Learning from the unexpected: the first field season of the SAPPHIRE project

By Dr. Dawn Barlow, Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

The SAPPHIRE project’s inaugural 2024 field season has officially wrapped up, and the team is back on shore after an unexpected but ultimately fruitful research cruise. The project aims to understand the impacts of climate change on blue whales and krill, by investigating their health under variable environmental conditions. In order to assess their health, however, a crucial first step is required: finding krill, and finding whales. The South Taranaki Bight (STB) is a known foraging ground where blue whales typically feed on krill found in the cool and productive upwelled waters. This year, however, both krill and blue whales were notoriously absent from the STB, leaving us puzzled as we compulsively searched the region in between periods of unworkable weather (including an aerial survey one afternoon).

A map of our survey effort during the 2024 field season. Gray lines represent our visual survey tracklines, with the aerial survey shown in the dashed line. Red points show blue whale sighting locations. Purple stars are the deployment locations of two hydrophones, which will record over the next year.

The tables felt like they were turning when we finally found a blue whale off the west coast of the South Island, and were able to successfully fly the drone to collect body condition information, and collect a fecal sample for genetic and hormone analysis. Then, we returned to the same pattern. Days of waiting for a weather window in between fierce winds, alternating with days of searching and searching, with no blue whales or krill to be found. Photogrammetry measurements of our drone data over the one blue whale we found determined it to be quite small (only ~17 m) and in poor body condition. The only krill we were able to find and collect were small and sparsely mixed in to a massive gelatinous swarm of salps. Where were the whales? Where was their prey?

Above: KC Bierlich and Dawn Barlow search for blue whales. Below: salps swarm beneath the surface.

Then, a turn of events. A news story with the headline “Acres of krill washing up on the coastline” made its way to our inboxes and news feeds. The location? Kaikoura. On the other side of the Cook Strait, along the east coast of the South Island. With good survey coverage in the STB resulting in essentially no appearances of our study species, this report of krill presence along with a workable weather forecast in the Kaikoura area had our attention. In a flurry of quick decision-making (Leigh to Captain: “Can we physically get there?” Captain to Leigh: “Yes, we can.” Leigh to Captain: “Let’s go.”), we turned the vessel around and surfed the swells to the southeast at high speed.

The team in action aboard the R/V Star Keys, our home for the duration of the three-week survey.

Twelve hours later we arrived at dusk and anchored off the small town of Kaikoura, with plans to conduct a net tow for krill before dawn the next morning. But the krill came to us! In the wee hours of the morning, the research vessel was surrounded by swarming krill. The dense aggregation made the water appear soup-like, and attracted a school of hungry barracuda. These abundant krill were just what was needed to run respiration experiments on the deck, and to collect samples to analyze their calories, proteins, and lipids back in the lab.

Left: An illuminated swarm of krill just below the surface. Right: A blue whale comes up for air with an extended buccal pouch, indicating a recent mouthful of krill. Drone piloted by KC Bierlich.

With krill in the area, we were anxious to find their blue whale predators, too. Once we began our visual survey effort, we were alerted by local whale watchers of a blue whale sighting. We headed straight to this location and got to work. The day that followed featured another round of krill experiments, and a few more blue whale sightings. Predator and prey were both present, a stark contrast to our experience in the previous weeks within the STB and along the west coast of the South Island. The science team and crew of the R/V Star Keys fell right into gear, carefully maneuvering around these ocean giants to collect identification photos, drone flights, and fecal samples, finding our rhythm in what we came here to do. We are deeply grateful to the regional managers, local Iwi representatives, researchers, and tourism operators that supported making our time in Kaikoura so fruitful, on just a moment’s notice.

The SAPPHIRE 2024 field team on a day of successful blue whale sightings. Clockwise, starting top left: Dawn Barlow and Leigh Torres following a sunset blue whale sighting, Mike Ogle in position for biopsy sample collection, Kim Bernard collecting blue whale dive times, KC Bierlich collecting identification photos.

What does it all mean? It’s hard to say right now, but time and data analysis will hopefully tell. While this field season was certainly unexpected, it was valuable in many ways. Our experiences this year emphasize the pay-off of being adaptable in the field to maximize time, money, and data collection efforts (during our three-week cruise we slept in 10 different ports or anchorages, did an aerial survey, and rapidly changed our planned study area). Oftentimes, the cases that initially “don’t make sense” are the ones that end up providing key insights into larger patterns. No doubt this was a challenging and at times frustrating field season, but it could also be the year that provides the greatest insights. After two more years of data collection, it will be fascinating to compare this year’s blue whale and krill data in the greater context of environmental variability.

A blue whale comes up for air. Photo by Dawn Barlow.

One thing is clear, the oceans are without question already experiencing the impacts of global climate change. This year solidified the importance of our research, emphasizing the need to understand how krill—a crucial marine prey item—and their predators are being affected by warming and shifting oceans.  

A blue whale at sunset, off Kaikoura. Photo by Leigh Torres.

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How big, how blue, how beautiful! Studying the impacts of climate change on big, (and beautiful) blue whales

Dr. KC Bierlich, Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

The SAPPHIRE Project is in full swing, as we spend our days aboard the R/V Star Keys searching for krill and blue whales (Figure 1) in the South Taranaki Bight (STB) region of Aotearoa New Zealand. We are investigating how changing ocean conditions impact krill availability and quality, and how this in turn impacts blue whale behavior, health, and reproduction. Understanding the link between changing environmental conditions on prey species and predators is key to understanding the larger implications of climate change on ocean food webs and each populations’ resiliency. 

Figure 1. The SAPPHIRE team searching for blue whales. Top left) KC Bierlich, top right) Dawn Barlow, bottom left) Dawn Barlow, Kim Bernard (left to right), bottom right) KC Bierlich, Dawn Barlow, Leigh Torres, Mike Ogle (left to right).  

One of the many components of the SAPPHIRE Project is to understand how foraging success of blue whales is influenced by environmental variation (see this recent blog written by Dr. Dawn Barlow introducing each component of the project). When you cannot go to a grocery store or restaurant any time you are hungry, you must rely on stored energy from previous feeds to fuel energy needs. Body condition reflects an individual’s stored energy in the body as a result of feeding and thus represents the foraging success of an individual, which can then affect its potential for reproductive output and the individual’s overall health (see this previous blog). As discussed in a previous blog, drones serve as a valuable tool for obtaining morphological measurements of whales to estimate their body condition. We are using drones to collect aerial imagery of pygmy blue whales to obtain body condition measurements late in the foraging season between years 2024 and 2026 of the SAPPHIRE Project (Figure 2). We are quantifying body condition as Body Area Index (BAI), which is a relative measure standardized by the total length of the whale and well suited for comparing individuals and populations (Figure 3). 

The GEMM Lab recently published an article led by Dr. Dawn Barlow where we investigated the differences in BAI between three blue whale populations: Eastern North Pacific blue whales feeding in Monterey Bay, California; Chilean blue whales feeding in the Corcovado Gulf; and New Zealand Pygmy blue whales feeding in the STB (Barlow et al., 2023). These three populations are interesting to compare since blue whales that feed in Monterey Bay and Corcovado Gulf migrate to and from these seasonally productive feeding grounds, while the Pygmy blue whales stay in Aotearoa New Zealand year-round. Interestingly, the Pygmy blue whales had higher BAI (were fatter) compared to the other two regions despite relatively lower productivity in their foraging grounds. This difference in body condition may be due to different life history strategies where the non-migratory Pygmy blue whales may be able to feed as opportunities arrive, while the migratory strategies of the Eastern North Pacific and Chilean blue whales require good timing to access high abundant prey. Another interesting and unexpected result from our blue whale comparison was that Pygmy blue whales are not so “pygmy”; they are actually the same size as Eastern North Pacific and Chilean blue whales, with an average size around 22 m. Our findings from this blue whale comparison leads us to more questions about how environmental conditions that vary from year to year influence body condition and reproduction of these “not so pygmy” blue whales. 

Figure 2. An aerial image of a Pygmy blue whale in the South Taranaki Bight region of Aotearoa New Zealand collected during the SAPPHIRE 2024 field season using a DJI Inspire 2 drone. 
Figure 3. A drone image of a Pygmy blue whale and the length and body width measurements used to estimate Body Area Index (BAI), represented by the shaded blue region. Width measurements will also be used to help identify pregnant individuals.

The GEMM Lab has been studying this population of Pygmy blue whales in the STB since 2013 and found that years designated as a marine heatwave resulted with a reduction in blue whale feeding activity. Interestingly, breeding activity is also reduced during marine heatwaves in the following season when compared to the breeding season following a more productive, typical foraging season. These findings indicate that fluctuations in the environment, such as marine heatwaves, may affect not only foraging success, but also reproduction in Pygmy blue whales. 

To help us better understand reproductive patterns across years, we will use body width measurements from drone images paired with hormone concentrations collected from fecal and biopsy samples to identify pregnant individuals. Progesterone is a hormone secreted in the ovaries of mammals during the estrous cycle and gestation, making it the predominant hormone responsible for sustaining pregnancy. Recently, the GEMM Lab’s Dr. Alejandro Fernandez-Ajo wrote a blog discussing his publication identifying pregnant individual gray whales using drone-based body width measurements and progesterone concentrations from fecal samples (Fernandez et al., 2023). While individuals that were pregnant had higher levels of progesterone compared to when they were not pregnant, the body width at 50% of the body length served as a more reliable method for detecting pregnancy in gray whales. We will use similar methods to help identify pregnancy in Pygmy blue whales for the SAPPHIRE Project where will we examine body width measurement paired with progesterone concentrations collected from fecal and biopsy samples to identify pregnant individuals. We hope our work will help to better understand how climate change will influence Pygmy blue whale body condition and reproduction, and thus the overall health and resiliency of the population. Stay tuned! 


Barlow, D. R., Bierlich, K. C., Oestreich, W. K., Chiang, G., Durban, J. W., Goldbogen, J. A., Johnston, D. W., Leslie, M. S., Moore, M. J., Ryan, J. P., & Torres, L. G. (2023). Shaped by Their Environment: Variation in Blue Whale Morphology across Three Productive Coastal Ecosystems. Integrative Organismal Biology, 5(1). https://doi.org/10.1093/iob/obad039

Fernandez Ajó, A., Pirotta, E., Bierlich, K. C., Hildebrand, L., Bird, C. N., Hunt, K. E., Buck, C. L., New, L., Dillon, D., & Torres, L. G. (2023). Assessment of a non-invasive approach to pregnancy diagnosis in gray whales through drone-based photogrammetry and faecal hormone analysis. Royal Society Open Science10(7), 230452. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.230452

It’s getting hot in here: studying the impacts of marine heatwaves on krill, life-blood of the ocean

By Kim Bernard, Associate Professor, Oregon State University College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

Euphausiids, commonly known as “krill”, represent a globally distributed family of pelagic crustacean zooplankton, spanning from tropical to polar oceans. These remarkable organisms inhabit a vast range of marine habitats, from nearshore coastal waters to the expansive open ocean, and from the sea surface to abyssal depths. Notably, they claim the title of the largest biomass among non-domestic animal groups on Earth! Beyond their sheer abundance, euphausiids play a pivotal role in shaping global marine food webs, supporting both economically significant fisheries and extensive populations of marine megafauna.

Figure 1: Nyctiphanes australis. Photo credit: A. Slotwinski, CSIRO.

As our planet continues to warm, the ongoing and anticipated shifts in the distribution and biomass of krill populations herald potential disruptions to marine ecosystems and food webs globally. Marine heatwaves, which are expected to increase in frequency, intensity, and duration in the coming decades, have a significant impact on global krill populations, with knock-on effects through food webs. At our home-base off the coast of Oregon, a severe marine heatwave in 2014-2016 resulted in altered krill distributions and reduced biomass, causing a suite of ecological implications ranging from decline in salmon health to increased occurrence of whale entanglements in fishing gear (Daly et al. 2017; Santora et al. 2020).

Figure 2: (A) Simrad EK80 transducers (the larger one is a 38kHz transducer, the smaller is a 120kHz transducer) mounted to a pole that gets lowered into the water during our daily surveys. The transducers emit sound waves that bounce off objects, like krill, in the water and return to the instrument’s transceiver, allowing us to map krill within the water column. (B) The acoustic data collected by the echosounder appears in real-time on our computer screen allowing us to find krill that we can then target with the Bongo net. Photo credits: Kim Bernard.

Here, off the coast of New Zealand, the krill species Nyctiphanes australis (Figure 1) is an important prey item for many marine predators, including slender tuna (Allothunnus fallai), Australian salmon (Kahawai, Arripis trutta), Jack mackerel (Trachurus declivis), short-tailed shearwater (Puffinus tenuirostris) (O’Brien 1988), and of course, the reason we are out here, blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda) (Torres et al. 2020). In a precursor study to the SAPPHIRE project, members of our current research team demonstrated the potential negative impacts that marine heatwaves can have off the coast of New Zealand. During that study, our team noted declines in the abundance and changes in the distribution patterns of Nyctiphanes australis during a marine heatwave compared to normal conditions, with subsequent negative impacts on the distribution and behavior of the local New Zealand blue whale population (Barlow et al. 2020). The impetus of the SAPPHIRE project is to improve our understanding of the physiological mechanisms underlying the observed changes in both krill and blue whale populations, with the goal to better predict future changes.

As a zooplankton ecologist and “kriller”, my role on the SAPPHIRE project is to further our knowledge on the prey, Nyctiphanes australis. There are several components to this part of our research: (1) mapping distribution patterns of krill, (2) measuring the quality of krill as prey to whales, and (3) running experiments to test how warming affects krill physiology. To map the krill distribution patterns, we are using active acoustics (Figure 2). To measure the quality of krill, we first need to collect them, and we do that using a Bongo net (Figure 3) that gets towed behind the boat targeting krill we find using the echosounder.

Figure 3: Kim Bernard and Ngatokoa Tikitau empty the contents of one of the Bongo net cod-ends into a bucket to examine the catch. Unfortunately, it was not filled with krill as we had hoped, but rather a gelatinous zooplankton known as Salpa democratica. Photo credit: KC Bierlich.

Once we have the krill, we’ll flash freeze them in liquid nitrogen and take them back to Oregon where we’ll measure the amount of protein, fats (lipids), and calories each one contains. Finally, for the experiments on temperature effects, we will use live krill collected with the Bongo net placed individually into 1L Nalgene bottles, each outfitted with oxygen sensors so that we can measure the respiration rates of krill at a range of temperatures they would experience during normal conditions and marine heatwaves (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Respiration experiment set-up with two circulating waterbaths in the foreground feeding two temperature treatments in coolers (aka “chilly bins”) behind. Once we catch krill (which has yet to happen), we will use this set-up to test the effects of warming on krill respiration rates. Photo credit: Kim Bernard.


Barlow DR, Bernard KS, Escobar-Flores P, Palacios DM, Torres LG (2020) Links in the trophic chain: modeling functional relationships between in situ oceanography, krill, and blue whale distribution under different oceanographic regimes. Marine Ecology Progress Series 642:207-225. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13339

Daly EA, Brodeur RD, Auth TD (2017) Anomalous ocean conditions in 2015: impacts on spring Chinook salmon and their prey field. Marine Ecology Progress Series 566:169-182. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps12021

O’Brien DP (1988) Surface schooling behaviour of the coastal krill Nyctiphanes australis (Crustacea: Euphausiacea) off Tasmania, Australia. Marine Ecology Progress Series 42: 219-233.

Santora JA, Mantua NJ, Schroeder ID, Field JC, Hazen EL, Bograd SJ, Sydeman WJ, Wells BK, Calambokidis J, Saez L, Lawson D, Forney KA (2020) Habitat compression and ecosystem shifts as potential links between marine heatwave and record whale entanglements. Nature Communications 11(1):536. doi: 10.1038/s41467-019-14215-w.

Torres LG, Barlow DR, Chandler TE, Burnett JD. 2020. Insight into the kinematics of blue whale surface foraging through drone observations and prey data. PeerJ 8:e8906 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.8906