Intermittent upwelling impacts zooplankton and their gray whale predators

Allison Dawn, MSc, GEMM Lab graduate, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab 

The second year of my master’s flew by. Gone were the days of feeling new to graduate school. While I was feeling more comfortable navigating courses, balancing time at both Corvallis and HMSC campuses, and leading recruitment and logistics for the TOPAZ/JASPER field seasons, I certainly felt intimidated by my long, yet exciting, list of research goals I planned to accomplish in order to graduate in Summer 2023. Now, I am proud to say we have come a long way from my (overly ambitious) research proposal and simple Pearson correlations.

At this time last year, I had narrowed down a few key environmental factors to assess relationships between zooplankton in reef systems where PCFG gray whales feed and environmental variability. Even still, I was feeling frustrated at my preliminary analysis results that suggested upwelling had little to no impact on zooplankton abundance or whale foraging effort. This result was dissatisfying given what we know about the upwelling and the California Current System (CCS), so I wondered if my analysis approach, upwelling metrics, or both, were limited. However, thanks to the dedicated mentorship of Leigh, and an informal chat on the water with Aaron Galloway while dive tending for CamDO deployments, I was encouraged to dig even deeper into the literature (and subsequent debates) on the role of upwelling in the nearshore. After several inspiring meetings with the lab about our latest literature deep-dive, I reconfigured my initial hypotheses and charged ahead into the next phases of analysis with a different metric of upwelling than I had calculated before, which I will describe further below. While my final chapter includes a total of seven environmental factors that capture both broad- and fine-temporal temporal scales, for the purposes of this blog I will just share the result of the broad-scale impact of intermittent upwelling on both zooplankton abundance and gray whale foraging effort.

First, a brief recap on upwelling — during the spring and summer in the CCS, strong northerly winds push surface waters offshore, bringing cold, nutrient rich waters from the deep; which creates coastal upwelling. However, upwelling is not persistent. There are periods of time when these northerly winds relax, reducing surface water advection, and upwelling stalls. This relaxation period allows for nearshore retention of primary productivity, which permeates trophic levels with important nutrients. The alternation between upwelling and relaxation is called “intermittent upwelling”, and researchers are finding that the occurrence of relaxation periods are just as important as upwelling itself. Both support biophysical mechanisms that deliver and retain nutrients in the system.

For an example of intermittent upwelling in the CCS,  Figure 1 shows a northerly wind stress plot taken from a coastal buoy near our Port Orford study area during 2016. On the y-axis we have northerly wind stress, where positive values show less strong northerly winds, indicating downwelling favorable conditions, and negative values represent strong northerly winds, indicating upwelling favorable conditions. The x-axis is months over time. Here, you can see how in the winter downwelling prevails, but in the summer time we mainly have upwelling favorable winds. However, these summer periods are punctuated by positive values of wind stress, demonstrating that alternations between upwelling and relaxation occur several times throughout the spring and summer period.

Figure 1: Example plot of northerly wind stress plot taken from NOAA Buoy 4601 in 2016 (near our Port Orford, Oregon study area).

The role of upwelling intermittency has been explored in previous work and was posited as the Intermittent Upwelling Hypothesis (IUH) by Menge and Menge 2013. Figure 2, left, demonstrates this hypothesis in theoretical plots. In panel A we see that the rates of ecological processes such as primary productivity and prey response are maximal in at middle values of persistent upwelling and downwelling. In panel B. we see ecological processes positively increase with an index of upwelling intermittency. In Figure 2, right, the authors tested this hypothesis on chlorophyll-a and barnacle and mussel larval recruitment across several study sites and found the results did closely match theory.

Figure 2: Left, Intermittent Upwelling Hypothesis (IUH) theoretical plots showing predicted unimodal relationship between nutrient availability and prey response along a gradient between persistent upwelling and persistent downwelling (panel A) and the expected linear relationship between nutrient availability and upwelling intermittency (panel B); Right, Chlorophyll-a, barnacle, and mussel recruitment responses to an upwelling and intermittency index. Menge and Menge 2013.

Nearshore systems in the CCS, like the ones described in this Menge and Menge 2013 paper, are vastly understudied. And while there is a growing body of literature investigating the role of intermittent upwelling on various prey metrics (Mace & Morgan, 2006; Roegner et al 2007; Benoit-Bird et al., 2019) as well as cetacean movement (Ryan et al., 2022), to our knowledge no study has yet assessed the role of intermittent upwelling on nearshore prey availability and marine mammal occurrence.

To investigate the role of intermittent upwelling, we used the coastal upwelling transport index (CUTI) as our proxy for upwelling. Using daily CUTI values we generated a cumulative upwelling index and number of relaxation events for each year of the study (Figure 3.). This cumulative upwelling information was used to define the day of spring transition (ST) and end of the upwelling season for each year (2016-2021), following the upwelling phenological definitions from Bograd et al. 2009.

Figure 3: Summed running mean of Cumulative Upwelling Transport Index (CUTI) at latitude 42°N across years 2016-2021, initial data source

Using of five-year dataset we investigated functional relationships between each environmental variable and either zooplankton abundance or whale foraging effort using Boosted Regression Tree analysis (Elith et al., 2008).  Model results demonstrate that  for both zooplankton and whales, species occurrence is high at the intersection between moderate values of accumulated upwelling and with an increasing number of relaxation events. Overall, this work identifies intermittent upwelling as a primary driver of zooplankton abundance and gray whale foraging effort in a nearshore region of Oregon.

Winds in the California Current System are projected to get stronger with climate change, and if upwelling-favorable winds increase in duration and intensity, this could potentially threaten this balance between relaxation and upwelling. While these changes may mean greater primary productivity on some scales, how exactly this increase might affect the very nearshore regions and intermittent upwelling is unknown. Thus, research should continue long-term monitoring of nearshore areas to assist with adaptive management solutions in the face of environmental change.

Preparing this manuscript for my first-first author publication has been another new and exciting process. I feel so grateful for my time as a Master’s student in the GEMM Lab, and for the support of my lab mates, the HMSC community, family, and friends who cheered me on each step of the way to the finish line.  

Figure 4: Toasting to a successful master’s defense seminar with GEMM Lab mates, friends and family.

Did you enjoy this blog? Want to learn more about marine life, research, and
conservation? Subscribe to our blog and get a weekly message when we post a new
blog. Just add your name and email into the subscribe box below.



Benoit‐Bird, K. J., Waluk, C. M., & Ryan, J. P. (2019). Forage species swarm in response to coastal upwelling. Geophysical Research Letters, 46(3), 1537-1546.

Bograd, S. J., Schroeder, I., Sarkar, N., Qiu, X., Sydeman, W. J., & Schwing, F. B. (2009). Phenology of coastal upwelling in the California Current. Geophysical Research Letters, 36(1).

Curtis Roegner, G., Armstrong, D. A., Hickey, B. M., & Shanks, A. L. (2003). Ocean distribution of Dungeness crab megalopae and recruitment patterns to estuaries in southern Washington State. Estuaries, 26, 1058-1070.

Elith, J., Leathwick, J. R., & Hastie, T. (2008). A working guide to boosted regression trees. Journal of animal ecology, 77(4), 802-813.

Mace, A. J., & Morgan, S. G. (2006). Biological and physical coupling in the lee of a small headland: contrasting transport mechanisms for crab larvae in an upwelling region. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 324, 185-196.

Menge, B. A., & Menge, D. N. (2013). Dynamics of coastal meta‐ecosystems: the intermittent upwelling hypothesis and a test in rocky intertidal regions. Ecological Monographs, 83(3), 283-310.

Oestreich, W. K., Abrahms, B., McKenna, M. F., Goldbogen, J. A., Crowder, L. B., & Ryan, J. P. (2022). Acoustic signature reveals blue whales tune life‐history transitions to oceanographic conditions. Functional Ecology, 36(4), 882-895.

Roegner, G. C., Armstrong, D. A., & Shanks, A. L. (2007). Wind and tidal influences on larval crab recruitment to an Oregon estuary. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 351, 177-188.

Ryan, J. P., Benoit‐Bird, K. J., Oestreich, W. K., Leary, P., Smith, K. B., Waluk, C. M., … & Goldbogen, J. A. (2022). Oceanic giants dance to atmospheric rhythms: Ephemeral wind‐driven resource tracking by blue whales. Ecology Letters, 25(11), 2435-2447.

Embracing Failures for Personal and Professional Growth 

By Autumn Lee, Mount Holyoke College rising senior, GEMM Lab REU Intern 2023

Hello! My name is Autumn Lee, and I am a GEMM lab REU student this summer being mentored by Allison Dawn and Dr. Leigh Torres! I am a rising senior at Mount Holyoke College studying Neuroscience and Behavior, focusing on coastal and marine science. It has been a pleasure working with the GEMM Lab this summer, and I have enjoyed learning more about the field of research before I graduate. 

As part of the research experience for undergraduates (REU) program, I am doing an independent project this summer in addition to our intense fieldwork for the TOPAZ project. I am working with the CamDo underwater video data that the GEMM Lab has collected since 2020. You can read Allison’s recent blog post to learn more about our CamDo underwater housings. Over the previous seasons, scuba divers have deployed our CamDo’s in our two study sites near Port Orford Titchener Cove and Mill Rocks on a weekly schedule of collection and redeployment. My project focuses on developing a methodology for examining the interactions between zooplankton prey and marine predators, and to quantify zooplankton density from the swarms seen on camera. Even though I hope my project’s success will contribute to the field, embarking on new method protocols always carries a risk of failure. Science tends to focus on successes; only in the footnotes do we hear about failures, wrong turns, and forgotten ideas. However, failure is how research advances; and with scientists who are brave enough to take that first step and humble enough to accept and reflect on failure.

Figure 1: Team prepping CamDo setup for deployment 

In the past, I have learned to troubleshoot computer software and lab equipment. However, there were already protocols in place, and my research contributions were part of another student’s pre-defined project. Unlike my previous research experience, for my REU project, I had to learn how to use unfamiliar software, set achievable goals, overcome obstacles, and devise a plan to accomplish them without relying on a team of peers. This is a project Allison and I have been working on together outside of field work, but we have not been without support. Both Victoria Hermanson, a Biological Science Aid with the Antarctic Ecosystem Research Division, and Suzie Winquist, a graduate student at the Marine Mammal Institute, have inspired and guided us through using VIAME for our research questions.

Taking that leap into uncharted waters, we chose to work with two software programs that were new to me called VIAME (Video and Image Analytics for the Marine Environment) and ImageJ. Our goal was to utilize VIAME so that it could distinguish between zooplankton or predators in our CamDo videos (from the hundreds of unannotated frames) and then use ImageJ to quantify the density of zooplankton in those identified frames. Although it has been exciting to use this software that uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to track and detect prey and predator interactions in video footage, we have encountered many challenges along the way. Within 10 weeks, we had to learn this new software, train it to identify zooplankton and predators, and calculate density using classified frames that we would train. When tackling such an ambitious project in a limited time frame, we expected some setbacks, and through the advice of experienced professionals and the support of Allison (as well as a healthy dose of self-determination), we were able to gain success by breaking down the project into smaller tasks and using trial and error to fix any issues that arose.

Figure 2: Photo of Allison and myself working together to problem solve a VIAME error 

Although we have had some failures along the way, we have accomplished a lot, and I am eager to share some results with you. First, we developed and fine-tuned a workflow in VIAME to use AI to identify zooplankton prey and predators in our CamDo videos.

Figure 3:  Screenshot of VIAME program that illustrates how we trained a model to identify zooplankton prey (yellow boxes) and fish predators (blue box) in the CamDo videos. 

 In addition, we implemented a workflow in ImageJ (another software program designed to process and analyze scientific images) to quantify zooplankton density from frames identified by VIAME with zooplankton. Even though it took a lot of trial and error, our primary objectives were met, and we learned a great deal for future GEMM projects.

Figure 4: An example processed output image depicting how ImageJ  recognized bodies of zooplankton (black outlines) and counted individual zooplankton ( red dots). 

While working on my independent project, I learned that an ability to troubleshoot software and data processing can apply to tricky field work situations as well. For instance, when we lost a weighted cage attachment that protects our RBR concerto sensor, we needed a temporary solution until the divers recovered  our lost gear. So our team discussed a few different DIY options. After a frantic afternoon of trial and error, we ultimately decided on using a milk jug as a temporary cage. While it wasn’t the most glamorous solution, the GEMM lab is known to think outside the box as a fundamental part of both the fieldwork and research process. 

Figure 5: Photo of Allison testing out our RBR milk jug temporary setup 

I have found through this experience that sometimes it is more valuable to struggle and learn skills than to immediately succeed. I am hopeful that this lesson has prepared me for my future, and I couldn’t be more grateful. It has been an interesting summer for me as far as adapting to failures and embracing them. It was a difficult transition leaving my new friends at Hatfield in Newport where I spent my first 4 weeks and embracing an entirely different living dynamic here in Port Orford. With the field season and my research approaching its end, I realize how much I appreciate all the new people I have met here. Before this summer, I had not had many opportunities to interact with similar and enthusiastic marine scientists. Now I live and work with marine science mentors and peers in the field every day, which has been an invaluable experience, and I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from and interact with these inspiring people. It has been a meaningful summer, and I look forward to continuing to build relationships and learn from my failures during this next phase of my life. 

    Figure 6: Photo of Zoop Troop, from left to right Natalee, Autumn, Allison, Jonah, Aly 

Did you enjoy this blog? Want to learn more about marine life, research, and
conservation? Subscribe to our blog and get a weekly message when we post a new
blog. Just add your name and email into the subscribe box below.


Accurate and Precise: Learning how to track a focal species

By Jonah Lewis, rising junior at Pacific High School, GEMM Lab Intern 2023

Hello, I’m Jonah Lewis, the other high school intern for the TOPAZ/JASPER Project. I am a rising junior for Pacific High School in Port Orford. I am interested in many things, including computer sciences, electrical sciences, different types of engineering, and lately, marine biology. At the end of February, my biology teacher, Hilary Johnson, was looking for high schoolers to join this internship and I decided that it could be a great experience for me. I applied, and somewhere in March, before I knew it, I was being interviewed by Allison Dawn, our Zoop Troop Sergeant, and Leigh Torres, the head of the operation. I was so nervous for my interview, and tried my best to do well. Then on March 31st, I saw the job offer email, and my family and I were overjoyed. Now that we are in our fourth week, I can say the people and the experiences have been amazing, but my favorite part of all has been the cliff site and the adrenaline rush of tracking a whale moving across the ocean.

Figure 1: Jonah smiles after fixing a whale using the theodolite. 

Theodolite is an important aspect of this research project. This instrument was invented by Leonard Digges back in the 1550’s and is a highly accurate instrument for mapping, engineering, etc. Read here to learn more about the theodolite’s component parts, written by last year’s intern Nichola Gregory, a previous JASPER intern. In Port Orford, we use it for tracking where a gray whale blows and surfaces! Setting up the theodolite can be a challenge for newcomers, but as you repeatedly put this device together, and then take it down, you understand and can troubleshoot better and faster than the previous time. It took me and the team some practice to be able to get all three ways it needs to level just right, or else the instrument decides to throw a fit. For example, when the theodolite isn’t exactly leveled right, or maybe the batteries are low, or the cord just isn’t plugged in all the way, it will just beep at you, trying to say there is an error. After the theodolite is properly leveled, you connect it to the computer that runs our software program called Pythagoras.

Not only does the physical setup require care, but “fixing” a whale requires technique. Here, we are trained to be both accurate and precise when following our focal species. To be accurate, we would need to position the theodolite scope so that the whale is close to the crosshairs. To be precise, we need to fix the whale in the same location on the theodolite crosshairs consistently. Our team has learned how to be both accurate and precise.

Figure 2: Accurate and precise diagram using the crosshairs of a theodolite as reference, diagram by A. Dawn.

Being on cliff team can get tedious, even when you are not using the theodolite to fix a whale. Staring at the waves and the horizon can feel like an eternity, especially when gray whales aren’t active in our study area. Yet, during this time we have to be “on effort”. Being on effort is making sure you scan the horizon consistently, both you and a partner are constantly looking at our study sites. All this is best represented by our team manager Allison: On the cliff with her, she is always looking at the ocean, paying attention to both sites, and for at least the first hour or longer, she will not sit down. 

Figure 3: Kelp bed behind the jetty while a whale flukes in the background.

After we collect all of our data from kayak and cliff each day, we head down to the dry lab and get prepared to download and transfer our data to a hard drive known as “Tharp”. I learned that Marie Tharp was a woman in the 20th century, who mapped the ocean floors, which helps scientists even now. (The GEMM Lab names each hard drive after famous scientists; it helps to track the many hard drives.) When I use the hard drive, I think about her and about how I also helped collect data for mapping features in our marine study site. During the first week of data collection, Allison and I looked through the theodolite scope, found obvious kelp patches on the surface of the water, and fixed many times around the edges, making a complete polygon around the kelp beds. 

Figure 4: Team bonding at the Prehistoric Gardens in Port Orford

This internship for the past four weeks has been an amazing experience. In addition to our fieldwork, I’ve been able to participate and connect with many other interns and professionals here at the Field Station. I have also enjoyed connecting with visitors from all different areas who come by and ask what research we’re doing on the cliff.  At the field station I have fun hanging with the guys at the house as well, where we play sports in our downtime and cook together. I also learn about what projects they are doing, from urchin culling to sea otter research, it all fascinates me. I have helped POSS (Port Orford Sustainable Seafood) with bagging fish, washing dishes, and in return they provide samples of the amazing food they make. I am overjoyed about what I have learned and the people I have met during this experience, and am so thankful to be a part of the ninth year of this project.

Did you enjoy this blog? Want to learn more about marine life, research and conservation? Subscribe to our blog and get weekly updates and more! Just add your name into the subscribe box below!


Diving into new experiences

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

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

Figure 1. Port of Port Orford at dawn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you enjoy this blog? Want to learn more about marine life, research and conservation? Subscribe to our blog and get weekly updates and more! Just add your name into the subscribe box below!


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

What pushes whales north in the Baja. (2016). iTravel Cabo. Retrieved August 7, 2023, from

How to be a Zooper Trooper: Getting Comfy with the Uncomfortable

By Aly Covey, Marshfield High School student, GEMM Lab Intern 2023

Hello, everyone! My name is Aly Covey and I am a rising senior, one of two high school interns part of the  TOPAZ/JASPER project this summer. I have the pleasure of introducing the team name for this year. We came up with our name not too long after meeting each other last week, when our team member Autumn started calling the zooplankton samples we collected  “zoop soup”, which then led us to call our team the “zoop troop” (because it rhymes!). We had some other contenders for names, but none of them felt just right. I think this is because Zoop Troop has begun to mean more to us than just the convenient rhyme. We’ve all heard the phrase “being a trooper”, which describes someone who overcomes their struggles and we certainly have embodied that in each task, where we have demonstrated resilience in the face of specific challenges and pushing forward despite discomfort both mentally and physically.

Figure 1: Logo for this year’s team name, created by Autumn Lee.

As a team, we have bonded over this quality of resiliency, and quickly became close during our first week. We go on routine sunset beach walks where we look at interesting sand fleas, baby shrimp, and bring back pocket-fulls of shells and beach glass. As well as our group meals that always lead to fun conversation and a warm, family, feel. Personally, I have enjoyed getting to know everyone on the team and seeing their unique skills. Since the first day, Jonah has constantly been trying to help cook and clean for Zoop Troop whenever he can. Natalee and I have bonded over our daily need to find time for a quick cat nap. We usually find Autumn working on her individual research project in the kitchen. And of course, Allison has earned the name of “Whale Mom” because of her dedication to taking care of the team’s needs outside of the daily training and being the best mentor to all of us. 

Over the last two weeks of training, I learned all the new technology and protocols the team needs to successfully use the gear for our research. Allison has been such a huge help teaching us the in’s and out’s of everything while still letting us make mistakes and allowing us to learn from them. So far, I feel confident in all the things I have learned. That said, I still wonder what it will feel like out in the field without a supervisor helping when something goes wrong. Allison has given us a few “non-data collecting” days to feel out the scene without her there and so far I, and whoever I’m working with that day, seem to be feeling fairly satisfied in our skill level, and it has been a nice opportunity to help each other when needed. 

Figure 2: Team prepping CamDo for deployment underwater

For me, it has been uncomfortable allowing myself to fail at certain tasks and having to restart from the beginning to get it right the next time. Patience is such an important skill needed for the work we do everyday. It’s very exciting to feel myself slowly start enjoying the idea of “trial and error” as I lean into all the new information we have absorbed these past few weeks. 

Although it is frustrating at times, I believe the team does a great job of creating a fun environment for each other while still being able to slow down and take in all the small details needed for each new task Allison teaches us. This experience has shown me that in order to persevere, you need to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Figure 3: Aly and Natalee learning kayak sampling skills

While completing tasks on my own, I am vigilant to catch errors and run over each protocol in my head multiple times before going out into the field. For example, our theodolite is a very important but delicate piece of equipment we use on the cliff to track and fix on the whales we see out in the water. It is incredibly tedious to set up Theota (our nickname for the theodolite) in a sufficient amount of time without messing up the leveling, cords, or measuring needed to properly run the program. During training, we get up to the cliff around 8am and are able to take as much time as we need to correctly level, connect the telescope to the computer, and reach each fix point without feeling rushed. However, during a “real” workday, we are up on the cliff as early as 6am, held to a standard of having all our gear fully charged and ready to go for the day, as well as being able to efficiently set everything up and ready to watch the whales and be the safety watch for kayak team. The first few times I put up Theota, I got very annoyed with having trouble leveling out everything, but after my 4th or 5th set up, I was feeling very confident in my ability and also being able to quickly move from one place to another to fix on something out in the water. 

Figure 3:  Aly fixing on a whale through the theodolite  

Like cliff site tasks, on-the-water protocols call for adaptability when things get rough; and the kayak is, in my opinion, more rigorous in protocol requirements, with much more room for error than the cliff work. This is likely because of the many types of gear we use while sampling from the kayak: we conduct visibility measurements, RBR Concerto and GoPro deployments, zooplankton net sampling — all while navigating in tricky ocean conditions. During our training, Allison took us out in the morning and taught us each how to properly navigate with the GPS and use all the sampling equipment like a pro. While it was a nice opportunity to double check everything with her, I knew going out without her wouldn’t be so easy. My first morning without Allison’s support, I had to redo multiple stations but was able to correct myself and learn from my mistakes. 

It is incredibly tiresome, but so rewarding to go out in the field early in the morning and come back to the lab in the afternoon with a tote full of new zooplankton samples or pictures of high-quality whale flukes to show everyone. The protocols in the lab are extensive, but the team has done a great job of taking tasks into their own hands and finishing processing data on their own accord.

Figure 4:  Zoop Troop on a beach walk 

So far, this internship has been an incredible opportunity for me, not just in my career but also in my personal life. I have learned so much from my team, everyone staying in the field station, and all the amazing people that I’ve had the pleasure to meet in the community. It has been so intriguing to learn about another small town in my home state of Oregon and compare all the similarities and differences from my home, Coos Bay. I’m so excited for what is to come in these next 4 weeks of research and for the team to keep you all informed. Having another summer to learn about the Pacific Ocean and solidify my love for marine life is such an endearing opportunity and I’m very grateful. I’m most excited for the first day I am able to complete all 12 sampling stations with ease. I believe my skills will continue to improve and I don’t expect any day to be dull working on this project. 

Zoop Troop team member, Aly, signing off!

Did you enjoy this blog? Want to learn more about marine life, research and conservation? Subscribe to our blog and get weekly updates and more! Just add your name into the subscribe box below!

Updates from the 2023 Port Orford Gray Whale Foraging Ecology Project (team name TBD!)

Allison Dawn, Master’s student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Greetings from the South Coast Outpost, aka the Port Orford Field Station! Long-time GEMM lab blog readers will know that by this time of the year, our TOPAZ and JASPER projects are fully underway. We have officially entered our 9th consecutive year of these two integrated projects, which provides experiential learning internships to high school and undergraduate students while conducting long-term monitoring of gray whale foraging ecology in our small study region.

Much like last year, the Port Orford Field Station is at full capacity, with our team of five plus six other NSF REU, MSI, and Sea Grant interns. The research efforts here span a wide-range of subjects, including the long-standing ORKA kelp-urchin monitoring projects, river otter predation, science communication initiatives with the Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve, and more. This diversity in subject matter makes for excellent discussion during our communal dinners, and keeps the field station’s labs bustling with a variety of samples, gear, and equipment being transported in-and-out on a daily basis. Needless to say, it is a thriving environment for young scientists who are passionate about the community and ecosystems of the southern Oregon Coast. 

This is my third year participating in the project, and my second time as the solo graduate team leader. After having defended my master’s thesis this past June, I have been so excited to return to this incredible study site and share what I have learned about the system here with a new group of interns. I will write about my thesis work in a separate blog soon, but for now, I’d like to introduce you to the excellent group of motivated students that are on the team this year!

Figure 1: Autumn draws a pyramid while learning the equation for estimating zooplankton patch density, as provided in Hermanson, 2019.

First up, we have Autumn Lee.  Autumn is one of the GEMM Lab’s three REU students and together we are diligently working to automate the detection of zooplankton and predator occurrence from our in situ underwater cameras using the program VIAME. We hope to describe the predator-prey dynamics in Port Orford and a new, calculated metric for zooplankton patch density. Autumn moved to Mount Holyoke College, MA after celebrating their high school graduation with a drive-through commencement in Spring 2020. Despite the challenging start to undergrad due to COVID, Autumn is now a rising senior with a major in Neuroscience and Behavior with a certificate in Coastal Marine Sciences. Initially Autumn wanted to be a neurosurgeon or do veterinary medicine, but has always loved the ocean. After taking a few marine science classes back home, they decided to apply for our REU project in hopes of gaining their first marine science fieldwork experience. Autumn is excited to connect with like-minded students, the community, and volunteer with Port Orford Sustainable Seafood with the goal of consuming as much fresh, local seafood as possible in these six weeks.

Figure 2: Natalee beams after having captured two separate whales on camera for the first time.

Next on our team is Natalee Webster! Natalee is originally from St. Helens, OR and has her associates degree from Portland Community College. Natalee was on a nursing track but slowly accumulated environmental and marine biology classes that led her to obtain her first SCUBA diving certification. After this, she was hooked and decided to major in biology with a focus in marine biology. Now, Natalee has earned both her dive master and AAUS scientific dive certifications, and has already helped us deploy our underwater in situ cameras. Like Autumn, Natalee is excited to get involved with the community, meet other interns, and get her first scientific fieldwork experience. In addition to her water sport skills, she is already quite a natural at taking photos from the cliff site.

Figure 3: Aly enjoying a sunny morning on the cliff site with our high-powered binoculars.

Aly is a rising senior at Marshfield High School in Coos Bay, Oregon where her favorite subject is science. In particular, her favorite class is AP environmental where she first learned how to read dissolved oxygen graphs and was fascinated by how this metric can describe water quality for public health considerations. As of now, Aly is considering several colleges, including Oregon State University, with aspirations to major in marine science. Interestingly enough, she used to be afraid of the water. Despite this fear, and being the intrepid person she is, Aly taught herself how to surf during COVID and has since found a new-found respect for the ocean — so much so that she is now ready to make marine conservation her career. Aly is excited for our kayak training session next week and is ready to get in the water to start collecting zooplankton samples. Aly has had a consistently positive attitude during training week, even when learning the most tedious tasks, and can always make our team laugh. 

Figure 4: Jonah poses near Port Orford Sustainable Seafood while listening to the Junket audio tour of the town. 

Jonah is a junior at Pacific High School here in Port Orford where his favorite classes are math and woodshop, and he also loves to get involved in sports such as track and field, soccer, and basketball. As a freshman, Jonah took a 3-D printing class which affirmed his desire to learn more engineering techniques. While considering a summer job, Jonah was excited to watch our recruitment presentation and learn that he could use specialized equipment for marine science applications. He is now considering Oregon State University and Oregon Institute of Technology for his undergraduate career. Jonah has been a quick learner with excellent attention to detail, and is also an excellent cook — which myself and the others are grateful for. He is excited to spend more time on the cliff and wants to perfect his theodolite techniques to track whale movements.

Figure 5: First team photo! We were all very excited and grateful to have been greeted by two whales on our first day together.

In just this first week, we have deployed underwater cameras, tracked multiple whales in one day from the cliff, obtained Basic Life Safety/CPR certifications, and practiced kayak sampling methods from the dock. Next week, we have our kayak safety training, and will have many more days of practicing the cliff and kayak methods before we jump into official data sampling days. I know the team is just as excited as I am for the rest of the season, especially because of this increase in whale activity. It is heartening to see so many whales after our low occurrence year in 2021. Stay tuned for more updates, including what we decide for this year’s team name!

Did you enjoy this blog? Want to learn more about marine life, research and conservation? Subscribe to our blog and get weekly updates and more! Just add your name into the subscribe box below!

Immersive Marine Science: Diving for Data and a New Perspective on Gray Whale Habitat

Allison Dawn, GEMM Lab Master’s student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab 

If you have followed the GEMM Lab blog for a while, you have read about the multitude of techniques we use to conduct research. A combination of platforms and technologies help us observe whales: rigid inflatable boats (RHIBs), kayaks, theodolites, cameras, binoculars, high-tech drones, and more. However, not only do we observe from the sky and sea surface, but we also know it is important to monitor whale behavior, habitat, and prey underwater. For this week’s blog, I’d like to highlight the GEMM Lab’s sub-surface efforts as part of the TOPAZ/JASPER project, and share more about the world of scientific diving.

Most terrestrial ecologists have the luxury of strolling through their study systems without having to give thought to their next breath, but marine scientists need creative, streamlined, and most importantly, life-preserving ways to directly observe the ocean environment. Like most inventions, today’s self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) equipment was developed from countless prototypes worldwide, dating as far back as the 1800s. This equipment was improved during World War II, specifically to support combat swimmers (called “frogmen” at the time). After the Franco-German Armistice of 1940, French engineer Émile Gagnan and Naval Lieutenant/Oceanographer Jacques Cousteau teamed up to invent the “Aqua-Lung” (Fig. 1), which allowed divers to autonomously stay underwater for much longer periods of time. 

Figure 1: Vintage advertisement for the Aqua-Lung (left) and a diver testing out the equipment (right). Photos sourced from

Now that the first commercially successful breathing apparatus was available, universities began to purchase these units to aid with scientific exploration. However, after a series of fatal diving accidents, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography felt it was urgent to develop the first scientific diving safety program in 1954, years before recreational diving courses were implemented. With specific tasks at hand, the additional level of distraction makes safety and situational awareness that much more important. Now, scientific dive programs, like the one at OSU, are widespread, and after proper safety precautions and training, researchers have been able to accomplish what was previously implausible: restore coral reefs, obtain genetic information from invasive species, monitor species under polar ice sheets, and so much more (Fig. 2).

Figure 2: Scientific divers at work. Norwegian polar ice diver Michal Tessman collects algae, zooplankton, and phytoplankton samples (left); Florida State doctoral student Nathan Spindel obtains genetic material from urchins (top right); Dr. Colleen Bove of UNC Chapel Hill monitors tropical coral growth (bottom right).

On the south coast of Oregon, the GEMM lab collaborates with Dr. Aaron Galloway, an accomplished scientific diver and one of the lead scientists with the Oregon Kelp Alliance (ORKA), an organization dedicated to kelp forest monitoring, urchin culling, and restoration efforts. He and his team, along with our long-term project partner Dave Lacey of South Coast Tours, help us deploy our in situ underwater cameras each summer (Figs 3 & 4). As you may know, the TOPAZ component of our project aims to link fine-scale gray whale foraging ecology to prey distribution patterns, using inexpensive field methods. The in situ underwater CamDO camera systems are an exciting, recent addition to our long-standing sampling approach.

Figure 3: CamDo lander with attached oceanographic sensors (left); two new OSU scientific divers and Marine Studies Initiative interns, Faith Townsend and Caroline Rice, preparing to dive (right).

We have two durable camera housings that anchor in Mill Rocks and Tichenor Cove. In each housing we insert a GoPro, an extra battery, and a microcontroller programmed to record footage at continuous intervals. With these cameras we capture hundreds of hours of underwater footage of fish, zooplankton, and we hope to one day record gray whale foraging.

Figure 4: Dr. Aaron Galloway and his graduate student Samantha Persad getting ready to complete the final dive of the season in ideal visibility conditions.

Each week during the field season, the divers and I meet early at the dock to board the tour boat Black Pearl for our routine CamDO maintenance excursions. My first role on the early morning journeys is to be a “dive tender” — I help the divers back on board, log their dive times and air pressure, and keep gear organized on the boat. Then, while the divers relax and enjoy a snack, my next role begins. The next few minutes is what we refer to as the “NASCAR pit-stop” of camera maintenance: I replace batteries, swap SD cards, program the camera, ensure that it is secure in the housing, and tuck it into the diver’s bag along with installation tools. All the while, I simultaneously listen for radio calls from our Port Orford interns, sometimes troubleshooting urgent questions while they collect zooplankton and water quality data from the kayak or observe for whales from the cliff.

This multitasking is challenging, but at least I am dry, warm, and have total dexterity of my hands. As I watch the divers descend, in all their neoprene glory, to secure the camera back to its stationary landing, I like to imagine what they are seeing and experiencing. If visibility is good, they will descend into a cerulean blue world filled with rockfish, jellies, mysid swarms, and algae covered reefs (Fig 5.). However, as exciting as sightseeing can be while diving, my own scientific diver training has allowed me to understand the focus, determination, and adaptability even the simplest of tasks require, especially in the chilly waters of the Pacific Northwest.

Figure 5: Under the surface: black rockfish enjoying a swim around the rocky reefs in Tichenor Cove, Port Orford.

I earned my AAUS Scientific Diver certification in 2018 through UNC Chapel Hill, and have since learned just how different cold water is from warm water diving. My first cold water dive was at the Orford Reef exhibit in the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Guided by Kevin Buch, OSU’s Diving and Boat Safety Officer, I gained a new respect for how important it is to train in the conditions you will be working in. For example, cold-water diving requires much more insulation, which in turn changes your buoyancy and dexterity. At first, I struggled to learn my new buoyancy baseline while simultaneously rolling out transect tape with thick neoprene gloves and keeping a curious sturgeon from stealing my mask. At times it felt like I was learning to dive all over again. This winter, I have increased my confidence by taking evening SCUBA proficiency courses to sharpen my skills and logging dives in local conditions.

Figure 6: Obtaining my open water certification on the French Reef in Florida Keys, 2018.

As part of our Advanced Diver weekend course in the beautiful Hood Canal, I had the opportunity to hone my skills in compass navigation, buoyancy, night and deep dives, and search & recovery methods, all in my new cold water gear. While my dive buddy and I were ecstatic to see some amazing flora and fauna (giant pacific octopus, sea pens, nudibranch, pipefish, and more!) we mainly bonded over the shared sense of achievement in safely completing our complex tasks in low-visibility, cold-water conditions.

Figure 7: Giant Pacific Octopus like this can be observed while diving in the Hood Canal, photo credit Bruce Kerwin.

As I complete these trainings, I think of all there is to to be discovered with data collected under the surface of our Port Orford study system: the health of kelp forests, the density and patchiness of mysid shrimp (the crucial prey source for gray whales), habitat complexity, and more. I am curious if there are certain puzzle pieces driving gray whale foraging decisions that may be revealed through expanding our subsurface monitoring efforts as part of the GEMM Lab’s already impressive dataset.

The skill sets required for scientific diving are also useful for outdoor leadership, and truly in all situations: maintaining a cool head under stressful conditions, planning for the unexpected, managing expectations, and communicating well (you can’t really talk with a regulator in your mouth!) — to name just a few. Regardless of exactly how I use my scientific dive training for future research, I am thankful for all this experience has taught me; and, I look forward to integrating these skills further as we head into our 9th year of the JASPER/TOPAZ project.

Did you enjoy this blog? Want to learn more about marine life, research, and
conservation? Subscribe to our blog and get a weekly message when we post a new
blog. Just add your name and email into the subscribe box below.


A mosaic of interconnected nearshore dynamics in Port Orford

Allison Dawn, GEMM Lab Master’s student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab 

In last week’s blog, GEMM Lab postdoc Dawn Barlow discussed the uncertain future of upwelling response to climate change and how findings from the Shanks et al., 2009 “Paradigm lost? . . .” study implies that nearshore systems are likely decoupled from offshore upwelling processes. In a follow up to that paper, Shanks and co-authors found that the heterogeneity of coastline morphology (i.e., rocky or sandy) across several Oregon nearshore study sites explained zooplankton retention differences. Indeed, not only are there differences between offshore and nearshore upwelling dynamics, but there are also site-specific factors to consider when it comes to understanding changes in zooplankton retention along the Oregon coast (Shanks et. al, 2010).

I spend a lot of time thinking about what drives the variability in abundance and distribution of zooplankton prey of gray whales at our Port Orford study site over our long-term study period (2015-2022). For this blog, I want to briefly touch on a few interconnected dynamics in this nearshore PCFG gray whale foraging site that may affect their prey availability. Specifically, the interplay between shoreline topography, temperature, and habitat complexity. 

Interplay between shoreline morphology and thermal fronts

Several years before the “Paradigm lost? . . .” paper, Shanks led a study that investigated how holoplankton (a group of plankton in which mysids and amphipods belong) retention varies across three sites near Cape Arago and one site in Port Orford (Shanks et a., 2003). Here the authors noted that the Port Orford Bight causes an “upwelling shadow”, which is a region of water protected from upwelling-favorable winds. This shadow results in a small-scale warm water feature in the lee of the Port Orford Bight, which may serve as an important retention and recirculation zone for primary productivity (Graham et al., 1997). Discovering this “upwelling shadow” was not the intention of this paper, so the depth and breadth of the warm water plume within our study area has yet to be mapped (see Figure 1 for another West Coast example). However, “upwelling shadows” can act as convergence zones associated with greater zooplankton biomass (Morgan & Fisher, 2010; Ryan et al., 2010, Woodson et al., 2007) and thus may be an important feature to consider in our spatial analyses of drivers of prey availability to gray whales in our Port Orford study region.

Figure 1. Example of an “upwelling shadow” in Monterey Bay. Remotely sensed oceanographic convergent zones (top panel) and sea surface temperature (SST; lower panel) changes over time: a) Sept 8th 2003, b) Sept 2nd 2004, c) Sept 26th 2004, and d) May 31st 2005. Each time period demonstrates that the lee side of Point Año Nuevo is consistently warmer than the surrounding area. Figure source: Ryan et al., 2020.

Habitat complexity: rugosity and kelp

Not only could the unique shoreline in Port Orford contribute to zooplankton aggregations, but the subtidal marine environment is characterized by a range of unique habitat types: rocky reef, kelp beds, and sandy bottom habitat. Structural habitat complexity has been well documented in coral reef systems to be strongly linked with zooplankton prey availability and biodiversity of planktonic grazers (Richardson et al., 2017; Darling et al., 2017; Kuffner et al., 2007; Gladstone, 2007). Structural complexity can be measured in various ways, but quantifying rugosity (or surface “roughness”) is a widely accepted approach. However, only a few studies have demonstrated predator response to rugose habitats in Oregon nearshore rocky reefs (Rasmuson et al., 2021), and there is a dearth of knowledge linking rugosity to marine mammal predation (Cimino et al., 2020). 

Rugosity serves several purposes in the marine environment. A rugose habitat creates micro-habitats for predator evasion, provides greater surface area for kelp recruitment (Cruz et al., 2014; Toohey et al., 2007), and generates turbulence that circulates vital micronutrients for filter-feeding zooplankton and ultimately drives foraging effort at fine scales (Ottersen et al., 2010). 

Figure 2. Example images of habitat rugosity as measured by SCUBA transects. A) High-relief coral habitat with B) quantified depth (m) over transect seconds (10 seconds = 1 meter) and C) Low-relief coral habitat with D) quantified depth (m) over transect seconds (10 seconds = 1 meter). Figure source: Dustan et al., 2013.

Rugosity-generated turbidity might also help explain the zooplankton abundance variation we see across our sampling stations in Port Orford. In Lisa’s recent work showing evidence for a trophic cascade, a decline in bull kelp is overall strongly linked to a decline in zooplankton and gray whale foraging in Port Orford. However, there are sampling stations that, despite a significant loss in kelp, still had an abundance of mysids and hosted gray whale feeding activity in 2021 and 2022. Could this mean that those rocky reef stations, which are more rugose than the sandy bottom habitats, produced enough turbulence to support zooplankton prey? This hypothesis is consistent with several studies that found kelp abundance becomes less relevant with increasing habitat complexity (Trebilco et al., 2016; Anderson, 1994; Choat & Ayling et al., 1987; Larson, 1984). 

There certainly may be other physical or oceanographic factors that create turbidity at these stations. However, as my REU mentee Zoe Sax has been investigating, we think that turbidity could be a metric of primary productivity, which supports zooplankton growth. 

Figure 3 is a map of the average secchi disk values, which provide us with a measure of turbidity (the deeper we see the disk the less turbidity) in 2021 at our 12 sampling stations and their relation to kelp cover. 

Last year was a low kelp year, but Mill Rocks still had a few bull kelp canopies. In Mill Rocks where there was rocky reef with kelp, we see secchi values were low (meaning turbidity was high). This is in contrast to the areas in the sandy bottom regions (no kelp, low rugosity: specifically MR16, TC4, TC6, and TC10) with the lightest values, meaning low turbidity. 

Then, in Tichenor Cove specifically, we see that station TC1 has very little kelp but high turbidity; interestingly this site was a favored foraging spot for gray whales in 2021 and happens to be the closest station to the “upwelling shadow” I described earlier. I hope to conduct rugosity measurements in the near future so we can investigate these linkages further.

Figure 3. Map of two study sites, Tichenor Cove and Mill Rocks, with twelve sampling stations in Port Orford, OR and their average secchi disk values (meters) in 2021. Kelp abundance shown in light green polygons. 


This focus on topography, temperature, and habitat complexity to understand zooplankton variation does not discount that upwelling is an important factor for Oregon nearshore ecology. Menge & Menge 2013 found that upwelling accounted for ~50% of ecological variance in rocky intertidal regions. However, these findings occurred across large spatial areas of about 100 km, while our TOPAZ  sampling in Port Orford is on a much finer scale. Variation in ecological patterns at different, hierarchical scales are well-documented (Levin, 1992; Ottersen et al., 2010). Uncovering the “mosaic of processes”, as Shanks et al., 2003 describes, that drives nearshore zooplankton dynamics is equally challenging as it is fascinating, and I look forward to sharing more results from my Master’s work soon.

Did you enjoy this blog? Want to learn more about marine life, research and conservation? Subscribe to our blog and get weekly updates and more! Just add your name into the subscribe box below!



Anderson, T. W. (1994). Role of macroalgal structure in the distribution and abundance of a temperate reef fish. Marine ecology progress series. Oldendorf, 113(3), 279-290.

Choat, J. H., & Ayling, A. M. (1987). The relationship between habitat structure and fish faunas on New Zealand reefs. Journal of experimental marine biology and ecology, 110(3), 257-284.

Darling, E. S., Graham, N. A., Januchowski-Hartley, F. A., Nash, K. L., Pratchett, M. S., & Wilson, S. K. (2017). Relationships between structural complexity, coral traits, and reef fish assemblages. Coral Reefs, 36(2), 561-575.

Dustan, P., Doherty, O., & Pardede, S. (2013). Digital reef rugosity estimates coral reef habitat complexity. PloS one, 8(2), e57386.

Gladstone, W. (2007). Selection of a spawning aggregation site by Chromis hypsilepis (Pisces: Pomacentridae): habitat structure, transport potential, and food availability. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 351, 235-247.

Graham, W. M., & Largier, J. L. (1997). Upwelling shadows as nearshore retention sites: the example of northern Monterey Bay. Continental Shelf Research, 17(5), 509-532.

Kuffner, I. B., Brock, J. C., Grober-Dunsmore, R., Bonito, V. E., Hickey, T. D., & Wright, C. W. (2007). Relationships between reef fish communities and remotely sensed rugosity measurements in Biscayne National Park, Florida, USA. Environmental biology of fishes, 78(1), 71-82.

LARSON, R. J., & DeMARTINI, E. E. (1984). SAN ONOFRE, CALIFORNIA. Fishery Bulletin, 82(1-2), 37.

Levin, S. A. (1992). The problem of pattern and scale in ecology. Ecology, 73(6), 1943-1967.

Londoño Cruz et al. (2014) Londoño Cruz E, Mesa-Agudelo LAL, Arias-Galvez F, Herrera-Paz DL, Prado A, Cuellar LM, Cantera J. Distribution of macroinvertebrates on intertidal rocky shores in Gorgona Island, Colombia (Tropical Eastern Pacific) Revista de Biología Tropical. 2014;62(1):189–198. doi: 10.15517/rbt.v62i0.16275

Menge, B. A., & Menge, D. N. (2013). Dynamics of coastal meta-ecosystems: the intermittent upwelling hypothesis and a test in rocky intertidal regions. Ecological Monographs, 83(3), 283-310.

Morgan, S. G., & Fisher, J. L. (2010). Larval behavior regulates nearshore retention and offshore migration in an upwelling shadow and along the open coast. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 404, 109-126.

Ottersen, G., Kim, S., Huse, G., Polovina, J. J., & Stenseth, N. C. (2010). Major pathways by which climate may force marine fish populations. Journal of Marine Systems, 79(3-4), 343-360.

Rasmuson, L. K., Blume, M. T., & Rankin, P. S. (2021). Habitat use and activity patterns of female deacon rockfish (Sebastes diaconus) at seasonal scales and in response to episodic hypoxia. Environmental Biology of Fishes, 104(5), 535-553.

Richardson, L. E., Graham, N. A., Pratchett, M. S., & Hoey, A. S. (2017). Structural complexity mediates functional structure of reef fish assemblages among coral habitats. Environmental Biology of Fishes, 100(3), 193-207.

Ryan, J. P., Fischer, A. M., Kudela, R. M., McManus, M. A., Myers, J. S., Paduan, J. D., … & Zhang, Y. (2010). Recurrent frontal slicks of a coastal ocean upwelling shadow. Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, 115(C12).

Shanks, A. L., McCulloch, A., & Miller, J. (2003). Topographically generated fronts, very nearshore oceanography and the distribution of larval invertebrates and holoplankters. Journal of Plankton Research, 25(10), 1251-1277.

Shanks, A. L., & Shearman, R. K. (2009). Paradigm lost? Cross-shelf distributions of intertidal invertebrate larvae are unaffected by upwelling or downwelling. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 385, 189-204.

Shanks, A. L., Morgan, S. G., MacMahan, J., & Reniers, A. J. (2010). Surf zone physical and morphological regime as determinants of temporal and spatial variation in larval recruitment. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 392(1-2), 140-150.

Toohey, B. D., Kendrick, G. A., & Harvey, E. S. (2007). Disturbance and reef topography maintain high local diversity in Ecklonia radiata kelp forests. Oikos, 116(10), 1618-1630.

Trebilco, R., Dulvy, N. K., Stewart, H., & Salomon, A. K. (2015). The role of habitat complexity in shaping the size structure of a temperate reef fish community. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 532, 197-211.

Woodson, C. B., Eerkes-Medrano, D. I., Flores-Morales, A., Foley, M. M., Henkel, S. K., Hessing-Lewis, M., … & Washburn, L. (2007). Local diurnal upwelling driven by sea breezes in northern Monterey Bay. Continental Shelf Research, 27(18), 2289-2302.

Port Orford Gray Whale Foraging Ecology Project 2022 Field Season Wrap-Up

Allison Dawn, GEMM Lab Master’s student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab 

The 8th year of Port Orford Gray Whale Foraging Ecology Project (TOPAZ/JASPER) has come to an end and it feels truly bittersweet. Last Friday, the team hosted our annual community presentation to close out the project and I was filled with pride to see them confidently convey all they learned over this summer to an audience of family, friends, and community members.

Figure 1: Team B.W.E poses for the annual team photo after the community presentation alongside Tom Calvanese (field station manager) and Lisa Hildebrand (previous project lead). 

I am amazed by all that you can accomplish in one summer, especially with an enthusiastic and adaptable team. I’ve compiled a “by the numbers” table (Fig. 2) that summarizes our hard work this season. 

Figure 2: Port Orford Gray Whale Forage Ecology (GWFE) field season 2022 by the numbers.

Every Spring, the GEMM lab works diligently to hire a solid team of students for this project, which just finished its 8th consecutive year. These students are initially total strangers who come together to live and work at the Port Orford field station on a project that is as physically and mentally tasking as it is rewarding. Although attention to all the daily details is critical, without a genuine desire to form strong connections and learn from each other – the real “glue” for teamwork – this project would not be as successful as it has been. Like the teams before them, team Big Whale Energy (B.W.E.) started off with little to no gray whale knowledge, sea kayaking experience, zooplankton ID, theodolite operation, or other skills that this project demands. The learning curve required of these students in such a short time is steep, but each year these bright, young scientists prove that with patience, determination, and a positive mindset you can gain not only valuable skills but lifelong connections. 

I also experienced a learning curve as this was my first year leading the project solo. While Leigh and Lisa trained me well last year, and were always a phone call away, there are certain skills that can only truly be honed with experience, many of which must be learned through the inevitable curve balls each new field season brings. During the six week project, Team B.W.E. grew as individuals and as a team as we encountered every challenge with a positive mindset and creative adaptation – from learning new knots to secure our downrigger line, to creating new songs while patiently watching for whales. I know I speak for all of us when I say we are so grateful for everything this 2022 field season experience has taught us about both the process of scientific research and ourselves.

During our community presentation, Leigh wonderfully conveyed how informative and exciting long term data sets can be, especially because 8 years is long enough for us to begin to observe cycles. We have been able to observe cycles in both the ecological changes in Port Orford and in the succession of students who have taken part in the project. Last year, the ecological habitat suitability seemed to have reached a new low, while this year we have seen more kelp and an uptick of whale activity as compared to 2021. We are hopeful this change is indicative of an ecosystem recovery. The cycle of returning project leads and previous interns (both virtual and in person) allows for a meaningful interchange of wisdom, memories, and excitement for the future of this project.

Figure 3: Mosaic of memories for Team B.W.E.

Thank you Team B.W.E. for helping me grow as a leader, contributing to the GEMM lab legacy, and making the 8th year of this project a great success. 

Did you enjoy this blog? Want to learn more about marine life, research and conservation? Subscribe to our blog and get weekly updates and more! Just add your name into the subscribe box below! 


The Season of Big Whale Energy (B.W.E)

By Charlie Ells, incoming freshman, Environmental Science major, College of Arts & Sciences at University of Oregon, GEMM Lab intern

Hi! My name is Charlie Ells and I’m an intern at the Port Orford field station. I’m part of the 8th Gray Whale Foraging Ecology Research Team, named this year Team B.W.E (Big Whale Energy!)

Figure 1: Logo I made for the team using Canva

The inspiration for our team name originated when the cliff team first spotted a whale named Buttons. Luke, another intern, saw Buttons through the Theodolite and said that he had “Big Whale Energy.” Luke was correct. Pictured below is Zoe, a fellow intern whose blog you might have read a couple weeks ago, and Buttons, an adult gray whale who surprised us both when he appeared out of nowhere behind us while in the kayak. The image doesn’t do him justice, but Buttons is absolutely awesome (and I mean that in the literal definition of the word). Buttons is huge; when he surfaces, it is almost like he is showing off. Buttons pulls a lot more of his body out of the water than seems necessary. His blows are deafening, sounding like an 18-wheeler’s brakes applied with full force. He often exhibits a behavior called ‘sharking’, which is when a whale turns on its side on the surface, bringing a part of their fluke out of the water (see GEMM lab video of sharking behavior). The behavior helps gray whales feed in shallow areas, and was named so because someone thought the whale’s fluke looked like a shark’s fin.

Figure 2: Kayak team gets a surprise visit by Buttons. No craft, whether it has a motor or not, should get this close to a whale. See this GEMM lab website with vessel guidelines and more information. In this case, we had seen Buttons at a safe distance (>100 yards) moments before, and moved in the opposite direction we had seen him going to avoid disturbing him. But Buttons had other plans.

Not only does B.W.E apply to the large whale that Buttons is, but it also encapsulates how much more whale activity we’ve seen this year compared to last year. So far, we have over 17 hours of whale observation time this season, which is 15 hours more than the team had in total last year. We’ve ID’d three unique whales using our study area, learned about some of them on the IndividuWhale website, and collected some great behavior data. Meet Rugged, the first whale I ever photographed. She’s young, and a bit smaller than the other adults, but she’s full of personality (to the extent that we can observe a whale’s personality, anyway). 

Figure 3: Rugged. Photo taken from the beach.

Figure 4: Rugged shows us her fluke as she dives behind the jetty.

Rugged likes to feed for a relatively long time; while some whales have searched and left quickly, she often hangs around the foraging grounds for hours. When Rugged travels, she tends to fluke, meaning she brings the end of her tail out of the water (Figure 4), pretty often. She sometimes blows three times in a row, and spends more time at the surface than others typically do. Look closely at Figure 3 and you can see a propeller scar, which is sadly new this year but at least these identification marks help us spot her more easily. So far, Rugged has been a regular customer at this season’s Mill Rocks buffet, where she feasts on a variety of zooplankton. We’ve seen her the most frequently of any whale this season, and when she shows up, she can be counted on to stick around and offer us the opportunity to collect a lot of nice whale behavior data.

My favorite part of the TOPAZ project data collection efforts are the photographs of whales I’ve captured. The camera is my favorite piece of our gear, and since using it so much this summer I’ve been seriously considering investing in one for myself. For any photography nerds, the camera is a Canon EOS 90D with a 400mm telephoto lens and auto-stabilization. Using this camera on challenging subjects, like a whale that can travel over a kilometer in a couple minutes, has taught me a lot about photography. I’ve learned a lot of situation-specific tricks as well as some general knowledge I’d like to share. I found that using such a long lens can introduce enough camera shake to ruin a shot. To prevent this, simply cranking the shutter speed up does wonders. In the main menu, I change the shutter speed to something like 1/1000, which means the shutter is open for 1/1000th of a second, minimizing the effect of the shake. I’ve also discovered that with a subject that is only in frame for a second (such as a whale), there just isn’t enough time to manually focus the camera before it’s gone. There are two solutions here: rely on auto-focus, which is fine with this camera, but might not be sufficient on others, or use manual focus before your subject is in frame. This second trick has helped me get much better whale pictures than when I first started this internship, and I use it all the time now.

Capturing these pictures of the whales is a thrilling process. First, the wait. Second, the moment of panicked excitement when someone spots a blow. Third, the breathless callouts of where the whale is and the direction it’s heading. Fourth, the mad scramble to get the whale in frame, in focus, and open the shutter in the few seconds before it returns to the depths. This last step is tough — I end up with more photos of empty water, rocks I mistake for the whale, and blurry nothingness than usable ID photos. But when I do end up with a good picture, it’s a great feeling. 

Figure 5: My best picture yet. This is Rugged, showing off what my teammates have dubbed “RainBlow.” 

Figure 6: Dotty, the third whale we ID’d this season. I hustled to the Battle Rock shoreline to get a better angle of this whale, as the sun was causing too much glare from the Cliff site to obtain a good ID photo.

This internship has affirmed my favorite part of conservation, which is the blending of science and art to inform and inspire. One of the things that first got me into science, besides my excellent science teachers, was watching YouTube videos. People like Mark Rober, Steve Mould, Veritasium, and Physics Girl take the scientific process and turn it into creative, accessible, and understandable videos. These artists and scientists have gifted me so much inspiration, which I personally think is one of the most valuable things you can be given. Inspiration can propel you forward, motivate you, and help you take those first steps towards your goal. This internship has propelled my first steps (via kayak strokes) toward my career goals. I’m looking forward to taking these lessons with me as I go off to U of O to study Environmental science. I created the video below in an attempt to capture our work, show off some highlights, and give people the same inspiration that I was given. I hope you enjoy it. This is Team Big Whale Energy, signing off!

Did you enjoy this blog? Want to learn more about marine life, research and conservation? Subscribe to our blog and get weekly updates and more! Just add your name into the subscribe box below!