Expand your rolodex and meet some more IndividuWhales!

In case you aren’t already aware, I want to remind you of a website called IndividuWhale we created about Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales we study as part of our GRANITE project. IndividuWhale features stories of some of the Oregon coast’s most iconic gray whales, as well as information about how we study them, stressors they experience in our waters, and even a game to test your gray whale identification skills. We also provide details about where to best spot gray whales along our coast and the different behaviors you might see gray whales displaying at different times of the year. Since launching the website in late 2021, we have made small tweaks and updates along the way, but now, after about 2.5 years, the time has come for a major content update as we are introducing you to three new individuals and their stories! Head over to IndividuWhale.com to check out the updates or continue reading for a preview of the content…


Even though “Lunita” is only two years old (as of 2024), they (sex currently unknown!) have quickly become a star of our dataset and hearts. We documented Lunita as a calf with their mother “Luna” (hence the name Lunita, which means little Luna/moon) in 2022. We observed the mom-calf pair in our study area for almost two weeks during which it seemed like Lunita was a very attentive calf, always staying close to Luna and appearing to benthic feed alongside their mom. As is often the case when we document mom–calf pairs, we wonder whether we will see the calf again and how it will fair in an environment increasingly impacted by human activities. Much to our delight, we were reunited with Lunita later in the same summer when we saw them feeding independently, indicating that they had successfully weaned. We were even more delighted when we were reunited with Lunita again many times during the summer of 2023 as Lunita spent almost the entire feeding season along the central Oregon coast. This is yet another example, much like “Cheetah” and “Pacman,” of successful internal recruitment of calves born to PCFG females into the PCFG sub-population.

Lunita’s high site fidelity to our study area in 2023 meant that she was an excellent candidate for the suction-cup tagging we have been conducting in the last few years. During suction-cup tagging, we attach a device (or tag) via suction cups to a whale’s back. The tag contains a number of different sensors, including an accelerometer (to measure speed), a gyroscope (to measure direction), and a magnetometer (to measure magnetic field), as well as a high-definition video camera and hydrophone (or underwater microphone). These tags typically stay on for a maximum of 24 hours before they pop off the whale leaving no harm to the whale. Upon retrieval, we can recreate the whale’s dive path and see the environment and conditions that the whale experienced over several hours. We sometimes refer to tagging as giving the gray whales some temporary jewelry because the tags are a very flashy, bright orange color. From the video from Lunita’s tag shows how they soared through kelp forests feeding on mysids for many, many hours. Check out their profile here: https://www.individuwhale.com/whales/lunita/


There are many ways to assess the health of a whale. In our lab, we calculate body condition from drone images to determine how fat or skinny a whale is, examine different hormones from their poop, and assess growth rates via length measurements from drone images. Another health assessment metric that we explore in the lab is the skin and scarring on the individuals that we see in our central Oregon study area. By conducting a skin and scarring analysis, we can identify scarring patterns and lesions that may indicate interactions with human activities and track the progression of skin diseases that will help us understand the prevalence and impacts of pathogens on whales. One skin condition that we are particularly interested in tracking appears as a thick white or gray layer that can mask a gray whale’s natural pigmentation. An example of a whale that has experienced this skin condition is “Burned.”

Burned is a female who is at least 9 years old (as of 2024), as she was first documented in the PCFG range in 2015. We saw Burned for the first time in 2016. At the time, we noticed small, isolated, gray patches of the skin condition on both sides of Burned’s body. Throughout the years as we have continued to resight Burned, we noticed the skin condition spreading progressively across her body. We saw the skin condition at its maximum extent in 2022 when, at first glance, Burned was hardly recognizable. Luckily, we can identify gray whales using more than just their pigmentation patterns (learn more on our whale identification page). Interestingly, when we saw Burned in June 2024, it appeared that the skin condition completely disappeared! Burned is just one example of whales with this skin condition, leaving us with many questions about its origin and impact on the whales: What causes the skin condition (viral, fungal, bacterial?); How it is transmitted (via air or contact?); Is it harmful to the whale (weakened immune system?). Our research is aimed at addressing these questions to make this skin condition a little less mysterious. Check out her profile here: https://www.individuwhale.com/whales/burned/


“Heart,” who is also known as “Ginger,” is a very well known and popular whale in the Depoe Bay region. Heart is a female who is particularly famous for being a “tall fluker,” meaning that when she dives, she arches her tail fluke high in the air before it glides elegantly into the water. Heart was first documented as a calf in 2010, which means that she is 14 years old (as of 2024). At 14 years of age, we would expect for Heart to have had at least one, if not more, calves by now, as it is believed that gray whales reach sexual maturity at age 8 or 9. However, Heart has never been documented with a calf. Why?

While we cannot know for sure, we have a theory that it might be linked to her body length. Recent work in our lab has explored how growth of PCFG whales has changed over time. Using measurements of whales from our drone data, we  investigated how the asymptotic length (i.e. the final length reached once an individual stops growing) for the PCFG whales has changed since the 1980s. Shockingly, we found that starting in the year 2000 the asymptotic length of PCFG whales has declined at an average rate of 0.05–0.12 meters per year. Over time, this means that a whale born in 2020 is expected to reach an adult body length that is 13% shorter than a gray whale born prior to 2000. In Heart’s case specifically, when we last measured her length at 13 years old, she was 10.65 meters long. If she had been born prior to 2000, then she would be 12.04 meters long by now at the age of 13. That’s a whole 1.5 meters (or almost 5 feet) shorter!

You might be wondering how Heart’s length links back to her ability to have a calf. It takes a lot of energy to be pregnant and support the fetus, so by being smaller, Heart may not be able to store and allocate enough energy towards reproduction. Many of the whales we commonly see are shorter than expected based on their age (including “Zorro”), so we are monitoring the number and frequency of calves in the PCFG to see how this decline in length may impact the population. Check our her profile here: https://www.individuwhale.com/whales/heart/

Be sure to head over to IndividuWhale.com to explore all of the whale profiles and lots of other information that we have provided there about PCFG gray whales and how we study them here in Oregon waters!

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Blubber and Barnacles: An Introduction to Cetacean Skin Disease

By Natalie Chazal, PhD student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Ever noticed how our skin gets pruny and overly soft after just ten minutes in the water? That’s because human skin is adapted for life on dry land, where retaining moisture is a primary concern. In contrast, cetaceans have evolved remarkable adaptations to thrive in the cold, salty ocean water for their entire lives. Understanding cetacean skin is crucial for conservation efforts, as it allows us to monitor and assess the overall health of these marine populations. By analyzing skin conditions, we can identify scarring patterns and lesions that may indicate interactions with human activities, such as entanglements or boat strikes, which can inform more effective risk assessment and mitigation strategies. Additionally, tracking the progression of skin diseases provides vital information on the prevalence and impact of pathogens, in order to guide more targeted management strategies to improve whale health and population resilience in their changing environments. To fully appreciate why monitoring skin diseases in cetaceans matters, let’s first explore the anatomy and physiology of cetacean skin and understand how scarring and diseases occur.

Whale skin has similar layers to our own, but modified over millions of years of evolution. Thicker than terrestrial mammals, the epidermis (the outermost layer) in marine mammals is designed to help maintain hydration in a hyperosmotic (very salty) environment where water is trying to flow into the cells of the whale. This top layer sloughs off at the surface as new cells are continuously renewed. The hypodermis, or blubber layer, is composed of primarily vascularized fat cells which insulate, store energy, and regulate buoyancy (Figure 1). 

Figure 1. Major layers of whale skin with the pop up showing a detailed figure of the epidermal/hypodermal junction (Mouton et al. 2011). 

Some other interesting skin adaptations that allow whales to maximize their efficiency underwater include near hairlessness, no sweat glands, and high levels of melanin. First, cetacean hairlessness helps them reduce drag in the water, but they don’t quite lack all hair. Most species of whales have hair around their mouths when they’re developing in the womb and then lose their hair either before birth or shortly after. Some species, like the humpback, have tubercles that are modified hair follicles to help them sense their surroundings, similar to whiskers on a dog. Second, because sweating is not effective for thermoregulation in the aquatic environment, whales have lost the sweat gland structure in their skin, making it slightly less permeable than terrestrial mammals. Their lack of glands also means that whales don’t secrete their own oils to maintain the moisture of the skin. So, if they’re exposed to dry air, their skin will dry out faster than the skin of terrestrial mammals. Lastly, melanin pigments vary from species to species. You can easily see this when we compare lateral surface photos of different species (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Comparison of surfacing photos between blue whales (upper left), Cuvier’s beaked whale (upper right), gray whale (lower left), and beluga whale (lower right) coloration. Blue and gray whale photos from GEMM Lab, beaked whale photo from Cascadia Research Collective (https://cascadiaresearch.org/files/Discriminating-between-Cuviers-and-Blainvilles-beaked-whales.pdf), and beluga whale photo from NOAA (https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/event/2022-belugas-count)

This difference in coloration can be used by animals for camouflage either to avoid predators or to help ambush prey, and helps us to identify the species while they are at the surface. Coloration can also change as an animal ages and can help signal to us or other conspecifics the age or reproductive status of the individual (Caro et al. 2011). The melanin that creates these different colorations can protect whales against the harmful effects of UV radiation by absorbing and dissipating UV radiation, which decreases how far it penetrates into the skin, reducing cell damage (Morales-Guerrero et al. 2017). 

Thus, whale skin is very well adapted to the aquatic environment, from thick blubber layers to no sweat glands. However, despite these adaptations, cetaceans remain vulnerable to a range of pathogens. The major skin diseases documented in whales can fall into 4 categories: viral, bacterial, fungal, and parasitic. Viral infections in cetaceans involve the invasion of host cells, where viruses replicate and cause cell death or dysfunction, leading directly to skin lesions or nodules. Viruses can also manipulate the host immune response, suppressing immunity and exacerbating inflammation, which further contributes to skin damage. In contrast, fungal infections typically involve fungal growth and colonization on the skin surface or within tissues, with some fungi producing toxins that directly damage cells or provoke inflammatory responses (Espregueira et al. 2023). Bacterial infections in cetaceans often result from bacterial invasion and multiplication within skin tissues, accompanied by toxin production that damages cells and triggers a robust inflammatory response (Bressem et al. 2009). Parasitic infections, such as barnacle and whale lice infestations, can cause irritation, abrasions, and compromise the skin’s protective function, leading to localized inflammation and potential secondary infections. 

Understanding the specific causes of skin conditions in cetaceans is crucial because different pathogens spread through populations in distinct ways, impacting both individuals and population level health. Viral infections, for instance, can spread rapidly within populations through direct contact or respiratory droplets, potentially leading to widespread outbreaks and systemic effects. Fungal infections may persist in environmental reservoirs (spores of fungus can exist in seawater, sediment, organic marine debris, and the air) and can affect multiple individuals over time, particularly in conditions favoring fungal growth. Bacterial infections often spread through direct contact or contaminated environments, posing risks of localized outbreaks and secondary complications. Parasitic infestations, such as barnacles and whale lice, can transmit between individuals through close contact or shared habitat spaces (Romero et al 2012). By accurately identifying the causative agents of skin diseases, we can assess their transmission dynamics, anticipate population-level impacts, and implement targeted management strategies to mitigate disease spread and preserve whale health.

There are complex factors that contribute to skin disease prevalence in cetaceans. Environmental degradation, chemical pollution, climate change, and other anthropogenic stressors are known to lower immune systems, and degrade prey quality and quantity (Bressem et al. 2009). To understand the interactions between disease and the environment, we have to begin by establishing baseline health metrics. This summer, we will characterize an emerging skin disease in gray whales (see Zorro’s progression in Figure 3) using the photographs taken from the last 9 years of GRANITE fieldwork. Gray whales are particularly vulnerable to environmental threats because of their reliance on nearshore habitats. Unlike some other cetacean species that venture into deeper waters, gray whales are primarily coastal dwellers, feeding on benthic and epi-benthic organisms found in shallow, nutrient-rich waters. This dependence on nearshore environments exposes them to numerous risks. Pollution from runoff, oil spills, and plastic debris accumulates in these coastal waters, disrupting their immune systems leaving them more susceptible to disease. Climate change can induce shifts in the environment that alter the availability and quality of these habitats, potentially forcing them into proximity of other animals or places that harbor more disease. Habitat degradation due to coastal development and human activities like overfishing and increased vessel traffic further restricts their access to critical feeding areas (Bressem et al. 2009).

Figure 3. Comparisons of Zorro (a PCFG gray whale) between a year with no skin condition, 2020 (left panels) and this year where he came back covered in an unknown skin condition, 2024 (right panels). The upper panels capture his left side and the lower panels capture his right side.

These cumulative impacts increase the susceptibility of gray whales to diseases and stressors, highlighting the urgent need for baseline health assessments and identifying early signs of environmental stress (Stimmelmayr 2020). By documenting and analyzing skin conditions of gray whales through photographs, we can track changes over time and correlate them with environmental factors like pollution levels or habitat alterations. This non-invasive approach not only provides valuable insights into the prevalence and severity of skin diseases but also helps to understand broader ecological health trends in gray whale populations. 

P.S. Check out IndividuWhale to explore some great examples of how the skin condition of some of the local Oregon PCFG gray whales compare to each other and how we use their specific markings to help identify them in the field. 


Barlow, D.R., Pepper, A.L., Torres, L.G., 2019. Skin Deep: An Assessment of New Zealand Blue Whale Skin Condition. Frontiers in Marine Science 6.

Bressem, M.-F.V., Raga, J.A., Guardo, G.D., Jepson, P.D., Duignan, P.J., Siebert, U., Barrett, T., Santos, M.C. de O., Moreno, I.B., Siciliano, S., Aguilar, A., Waerebeek, K.V., 2009. Emerging infectious diseases in cetaceans worldwide and the possible role of environmental stressors. Diseases of Aquatic Organisms 86, 143–157. https://doi.org/10.3354/dao02101

Callewaert, C., Ravard Helffer, K., Lebaron, P., 2020. Skin Microbiome and its Interplay with the Environment. Am J Clin Dermatol 21, 4–11. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40257-020-00551-x

Caro, T., Beeman, K., Stankowich, T., Whitehead, H., 2011. The functional significance of colouration in cetaceans. Evol Ecol 25, 1231–1245. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10682-011-9479-5

Espregueira Themudo, G., Alves, L.Q., Machado, A.M., Lopes-Marques, M., da Fonseca, R.R., Fonseca, M., Ruivo, R., Castro, L.F.C., 2020. Losing Genes: The Evolutionary Remodeling of Cetacea Skin. Front. Mar. Sci. 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2020.592375

Menon, G.K., Elias, P.M., Wakefield, J.S., Crumrine, D., 2022. CETACEAN EPIDERMAL SPECIALIZATION: A REVIEW. Anat Histol Embryol 51, 563–575. https://doi.org/10.1111/ahe.12829

Morales-Guerrero, B., Barragán-Vargas, C., Silva-Rosales, G.R., Ortega-Ortiz, C.D., Gendron, D., Martinez-Levasseur, L.M., Acevedo-Whitehouse, K., 2017. Melanin granules melanophages and a fully-melanized epidermis are common traits of odontocete and mysticete cetaceans. Veterinary Dermatology 28, 213-e50. https://doi.org/10.1111/vde.12392

Mouton, M., Botha, A., Mouton, M., Botha, A., 2012. Cutaneous Lesions in Cetaceans: An Indicator of Ecosystem Status?, in: New Approaches to the Study of Marine Mammals. IntechOpen. https://doi.org/10.5772/54432

Pitman, R.L., Durban, J.W., Joyce, T., Fearnbach, H., Panigada, S., Lauriano, G., 2020. Skin in the game: Epidermal molt as a driver of long-distance migration in whales. Marine Mammal Science 36, 565–594. https://doi.org/10.1111/mms.12661

Romero, A., Keith, E.O., 2012. New Approaches to the Study of Marine Mammals. BoD – Books on Demand.

Stimmelmayr, R., Gulland, F.M.D., 2020. Gray Whale (Eschrichtius robustus) Health and Disease: Review and Future Directions. Frontiers in Marine Science 7.

Su, C.-Y., Hughes, M.W., Liu, T.-Y., Chuong, C.-M., Wang, H.-V., Yang, W.-C., 2022. Defining Wound Healing Progression in Cetacean Skin: Characteristics of Full-Thickness Wound Healing in Fraser’s Dolphins (Lagenodelphis hosei). Animals (Basel) 12, 537. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani12050537

Van Bressem, M.-F., Van Waerebeek, K., Duignan, P.J., 2022. Tattoo Skin Disease in Cetacea: A Review, with New Cases for the Northeast Pacific. Animals 12, 3581. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani12243581

Reflecting on a solitary journey surrounded by an incredible team

Clara Bird, PhD Candidate, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Graduate school is an odd phase of life, at least in my experience. You spend years hyperfocused on a project, learning countless new skills – and the journey is completely unique to you. Unlike high school or undergrad, you are on your own timeline. While you may have peers on similar timelines, at the end of day your major deadlines and milestone dates are your own. This has struck me throughout my time in grad school, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately as I approach my biggest, and final milestone – defending my PhD! 

I defend in just about two months, and to be honest, it’s very odd approaching a milestone like this alone. In high school and college, you count down to the end together. The feelings of anticipation, stress, excitement, and anticipatory grief that can accompany the lead-up to graduation are typically shared. This time, as I’m in an intense final push to the end while processing these emotions, most of the people around me are on their own unique timeline. At times grad school can feel quite lonely, but this journey would have been impossible without an incredible community of people.

A central contradiction of being a grad student is that your research is your own, but you need a variety of communities to successfully complete it. Your community of formal advisors, including your advisor and committee members, guide you along the way and provide feedback. Professors help you fill specific knowledge and skill gaps, while lab mates provide invaluable peer mentorship. Finally, fellow grad students share the experience and can celebrate and commiserate with you. I’ve also had the incredible fortune of having the community of the GRANITE team, and I’ve recently been reflecting on how special the experience has been.

To briefly recap, GRANITE stands for Gray whale Response to Ambient Noise Informed by Technology and Ecology (read this blog to learn more). This project is one of the GEMM lab’s long-running gray whale projects focused on studying gray whale behavior, physiology, and health to understand how whales respond to ocean noise. Given the many questions under this project, it takes a team of researchers to accomplish our goals. I have learned so much from being on the team. While we spend most of the year working on our own components, we have annual meetings that are always a highlight of the year. Our team is made up of ecologists, physiologists, and statisticians with backgrounds across a range of taxa and methodologies. These meetings are an incredible time to watch, and participate in, scientific collaboration in action. I have learned so much from watching experts critically think about questions and draw inspiration from their knowledge bases. It’s been a multi-year masterclass and a critically important piece of my PhD. 

The GRANITE team during our first in person meeting

These annual meetings have also served as markers of the passage of time. It’s been fascinating to observe how our discussions, questions, and ideas have evolved as the project progressed. In the early years, our presentations shared proposed research and our conversations focused on working out how on earth we were going to tackle the big questions we were posing. In parallel, it was so helpful to work out how I was going to accomplish my proposed PhD questions as part of this larger group effort. During the middle years, it was fun to hear progress updates and to learn from watching others go through their process too. In grad school, it’s easy to feel like your setbacks and stumbles are failures that reflect your own incompetence, but working alongside and learning from these scientists has helped remind me that setbacks and stumbles are just part of the process. Now, in the final phase, as results abound, it feels extra exciting to celebrate with this team that has watched the work, and me grow, from the beginning. 

The GRANITE team taking a beach walk after our second in person meeting.

We just wrapped up our last team meeting of the GRANITE project, and this year provided a learning experience in a phase of science that isn’t often emphasized in grad school. For graduate students, our work tends to end when we graduate. While we certainly think about follow-up questions to our studies, we rarely get the opportunity to follow through. In our final exams, we are often asked to think of next steps outside the constraints of funding or practicality, as a critical thinking exercise. But it’s a different skillset to dream up follow-up questions, and to then assess which of those questions are feasible and could come together to form a proposal. This last meeting felt like a cool full-story moment. From our earliest meetings determining how to answer our new questions, to now deciding what the next new questions are, I have learned countless lessons from watching this team operate. 

The GRANITE team after our third in person meeting.

There are a few overarching lessons I’ll take with me. First and foremost, the value of patience and kindness. As a young scientist stumbling up the learning curve of many skills all at once, I am so grateful for the patience and kindness I’ve been shown. Second, to keep an open mind and to draw inspiration from anything and everything. Studying whales is hard, and we often need to take ideas from studies on other animals. Which brings me to my third takeaway, to collaborate with scientists from a wide range of backgrounds who can combine their knowledges bases with yours, to generate better research questions and approaches to answering them.

I am so grateful to have worked with this team during my final sprint to the finish. Despite the pressure of the end nearing, I’m enjoying moments to reflect and be grateful. I am grateful for my teachers and peers and friends. And I can’t wait to share this project with everyone.

P.S. Interested in tuning into my defense seminar? Keep an eye on the GEMM lab Instagram (@gemm_lab) for the details and zoom link.

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New publication reveals gray whale habitat use patterns over three decades in the Northern California Current

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

The EMERALD project (Examining Marine mammal Ecology through Regional Assessment of Long-term Data) has reached a milestone with a recent publication detailing our findings on long-term gray whale distribution, abundance, and habitat use patterns (Barlow et al. 2024). The study is made possible by an incredible dataset. Every May-July since 1992, a team of observers surveyed the coastline between the Columbia River at the border between Oregon and Washington and San Francisco Bay, California for marbled murrelets, a seabird species of conservation concern. They drive a small vessel along pre-determined tracklines, and record observations of seabirds and marine mammals—not just marbled murrelets—and fortunately for us, that means there is a record of annual gray whale distribution and abundance patterns that spans over three decades.

The Crescent Coastal Research team collecting survey data. We are incredibly grateful to Craig Strong and the many folks who collected these valuable observations over the years!

We analyzed these valuable data using density surface modeling to better understand what drives gray whale distribution and abundance, what their habitat preferences are, and whether and how these occurrence patterns have changed over time. I am excited to share a few of our findings here!

Long-term, stable hotspots

The survey data revealed three main areas with consistently high gray whale density: the central Oregon Coast off Newport, Cape Blanco off Oregon’s south coast, and the mouth of the Klamath River in northern California. Despite fluctuations in how many whales were observed over the years, these areas have remained predicable hotspots for gray whales during their summer feeding season.

(A) Mean gray whale encounter rate (whales/kilometers surveyed) summarized by year, across all latitudes. (B) Mean gray whale encounter rate summarized by 1° latitude bin, across all years. White indicates times and locations with no survey effort. (C) Mean gray whale encounter rate summarized by year and 1° latitude bin. (D) Map of the study area, with region boundaries shown by the dashed lines, and major placenames denoted. Figure and caption reproduced from Barlow et al. 2024.

Key regional differences

Major features like prominent capes divide the California Current into different regions with distinct oceanographic characteristics. We found that gray whales showed different habitat preferences in the different regions. In the northern part of our study area between the Columbia River and Cape Blanco, we found that rocky bottom substrate was strongly related to areas of higher gray whale abundance, despite being far less available than soft, sandy bottom habitat. In the region between Cape Blanco and Cape Mendocino, gray whales were more abundant in areas south of prominent capes and in closer proximity to river estuaries.

Coastal upwelling and relaxation are key

Coastal upwelling—the process by which winds in the spring and summer push surface water offshore that is then replaced by cold, nutrient-rich water that is brought into the sunlight and drives an abundance of marine life—is a critically important influence in the oceanography, ecology, and biodiversity of our study region. But relaxation of those upwelling winds is also important for coastal species, as relaxation events allow the upwelled nutrients to be retained in the nearshore waters and enhance and aggregate local productivity and prey. We found that gray whale abundance was highest when there was a combination of both upwelling and relaxation events—a critical balance of “enough but not too much”—that seems to be optimal for gray whale feeding opportunities in nearshore waters.

You are what, where, and how you eat

Gray whales are incredibly flexible predators and have a wide range of prey items they are known to feed on. We found that throughout our study range, gray whales have different habitat preferences. As they spend their summers here to feed, these habitat preferences are linked to their foraging preferences. Off the central Oregon Coast, gray whales are known to feed on zooplankton that aggregate around rocky reefs and kelp forests (Hildebrand et al. 2022, 2024).

A gray whale surfaces in a patch of kelp, foraging around a rocky reef. UAS image credit: GEMM Lab.

Further south, in the region between Cape Blanco and Cape Mendocino that encompassed the long-term hotspot of gray whale sightings off the Klamath River, our models revealed different habitat preferences. In the soft-bottom habitat off the Klamath River, gray whales are known to do more benthic feeding, whereby they scoop up the seafloor and filter out the invertebrates in the sediment such as amphipods and cumaceans (Mallonée 1991, Jenkinson 2001).

A gray whale surfaces with a mouth full of muddy sediment, filtering out the invertebrate prey. UAS image credit: GEMM Lab.

These differences in regional habitat preferences and preferred prey likely relate to larger-scale phenomena as well. Indeed, when we looked at how gray whale abundance in different regions related to widespread warm or cool phases in the North Pacific Ocean, the responses differed by region. This aspect of the study indicates that what gray whales eat and where they forage influences how they respond to shifting environmental conditions and prey availability.

Conservation of an iconic nearshore predator

The unique mosaic of habitat characteristics throughout the Northern California Current summer feeding range of gray whales provides them the opportunity to gain the energetic stores they need to survive, reproduce, and migrate. Thus, the reliability of these resources has led them to return to these stable foraging hotspots year after year. Under climate change, one potential impact on upwelling systems is shifts in the intensity and location of upwelling (Bograd et al. 2023); in the Northern California Current, this could mean reduced relaxation events that we found are crucial for gray whales feeding in this habitat. Furthermore, these whales overlap with human activities such as vessel disturbance, entanglement and vessel strike risk, and ocean noise throughout the foraging season, and have to bear the consequences of these anthropogenic stressors (Sullivan & Torres 2018, Lemos et al. 2022, Pirotta et al. 2023) as they also navigate changing environmental conditions. Our study highlights the value of long-term monitoring to better understand present ecological patterns in the context of the past, which can be used to inform conservation management decisions for the future.

For more details, we invite you to read the full, open access publication here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-024-59552-z

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Barlow DR, Strong CS, Torres LG (2024) Three decades of nearshore surveys reveal long-term patterns in gray whale habitat use, distribution, and abundance in the Northern California Current. Sci Rep 14:9352.

Bograd SJ, Jacox MG, Hazen EL, Lovecchio E, Montes I, Pozo Buil M, Shannon LJ, Sydeman WJ, Rykaczewski RR (2023) Climate Change Impacts on Eastern Boundary Upwelling Systems. Ann Rev Mar Sci 15:1–26.

Hildebrand L, Derville S, Hildebrand I, Torres LG (2024) Exploring indirect effects of a classic trophic cascade between urchins and kelp on zooplankton and whales. Sci Rep 14.

Hildebrand L, Sullivan FA, Orben RA, Derville S, Torres LG (2022) Trade-offs in prey quantity and quality in gray whale foraging. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 695:189–201.

Jenkinson RS (2001) Gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) prey availability and feeding ecology in Northern California, 1999-2000. Humboldt State University

Lemos L, Haxel J, Olsen A, Burnett JD, Smith A, Chandler TE, Nieukirk SL, Larson SE, Hunt KE, Torres LG (2022) Effects of vessel traffic and ocean noise on gray whale stress hormones. Sci Rep 12:1–13.

Mallonée JS (1991) Behaviour of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) summering off the northern California coast, from Patrick’s Point to Crescent City. Can J Zool 69:681–690.

Pirotta E, Fernandez Ajó A, Bierlich KC, Bird CN, Buck CL, Haver SM, Haxel JH, Hildebrand L, Hunt KE, Lemos LS, New L, Torres LG (2023) Assessing variation in faecal glucocorticoid concentrations in gray whales exposed to anthropogenic stressors. Conserv Physiol 11:coad082.

Sullivan FA, Torres LG (2018) Assessment of vessel disturbance to gray whales to inform sustainable ecotourism. J Wildl Manage 82:896–905.