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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Blue whales, krill, and climate change: introducing the SAPPHIRE project

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

The world is warming. Ocean ecosystems are experiencing significant and rapid impacts of climate change. However, the cascading effects on marine life are largely unknown. Thus, it is critical to understand how – not just if – environmental change impacts the availability and quality of key prey species in ocean food webs, and how these changes will impact marine predator health and population resilience. With these pressing knowledge gaps in mind, we are thrilled to launch a new project “Marine predator and prey response to climate change: Synthesis of Acoustics, Physiology, Prey, and Habitat in a Rapidly changing Environment (SAPPHIRE).”  We will examine how changing ocean conditions affect the availability and quality of krill, and thus impact blue whale behavior, health, and reproduction. This large-scale research effort is made possible with funding from the National Science Foundation.

The SAPPHIRE project takes place in the South Taranaki Bight (STB) region of Aotearoa New Zealand, and before diving into our new research plans, let’s reflect briefly on what we know so far about this study system based on our previous research. Our collaborative research team has studied blue whales in the STB since 2013 to document the population, understand their ecology and habitat use, and inform conservation management. We conducted boat-based surveys and used hydrophones to record the underwater soundscape, and found the following:

  • Blue whales in Aotearoa New Zealand are a unique population, genetically distinct from all other known populations in the Southern Hemisphere, with an estimated population size of 718 (95% CI = 279 – 1926).1
  • Blue whales reside in the STB region year-round, with feeding and breeding vocalizations detected nearly every day of the year.2,3
  • Wind-driven upwelling over Kahurangi shoals moves a plume of cold, nutrient-rich waters into the STB, supporting aggregations of krill, and thereby critical feeding opportunities for blue whales in spring and summer.4–6
  • We developed predictive models to forecast blue whale distribution up to three weeks in advance, providing managers with a real-time tool in the form of a desktop application to produce daily forecast maps for dynamic management.7
  • During marine heatwaves, blue whale feeding activity was substantially reduced in the STB. Interestingly, their breeding activity was also reduced in the following season when compared to the breeding season following a more productive, typical foraging season. This finding indicates that shifting environmental conditions, such as marine heatwaves and climate change, may have consequences to not just foraging success, but the population’s reproductive patterns.3
A blue whale comes up for air in the South Taranaki Bight. Photo by Leigh Torres.

Project goals

Building on this existing knowledge, we aim to gain understanding of the health impacts of environmental change on krill and blue whales, which can in turn inform management decisions. Over the next three years (2024-2026) we will use multidisciplinary methods to collect data in the field that will enable us to tackle these important but challenging goals. Our broad objectives are to:

  1. Assess variation in krill quality and availability relative to rising temperatures and different ocean conditions,
  2. Document how blue whale body condition and hormone profiles change relative to variable environmental and prey conditions,
  3. Understand how environmental conditions impact blue whale foraging and reproductive behavior, and
  4. Integrate these components to develop novel Species Health Models to predict predator and prey whale population response to rapid environmental change.

Kicking off fieldwork

This coming January, we will set sail aboard the R/V Star Keys and head out in search of blue whales and krill in the STB! Five of our team members will spend three weeks at sea, during which time we will conduct surveys for blue whale occurrence paired with active acoustic assessment of krill availability, fly Unoccupied Aircraft Systems (UAS; “drones”) over whales to determine body condition and potential pregnancy, collect tissue biopsy samples to quantify stress and reproductive hormone levels, deploy hydrophones to record rates of foraging and reproductive calls by blue whales, and conduct on-board controlled experiments on krill to assess their response to elevated temperature.

The team in action aboard the R/V Star Keys in February 2017. Photo by L. Torres.

The moving pieces are many as we work to obtain research permits, engage in important consultation with iwi (indigenous Māori groups), procure specialized scientific equipment, and make travel and shipping arrangements. The to-do lists seem to grow just as fast as we can check items off; such is the nature of coordinating an international, multidisciplinary field effort. But it will pay off when we are underway, and I can barely contain my excitement to back on the water with this research team.

Our team has not collected data in the STB since 2017. We know so much more now than we did when studies of this blue whale population were just beginning. For example, we are eager to put our blue whale forecast tool to use, which will hopefully enable us to direct survey effort toward areas of higher blue whale density to maximize data collection. We are keen to see what new insights we gain, and what new questions and challenges arise.

Research team

The SAPPHIRE project will only be possible with the expertise and coordination of the many members of our collaborative group. We are all thrilled to begin this research journey together, and eager to share what we learn.

Principal Investigators:

Research partners and key collaborators:

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References:

1.          Barlow DR, Torres LG, Hodge KB, Steel D, Baker CS, Chandler TE, Bott N, Constantine R, Double MC, Gill P, Glasgow D, Hamner RM, Lilley C, Ogle M, Olson PA, Peters C, Stockin KA, Tessaglia-Hymes CT, Klinck H. Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger Species Res. 2018;36:27–40.

2.          Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Holt Colberg M, Torres LG. Temporal occurrence of three blue whale populations in New Zealand waters from passive acoustic monitoring. J Mammal. 2022;

3.          Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Branch TA, Torres LG. Environmental conditions and marine heatwaves influence blue whale foraging and reproductive effort. Ecol Evol. 2023;13:e9770.

4.          Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Garvey C, Torres LG. Temporal and spatial lags between wind, coastal upwelling, and blue whale occurrence. Sci Rep. 2021;11(6915):1–10.

5.          Barlow DR, Bernard KS, Escobar-Flores P, Palacios DM, Torres LG. Links in the trophic chain: Modeling functional relationships between in situ oceanography, krill, and blue whale distribution under different oceanographic regimes. Mar Ecol Prog Ser. 2020;642:207–25.

6.          Torres LG, Barlow DR, Chandler TE, Burnett JD. Insight into the kinematics of blue whale surface foraging through drone observations and prey data. PeerJ. 2020;8:e8906.

7.          Barlow DR, Torres LG. Planning ahead: Dynamic models forecast blue whale distribution with applications for spatial management. J Appl Ecol. 2021;58(11):2493–504.

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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References:

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

As waters warm, what are “anomalous conditions” in the face of climate change?

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

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the Effects of Climate Change on the World’s Ocean (ECCWO) conference. This meeting brought together experts from around the world for one week in Bergen, Norway, to gather and share the latest information on how oceans are changing, what is at risk, responses that are underway, and strategies for increasing climate resilience, mitigation, and adaptation. I presented our recent findings from the EMERALD project, which examines gray whale and harbor porpoise distribution in the Northern California Current over the past three decades. Beyond sharing my postdoctoral research widely for the first time and receiving valuable feedback, the ECCWO conference was an incredibly fruitful learning experience. Marine mammals can be notoriously difficult to study, and often the latest methodological approaches or conceptual frameworks take some time to make their way into the marine mammal field. At ECCWO, I was part of discussions at the ground floor of how the scientific community can characterize the impacts of climate change on the ecosystems, species, and communities we study.

One particular theme became increasingly apparent to me throughout the conference: as the oceans warm, what are “anomalous conditions”? There was an interesting dichotomy between presentations focusing on “extreme events,” “no-analog conditions,” or “non-stationary responses,” compared with discussions about the overall trend of increasing temperatures due to climate change. Essentially, the question that kept arising was, what is our frame of reference? When measuring change, how do we define the baseline?

Marine heatwaves have emerged as an increasingly prevalent phenomenon in recent years (see previous GEMM Lab blogs about marine heatwaves here and here). The currently accepted and typically applied definition of a marine heatwave is when water temperatures exceed a seasonal threshold (greater than the 90th percentile) for a given length of time (five consecutive days or longer) (Hobday et al. 2016). These marine heatwaves can have substantial ecosystem-wide impacts including changes in water column structure, primary production, species composition, distribution, and health, and fisheries management such as closures and quota changes (Cavole et al. 2016, Oliver et al. 2018). Through some of our own previous research, we documented that blue whales in Aotearoa New Zealand shifted their distribution (Barlow et al. 2020) and reduced their reproductive effort (Barlow et al. 2023) in response to marine heatwaves. Concerningly, recent projections anticipate an increase in the frequency, intensity, and duration of marine heatwaves under global climate change (Frölicher et al. 2018, Oliver et al. 2018).

However, as the oceans continue to warm, what baseline do we use to define anomalous events like marine heatwaves? Members of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Ecosystem Task Force recently put forward a comment article in Nature, proposing revised definitions for marine heatwaves under climate change, so that coastal communities have the clear information they need to adapt (Amaya et al. 2023). The authors posit that while a “fixed baseline” approach, which compares current conditions to an established period in the past and has been commonly used to-date (Hobday et al. 2016), may be useful in scenarios where a species’ physiological limit is concerned (e.g., coral bleaching), this definition does not incorporate the combined effect of overall warming due to climate change. A “shifting baseline” approach to defining marine heatwaves, in contrast, uses a moving window definition for what is considered “normal” conditions. Therefore, this shifting baseline approach would account for long-term warming, while also calculating anomalous conditions relative to the current state of the system.

An overview of two different definitions for marine heatwaves, relative to either fixed or shifting baselines. Reproduced from Amaya et al. 2023.

Why bother with these seemingly nuanced definitions and differences in terminology, such as fixed versus shifting baselines for defining marine heatwave events? The impacts of these events can be extreme, and potentially bear substantial consequences to ecosystems, species, and coastal communities that rely on marine resources. With the fixed baseline definition, we may be headed toward perpetual heatwave conditions (i.e., it’s almost always hotter than it used to be), at which point disentangling the overall warming trends from these short-term extremes becomes nearly impossible. What the shifting baseline definition means in practice, however, is that in the future temperatures would need to be substantially higher than the historical average in order to qualify as a marine heatwave, which could obscure public perception from the concerning reality of warming oceans. Yet, the authors of the Nature comment article claim, “If everything is extremely warm all of the time, then the term ‘extreme’ loses its meaning. The public might become desensitized to the real threat of marine heatwaves, potentially leading to inaction or a lack of preparedness.” Therefore, clear messaging surrounding both long-term warming and short-term anomalous conditions are critically important for adaptation and resource allocation in the face of rapid environmental change.

While the findings presented and discussed at an international climate change conference could be considered quite disheartening, I left the ECCWO conference feeling re-invigorated with hope. Crown Prince Haakon of Norway gave the opening plenary and articulated that “We need wise and concerned scientists in our search for truth”. Later in the week, I was a co-convenor of a session that gathered early-career ocean professionals, where we discussed themes such as how we deal with uncertainty in our own climate change-related ocean research, and importantly, how do we communicate our findings effectively. Throughout the meeting, I had formal and informal discussions about methods and analytical techniques, and also about what connects each of us to the work that we do. Interacting with driven and dedicated researchers across a broad range of disciplines and career stages gave me some renewed hope for a future of ocean science and marine conservation that is constructive, collaborative, and impactful.

Enjoying the ~anomalously~ sunny April weather in Bergen, Norway, during the ECCWO conference.

Now, as I am diving back in to understanding the impacts of environmental conditions on harbor porpoise and gray whale habitat use patterns through the EMERALD project, I am keeping these themes and takeaways from the ECCWO conference in mind. The EMERALD project draws on a dataset that is about as old as I am, which gives me some tangible perspective on how things have things changed in the Northern California Current during my lifetime. We are grappling with what “anomalous” conditions are in this dynamic upwelling system on our doorstep, whether these anomalies are even always bad, and how conditions continue to change in terms of cyclical oscillations, long-term trends, and short-term events. Stay tuned for what we’ll find, as we continue to disentangle these intertwined patterns of change.

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References

Amaya DJ, Jacox MG, Fewings MR, Saba VS, Stuecker MF, Rykaczewski RR, Ross AC, Stock CA, Capotondi A, Petrik CM, Bograd SJ, Alexander MA, Cheng W, Hermann AJ, Kearney KA, Powell BS (2023) Marine heatwaves need clear definitions so coastal communities can adapt. Nature 616:29–32.

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. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 642:207–225.

Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Branch TA, Torres LG (2023) Environmental conditions and marine heatwaves influence blue whale foraging and reproductive effort. Ecol Evol 13:e9770.

Cavole LM, Demko AM, Diner RE, Giddings A, Koester I, Pagniello CMLS, Paulsen ML, Ramirez-Valdez A, Schwenck SM, Yen NK, Zill ME, Franks PJS (2016) Biological impacts of the 2013–2015 warm-water anomaly in the northeast Pacific: Winners, losers, and the future. Oceanography 29:273–285.

Frölicher TL, Fischer EM, Gruber N (2018) Marine heatwaves under global warming. Nature 560.

Hobday AJ, Alexander L V., Perkins SE, Smale DA, Straub SC, Oliver ECJ, Benthuysen JA, Burrows MT, Donat MG, Feng M, Holbrook NJ, Moore PJ, Scannell HA, Sen Gupta A, Wernberg T (2016) A hierarchical approach to defining marine heatwaves. Prog Oceanogr.

Oliver ECJ, Donat MG, Burrows MT, Moore PJ, Smale DA, Alexander L V., Benthuysen JA, Feng M, Sen Gupta A, Hobday AJ, Holbrook NJ, Perkins-Kirkpatrick SE, Scannell HA, Straub SC, Wernberg T (2018) Longer and more frequent marine heatwaves over the past century. Nat Commun 9:1–12.

New GEMM Lab publication reveals how blue whale feeding and reproductive effort are related to environmental conditions

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

Learning by listening

Studying mobile marine animals that are only fleetingly visible from the water’s surface is challenging. However, many species including baleen whales rely on sound as a primary form of communication, producing different vocalizations related to their fundamental needs to feed and reproduce. Therefore, we can learn a lot about these elusive animals by monitoring the patterns of their calls. In the final chapter of my PhD, we set out to study blue whale ecology and life history by listening. I am excited to share our findings, recently published in Ecology and Evolution.

Blue whales produce two distinct types of vocalizations: song is produced by males and is hypothesized to play a role in breeding behavior, and D calls are a hypothesized social call produced by both sexes in association with feeding behavior. We analyzed how these different calls varied seasonally, and how they related to environmental conditions.

This paper is a collaborative study co-authored by Dr. Holger Klinck and Dimitri Ponirakis of the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics, Dr. Trevor Branch of the University of Washington, and GEMM Lab PI Dr. Leigh Torres, and brings together multiple methods and data sources. Our findings shed light on blue whale habitat use patterns, and how climate change may impact both feeding and reproduction for this species of conservation concern.

The South Taranaki Bight: an ideal study system

Baleen whales typically migrate between high-latitude, productive feeding grounds and low-latitude breeding grounds. However, the New Zealand blue whale population is present in the South Taranaki Bight (STB) region year-round, which uniquely enabled us to monitor their behavior, ecology, and life history across seasons and years from a single location. We recorded blue whale vocalizations from Marine Autonomous Recording Units (MARUs) deployed at five locations in the STB for two full years (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Study area map and blue whale call spectrograms. Left panel: map of the study area in the South Taranaki Bight region, with hydrophone (marine autonomous recording unit; MARU) locations denoted by the stars. Gray lines show bathymetry contours at 50 m depth increments, from 0 to 500 m. Location of the study area within New Zealand is indicated by the inset map. Right panels: example spectrograms of the two blue whale call types examined: the New Zealand song recorded on 31 May 2016 (top) and D calls recorded 20 September 2016 (bottom). Figure reproduced from Barlow et al. (2023).

We found that the two vocalization types had different seasonal occurrence patterns (Fig. 2). D calls were associated with upwelling conditions that indicate feeding opportunities, lending evidence for their function as a foraging-related call.

Figure 2. Average annual cycle in the song intensity index (dark blue) and D calls (green) per day of the year, computed across all hydrophone locations and the entire two-year recording period. Figure reproduced from Barlow et al. (2023).

In contrast, blue whale song showed a very clear seasonal peak in the fall and was less obviously correlated with environmental conditions. To investigate the hypothesized function of song as a breeding call, we turned to a perhaps unintuitive source of information: historical whaling records. Whenever a pregnant whale was killed during commercial whaling operations, the length of the fetus was measured. By looking at the seasonal pattern in these fetal lengths, we can presume that births occur around the time of year when fetal lengths are at their longest. The records indicated April-May. By back-calculating the 11-month gestation time for a blue whale, we can presume that mating occurs generally in May-June, which is the exact time of the peak in song intensity from our recordings (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Annual song intensity and the breeding cycle. Top panel: average yearly cycle in song intensity index, computed across the five hydrophone locations and the entire recording period; dark blue line represents a loess smoothed fit. Bottom panel: fetal length measurements from whaling catch records for Antarctic blue whales (gray, measurements rounded to the nearest foot), pygmy blue whales in the southern hemisphere (blue, measurements rounded to the nearest centimeter). Measurements from blue whales caught within the established range of the New Zealand population are denoted by the dark red triangles. Calving presumably takes place around or shortly after fetal lengths are at their maximum (April–May), which implies that mating likely occurs around May–June, coincident with the peak song intensity. Figure reproduced from Barlow et al. (2023).

With this evidence for D calls as feeding-related calls and song as breeding-related calls, we had a host of new questions, we used this gained knowledge to explore how changing environmental conditions might impact multiple life history processes for New Zealand blue whales

Marine heatwaves impact multiple life history processes

Our study period between January 2016 and February 2018 spanned both typical upwelling conditions and dramatic marine heatwaves in the STB region. While we previously documented that the marine heatwave of 2016 affected blue whale distribution, the population-level impacts on feeding and reproductive effort remained unknown. In our recent study, we found that during marine heatwaves, D calls were dramatically reduced compared to during productive upwelling conditions. During the fall breeding peak, song intensity was likewise dramatically reduced following the marine heatwave. This relationship indicates that following poor feeding conditions, blue whales may invest less effort in reproduction. As marine heatwaves are projected to become more frequent and more intense under global climate change, our findings are perhaps a warning for what is to come as animal populations must contend with changing ocean conditions.

More than a decade of research on New Zealand blue whales

Ten years ago, Leigh first put forward a hypothesis that the STB region was an undocumented blue whale foraging ground based on multiple lines of evidence (Torres 2013). Despite pushback and numerous challenges, Leigh set out to prove her hypothesis through a comprehensive, multi-year data collection effort. I was lucky enough to join the team in 2016, first as a Masters’ student, and then as a PhD student. In the time since Leigh’s hypothesis, we not only documented the New Zealand blue whale population (Barlow et al. 2018), we learned a great deal about what drives blue whale feeding behavior (Torres et al. 2020) and habitat use patterns (Barlow et al. 2020, 2021), and developed forecast models to predict blue whale distribution for dynamic management of the STB (Barlow & Torres 2021). We also documented their unique, year-round presence in the STB, distinct from the migratory or vagrant presence of other blue whale populations (Barlow et al. 2022b). We now understand how marine heatwaves impact both feeding opportunities and reproductive effort (Barlow et al. 2023). We even analyzed blue whale skin condition (Barlow et al. 2019) and acoustic response to earthquakes (Barlow et al. 2022a) along the way. A decade later, it is humbling to reflect on how much we have learned about these whales. This paper is also the final chapter of my PhD, and as I reflect on how I have grown both personally and scientifically since I interviewed with Leigh as a wide-eyed undergraduate student in fall 2015, I am filled with gratitude for the opportunities for learning and growth that Leigh, these whales, and many mentors and collaborators have offered over the years. As is often the case in science, the more questions you ask, the more questions you end up with. We are already dreaming up future studies to further understand the ecology, health, and resilience of this blue whale population. I can only imagine what we might learn in another decade.

Figure 5. A blue whale mother and calf pair come up for air in the South Taranaki Bight. Photo by Dawn Barlow.

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References:

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. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 642:207–225.

Barlow DR, Estrada Jorge M, Klinck H, Torres LG (2022a) Shaken, not stirred: blue whales show no acoustic response to earthquake events. R Soc Open Sci 9:220242.

Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Branch TA, Torres LG (2023) Environmental conditions and marine heatwaves influence blue whale foraging and reproductive effort. Ecol Evol 13:e9770.

Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Garvey C, Torres LG (2021) Temporal and spatial lags between wind, coastal upwelling, and blue whale occurrence. Sci Rep 11:1–10.

Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Holt Colberg M, Torres LG (2022b) Temporal occurrence of three blue whale populations in New Zealand waters from passive acoustic monitoring. J Mammal.

Barlow DR, Pepper AL, Torres LG (2019) Skin deep: An assessment of New Zealand blue whale skin condition. Front Mar Sci 6:757.

Barlow DR, Torres LG (2021) Planning ahead: Dynamic models forecast blue whale distribution with applications for spatial management. J Appl Ecol 58:2493–2504.

Barlow DR, Torres LG, Hodge KB, Steel D, Baker CS, Chandler TE, Bott N, Constantine R, Double MC, Gill P, Glasgow D, Hamner RM, Lilley C, Ogle M, Olson PA, Peters C, Stockin KA, Tessaglia-hymes CT, Klinck H (2018) Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger Species Res 36:27–40.

Torres LG (2013) Evidence for an unrecognised blue whale foraging ground in New Zealand. New Zeal J Mar Freshw Res 47:235–248.

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.

How will upwelling ecosystems fare in a changing climate?

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

Global climate change is affecting all aspects of life on earth. The oceans are not exempt from these impacts. On the contrary, marine species and ecosystems are experiencing significant impacts of climate change at faster rates and greater magnitudes than on land1,2, with cascading effects across trophic levels, impacting human communities that depend on healthy ocean ecosystems3.

In the lobby of the Gladys Valley Marine Studies building that we are privileged to work in here at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, a poem hangs on the wall: “The North Pacific Is Misbehaving”, by Duncan Berry. I read it often, each time moved by how he articulates both the scientific curiosity and the personal emotion that are intertwined in researchers whose work is dedicated to understanding the oceans on a rapidly changing planet. We seek to uncover truths about the watery places we love that capture our fascination; truths that are sometimes beautiful, sometimes puzzling, sometimes heartbreaking. Observations conducted with scientific rigor do not preclude complex human feelings of helplessness, determination, and hope.

Figure 1. Poem by Duncan Berry, entitled, “The North Pacific is Misbehaving”.

Here on the Oregon Coast, we are perched on the edge of a bountiful upwelling ecosystem. Upwelling is the process by which winds drive a net movement of surface water offshore, which is replaced by cold, nutrient-rich water. When this water full of nutrients meets the sunlight of the photic zone, large phytoplankton blooms occur that sustain high densities of forage species like zooplankton and fish, and yielding important feeding opportunities for predators such as marine mammals. Upwelling ecosystems, like the California Current system in our back yard that features in Duncan Berry’s poem, support over 20% of global fisheries catches despite covering an area less than 5% of the global oceans4–6. These narrow bands of ocean on the eastern boundaries of the major oceans are characterized by strong winds, cool sea surface temperatures, and high primary productivity that ultimately support thriving and productive ecosystems (Fig. 2)7.

Figure 2. Reproduced from Bograd et al. 2023. Maps showing global means in several key properties during the warm season (June through August in the Northern Hemisphere and January through March in the Southern Hemisphere). The locations of the four eastern boundary current upwelling systems (EBUSs) are shown by black outlines in each panel. (a) 10-m wind speed (colors) and vectors. (b) SST. (c) Dissolved oxygen concentrations at 200-m depth. (d) Concentration of ocean chlorophyll a. Abbreviations: BenCS, Benguela Current System; CalCS, California Current System; CanCS, Canary Current System; HumCS, Humboldt Current System; SST, sea surface temperature.

Because of their importance to human societies, eastern boundary current upwelling systems (EBUSs) have been well-studied over time. Now, scientists around the world who have dedicated their careers to understanding and describing the dynamics of upwelling systems are forced to reckon with the looming question of what will happen to these systems under climate change. The state of available information was recently synthesized in a forthcoming paper by Bograd et al. (2023). These authors find that the future of upwelling systems is uncertain, as climate change is anticipated to drive conflicting physical changes in their oceanography. Namely, alongshore winds could increase, which would yield increased upwelling. However, a poleward shift in these upwelling systems will likely lead to long-term changes in the intensity, location, and seasonality of upwelling-favorable winds, with intensification in poleward regions but weakening in equatorward areas. Another projected change is stronger temperature gradients between inshore and offshore areas, and vertically within the water column. What these various opposing forces will mean for primary productivity and species community structure remains to be seen.

While most of my prior research has centered around the importance of productive upwelling systems for supporting marine mammal feeding grounds8–10, my recent focus has shifted closer to home, to the nearshore waters less than 5 km from the coastline. Despite their ecological and economic importance, nearshore habitats remain understudied, particularly in the context of climate change. Through the recently launched EMERALD project, we are investigating spatial and temporal distribution patterns of harbor porpoises and gray whales between San Francisco Bay and the Columbia River in relation to fluctuations in key environmental drivers over the past 30 years. On a scientific level, I am thrilled to have such a rich dataset that enables asking broad questions relating to how changing environmental conditions have impacted these nearshore sentinel species. On a more personal level, I must admit some apprehension of what we will find. The excitement of detecting statistically significant northward shift in harbor porpoise distribution stands at odds with my own grappling with what that means for our planet. The oceans are changing, and sensitive species must move or adapt to persist. What does the future hold for this “wild edge of a continent of ours” that I love, as Duncan Berry describes?

Figure 4. The view from Cape Foulweather, showing the complex mosaic of nearshore habitat features. Photo: D. Barlow.

Evidence exists that the nearshore realm of the Northeast Pacific is actually decoupled from coastal upwelling processes11. Rather, these areas may be a “sweet spot” in the coastal boundary layer where headlands and rocky reefs provide more stable retention areas of productivity, distinct from the strong upwelling currents just slightly further from shore (Fig. 4). As the oceans continue to shift under the impacts of climate change, what will it mean for these critically important nearshore habitats? While they are adjacent to prominent upwelling systems, they are also physically, biologically, and ecologically distinct. Will nearshore habitats act as a refuge alongside a more rapidly changing upwelling environment, or will they be impacted in some different way? Many unanswered questions remain. I am eager to continue seeking out truth in the data, with my drive for scientific inquiry fueled by my underlying connection to this wild edge of a continent that I call home.

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References:

1.          Poloczanska, E. S. et al. Global imprint of climate change on marine life. Nat. Clim. Chang. 3, (2013).

2.          Lenoir, J. et al. Species better track climate warming in the oceans than on land. Nat. Ecol. Evol. 4, 1044–1059 (2020).

3.          Hoegh-Guldberg, O. & Bruno, J. F. The impact of climate change on the world’s marine ecosystems. Science (2010). doi:10.1126/science.1189930

4.          Mann, K. H. & Lazier, J. R. N. Dynamics of Marine Ecosystems: Biological-physical interactions in the oceans. Blackwell Scientific Publications (1996). doi:10.2307/2960585

5.          Ryther, J. Photosynthesis and fish production in the sea. Science (80-. ). 166, 72–76 (1969).

6.          Cushing, D. H. Plankton production and year-class strength in fish populations: An update of the match/mismatch hypothesis. Adv. Mar. Biol. 9, 255–334 (1990).

7.          Bograd, S. J. et al. Climate Change Impacts on Eastern Boundary Upwelling Systems. Ann. Rev. Mar. Sci. 15, 1–26 (2023).

8.          Barlow, D. R., Bernard, K. S., Escobar-Flores, P., Palacios, D. M. & Torres, L. G. Links in the trophic chain: Modeling functional relationships between in situ oceanography, krill, and blue whale distribution under different oceanographic regimes. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 642, 207–225 (2020).

9.          Barlow, D. R., Klinck, H., Ponirakis, D., Garvey, C. & Torres, L. G. Temporal and spatial lags between wind, coastal upwelling, and blue whale occurrence. Sci. Rep. 11, 1–10 (2021).

10.        Derville, S., Barlow, D. R., Hayslip, C. & Torres, L. G. Seasonal, Annual, and Decadal Distribution of Three Rorqual Whale Species Relative to Dynamic Ocean Conditions Off Oregon, USA. Front. Mar. Sci. 9, 1–19 (2022).

11.        Shanks, A. L. & Shearman, R. K. Paradigm lost? Cross-shelf distributions of intertidal invertebrate larvae are unaffected by upwelling or downwelling. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 385, 189–204 (2009).

Harbor porpoise and gray whale distribution over three decades: introducing the EMERALD project

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

Throughout the world, humans rely on coastal regions for shipping and commerce, fisheries, industrial development, and increasingly for the development of marine renewable energy such as wind and wave energy [1]. Nearshore environments, including the coastal waters of the Northern California Current (NCC), are therefore coupled social-ecological systems, at the intersection of human and biological productivity [2].

The NCC supports a diverse food web of ecologically and commercially important species [3]. The nearshore region of the NCC is further shaped by a rich mosaic of complex features including rocky reefs, kelp forests, and sloping sandy bottom substrate [4], creating habitat for numerous species of conservation interest, including invertebrates, fish, seabirds, and marine mammals [5]. Despite its importance, this realm poses significant challenges for vessel-based data collection, and therefore it remains relatively poorly monitored and understood.

The view from Cape Foulweather, showing the complex mosaic of nearshore habitat features. Photo: D. Barlow.

I am excited to introduce a new project focused on these important nearshore waters, in which we will be Examining Marine mammal Ecology through Region-wide Assessment of Long-term Data (EMERALD). Since 1992, standardized surveys have been conducted between San Francisco Bay, CA, and the Columbia River, OR, to monitor the abundance of marbled murrelets, a seabird of conservation concern. Each spring and summer, researchers have simultaneously been diligently documenting the locations of harbor porpoise and gray whale sightings—two iconic marine mammal species that rely on the nearshore waters of the NCC. This rich and extensive record is rare for marine mammal data, particularly in the challenging, turbulent nearshore environment. Furthermore, harbor porpoises are cryptic, making visual sampling particularly challenging, and gray whales can be sparsely distributed, yielding low sample sizes in the absence of long-term data collection.

Left: The survey team collecting data; Right: Marbled murrelet floating on the water.

For the EMERALD project, we will investigate spatial and temporal distribution patterns of harbor porpoises and gray whales in relation to fluctuations in key environmental drivers. The primary goals of the project are to (1) Identify persistent hotspots in harbor porpoise and gray whale sightings over time, and (2) Examine the environmental drivers of sighting hotspots through spatial and temporal analyses.

A harbor porpoise surfacing off the central Oregon coast. Photo: L. Torres.

From a first look at the data, we are already excited by some emerging patterns. In total, the dataset contains sightings of 6,763 harbor porpoise (mean 233 per year) and 530 gray whales (mean 18 per year). Preliminary data exploration reveals that harbor porpoise sightings increased in 2011-2012, predominantly between Cape Blanco, OR, and Cape Mendocino, CA. Gray whale sightings appear to follow an oscillating, cyclical pattern with peaks approximately every three years, with notable disruption of this pattern during the marine heatwave of 2014-2015. What are the drivers of sighting hotspots and spatial and temporal fluctuations in sighting rates? Time—and a quantitative analytical approach involving density estimation, timeseries analysis, and species distribution modeling—will tell.

A gray whale forages in kelp forest habitat over a nearshore rocky reef. Photo: T. Chandler.

I recently completed my PhD on the ecology and distribution of blue whales in New Zealand (for more information, see the OBSIDIAN project). Now, I am excited to apply the spatial analysis skills have been honing to a new study system and two new study species as I take on a new role in the GEMM Lab as a Postdoctoral Scholar. The EMERALD project will turn my focus to the nearshore waters close to home that I have grown to love over the past six years as a resident of coastal Oregon. The surveys I will be working with began before I was born, and I am truly fortunate to inherit such a rich dataset—a rare treat for a marine mammal biologist, and an exciting prospect for a statistical ecologist.

Dawn and Quin the dog, enjoying views of Oregon’s complex and important nearshore waters. Both are thrilled to remain in Oregon for the EMERALD project. Photo: R. Kaplan.

So, stay tuned for our findings as the project unfolds. In the meantime, I want express gratitude to Craig Strong of Crescent Coastal Research who has led the dedicated survey effort for the marbled murrelet monitoring program, without whom none of the data would exist. This project is funded by the Oregon Gray Whale License Plate funds, and we thank the gray whale license plate holders for their support of marine mammal research.

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References:

1.        Jouffray, J.-B., Blasiak, R., Norström, A. V., Österblom, H., and Nyström, M. (2020). The Blue Acceleration: The Trajectory of Human Expansion into the Ocean. One Earth 2, 43–54.

2.        Sjostrom, A.J.C., Ciannelli, L., Conway, F., and Wakefield, W.W. (2021). Gathering local ecological knowledge to augment scientific and management understanding of a living coastal resource: The case of Oregon’s nearshore groundfish trawl fishery. Mar. Policy 131, 104617.

3.        Bograd, S.J., Schroeder, I., Sarkar, N., Qiu, X., Sydeman, W.J., and Schwing, F.B. (2009). Phenology of coastal upwelling in the California Current. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, 1–5.

4.        Romsos, G., Goldfinger, C., Robison, R., Milstein, R., Chaytor, J., and Wakefield, W. (2007). Development of a regional seafloor surficial geologic habitat map for the continental margins of Oregon and Washington, USA. Mapp. Seafloor Habitat Charact. Geol. Assoc. Canada, Spec. Pap., 219–243.

5.        Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (2016). Oregon Nearshore Strategy. Available at: https://oregonconservationstrategy.org/oregon-nearshore-strategy/ [Accessed January 10, 2022].

Hope lies in cooperation: the story of a happy whale!

By Solène Derville, Postdoc, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Science, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

I wrote my last blogpost in the midst of winter and feeling overwhelmed as I was trying to fly to the US at the peak of the omicron pandemic… Since then, morale has improved exponentially. I have spent two months in the company of my delightful GEMM lab friends, nerding over statistics, sharing scientific conversations, drinking (good!) beer and enjoying the company of this great group of people. During that stay, I was able to focus on my OPAL project more than I have ever been able to, as I set myself the goal of not getting distracted by anything else during my stay in Newport.

The only one distraction that I do not regret is a post I read one morning on the Cetal Fauna Facebook page, a group of cetacean experts and lovers who share news, opinions, photos… anything cetacean related! Someone was posting a photo of a humpback whale stranded in the 1990s’ on Peregian beach, on the east coast of Australia, which is known as a major humpback whale migratory corridor. The story said that (probably with considerable effort) the whale was refloated by many different individuals and organizations present at the beach on that day, specifically Sea World Research, Rescue & Conservation.

I felt very touched by this story and the photo that illustrated it (Figure 1). Seeing all these people come together in this risky operation to save this sea giant is quite something. And the fact that they succeeded was even more impressive! Indeed, baleen whales strand less commonly than toothed whales but their chances of survival when they do so are minimal. In addition to the actual potential damages that might have caused the whale to strand in the first place (entanglements, collisions, diseases etc.), the beaching itself is likely to hurt the animal in a permanent way as their body collapses under their own weight usually causing a cardiovascular failure (e.g., Fernández et al., 2005)⁠. The rescue of baleen whales is also simply impaired by the sheer size and weight of these animals. Compared to smaller toothed whales such as pilot whales and false killer whales that happen to strand quite frequently over some coastlines, baleen whales are almost impossible to move off the beach and getting close to them when beached can be very dangerous for responders. For these reasons, I found very few reports and publications mentioning successful rescues of beached baleen whales (e.g., Priddel and Wheeler, 1997; Neves et al., 2020).⁠

Figure 1: Stranded humpback whale in Peregian Beach, East Australia, on Aug 16th 1991. Look at the size of the fluke compared to the men who are trying to rescue her! Luckily, that risky operation ended well. Credit: Sea World Research, Rescue and Conservation. Photo posted by P. Garbett on https://www.facebook.com/groups/CetalFauna – February 26, 2022)

Now the story gets even better… the following day I received an email from Ted Cheeseman, director and co-founder of Happywhale, a collaborative citizen science tool to share and match photographes of cetaceans (initially only humpback whales but has extended to other species) to recognize individuals based on the unique patterns of the their fluke or dorsal fin. The fluke of the whale stranded in Australia in 1991 had one and only match within the Happywhale immense dataset… and that match was to a whale seen in New Caledonia (Figure 2). “HNC338” was the one!

Figure 2: Happy whale page showing the match of HNC338 between East Australia and New Caledonia. https://happywhale.com/individual/78069;enc=284364?fbclid=IwAR1QEG_6JkpH_k2UrF-qp-9qrOboHYakKjlTj0lLbDFygjN5JugkkKVeMQw

Since I conducted my PhD on humpback whale spatial ecology in New Caledonia, I have continued working on a number of topics along with my former PhD supervisor, Dr Claire Garrigue, in New Caledonia. Although I do not remember each and every whale from her catalogue (composed of more than 1600 humpback whales as of today), I do love a good “whale tale” and I was eager to know who this HNC338 was. I quickly looked into Claire’s humpback whale database and sure enough I found it there: encountered at the end of the 2006 breeding season on September 12th, at a position of 22°26.283’S and 167°01.991’E and followed for an hour. Field notes reported a shy animal that kept the boat at a distance. But most of all, HNC338 was genetically identified as a female and was accompanied by a calf during that season! The calf was particularly big, as expected at this time of the season. What an inspiring thing to think that this whale, stranded in 1991, was resighted 15 years later in a neighboring breeding ground, apparently healthy and raising a calf of her own.

As genetic paternity analysis have been conducted on many New Caledonia calf biopsy samples as part of the Sexy Singing project conducted with our colleagues from St Andrews University in Scotland, we might be able to identify the calf’s father in this breeding stock. Thanks to the great amount of data shared and collected through Happywhale, we are discovering more and more about whale migratory patterns and behavior. It might as well be that this calf’s father was one of those whales that seem to roam over several different breeding grounds (New Caledonia and East Australia). This story is far from finished…

Figure 3: A (pretty bad!) photo of HNC338’s fluke. Luckily the Happywhale matching algorithm is very efficient and was able to detect the similarities of the fluke’s trailing edge compared to figure 1 (Cheeseman et al., 2021)⁠. Also of note, see that small dorsal fin popping out of the waters behind big mama’s fluke? That’s her calf!

From the people who pulled this whale back into the water in 1991, to the scientists and cetacean enthusiasts who shared their data and whale photos online, this story once again shows us that hope lies in cooperation! Happywhale was only created in 2015 but since then it has brought together the general public and the scientists to contribute over 465,000 photos allowing the identification of 75,000 different individuals around the globe. In New Caledonia, in Oregon and elsewhere, I hope that these collective initiatives grow more and more in the future, to the benefit of biodiversity and people.

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References

Cheeseman, T., Southerland, K., Park, J., Olio, M., Flynn, K., Calambokidis, J., et al. (2021). Advanced image recognition: a fully automated, high-accuracy photo-identification matching system for humpback whales. Mamm. Biol. doi:10.1007/s42991-021-00180-9.

Fernández, A., Edwards, J. F., Rodríguez, F., Espinosa De Los Monteros, A., Herráez, P., Castro, P., et al. (2005). “Gas and fat embolic syndrome” involving a mass stranding of beaked whales (Family Ziphiidae) exposed to anthropogenic sonar signals. Vet. Pathol. 42, 446–457. doi:10.1354/vp.42-4-446.

Neves, M. C., Neto, H. G., Cypriano-Souza, A. L., da Silva, B. M. G., de Souza, S. P., Marcondes, M. C. C., et al. (2020). Humpback whale (megaptera novaeangliae) resighted eight years after stranding. Aquat. Mamm. 46, 483–487. doi:10.1578/AM.46.5.2020.483.

Priddel, D., and Wheeler, R. (1997). Rescue of a Bryde’s whale Balaenoptera edeni entrapped in the Manning River, New South Wales: Unmitigated success or unwarranted intervention? Aust. Zool. 30, 261–271. doi:10.7882/AZ.1997.002.

Marine megafauna as ecosystem sentinels: What animals can tell us about changing oceans

By Dawn Barlow1 and Will Kennerley2

1PhD Candidate, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

2MS Student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Seabird Oceanography Lab

The marine environment is dynamic, and mobile animals must respond to the patchy and ephemeral availability of resource in order to make a living (Hyrenbach et al. 2000). Climate change is making ocean ecosystems increasingly unstable, yet these novel conditions can be difficult to document given the vast depth and remoteness of most ocean locations. Marine megafauna species such as marine mammals and seabirds integrate ecological processes that are often difficult to observe directly, by shifting patterns in their distribution, behavior, physiology, and life history in response to changes in their environment (Croll et al. 1998, Hazen et al. 2019). These mobile marine animals now face additional challenges as rising temperatures due to global climate change impact marine ecosystems worldwide (Hazen et al. 2013, Sydeman et al. 2015, Silber et al. 2017, Becker et al. 2019). Given their mobility, visibility, and integration of ocean processes across spatial and temporal scales, these marine predator species have earned the reputation as effective ecosystem sentinels. As sentinels, they have the capacity to shed light on ecosystem function, identify risks to human health, and even predict future changes (Hazen et al. 2019). So, let’s explore a few examples of how studying marine megafauna has revealed important new insights, pointing toward the importance of monitoring these sentinels in a rapidly changing ocean.

Cairns (1988) is often credited as first promoting seabirds as ecosystem sentinels and noted several key reasons why they were perfect for this role: (1) Seabirds are abundant, wide-ranging, and conspicuous, (2) although they feed at sea, they must return to land to nest, allowing easier observation and quantification of demographic responses, often at a fraction of the cost of traditional, ship-based oceanographic surveys, and therefore (3) parameters such as seabird reproductive success or activity budgets may respond to changing environmental conditions and provide researchers with metrics by which to assess the current state of that ecosystem.

The unprecedented 2014-2016 North Pacific marine heatwave (“the Blob”) caused extreme ecosystem disruption over an immense swath of the ocean (Cavole et al. 2016). Seabirds offered an effective and morbid indication of the scale of this disruption: Common murres (Uria aalge), an abundant and widespread fish-eating seabird, experienced widespread breeding failure across the North Pacific. Poor reproductive performance suggested that there may have been fewer small forage fish around and that these changes occurred at a large geographic scale. The Blob reached such an extreme as to kill immense numbers of adult birds, which professional and community scientists found washed up on beach-surveys; researchers estimate that an incredible 1,200,000 murres may have died from starvation during this period (Piatt et al. 2020). While the average person along the Northeast Pacific Coast during this time likely didn’t notice any dramatic difference in the ocean, seabirds were shouting at us that something was terribly wrong.

Happily, living seabirds also act as superb ecosystem sentinels. Long-term research in the Gulf of Maine by U.S. and Canadian scientists monitors the prey species provisioned by adult seabirds to their chicks. Will has spent countless hours over five summers helping to conduct this research by watching terns (Sterna spp.) and Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica) bring food to their young on small islands off the Maine coast. After doing this work for multiple years, it’s easy to notice that what adults feed their chicks varies from year to year. It was soon realized that these data could offer insight into oceanographic conditions and could even help managers assess the size of regional fish stocks. One of the dominant prey species in this region is Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus), which also happens to be the focus of an economically important fishery.  While the fishery targets four or five-year-old adult herring, the seabirds target smaller, younger herring. By looking at the relative amounts and sizes of young herring collected by these seabirds in the Gulf of Maine, these data can help predict herring recruitment and the relative number of adult herring that may be available to fishers several years in the future (Scopel et al. 2018).  With some continued modelling, the work that we do on a seabird colony in Maine with just a pair of binoculars can support or maybe even replace at least some of the expensive ship-based trawl surveys that are now a popular means of assessing fish stocks.

A common tern (Sterna hirundo) with a young Atlantic herring from the Gulf of Maine, ready to feed its chick (Photo courtesy of the National Audubon Society’s Seabird Institute)

For more far-ranging and inaccessible marine predators such as whales, measuring things such as dietary shifts can be more challenging than it is for seabirds. Nevertheless, whales are valuable ecosystem sentinels as well. Changes in the distribution and migration phenology of specialist foragers such as blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) and North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) can indicate relative changes in the distribution and abundance of their zooplankton prey and underlying ocean conditions (Hazen et al. 2019). In the case of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, their recent declines in reproductive success reflect a broader regime shift in climate and ocean conditions. Reduced copepod prey has resulted in fewer foraging opportunities and changing foraging grounds, which may be insufficient for whales to obtain necessary energetic stores to support calving (Gavrilchuk et al. 2021, Meyer-Gutbrod et al. 2021). These whales assimilate and showcase the broad-scale impacts of climate change on the ecosystem they inhabit.

Blue whales that feed in the rich upwelling system off the coast of California rely on the availability of their krill prey to support the population (Croll et al. 2005). A recent study used acoustic monitoring of blue whale song to examine the timing of annual population-level transition from foraging to breeding migration compared to oceanographic variation, and found that flexibility in timing may be a key adaptation to persistence of this endangered population facing pressures of rapid environmental change (Oestreich et al. 2022). Specifically, blue whales delayed the transition from foraging to breeding migration in years of the highest and most persistent biological productivity from upwelling, and therefore listening to the vocalizations of these whales may be valuable indicator of the state of productivity in the ecosystem.

Figure reproduced from Oestreich et al. 2022, showing relationships between blue whale life-history transition and oceanographic phenology of foraging habitat. Timing of the behavioral transition from foraging to migration (day of year on the y-axis) is compared to (a) the date of upwelling onset; (b) the date of peak upwelling; and (c) total upwelling accumulated from the spring transition to the end of the upwelling season.

In a similar vein, research by the GEMM Lab on blue whale ecology in New Zealand has linked their vocalizations known as D calls to upwelling conditions, demonstrating that these calls likely reflect blue whale foraging opportunities (Barlow et al. 2021). In ongoing analyses, we are finding that these foraging-related calls were drastically reduced during marine heatwave conditions, which we know altered blue whale distribution in the region (Barlow et al. 2020). Now, for the final component of Dawn’s PhD, she is linking year-round environmental conditions to the occurrence patterns of different blue whale vocalization types, hoping to shed light on ecosystem processes by listening to the signals of these ecosystem sentinels.

A blue whale comes up for air in the South Taranaki Bight of New Zealand. photo by L. Torres.

It is important to understand the widespread implications of the rapidly warming climate and changing ocean conditions on valuable and vulnerable marine ecosystems. The cases explored here in this blog exemplify the importance of monitoring these marine megafauna sentinel species, both now and into the future, as they reflect the health of the ecosystems they inhabit.

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References:

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New year’s hindsight: will it ever be the same?

By Solène Derville, Postdoc, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Science, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

As I sit down at my desk during the first week of 2022 to write the first blog of this new year, more than ever before I feel like I am at a pivotal time. Standing in front of an invisible frontier, contemplating the past, and anxiously looking ahead.

Globally, 2021 was yet another challenging year. The COVID pandemic is persisting in endless waves of contamination and new variants. Climate change is all the more on our minds as the COP26 failed to live up to the expectations of many.

For me personally, 2021 was a very strange year too. I recovered from an accident I had in November 2020 that shook me to the bones and pushed me into living life to its fullest. On the other hand, the pandemic prevented me from moving to Oregon and I have been remotely working on the OPAL project for a year. I feel very lucky to participate in this work and I have enjoyed every bit of time I have spent on my computer processing data and teasing out the ecological drivers of whale distribution in Oregon. Yet, despite the numerous zoom meeting and email exchanges, I have been frustrated by the long-distance relationship I had with my dear GEMM lab colleagues and friends. Like so many others, I have felt the tow of the virtual life the pandemic has imposed on us.

As I reflect on the mixed feelings I am experiencing in this first week of 2022, I realize that the global context we live in and my individual questionings are intertwined. The pandemic and environmental issues triggered the same ethical and philosophical questions about individual responsibility, freedom, and equity. For instance, why should I make sacrifices that will cost me a lot personally but only have a very minor effect on the broader scale? The year 2021 has confronted us with a harsh reality: however strongly you believe your answer to the above question is the right one, other people might think otherwise.

The term eco-anxiety has emerged in recent years to describe people suffering from ‘persistent worries about the future of Earth and the life it shelters’. These symptoms of chronic fear are rising worldwide, which sadly but frankly, is only normal given that the degradation of our climate and biosphere deserves our full attention. More disturbingly, I found out that eco-anxiety is mostly affecting children and young people around the globe. Despite acting for the environment on an everyday basis and working as a conservation biologist, I can relate to this feeling of overwhelming helplessness.

In the first week of this new year, I would like to turn this distress into motivation to act and do better. To that extent, ‘adaptation’ is the word that keeps coming up to my mind. In biology, adaptation is the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment. Contrary to ‘acclimation’ that refers to a temporary change occurring on the short term, adaptation is a more profound evolution occurring at the scale of multiple generations. Somewhat, we need to combine the best of both worlds, adapt profoundly but adapt fast.

As I stayed at my family house in Toulouse (France) during the last couple weeks, I went through my old stuff in the room I occupied as a teenager and found a note book written by a 13 year-old Solène. I smiled at my words “One day, I will become a Biologist so that maybe I can save our beautiful planet, […] it’s the only thing that matters”. I was both impressed by the strength of the conviction I was holding to back then and stunned that I have now reached a place, as an independent adult and early career marine ecologist, where I could actually put these words in action.

So here is my 2022 New Year’s resolution: despite the waves of anxiety that sometimes hit us, let’s keep fighting our battles and trust that we can make this world a better place!

“Sometimes you have the feeling that nothing makes sense anymore, and sometimes it just feels right.”
A picture of myself taken during a research cruise in New Caledonia this summer. We were searching for humpback whales in the Chesterfield archipelago (South Pacific), one of the most remote and pristine reef in the world (Photo credit: Marine Reveilhac, mission MARACAS/IRD/Opération Cétacés/WWF/GouvNC/Parc naturel de la mer de Corail).