A Master’s odyssey: Decoding gray whale foraging energetics with high-resolution tag data

By: Kate Colson, MSc Oceans and Fisheries, University of British Columbia, Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, Marine Mammal Research Unit

When I wrote my first blog a year ago, I was just starting to dig into the field work and data analysis I had loftily proposed for my graduate degree. Now I am writing to you as a new Master of Science! A little more than a month ago, I successfully defended my thesis research where I used the data from minimally invasive high-resolution accelerometry suction cup tags deployed by the GEMM Lab to estimate the relative energetic cost of different foraging behaviors (see my first blog) of Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales that forage during summer months off the coast of Oregon. I learned a lot of new skills through this research project and am excited to share some of my odyssey with you.

To start, I want to highlight the technology that made this work possible: the high-resolution accelerometry suction cup tags. These suction cup tags not only record fine scale data about the whale’s movement and behavior from inertial sensors like accelerometers, magnetometers and gyroscopes, the tags also incorporate video and audio data to record what the whale is seeing and hearing in its environment. I used the data from these tags to achieve two research objectives relating to 1) describing foraging behavior of PCFG gray whales and 2) estimating the relative energetic cost of these behaviors. 

Through the hard work of the GEMM Lab field team and collaborators John Calambokidis and Dr. Dave Cade, 10 of these high-resolution accelerometry tags were deployed to collect approximately 91.5 hours of data from PCFG gray whales. Excitingly, two of these tags were deployed on a known mother-daughter pair on the same day. The mother and her 8-year-old daughter were even observed foraging together while tagged later in the day and recorded each other while feeding (Figure 1)! 

My first research objective was to quantitatively describe the foraging behaviors of PCFG gray whales. These quantitative descriptions exist for other baleen whale foraging behaviors, such as the lunge feeding behavior of rorqual whales (e.g., humpback, fin, and blue whales) where large mouthfuls of prey are engulfed, or the ram filtration feeding of bowhead and right whales where water is filtered for prey as the whale swims along with its mouth open. High-resolution accelerometry tag data has found that a strong acceleration signal is useful for detecting lunges (Goldbogen et al., 2013) and continuous fluking paired with low swim speeds signal the occurrence of ram filtration feeding (Simon et al., 2009). However, gray whales are the only baleen whales to use suction feeding behavior where the whale rolls to one side and sucks up water to filter for prey. Beyond describing side preferences when performing suction feeding (Woodward & Winn, 2006), this unique foraging behavior of gray whales lacks quantitative descriptions. My thesis works to add quantitative descriptions of gray whale suction feeding to the existing descriptions of baleen whale foraging behavior using high-resolution tag data. Based on previous drone focal follows that qualitatively describe gray whale foraging behaviors (Torres et al., 2018), I hypothesized that body position variables would be important for quantitatively describing PCFG gray whale foraging tactics using tag data. I anticipated that the signals of gray whale suction feeding behavior would be different from the signals of lunge and ram filtration feeding performed by other species of baleen whales (Figure 2).

Figure 1. Snapshots from the video footage of high-resolution accelerometry suction cup tags deployed on a mother-daughter pair of whales foraging together. The top photo is from the tag deployed on the daughter filming the mother, and the bottom photo is from the tag deployed on the mother filming the daughter. 
Figure 2. Quantitative descriptions of foraging behaviors for different baleen whale feeding mechanisms. The left panel indicates the strong acceleration signal used to detect lunges of rorquals (e.g., humpback, fin, and blue whales). The acceleration figure is adapted from Izadi et al., (2022). The middle panel shows the continuous fluking and low swim speed signal for ram filtration feeding of bowheads (Simon et al., 2009). The right panel indicates the hypothesized importance of body position variables when quantitatively describing the unique suction feeding behavior of gray whales (my thesis). 

My second objective was to estimate the relative energetic cost of PCFG gray whale foraging behaviors. Previous research has estimated the energetic cost of gray whale broad state behaviors (e.g., transit, search, and forage) using respiration rates (Sumich, 1986). However, respiration rates are difficult to use when estimating the energetic cost of fine scale behaviors, like the precise foraging tactics performed within a dive. Therefore, I calculated biologging-derived proxies of energy expenditure from the tag data such as stroke rate (i.e., the frequency of the whale’s fluke beats) and Overall Dynamic Body Acceleration (ODBA; i.e., the total body movement of the whale) to estimate the relative energetic cost of three different PCFG gray whale foraging tactics: benthic dig, headstand, and side swim. To put these energy expenditure proxies into a human example, if you were walking, your stroke rate would be the frequency of your steps and your ODBA would be all the acceleration of your body including your legs moving with each step, your swinging arms, and turning head. Stroke rate and ODBA are common proxies of energy expenditure that are easily calculated from biologging tag data and have been linked to metabolic rate in many species, including bottlenose dolphins (Allen et al., 2022) and fur seals (Jeanniard-Du-Dot et al., 2016). 

When comparing these two proxies of energy expenditure between PCFG gray whale foraging tactics, I expected that the benthic dig foraging behavior would be the least energetically costly compared to the other PCFG foraging tactics. Benthic digs occur when the whale is rolled onto its side and plows through the sediment to suction up prey while leaving feeding pits on the seafloor. Benthic digs are assumed to be the primary foraging tactic of the majority of the gray whale population (Nerini, 1984) that feed in the Arctic and sub-Arctic region where gray whales must dive deeper to reach their prey in the bottom sediments, making it likely that a lower energetic cost of foraging motivates the higher use of this foraging tactic. Excitingly, preliminary results indicate that these three gray whale foraging tactics have different energy expenditures, which can potentially help explain patterns of behavior choice and tactic usage between different groups of gray whales. My thesis research is a foundational step toward better understanding gray whale foraging energetics by providing a means to assess prey requirements and inform management policies to reduce threats facing the PCFG gray whales. For example, previous work has shown that vessel disturbance reduces the searching time (Sullivan & Torres, 2018) and increases the stress levels (Lemos et al., 2022) of PCFG gray whales. My work builds on this by demonstrating an elevated energetic cost of some foraging tactics that could be used to support increasing the distance requirements between vessels and feeding PCFG whales as a way to reduce the energetic impact of vessel disturbance (Figure 3). Additionally, differences in energetic cost of foraging behaviors may help inform potential risks posed by changes in prey quality and quantity for gray whales using different foraging tactics.

Figure 3. Snapshot from the video footage of a high-resolution accelerometry suction cup tag deployed on a PCFG gray whale showing the high number of vessels present during a surfacing following a foraging dive. The energetic cost of foraging behaviors found in my thesis might suggest that increasing distance between vessels and forging whales could reduce the energetic impacts of vessel disturbance. 

Overall, I am so grateful for my Master’s experience. I had the opportunity to work with amazing scientists that taught me many valuable skills and lessons that I will take with me as I move onto the next phase of my career. Throughout my degree I’ve had a lot of “firsts” and I am excited to embark on another as I prepare my first manuscripts for publication! 



Allen, A. S., Read, A. J., Shorter, K. A., Gabaldon, J., Blawas, A. M., Rocho-Levine, J., & Fahlman, A. (2022). Dynamic body acceleration as a proxy to predict the cost of locomotion in bottlenose dolphins. Journal of Experimental Biology225(4). https://doi.org/10.1242/jeb.243121

Goldbogen, J. A., Friedlaender, A. S., Calambokidis, J., McKenna, M. F., Simon, M., & Nowacek, D. P. (2013). Integrative approaches to the study of baleen whale diving behavior, feeding performance, and foraging ecology. BioScience63(2), 90–100. https://doi.org/10.1525/bio.2013.63.2.5

Izadi, S., Aguilar de Soto, N., Constantine, R., & Johnson, M. (2022). Feeding tactics of resident Bryde’s whales in New Zealand. Marine Mammal Science, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1111/mms.12918

Jeanniard-Du-Dot, T., Trites, A. W., Arnould, J. P. Y., Speakman, J. R., & Guinet, C. (2016). Flipper strokes can predict energy expenditure and locomotion costs in free-ranging northern and Antarctic fur seals. Scientific Reports6. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep33912

Lemos, L. S., Haxel, J. H., Olsen, A., Burnett, J. D., Smith, A., Chandler, T. E., Nieukirk, S. L., Larson, S. E., Hunt, K. E., & Torres, L. G. (2022). Effects of vessel traffic and ocean noise on gray whale stress hormones. Scientific Reports12(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-14510-5

Nerini, M. (1984). A review of gray whale feeding ecology. In M. Lou Jones, S. L. Swartz, & S. Leatherwood (Eds.), The gray whale: Eschrichtius robustus (pp. 423–450). Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-092372-7.50024-8

Simon, M., Johnson, M., Tyack, P., & Madsen, P. T. (2009). Behaviour and kinematics of continuous ram filtration in bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus). Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences276(1674), 3819–3828. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2009.1135

Sullivan, F. A., & Torres, L. G. (2018). Assessment of vessel disturbance to gray whales to inform sustainable ecotourism. Journal of Wildlife Management82(5), 896–905. https://doi.org/10.1002/jwmg.21462

Sumich, J. L. (1986). Latitudinal distribution, calf growth and metabolism, and reproductive energetics of gray whales, Eschrichtius robustus. Oregon State University.

Torres, L. G., Nieukirk, S. L., Lemos, L., & Chandler, T. E. (2018). Drone up! Quantifying whale behavior from a new perspective improves observational capacity. Frontiers in Marine Science5. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2018.00319

Woodward, B. L., & Winn, J. P. (2006). Apparent lateralized behavior in gray whales feeding off the Central British Columbia coast. Marine Mammal Science22(1), 64–73. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-7692.2006.00006.x

Fantastic beasts and how to measure  them! 

Sagar Karki, Master’s student in the Computer Science Department at Oregon State University 

What beasts? Good question! We are talking about gray whales in this article but honestly we can tweak the system discussed in this blog a little and make it usable for other marine animals too.  

Understanding the morphology, such as body area and length, of wild animals and populations can provide important information on animal  behavior and health (check out postdoc Dr. KC Bierlich’s post on this topic). Since 2015, the GEMM Lab has been flying drones over whales to collect aerial imagery to allow for photogrammetric measurements to gain this important morphological data. This photogrammetry data has shed light on multiple important aspects of gray whale morphology, including the facts that the whales feeding off Oregon are skinnier [1] and shorter [2] than the gray whales that feed in the Arctic region.  But, these surprising conclusions overshadow the immense, time-consuming labor that takes place behind the scenes to move from aerial images to accurate measurements.  

To give you a sense of this laborious process, here is a quick run through of the methods: First the 10 to 15 minute videos must be carefully watched to select the perfect frames of a whale (flat and straight at the surface) for measurement. The selected frames from the drone imagery are then imported into MorphoMetriX, which is a custom software developed for photogrammetry measurement [1]. MorphoMetriX is an interactive application that allows an analyst to manually measure the length by clicking points along the centerline of the whale’s body. Based on this line, the whale is divided into a set of sections perpendicular to the centerline, these are used to then measure widths along the body. The analyst then clicks border points at the edge of the whale’s body to delineate the widths following the whale’s body curve. MorphoMetriX then generates a file containing the lengths and widths of the whale in pixels for each measured image. The length and widths of whales are converted from pixels to metric units using a software called CollatriX [4] and this software also calculates metrics of body condition from the length and width measurements. 

While MorphoMetriX [3] and CollatriX [4] are both excellent platforms to facilitate these photogrammetry measurements, each measurement takes time, a keen eye, and attention to detail. Plus, if you mess up one step, such as an incorrect length or width measurement, you have to start from the first step. This process is a bottleneck in the process of obtaining important morphology data on animals. Can we speed this process up and still obtain reliable data? 

What if we can apply automation using computer vision to extract the frames we need and automatically obtain measurements that are as accurate as humans can obtain? Sounds pretty nice, huh? This is where I come into the picture. I am a Master’s student in the Computer Science Department at OSU, so I lack a solid background in marine science, but bring to the table my skills as a computer programmer. For my master’s project, I have been working in the GEMM Lab for the past year to develop automated methods to obtain accurate photogrammetry measurements of whales.  

We are not the first group to attempt to use computers and AI to speed up and improve the identification and detection of whales and dolphins in imagery. Researchers have used deep learning networks to speed up the time-intensive and precise process of photo-identification of  individual whales and dolphins [5], allowing us to more quickly determine animal location, movements and abundance. Millions of satellite images of the earth’s surface are collected daily and scientists are attempting to utilize these images to  benefit marine life by studying patterns of species occurrence, including detection of gray whales in satellite images using deep learning [6]. There has also been success using computer vision to identify whale species and segment out the body area of the whales  from drone imagery [7]. This process involves extracting segmentation masks of the whale’s body followed by length extraction from the mask. All this previous research shows promise for the application of computer vision and AI to assist with animal research and conservation. As discussed earlier, the automation of image extraction and photogrammetric measurement  from drone videos will help researchers collect vital data more quickly so that decisions that impact  the health of whales can be more responsive and effective.For instance,  photogrammetry data extracted from drone images can diagnose pregnancy of the whales [8], thus automation of this information could speed up our ability to understand population trends. 

Computer vision and natural language processing fields are growing exponentially. There are new foundation models like ChatGPT that can do most of the natural language understanding and processing tasks. Foundational models are also emerging for computer vision tasks, such as “the segment anything model” from Meta. Using these foundation models along with other existing research work in computer vision, we have developed and deployed a system that automates the manual and computational tasks of MorphoMetriX and CollatriX systems.  

This system is currently in its testing and monitoring phase, but we are rapidly moving toward a publication to disseminate all the tools developed, so stay tuned for the research paper that will explain in detail the methodologies followed on data processing, model training and test results. The following images give a sneak peak of results. Each image  illustrates a frame from a drone video that was  identified and extracted through automation, followed by another automation process that identified important points along the whale’s body and curvature.  The user interface of the system aims to make the user experience intuitive and easy to follow. The deployment is carefully designed to run on different hardwares, with easy monitoring and update options using the latest open source frameworks. The user has to do just two things. First, select the videos for analysis. The system then generates potential frames for photogrammetric analysis (you don’t need to watch 15 mins of drone footage!). Second, the user selects the frame of choice for photogrammetric analysis and waits for the system to give you measurements. Simple! Our goal is for these softwares to be a massive time-saver while  still providing vital, accurate body measurements  to the researchers in record time. Furthermore, an advantage of this approach is that researchers can follow the methods in our to-be-soon-published research paper to make  a few adjustments enabling the software to measure other marine species, thus expanding the impact of this work to many other life forms.  

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  1. Torres LG, Bird CN, Rodríguez-González F, Christiansen F, Bejder L, Lemos L, Urban R J, Swartz S, Willoughby A, Hewitt J, Bierlich K (2022) Range-Wide Comparison of Gray Whale Body Condition Reveals Contrasting Sub-Population Health Characteristics and Vulnerability to Environmental Change. Front Mar Sci 910.3389/fmars.2022.867258 
  1. Bierlich KC, Kane A, Hildebrand L, Bird CN, Fernandez Ajo A, Stewart JD, Hewitt J, Hildebrand I, Sumich J, Torres LG (2023) Downsized: gray whales using an alternative foraging ground have smaller morphology. Biol Letters 19:20230043 doi:10.1098/rsbl.2023.0043 
  1. Torres et al., (2020). MorphoMetriX: a photogrammetric measurement GUI for morphometric analysis of megafauna. Journal of Open Source Software, 5(45), 1825, https://doi.org/10.21105/joss.01825 
  1. Bird et al., (2020). CollatriX: A GUI to collate MorphoMetriX outputs. Journal of Open Source Software, 5(51), 2328, https://doi.org/10.21105/joss.02328 
  1. Patton, P. T., Cheeseman, T., Abe, K., Yamaguchi, T., Reade, W., Southerland, K., Howard, A., Oleson, E. M., Allen, J. B., Ashe, E., Athayde, A., Baird, R. W., Basran, C., Cabrera, E., Calambokidis, J., Cardoso, J., Carroll, E. L., Cesario, A., Cheney, B. J. … Bejder, L. (2023). A deep learning approach to photo–identification demonstrates high performance on two dozen cetacean species. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 00, 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1111/2041-210X.14167 
  1. Green, K.M., Virdee, M.K., Cubaynes, H.C., Aviles-Rivero, A.I., Fretwell, P.T., Gray, P.C., Johnston, D.W., Schönlieb, C.-B., Torres, L.G. and Jackson, J.A. (2023), Gray whale detection in satellite imagery using deep learning. Remote Sens Ecol Conserv. https://doi.org/10.1002/rse2.352 
  1. Gray, PC, Bierlich, KC, Mantell, SA, Friedlaender, AS, Goldbogen, JA, Johnston, DW. Drones and convolutional neural networks facilitate automated and accurate cetacean species identification and photogrammetry. Methods Ecol Evol. 2019; 10: 1490–1500. https://doi.org/10.1111/2041-210X.13246 
  1. Fernandez Ajó A, Pirotta E, Bierlich KC, Hildebrand L, Bird CN, Hunt KE, Buck CL, New L, Dillon D, Torres LG (2023) Assessment of a non-invasive approach to pregnancy diagnosis in gray whales through drone-based photogrammetry and faecal hormone analysis. Royal Society Open Science 10:230452 

A Journey From Microbiology to Macrobiology

Mariam Alsaid, University of California Berkeley, GEMM Lab REU Intern

My name is Mariam Alsaid and I am currently a 5th year undergraduate transfer student at the University of California, Berkeley. Growing up on the small island of Bahrain, I was always minutes away from the water and was enraptured by the creatures that lie beneath the surface. Despite my long-standing interest in marine science, I never had the opportunity to explore it until just a few months ago. My professional background up until this point was predominantly in soil microbiology through my work with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and I was anxious about how I would switch directions and finally be able to pursue my main passion. For this reason, I was thrilled by my acceptance into the OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center’s REU program this year, which led to my exciting collaboration with the GEMM Lab. It was kind of a silly transition to go from studying bacteria, one of the smallest organisms on earth, to whales, who are the largest.

My project this summer focused on sei whale acoustic occurrence off the coast of Oregon. “What’s a sei whale?” is a question I heard a lot throughout the summer and is one that I had to Google myself several times before starting my internship. Believe it or not, sei whales are the third largest rorqual in the world but don’t get much publicity because of their small population sizes and secretive behavior. The commercial whaling industry of the 19th and 20th centuries did a number on sei whale populations globally, rendering them endangered. In consequence, little research has been conducted on their global range, habitat use, and behavior since the ban of commercial whaling in 1986 (Nieukirk et al. 2020). Additionally, sei whales are relatively challenging to study because of their physical similarities to the fin whale, and acoustic similarities to other rorqual vocalizations, most notably blue whale D-calls and fin whale 40 Hz calls. As of today, published literature indicates that sei whale acoustic presence in the Pacific Ocean is restricted to Antarctica, Chile, Hawaii, and possibly British Columbia, Canada (Mcdonald et al. 2005; Espanol-Jiminez et al. 2019; Rankin and Barlow, 2012; Burnham et al. 2019). The idea behind this research project was sparked by sparse visual sightings of sei whales by research cruises conducted by the Marine Mammal Institute (MMI) in recent years (Figure 1). This raised questions about if sei whales are really present in Oregon waters (and not just misidentified fin whales) and if so, how often?

Figure 1. Map of sei whale visual sightings off the coast of Oregon, colored by MMI Lab research cruise, and the location of the hydrophone at NH45 (white star).

A hydrophone, which is a fancy piece of equipment that records continuous underwater sound, was deployed 45 miles offshore of Newport, OR between October of 2021 and December of 2022. My role this summer was to use this acoustic data to determine whether sei whales are hanging out in Oregon or not. Acoustic data was analyzed using the software Raven Pro, which allowed me to visualize sound in the form of spectrograms (Fig. 2). From there, my task was to select signals that could potentially be sei whale calls. It was a hurdle familiarizing myself with sei whale vocalizations while also keeping in mind that other species (e.g., blue and fin whales) may produce similar sounding (and looking in the spectrograms) calls. For this reason, I decided to establish confidence levels based on published sei whale acoustic research that would help me classify calls with less bias. Vocalizations produced by sei whales are characterized by low frequency, broadband, downsweeps. Sei whales can be acoustically distinguished from other whales because of their tendency to produce uniform groups of calls (typically in doublets and triplets) in a short timeframe. This key finding allowed me to navigate the acoustic data with more ease.

The majority of the summer was spent slowly scanning through the months of data at 5-minute increments. As you can imagine, excitement varied by day. Some days I would find insanely clear signals of blue, fin, and humpback whales and other days I would find nothing. The major discovery and the light at the end of the tunnel was the SEI WHALES!!! I detected numerous high quality sei whale calls throughout the study period with peaks in October and November (but a significantly higher peak in occurrence in 2022 versus 2021). I also encountered a unique vocalization type in fall of 2022, consisting of a very long series of repeated calls that we called “multiplet”, rather than doublets or triplets that is more typical of sei whales (Fig. 3). Lastly, I found no significant diel pattern in sei whale vocalization, indicating that these animals call at any hour of the day. More research needs to go into this project to better estimate sei whale occurrence and understand their behavior in Oregon but this preliminary work provides a great baseline into what sei whales sound like in this part of the world. In the future, the GEMM lab intends on implementing more hydrophone data and work on developing an automated detection system that would identify sei whale calls automatically.

Figure 2. Spectrogram of typical sei whale calls detected in acoustic data
Figure 3. Spectrogram of unique sei whale multiplet call type
Figure 4. My first time conducting fieldwork! I spent a few mornings assisting Dr. Rachel Orben’s group in surveying murre and cormorant nests (thanks to my good friend Jacque McKay :))

My experience this summer was so formative for me. As someone who has been an aspiring marine biologist for so long, I am so grateful for my experience working with the GEMM Lab alongside incredible scientists who are equally passionate about studying the mysteries of the ocean. This experience has also piqued my interest in bioacoustics and I plan on searching for other opportunities to explore the field in the future. Aside from growing professionally, I learned that I am more capable of tackling and overcoming obstacles than I had thought. I was afraid of entering a field that I knew so little about and was worried about failing and not fitting in. My anxieties were overshadowed by the welcoming atmosphere at Hatfield and I could not have asked for better people to work with. As I was searching for sei whale calls this summer, I suppose that I was also unintentionally searching for my voice as a young scientist in a great, blue field.

Figure 5. My mentor, Dr. Dawn Barlow, and I with my research poster at the Hatfield Marine Science Center Coastal Intern Symposium

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Nieukirk, S. L., Mellinger, D. K., Dziak, R. P., Matsumoto, H., & Klinck, H. (2020). Multi-year occurrence of sei whale calls in North Atlantic polar waters. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 147(3), 1842–1850. https://doi.org/10.1121/10.0000931

McDonald, M. A., Calambokidis, J., Teranishi, A. M., & Hildebrand, J. A. (2001). The acoustic calls of blue whales off California with gender data. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 109(4), 1728–1735. https://doi.org/10.1121/1.1353593

Español-Jiménez, S., Bahamonde, P. A., Chiang, G., & Häussermann, V. (2019). Discovering sounds in Patagonia: Characterizing sei whale (<i>Balaenoptera borealis</i>) downsweeps in the south-eastern Pacific Ocean. Ocean Science, 15(1), 75–82. https://doi.org/10.5194/os-15-75-2019

Rankin, S., & Barlow, J. (2007). VOCALIZATIONS OF THE SEI WHALE BALAENOPTERA BOREALIS OFF THE HAWAIIAN ISLANDS. Bioacoustics, 16(2), 137–145. https://doi.org/10.1080/09524622.2007.9753572

Burnham, R. E., Duffus, D. A., & Mouy, X. (2019). The presence of large whale species in Clayoquot Sound and its offshore waters. Continental Shelf Research, 177, 15–23. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.csr.2019.03.004

That’s so Real: Adult Beginners, Serial Podcast(s), and a whole lotta of Baja Gray Whale Video Analysis.

Celest Sorrentino, Research Technician, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Hello again GEMM Lab family. I write to you exactly a year after (okay maybe 361 days after but who’s counting…) from my previous blog post describing my 2022 summer working in the GEMM Lab as an NSF REU intern. Since then, so much has changed, and I can’t wait to fill you in on it.

In June I walked across the commencement stage at UC Santa Barbara, earning my BS in Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology and my minor in Italian language. A week later, I packed my bags and headed straight back to the lukewarm beaches of Newport, Oregon as a Research Technician in the GEMM Lab. I am incredibly fortunate to have been invited back to the OSU Marine Mammal Institute to lend a hand analyzing drone footage of gray whales collected back in March 2023 when Leigh and Clara went down to Baja California, as mentioned previously in Clara’s blog

Fig. 1. View from the top! (of the bridge at Yaquina Bay Bridge in Newport, OR)

During my first meeting with Clara at the beginning of the summer we discussed that a primary goal of my position was to process all the drone footage collected in Baja so that the generated video clips could be later used in other analytical software such as BORIS and SLEAP A.I. Given my previous internships and past summer project, this video processing is familiar to me. My initial thoughts were:

Sweet! Watch drone footage, pop in some podcasts, note down when I see whales, let’s do this!*

Like any overly eager 23-year-old, I might have mentally cracked open a Celsius and kicked my feet up too soon. We added another layer to the goal: develop an ethogram – which requires me to identify and define the behaviors that the gray whales appear to be demonstrating within the videos (more on ethogram development in Clara’s previous blog.) This made me nervous. 

I don’t have any experience with behavior. How do I tell what is a real behavior or if the whale is just existing? What if I’m wrong and ruin the project? What if I totally mess this up?

Naturally, as any sane person, to resolve these thoughts I took to the Reddit search bar: “How to do a job you’ve never done before.” No dice. 

I pushed these thoughts aside and decided to just start the video analysis process. Clara provided me with the ethogram she is developing during her PhD as a point of reference (based on the published gray whale ethogram in Torres et al. 2018), I was surrounded by an insanely supportive lab, and I could Google anything at my fingertips. Fast-forward 6 weeks later: I had analyzed 128 drone videos of adult gray whales as well as mother-calf pairs, and developed an ethogram describing, 26 behaviors**. I named one of my favorite behaviors  a “Twirl” to describe when a gray whale lifts their head out of the water and performs a 360 turn. Reminds me of times when as a kid, sometimes all you really needed is a good spin!

Now I was ready to start a productive, open conversation with Leigh and Clara about this ethogram and my work. However, even walking up to that last meeting, remnants of those daunting, doubtful early summer thoughts persisted. Even after I double checked all the definitions I wrote, rewatched all videos with said behaviors, and had something to show for my work. What gives Brain?

A few days ago, as I sat on my family’s living room couch with my two younger sisters, Baylie and Cassey, Baylie wanted to watch some TikToks with me. One video that came up was of a group of adults taking a beginner dance class, having so much fun and radiating joy. The caption read, Being a beginner as an adult is such a fun and wild thing. Baylie and I watched the video at least 10x, repeating to each other phrases like, “Wow!” and “They’re so cool.” That caption and video has been on my mind since: 

Being a beginner as an adult is such a fun and wild thing.

Being a beginner as an adult is also scary. 

Having just graduated, I can no longer say I am undergraduate student. Now, I am a young adult. This was my first research technician job, as an adult. Don’t adults usually have everything figured out? Can adults be beginners too?

Yes. In fact, we’re beginners more than we realize. 

  • I was a beginner cooking my mother’s turkey recipe 3 years ago for my housemates during the pandemic (Even after having her on Facetime, I still managed to broil it a little too long.) 
  • I was a beginner driver 5 years ago in a rickety Jeep driving myself to school (Now, since I’ve been back home, I’ve been driving my little sisters to school.)
  • I was a beginner NSF REU intern just a year ago. (This summer I was the alumni on the panel for the current NSF REU interns at Hatfield.)
  • I was a beginner science communicator presenting my NSF REU project at Hatfield last summer. (This summer, I presented my research at the Animal Behavior Society Conference.) 
Fig 2A. Group Pic with the LABIRINTO Lab and GEMM Lab at the ABS Portland Conference!
Fig 2B. Clara Bird (left), Dr. Leigh Torres (middle), and I (right) at the ABS Portland Conference. 

I now recognize that during my time identifying and defining behaviors of gray whales in videos made me take on the seat of a “beginner video and behavioral analyst”. I could not rely on the automated computer vision lens I gained from previous internships, which felt familiar and secure. 

 Instead, I had to allow myself to be creative. Dig into the unfamiliar in an effort to complete a task or job I had never done before. Allowing myself to be imperfect, make mistakes, meanwhile unconsciously building a new skill. 

This is what makes being a beginner as an adult such a fun thing. 

I don’t think being a beginner is a wild thing, although it can definitely make you feel a wild range of emotions. Being a beginner means you’re allowing yourself to try something new. Being a beginner means you’re allowing yourself the chance to learn.

Whether you’re an adult beginner as you enter your 30s, adult beginner as you enter parenthood, adult beginner grabbing a drink with friends after a long day in lab, adult beginner as a dancer, or like me, a beginner of leaving behind my college student persona and entering a new identity of adulthood, being a beginner as an adult is such a fun and normal thing.

I am not sure what will be next, but I hope to write to you all again from this blog a year from now, as an adult beginner as a grad student in the GEMM Lab. For anyone approaching the question of “What’s next”, I encourage you to read “Never a straight Path” by GEMM Lab MSc alum Florence Sullivan, a blog that has brought me such solace in my new adult journey and advice that never gets old.

Being a beginner—that, is so real. 

Fig 3A. Kayaking as an adult beginner of the Port Orford Field Team!
Fig 3B “See you soon:” Wolftree evenings with the lab.
Fig 3C. GEMM Lab first BeReal!

*I listened to way too many podcasts to list them all, but I will include two that have been a GEMM Lab “gem” —-thanks to Lisa and Clara for looping me in and now, looping you in!)

**(subject to change)


Torres LG, Nieukirk SL, Lemos L, Chandler TE (2018) Drone Up! Quantifying Whale Behavior From a New Perspective Improves Observational Capacity. Front Mar Sci 510.3389/fmars.2018.00319

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