibranch, anemones, and different hues of purple urchins living along them. 

Figure 4. Photos taken from GoPro of Tichenor Cove environment, showing rockfish, urchins, and an anemone. 

More recently, we recovered the camera for data processing. While comparing the footage between the two locations, I have learned the ocean is incredibly variable. From clear blue waters where you can clearly see juvenile and adult fish swimming in the water column, compared to nothing but murky brown and black waters. This variability inspired me to think more deeply about what the gray whales see while they forage for food. Dr. Leigh Torres visited our team and I was able to discuss our dives and inquire about the methods these whales use in order to eat. My basic knowledge of whale anatomy tells me that they have eyes; however, I was curious if they used eyesight to locate zooplankton and other food. Leigh informed me that these whales have whiskers! This was an exciting discovery for me, I googled it later and found that gray whales and many other baleen whales have hair follicles, called vibrissae (watch this NOAA video to learn more!), around their rostrum and mouth they use as tactile sensors. Leigh Torres has hypothesized a “sense-of-scale” that illustrates an interchange of sensory modalities such as vision, audition, chemoreception, magnetoreception and somatosensory perception that allows whales to track and capture of prey (Torres 2017). Research in this sensory field continues to grow to better understand how marine mammals  capture and track prey at various scales.

Figure 5. Image of a gray whale, the spot markings along its jaw and rostrum are hair follicles known as vibrissae. (2016)

Seeing these small segments of their habitat myself while underwater has given me much more respect for how these gray whales are able to forage in such a challenging and changing environment. My teammate Autumn is currently working on quantifying the zooplankton abundance recorded in the footage taken through CAMDO, so stay tuned on the Port Orford blogs to hear more about their project!

Figure 6. Photo of Aly, Natalee, and Autumn before kayak training. Honorable mention to the bucket hats. 

The opportunity to participate in this year’s Gray Whale Foraging Ecology project is something I will not take for granted and will appreciate greatly for years. It has given me the opportunity to grow my knowledge about the marine environment that I have been fascinated with, as well as given me skills and training in methods of field research. I  even got to apply my hard-earned underwater skills and conduct my first official scientific dives! I have been able to interact with the long-time locals of Port Orford, whether it be a fisherman sharing their orca encounter tales to retired photographers that chase the whales along the shore. The field station houses many projects focusing on different aspects of the Oregon coast from sea urchins and kelp to river otters along the shores and to outreach programs within the community. When everyone is settling back into the field station after their long day of work, it is great to be gathered in the kitchen and hear about the progress we’ve made and the experiences we’ve had. I look forward to the remaining three weeks I have in Port Orford with this community and my team! Wish us luck as we prepare to deploy the next round of CamDo cameras next week.

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Torres, L.G. (2017), A sense of scale: Foraging cetaceans’ use of scale-dependent multimodal sensory systems. Mar Mam Sci, 33: 1170-1193. https://doi.org/10.1111/mms.12426

What pushes whales north in the Baja. (2016). iTravel Cabo. Retrieved August 7, 2023, fromhttp://www.itravel-cabo.com/news/cabo-news/what-pushes-whales-north-in-the-baja.

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