Learning to Listen for Animals in the Sea

By Rachel Kaplan, PhD student, Oregon State University College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Part of what makes being a graduate student so exciting is the way that learning can flip the world around: you learn a new framework or method, and suddenly everything looks a little different. I am experiencing this fabulous phenomenon lately as I learn to collect and process active acoustic data, which can reveal the distribution and biomass of animals in the ocean – including those favored by foraging whales off of Oregon, like the tiny shrimp-like krill.

Krill, like this Thysanoessa spinifera, play a key role in California Current ecosystems. Photo credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

We know that whales seek out the dense, energy-rich swarms that krill form, and that knowing where to expect krill can give us a leg up in anticipating whale distributions. Project OPAL (Overlap Predictions About Large whales) seeks to model and provide robust predictions of whale distributions off the coast of Oregon, so that managers can make spatially discrete decisions about potential fishery closures, minimizing burdens to fishermen while also maximizing protection of whales. We hope that including prey in our ecosystem models will help this effort, and working on this aim is one of the big tasks of my PhD.

So, how do we know where to expect krill to be off the coast of Oregon? Acoustic tools give us the opportunity to flip the world upside down: we use a tool called an echosounder to eavesdrop on the ocean, yielding visual outputs like the ones below that let us “see” and interpret sound.

Echograms like these reveal features in the ocean that scatter “pings” of sound, and interpreting these signals can show life in the water column.

This is how it works. The echosounder emits pulses of sound at a known frequency, and then it listens for their return after it bounces of the sea floor or things in the water column. Based on sound experiments in the laboratory, we know to expect our krill species, Euphausia pacifica and Thysanoessa spinifera, to return those echoes at a characteristic decibel level. By constantly “pinging” the water column with this sound, we can record a continuous soundscape along the cruise track of a vessel, and analyze it to identify the animals and features recorded.

I had the opportunity to use an echosounder for the first time recently, on the first HALO cruise. We deployed the echosounder soon after sunrise, 65 miles offshore from Newport. After a little fiddling and troubleshooting, I was thrilled to start “listening” to the water; I was able to see the frothy noise at its surface, the contours of the seafloor, and the pixelated patches that indicate prey in between. Although it’s difficult to definitively identify animals only based on the raw output, we saw swarms that looked like our beloved krill, and other aggregations that suggested hake. Sometimes, at the same time that the team of visual observers on the flying bridge of the vessel sighted whales, I also saw potential prey on the echogram.

 I spent much of the HALO cruise monitoring incoming data from the transducer on the SIMRAD EK60. Photo: Marissa Garcia.

I’m excited to keep collecting these data, and grateful that I can also access acoustic data collected by others. Many research vessels use echosounders while they are underway, including the NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada, which conducts cruises in the Northern California Current several times a year. Starting in 2018, GEMM Lab members have joined these cruises to conduct marine mammal surveys.

This awesome pairing of data types means that we can analyze the prey that was available at the time of marine mammal sightings. I’ve been starting to process acoustic data from past Northern California Current cruises, eavesdropping on the preyscape in places that were jam-packed with whales, such as this echogram from the September 2020 cruise, below.

An echogram from the September 2020 NCC cruise shows a great deal of prey at different depths.

Like a lot of science, listening to animals in the sea comes down to occasional bursts of fieldwork followed by a lot of clicking on a computer screen during data analysis. This analysis can be some pretty fun clicking, though – it’s amazing to watch the echogram unfurl, revealing the preyscape in a swath of ocean. I’m excited to keep clicking, and learn what it can tell us about whale distributions off of Oregon.

Memoirs from above: drone observations of blue, humpback, Antarctic minke, and gray whales

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

With the GRANITE field season officially over, we are now processing all of the data we collected this summer. For me, I am starting to go through all the drone videos to take snapshots of each whale to measure their body condition. As I go through these videos, I am reflecting on the different experiences I am fortunate enough to have with flying different drones, in different environments, over different species of baleen whales: blue, humpback, Antarctic minke, and now gray whales. Each of these species have a different morphological design and body shape (Woodward et al., 2006), which leads to different behaviors that are noticeable from the drone. Drones create immense opportunity to learn how whales thrive in their natural environments [see previous blog for a quick history], and below are some of my memories from above. 

I first learned how drones could be used to study the morphology and behavior of large marine mammals during my master’s degree at Duke University, and was inspired by the early works of John Durban (Durban et al., 2015, 2016) Fredrick Christiansen (Christiansen et al., 2016) and Leigh Torres (Torres et al., 2018). I immediately recognized the value and utility of this technology as a new tool to better monitor the health of marine mammals. This revelation led me to pursue a PhD with the Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing (MaRRS) Lab led by Dr. Dave Johnston where I helped further develop tools and methods for collecting drone-based imagery on a range of species in different habitats. 

When flying drones over whales, there are a lot of moving parts; you’re on a boat that is moving, flying something that is moving, following something that is moving. These moving elements are a lot to think about, so I trained hard, so I did not have to think about each step and flying felt intuitive and natural. I did not grow up playing video games, so reaching this level of comfort with the controls took a lot of practice. I practiced for hours over the course of months before my first field excursion and received some excellent mentorship and training from Julian Dale, the lead engineer in the MaRRS Lab. Working with Julian and the many hours of training helped me establish a solid foundation in my piloting skills and feel confident working in various environments on different species. 

Blue whales offshore of Monterey, California. 

In 2017 and 2018 I was involved in collaborative project with the MaRRS Lab and Goldbogen Lab at Stanford University, where we tagged and flew drones over blue whales offshore of Monterey, California. We traveled about an hour offshore and reliably found groups of blue whales actively feeding. Working offshore typically brought a large swell, which can often make landing the drone back into your field partner’s hands tricky as everything is bobbing up and down with the oscillations of the swell. Fortunately, we worked from a larger research vessel (~56 ft) and quickly learned that landing the drone in the stern helped dampen the effects of bobbing up and down. The blue whales we encountered often dove to a depth of around 200 m for about 20-minute intervals, then come to the surface for only a few minutes. This short surface period provided only a brief window to locate the whale once it surfaced and quickly fly over it to collect the imagery needed before it repeated its dive cycle. We learned to be patient and get a sense of the animal’s dive cycle before launch in order to time our flights so the drone would be in the air a couple of minutes before the whale surfaced. 

Once over the whales, the streamlined body of the blue whales was noticeable, with their small, high aspect ratio flippers and fluke that make them so well adapted for fast swimming in the open ocean (Fig. 1) (Woodward et al., 2006). I also noticed that because these whales are so large (often 21 – 24 m), I often flew at higher altitudes to be able fit them within the field of view of the camera. It was also always shocking to see how small the tagging boat (~8 m) looked when next to Earth’s largest creatures. 

Figure 1. Two blue whales surface after a deep dive offshore of Monterey, Ca. (Image credit: Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing under NOAA permit 14809-03)

Antarctic minke whales and humpback whales along the Western Antarctic PeninsulaA lot of the data included in my dissertation came from work along the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP), which had a huge range of weather conditions, from warm and sunny days to cold and snowy/foggy/rainy/windy/icy days. A big focus was often trying to keep my hands warm, as it was often easier to fly without gloves in order to better feel the controls. One of the coldest days I remember was late in the season in mid-June (almost winter!) in Wilhemina Bay where ice completely covered the bay in just a couple hours, pushing the whales out into the Gerlache Strait; I suspect this was the last ice-free day of the season. Surprisingly though, the WAP also brought some of the best conditions I have ever flown in. Humpback and Antarctic minke whales are often found deep within the bays along the peninsula, which provided protection from the wind. So, there were times where it would be blowing 40 mph in the Gerlache Strait, but calm and still in the bays, such as Andvord Bay, which allowed for some incredible conditions for flying. Working from small zodiacs (~7 m) allowed us more maneuverability for navigating around or through the ice deep in the bays (Fig. 2) 

Figure 2. Navigating through ice-flows along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. (Image credit: Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing under NOAA permit 14809-03 and ACA permits 2015-011 and 2020-016.)

Flying over Antarctic minke whale was always rewarding, as they are very sneaky and can quickly disappear under ice flows or in the deep, dark water. Flying over them often felt like a high-speed chase, as their small streamlined bodies makes them incredibly quick and maneuverable, doing barrel rolls, quick banked turns, and swimming under and around ice flows (Fig. 3). There would often be a group between 3-7 individuals and it felt like they were playing tag with each other – or perhaps with me!  

Figure 3. Two Antarctic minke whales swimming together along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. (Image credit: Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing under NOAA permit 14809-03 and ACA permits 2015-011 and 2020-016.)

Humpbacks displayed a wide range of behaviors along the WAP. Early in the season they continuously fed throughout the entire day, often bubble net feeding in groups typically of 2-5 animals (Fig. 4). For as large as they are, it was truly amazing to see how they use their pectoral fins to perform quick accelerations and high-speed maneuvering for tight synchronized turns to form bubble nets, which corral and trap their krill, their main food source (Fig. 4) (Woodward et al., 2006). Later in the season, humpbacks switched to more resting behavior in the day and mostly fed at night, taking advantage of the diel vertical migration of krill. This behavior meant we often found humpbacks snoozing at the surface after a short dive, as if they were in a food coma. They also seemed to be more curious and playful with each other and with us later in the season (Fig. 5).

We also encountered a lot of mom and calf pairs along the WAP. Moms were noticeably skinny compared to their plump calf in the beginning of the season due to the high energetic cost of lactation (Fig. 6). It is important for moms to regain this lost energy throughout the feeding season and begin to wean their calves. I often saw moms refusing to give milk to their nudging calf and instead led teaching lessons for feeding on their own.

Figure 4. Two humpback whales bubble-net feeding early in the feeding season (December) along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. (Image credit: Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing under NOAA permit 14809-03 and ACA permits 2015-011 and 2020-016.)
Figure 5. A curious humpback whale dives behind our Zodiac along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. (Image credit: Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing under NOAA permit 14809-03 and ACA permits 2015-011 and 2020-016.)
Figure 6. A mom and her calf rest at the surface along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Note how the mom looks skinnier compared to her plump calf, as lactation is the most energetically costly phase of the reproductive cycle. (Image credit: Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing under NOAA permit 14809-03 and ACA permits 2015-011 and 2020-016.)

Gray whales off Newport, Oregon

All of these past experiences helped me quickly get up to speed and jump into action with the GRANITE field team when I officially joined the GEMM Lab this year in June. I had never flown a DJI Inspire quadcopter before (the drone used by the GEMM Lab), but with my foundation piloting different drones, some excellent guidance from Todd and Clara, and several hours of practice to get comfortable with the new setup, I was flying over my first gray whale by day three of the job. 

The Oregon coast brings all sorts of weather, and some days I strangely found myself wearing a similar number of layers as I did in Antarctica. Fog, wind, and swell could all change within the hour, so I learned to make the most of weather breaks when they came. I was most surprised by how noticeably different gray whales behave compared to the blue, Antarctic minke, and humpback whales I had grown familiar with watching from above. For one, it is absolutely incredible to see how these huge whales use their low-aspect ratio flippers and flukes (Woodward et al., 2006) to perform low-speed, highly dynamic maneuvers to swim in very shallow water (5-10 m) so close to shore (<1m sometimes!) and through kelp forest or surf zones close to the beach. They have amazing proprioception, or the body’s ability to sense its movement, action, and position, as gray whales often use their pectoral fins and fluke to stay in a head standing position (see Clara Bird’s blog) to feed in the bottom sediment layer, all while staying in the same position and resisting the surge of waves that could smash them against the rocks (Video 1) . It is also remarkable how the GEMM Lab knows each individual whale based on natural skin marks, and I started to get a better sense of each whale’s behavior, including where certain individuals typically like to feed, or what their dive cycle might be depending on their feeding behavior. 

Video 1. Two Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales “head-standing” in shallow waters off the coast of Newport, Oregon. NOAA/NMFS permit #21678

I feel very fortunate to be a part of the GRANITE field team and to contribute to data collection efforts. I look forward to the data analysis phase to see what we learn about how the morphology and behavior of these gray whales to help them thrive in their environment. 


Christiansen, F., Dujon, A. M., Sprogis, K. R., Arnould, J. P. Y., and Bejder, L. (2016).Noninvasive unmanned aerial vehicle provides estimates of the energetic cost of reproduction in humpback whales. Ecosphere 7, e01468–18.

Durban, J. W., Fearnbach, H., Barrett-Lennard, L. G., Perryman, W. L., & Leroi, D. J. (2015). Photogrammetry of killer whales using a small hexacopter launched at sea. Journal of Unmanned Vehicle Systems3(3), 131-135.

Durban, J. W., Moore, M. J., Chiang, G., Hickmott, L. S., Bocconcelli, A., Howes, G., et al.(2016). Photogrammetry of blue whales with an unmanned hexacopter. Mar. Mammal Sci. 32, 1510–1515.

Torres, L. G., Nieukirk, S. L., Lemos, L., & Chandler, T. E. (2018). Drone up! Quantifying whale behavior from a new perspective improves observational capacity. Frontiers in Marine Science5, 319.

Woodward, B. L., Winn, J. P., and Fish, F. E. (2006). Morphological specializations of baleen whales associated with hydrodynamic performance and ecological niche. J. Morphol. 267, 1284–1294.

Learning the right stuff – examining social transmission in humans, monkeys, and cetaceans

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

The start of a new school year is always an exciting time. Like high school, it means seeing friends again and the anticipation of preparing to learn something new. Even now, as a grad student less focused on coursework, the start of the academic year involves setting project timelines and goals, most of which include learning. As I’ve been reflecting on these goals, one of my dad’s favorite sayings has been at the forefront of my mind. As an overachieving and perfectionist kid, I often got caught up in the pursuit of perfect grades, so the phrase “just learn the stuff” was my dad’s reminder to focus on what matters. Getting good grades didn’t matter if I wasn’t learning. While my younger self found the phrase rather frustrating, I have come to appreciate and find comfort in it. 

Given that my research is focused on behavioral ecology, I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about how gray whales learn. Learning is important, but also costly. It involves an investment of energy (a physiological cost, Christie & Schrater, 2015; Jaumann et al., 2013), and an investment of time (an opportunity cost). Understanding the costs and benefits of learning can help inform conservation efforts because how an individual learns today affects the knowledge and tactics that the individual will use in the future. 

Like humans, individual animals can learn a variety of tactics in a variety of ways. In behavioral ecology we classify the different types of learning based on the teacher’s role (even though they may not be consciously teaching). For example, vertical transmission is a calf learning from its mom, and horizontal transmission is an individual learning from other conspecifics (individuals of the same species) (Sargeant & Mann, 2009). An individual must be careful when choosing who to learn from because not all strategies will be equally efficient. So, it stands to reason than an individual should choose to learn from a successful individual. Signals of success can include factors such as size and age. An individual’s parent is an example of success because they were able to reproduce (Barrett et al., 2017). Learning in a population can be studied by assessing which individuals are learning, who they are learning from, and which learned behaviors become the most common.

An example of such a study is Barrett et al. (2017) where researchers conducted an experiment on capuchin monkeys in Costa Rica. This study centered around the Panama ́fruit, which is extremely difficult to open and there are several documented capuchin foraging tactics for processing and consuming the fruit (Figure 1). For this study, the researchers worked with a group of monkeys who lived in a habitat where the fruit was not found, but the group included several older members who had learned Panamá fruit foraging tactics prior to joining this group. During a 75-day experiment, the researchers placed fruits near the group (while they weren’t looking) and then recorded the tactics used to process the fruit and who used each tactic. Their results showed that the most efficient tactic became the most common tactic over time, and that age-bias was a contributing factor, meaning that individuals were more like to copy older members of the group. 

Figure 1. Figure from Barrett et al. (2017) showing a capuchin monkey eating a Panamá fruit using the canine seam technique.

Social learning has also been documented in dolphin societies. A long-term study on wild bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, Australia assessed how habitat characteristics and the foraging behaviors used by moms and other conspecifics affected the foraging tactics used by calves (Sargeant & Mann, 2009). Interestingly, although various factors predicted what foraging tactic was used, the dominant factor was vertical transmission where the calf used the tactic learned from its mom (Figure 2). Overall, this study highlights the importance of considering a variety of factors because behavioral diversity and learning are context dependent.

Figure 2. Figure from Sargeant & Mann (2009) showing that the probability of a calf using a tactic was higher if the mother used that tactic.

Social learning is something that I am extremely interested in studying in our study population of gray whales in Oregon. While studies on social learning for such long-lived animals require a longer study period than of the span of our current dataset, I still find it important to consider the role learning may play. One day I would love to delve into the different factors of learning by these gray whales and answer questions such as those addressed in the studies I described above. Which foraging tactics are learned? How much of a factor is vertical transmission? Considering that gray whale calves spend the first few months of the foraging season with their mothers I would expect that there is at least some degree of vertical transmission present. Furthermore, how do environmental conditions affect learning? What tactics are learned in good vs. poor years of prey availability? Does it matter which tactic is learned first? While the chances that I’ll get to address these questions in the next few years are low, I do think that investigating how tactic diversity changes across age groups could be a good place to start. As I’ve discussed in a previous blog, my first dissertation chapter will focus on quantifying the degree of individual specialization present in my study group. After reading about age-biased learning, I am curious to see if older whales, as a group, use fewer tactics and if those tactics are the most energetically efficient.

The importance of understanding learning is related to that of studying individual specialization, which can allows us to estimate how behavioral tactics might change in popularity over time and space. We could then combine this with knowledge of how tactics are related to morphology and habitat and the associated energetic costs of each tactic. This knowledge would allow us to estimate the impacts of environmental change on individuals and the population. While my dissertation research only aims to provide a few puzzle pieces in this very large and complicated gray whale ecology puzzle, I am excited to see what I find. Writing this blog has both inspired new questions and served as a good reminder to be more patient with myself because I am still, “just learning the stuff”.

A little help from my friends to study gray whales in Port Orford

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

The 2021 TOPAZ (Theodolite Overlooking Predators And Zooplankton) field season in Port Orford has come to a close. Its close also signals the end of my tenure as field project lead, after I took over from my predecessor Florence Sullivan (OSU/GEMM Lab MSc grad) in the summer of 2018. Allison Dawn, incoming GEMM Lab Master’s student, is my successor and I am excited to pass the torch to her and see what new directions she will take the project. In today’s post, I will not recap the field season as I often do at the end of August. However, I strongly encourage you to read the blog posts written by the JASPER (Journey for Aspiring Scientists Pursuing Ecological Research) interns that made up Team “Heck Yeah”, Nadia Leal, Damian Amerman-Smith, and Jasen White, as they did an excellent job summarizing what we saw and experienced over the last six weeks. Instead, I want to take this opportunity to highlight a few people in Port Orford (and their most memorable gray whale encounters) who created a home away from home for me in Port Orford and played a large part in creating rich and meaningful experiences during my time as field project lead.

Tom Calvanese. Source: WildHuman.

Up first is Tom Calvanese, the OSU Port Orford Field Station manager. The field station can be an extremely busy place, especially during the summer when ideal weather conditions allow many marine scientists to conduct their research. There can be a lot of comings and goings at the field station, with swift turnarounds between groups and individuals from different departments and projects; some staying just one night, while others (such as the TOPAZ field teams) stay for several weeks. Leigh and I like to call Tom “the man behind the machine” because he manages to keep this busy field station running smoothly. From the get go, Tom has been a solid rock for me in Port Orford and he has never hesitated to give me the time and attention I needed, be it because I was seeking him out for advice about how to handle a personnel issue, a lesson in how to tie strong knots, or just a friendly conversation at the end of a long field day. I know that I have found a life-long friend and colleague in Tom through this project and for this I am very grateful.

One of Tom’s most iconic gray whale encounters happened when he was kayak fishing with a few friends in Tichenor Cove (coincidentally one of the two TOPAZ study sites). The individual kayakers were scattered throughout the cove, all in search of a good spot to hook some rockfish or lingcod. The group had not been out on the water for very long, which likely plays a large part in the shock and surprise that comes next, when Tom suddenly heard the blow of whale. He looked up from his fishing in the direction of the blow, only to see that a gray whale was surfacing right underneath one of his kayak fishing friends. Said friend could do nothing as he sat paralyzed in his kayak which slowly slid off the back of the gray whale as it dove once again. Neither whale nor human was harmed in this encounter, as the whale went back to foraging in the area, and the human (after several minutes of incredulity) went back to fishing. Every year, Tom has warned me of this location where this interaction happened (an uncharacteristically deep spot in Tichenor Cove compared to the rest of the area), though his warning is always accompanied with a twinkle in his eye.

An image captured by 2018’s Team “Whale Storm” aboard the kayak while sampling in Tichenor Cove, Port Orford. Source: GEMM Lab.
Dave Lacey. Source: L Hildebrand.

Dave Lacey owns South Coast Tours (SCT), a tour operating business that offers boat, kayak, and snorkeling tours, as well as surf lessons. Dave has been one of the most generous individuals to the TOPAZ/JASPER projects, never hesitating to loan us wetsuits and/or kayaks and allowing us to use his office and storage areas every day. He has also delivered excellent kayak paddle & safety instruction to the field teams over the last two years. Dave has truly become a vital partner during the Port Orford field seasons. It has been such a pleasure to be able to learn from and work with him, as well as see his business grow each year. Even though I will not be leading the project in Port Orford anymore, I am excited to continue my working relationship with Dave through obtaining important photo identification and sighting data of gray whales in the area when the GEMM Lab team is not there.

Although SCT is not even 10 years old (though it will be next year in 2022!), Dave has had so many gray whale encounters that he said it was really hard for him to pick just one. However, he ultimately picked the first time that he smelled a gray whale’s breath. It happened during a kayak tour when the group rounded the corner from Tichenor to Nellie’s Cove and a whale suddenly surfaced right in front of everyone, hitting them with the misty cloud of its blow. Up until this moment, Dave had both seen and heard hundreds of whale blows, but had never smelled one. He says, “to hear and see [the blow] is pretty normal but to get the third sense [of smell] is really phenomenal.”. Upon asking what he thinks of the smell, Dave replied that he does not think it is as gross as some people may think and during tours on his boat, the Black Pearl, he now actually tries to (safely) maneuver the boat downwind of the blow so that his clients can get a whiff as well.

The misty cloud emitted by whales when they come to the surface to breathe is referred to as the “blow”. Source: GEMM Lab.
Mike Baran. Source: L Hildebrand.

Mike Baran is a co-owner of Port Orford Sustainable Seafood (POSS) and he also occasionally guides kayak and snorkel tours for SCT. POSS is a community supported fishery that delivers wild, line-caught seafood direct from Port Orford to communities throughout western Oregon. I developed a great friendship with Mike through seeing him on the water a lot as a kayak guide for SCT in my first summer leading the TOPAZ/JASPER projects (2018), as well as seeing him at the field station on most days since POSS’ office and fish-processing facility are located there as well. If you are a keen follower of the GEMM Lab blog, you will know by now that the field season in Port Orford is short, yet very intense and taxing. Therefore, uplifting and sometimes goofy interactions with someone can really turn an upsetting day (potentially due to kayak gear loss or simply exhaustion) into a better one. Mike provided me with a lot of uplifting and goofy interactions and always helped put a smile on my face. 

As a SCT kayak guide, Mike has also had many gray whale encounters, however none are as memorable as the one he had on August 2nd, 2019. Mike describes it as a typical Port Orford day: “windy with lots of whale activity all morning”, though all of the activity had been at a distance (the whale blows were far away). Yet, on the paddle back through Tichenor Cove along the backside of the port jetty, Mike and his tour glimpsed a whale that was headstanding along the jetty rocks. The paddlers slowed down and kept their distance, watching as the gray whale foraged, diving down for 3-4 minutes at a time before resurfacing in almost the same location as it had surfaced in before. Suddenly, the whale surfaced right in the middle of the kayak group, with Mike to its left, a mere meter or so away, and the rest of the group to its right. Despite the fact that the sudden appearance of the whale scared the living daylights out of Mike, he was able to take a picture of the surfacing, which features one of the tour clients in the background with her hands lifted up to her face in total shock. So, thankfully for us the moment is not just eternalized in Mike’s memory but also in photographic form.

The photo of the gray whale that surfaced right next to Mike’s kayak, which also captured the shock & surprise of one of the tour clients in the background. Source: South Coast Tours.
Tara Ramsey. Source: L Hildebrand.

Last but certainly not least is Tara Ramsey, the coordinator of the Redfish Rocks Community Team since the summer of 2020. Despite arriving to Port Orford and her job in the middle of a pandemic, Tara has developed a lot of exciting new outreach and education material for the Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve, including an excellent walking tour of Port Orford (if you are ever there, I cannot recommend it highly enough – it starts at the Visitor Center!). While I have not known Tara as long as the other individuals featured in this blog, she has become a really great friend of mine, teaching me a lot about the reserve and Port Orford in general, including the best spot on Battle Rock beach for a small nighttime bonfire. 

Tara’s most memorable encounter with a gray whale is in fact her only encounter with a gray whale to date, and it happened just a few weeks ago when she was doing an Instagram livestream of the Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve aboard SCT’s Black Pearl. The purpose of the livestream was to bring the public into the reserve without having to leave the comfort and current safety of their homes. Tara describes the conditions in the reserve as “quite eerie” that day as there was a combination of smoke, fog, and no wind in the air. These conditions resulted in some pretty poor visibility, but gave the reserve an almost mystical appearance. Tara was actually mid-sentence on the livestream, talking about how special this moment was for her because it was her first time being in the reserve, when a whale surfaced a few meters from the boat. While the encounter was brief (the whale only surfaced 3 or 4 times before disappearing into the fog), Tara says the vision will be etched in her memory forever as Redfish Rocks is “a circle of islands, kind of like an amphitheater and it was amazing to see the whale just in the middle of it all.” 

An aerial view of Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve. Source: FishTracker.

I will miss being the field project lead of the TOPAZ and JASPER projects. I will miss kayaking every other day and spying on gray whales from the cliff site. I will miss having the opportunity to work closely with and train a new crop of aspiring marine scientists. I will miss my daily interactions with Tom, Dave, Mike, Tara, and many more individuals, when I do not go to Port Orford for six weeks next summer. I will cherish all the memories I have amassed over my last four summers in Port Orford for a very long time. Most of all, I will always be grateful to the gray whales that brought me back every summer and who (in a way) made all those memories happen.

PI Leigh Torres and Lisa at the end of the 2021 TOPAZ field season in Port Orford after the annual community presentation with Battle Rock Beach, Humbug Mountain, and Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve in the background. Source: L Torres.

The Unpredictable Nature of Field Work & a Mystery Mysid

By Jasen C. White, GEMM Lab summer intern, OSU senior, Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences

Field work is predictably unpredictable. Even with years of experience and exhaustive planning, nature always manages to throw a few curveballs, and this gray whale foraging ecology field season is no exception. We are currently in our sixth week of data collection here in Port Orford, and we have been battling the weather, our equipment, and a notable lack of whales and their zooplankton prey. Throughout all of these setbacks, Team “Heck Yeah” has lived up to its mantra as we have approached each day ready to hit the ground running. When faced with any of our myriad of problems, we have managed to work collaboratively to assess our options and develop solutions to keep the project on track. 

For those of you that are unfamiliar with Port Orford, it is windy here, and when it is not, it can be foggy. Both of these weather patterns have the potential to make unsafe paddling conditions for our kayak sampling team. This summer we have frequently delayed or altered our field work routines to accommodate these weather patterns. Occasionally, we had to call off kayaking altogether as the winds and swell precluded us from maintaining our boat “on station” at the predetermined GPS coordinates during our samples, only for the winds to die down once we had returned to shore and completed the daily gear maintenance. Despite weather challenges, we have made the most of our data collection opportunities over these past six weeks, and we have only been forced to give up four total days of data collection. Flexibility to take advantage of the good weather windows when they arrive is the key!

Equipment issues can be even more unpredictable than the weather. The first major stumbling block for our equipment was a punctured membrane in the dissolved oxygen probe that we lower into the water at each of our twelve sample locations. This puncture was likely the result of a stray urchin’s spine that was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Soon after noticing the problem, we quickly rallied to refurbish the membrane, recalibrate the sensor, and design a protective housing using some plumbing parts from the local hardware store to prevent any future damage to the membrane (Figures 1a-d). Within 6 days, we were back up and running with the dissolved oxygen sensor.

Figure 1. a) Punctured dissolved oxygen sensor membrane; b) plans for constructing a protective housing for the sensor; c) the new protective housing for the dissolved oxygen sensor (yellow) is attached to the sensor array; d) intern Jasen White measuring seawater for the dissolved oxygen sensor calibration after replacing the punctured membrane. Source: A. Dawn

The next major equipment issue involved a GoPro camera whose mounting hardware snapped while being retrieved at a sample site. This event was captured on the camera itself (see below). Fortunately, thanks to our collaborators at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, we were soon able to recover the lost GoPro camera, and in the meantime, we relied on our spare to continue sampling. 

Figure 2. The steel cable of the downrigger used to deploy and retrieve our sensor array had worn down until only two strands remained intact. Source: J. White.

The most recent equipment problem was a fraying cable (Figure 2) on our downrigger. We use the downrigger as a winch to lower and raise our sensor array and zooplankton nets into the water to obtain our samples. Fortunately, keen eyes on our team noticed the fray before it fully separated while the sensor array was in the water which could have resulted in losing our gear. We were quickly able to find the necessary repair part locally and get back on the water to finish out our sample regime within an hour of noticing the problem. 

Finally, as Damian mentioned in his post last week, this season seemed to start much slower than the previous field seasons. In the early weeks, many of our zooplankton sampling nets repeatedly came up almost empty. There was often nothing but murky water to see in the GoPro videos that accompany the zooplankton samples. Likely due to the lack of prey, we have only managed to spot a couple of transitory whales that rarely entered our study area. Those few whales that we did observe were difficult to track as the relatively high winds and waves quickly dissipated the tell-tale blows and camouflaged their briefly exposed backs and flukes. 

Our determination and perseverance have recently started to pay off, however, as the prey abundance in at least some of our sample sites has begun to increase. This increase in prey has also corresponded to a slight increase in whale sightings. One whale even spent nearly 30 minutes around the sampling station that consistently yields the most prey, likely indicating foraging behavior. These modest increases in zooplankton prey and whale sightings provide more evidence in support of the hypothesis Damian mentioned last week that reduced whale abundance in the area is likely the result of low prey abundance.

Figure 3. Example of a previously unidentified mysid that dominates several of our zooplankton samples. Due to the unique fat and flat telson (the “tail”) portion, we have been affectionately calling these “beavertail” mysids. Source: J. White.

As the zooplankton abundance finally started to increase, we noticed an interesting shift in the kinds of prey that we are capturing compared to previous seasons. Donovan Burns, an intern from the 2019 field season, noted in his blog post that the two most common types of zooplankton they found in their samples were the mysid species Holmesimysis sculpta and members of the genus Neomysis. While Neomysis mysid shrimp are continuing to make up a large proportion of our prey samples this year, we have noticed that many of our samples are dominated by a different type of mysid shrimp (Figure 3) which, in previous years, was a very rare capture. After searching through several mysid identification guides, this unknown mysid appears to be a member of the genus Lucifer, identified based on the presence of some distinctive characteristics that are unique to this genus (Omori 1992). 

This observation is interesting because historically, Lucifer mysid shrimp are typically found in warmer tropical and subtropical waters and were rarely reported in the eastern North Pacific Ocean before the year 1992 (Omori 1992). Additionally, a key to common coastal mysid shrimp of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia does not include members of the Lucifer genus, nor does it include any examples of mysids that resemble these new individuals showing up in our zooplankton nets (Daly and Holmquist 1986). If our initial identification of this mysid species is correct, then the sudden rise in the abundance of a typically warm water mysid species in Port Orford may indicate some fascinating shifts in oceanographic conditions that could lend some insight into why our prey and subsequent whale observations are so different this year than in years past.

Figure 4. View from the cliff site where we track gray whales using a theodolite. Source: A. Dawn.

As the 2021 field season draws to a close in Port Orford, I cannot help but reflect on what a wonderful opportunity we have been given through this summer internship program. I have loved the short time that I have spent living in this small but lively community for these past five weeks. Most days we could either be found kayaking around the nearshore to sample for the tiny creatures that our local gray whales call dinner, or we were on a cliff, gazing at the tirelessly beautiful, rugged coastline (Figure 4), hoping to glimpse the blow of a foraging whale so that we could track its course with our theodolite. Though the work can be physically exhausting during long and windy kayaking trips, mentally taxing when processing the data for each of the new samples after a full day of fieldwork, or incredibly frustrating with equipment failures, weather delays and shy whales, it is also tremendously satisfying to know that I contributed in a small but meaningful way to the mission of the GEMM Lab. I cannot imagine a better way to obtain the experience that my fellow interns and I have gained from this work, and I know that it will serve each of us well in our future ambitions.


Daly, K. L., and C. Holmquist. 1986. A key to the Mysidacea of the Pacific Northwest. Canadian Journal of Zoology 64:1201–1210.

Omori, M. 1992. Occurrence of Two Species of Lucifer (Dendrobranchiata: Sergestoidea: Luciferidae) off the Pacific Coast of America. Journal of Crustacean Biology 12:104–110.

Where are all the whales: Thoughts from the first half of the Port Orford project 2021

By Damian Amerman-Smith, Pacific High School senior, GEMM Lab summer intern

Left to right: Damian, Nadia, Jasen. The group scans the ocean looking for whales, while Damian puts on sunscreen. Source: A. Dawn. 

Growing up in Port Orford, a short ten-minute walk from the Pacific Ocean, has certainly shaped my life a lot. It has given me a great regard for the ocean, the diversity of life within it, and how life seems to bypass human derived borders in order to go wherever it can. I often marvel at all the beautiful, intricate ecosystems that are able to exist inside of our planet’s vast oceanic expanses. Along with my love of the ocean has come a great regard for marine mammals and the novelties of these animals that allow them to live entirely in the ocean despite not having gills. Every new discovery of these beautiful ocean creatures brings me such simple and pure joy, such as my very recent discovery that baleen whales have two blow holes. These blow holes look so peculiar on the top of their bodies, like a short upside-down nose. 

Photo of a gray whale’s blow hole. Source: NOAA.

My interest in the ocean and its inhabitants was a large part of what made me so enthused to take a part in the gray whale foraging ecology (GWFE) project in Port Orford this summer. When Elizabeth Kelly, my friend and a previous intern for the GWFE project mentioned her experiences from the previous summer, I was very happy when she put me in contact with Lisa Hildebrand and Leigh Torres so that I could apply to be an intern. Since then, I have been very ecstatically awaiting the beginning of the project and could hardly believe it when it finally began, and I was able to meet my fellow team members: Lisa Hildebrand, the PhD student who has been leading the GWFE project for the last four years; Allison Dawn, a Master’s student who is going to take over the project in Lisa’s stead; Nadia Leal, an OSU undergrad hoping to further pursue the field of marine biology; and Jasen White, an OSU undergrad whose time in the Navy has made him a very steeling presence while out on the water. 

The three weeks that we have spent together learning the procedures that make up the project have been well spent, teaching all of us a lot of new things, such as what a theodolite is, how to operate a dissolved oxygen sensor, and (for me) how to use Excel. The first two weeks were largely spent just learning about how we collect data and improving our field skills, but as we have become more comfortable with our skills, we have also begun looking beyond the procedures, towards the data itself and what it can mean. Primarily, we started to notice the distinct lack of gray whales and almost complete lack of zooplankton prey for any gray whales in the area to eat. 

A calm & beautiful, yet whale-less, view from the cliff site. Source: L. Hildebrand.

As we pass the halfway point in the project, we have only witnessed two whales inside our study area. While in the beginning it was not surprising that there were no whales, it has started to become concerning to me. We have a strong working hypothesis about why there have not been many whale sightings in our monitored sites of Mill Rocks and Tichenor’s Cove: there is not nearly enough zooplankton prey to attract them. Monday, August 9th is a good example to support this hypothesis. On that day, when we pulled up our sample net at Tichenor Cove station #1, we collected fifty-three individual Neomysis mysid shrimp, which are a tasty treat for gray whales. However, all the other prey samples from the remaining eleven kayak sampling stations had perhaps a maximum of five assorted zooplankton each, which is certainly not enough to attract the attention of such a large predator as Eschrichtius robustus (a gray whale). Unfortunately, we have yet to see much change in zooplankton prey availability in our sampling nets over the season so far, but we are hopeful that swarms of zooplankton in the area will resurge and the gray whales will begin using the area around the port as their August feeding grounds.

Our hopes aside, it is intriguing to think about why there has been so few zooplankton at our sampling sites. A main factor is likely the decrease of Port Orford’s kelp forests over the past few years. Kelp is very important to zooplankton, particularly mysids, as it allows them to seek shelter from predators. Declines in kelp forests have been documented all along the southern Oregon coast, and are believed to be fueled by many factors (ORKA, 2021). A combination of warming waters with decreasing amount of nutrients available to the kelp (Richardson 2008), and the increasing abundances of purple sea urchins that eat the kelp has vastly impacted the amount of kelp in the area. The decline in local kelp forests may be the reason that we are seeing fewer mysid swarms than in previous years. This reduced kelp and mysid availability could, in turn, be making Port Orford waters an unappetizing area for hungry whales to visit this year. While this trophic cascade is still just an educated hypothesis, it is important for us and others to keep watch on the situation, and to see how it changes. There are organizations such as the Oregon Kelp Alliance (ORKA) that are working hard to study why the kelp populations are hurting and how we can help. We will power through the season with the hopes that the gray whales will come. It is still very possible that the zooplankton will resurge and the whales will return with plenty to feed on.


Richardson, Anthony J. 2008. In hot water: zooplankton and climate change, ICES Journal of Marine Science, Volume 65, Issue 3, Pages 279–295, https://doi.org/10.1093/icesjms/fsn028

ORKA, 2021. “Kelp.” Oregon Kelp Alliancewww.oregonkelp.com/.

Food for thought: conscious reasoning among foraging gray whales

By Nadia Leal, GEMM Lab summer intern, OSU senior, Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences

The OSU GEMM Lab gray whale foraging ecology project in Port Orford is in its seventh year of research. I have the honor to serve as a field assistant for the project as part of Team “Heck Yeah” for the summer 2021 field season. In doing so, I have been presented with the opportunity to take part in its enduring legacy. It is a legacy characterized by novel discovery, distinguished leadership, and endless adventure. These particular aspects motivated me to pursue this internship. Further, the desire to seek out gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) — a species epitomizing the ability to exhibit resilience in the face of adversity after having experienced two unusual mortality events (UME) in the past two decades and having recovered from historically low population abundances due to whaling — sparked immeasurable excitement.

Figure 1. Nadia operating the theodolite to calculate the location of a gray whale. Source: A. Dawn.

The skills we are acquiring during this field season are essential to master so that I can pursue my aspirations of becoming a marine conservation biologist. For example, we have learned how to operate a theodolite, which is a surveying tool used regularly in marine mammal research to accurately calculate the location of cetaceans and track their movements (Figure 1). We are also learning how to operate a number of other research equipment, to navigate a tandem kayak using a GPS, to process various forms of data, and to identify gray whales! I have especially enjoyed collecting prey samples and navigating our tandem kayak, as kayaking is a summer tradition for my family and the opportunity to kayak in this context is certainly the high point of this internship. The kayak is named “Robustus” after the scientific name of the gray whale: Eschrichtius robustus! (Figure 2). 

Figure 2. Nadia navigating Robustus, the research kayak.

The Port Orford project aims to determine how gray whale foraging is affected by prey quantity and quality. In fact, gray whales exhibit specificity in their selection of prey on the basis of caloric content (Hildebrand 2020). I am particularly interested in the underlying implications these findings imply: the notion of conscious reasoning and decision-making by individual whales as they seek the most suitable prey for its dietary needs among other options to maximize its survivability. Are gray whales in possession of an awareness that allows them to exhibit intentional preference? Can the behavior be attributed to instinct and/or learned behavior, or to cognition comparable to human preference? These and similar questions are my motivation for studying the realm of marine mammal biology. These questions concern intelligence and evolution, which can be effectively investigated through an analysis of cetacean brain structure, as it likely has compelling relationships to their extensive behavioral abilities (Hof and Van Der Gucht 2007). 

For instance, the brain of the gray whale has expanded and developed extensively over evolutionary time in response to distinct selection pressures. Evidence affirms that the behavioral challenges associated with foraging exert strong selection pressures on the evolution of their brain size and structure (Muller and Montgomery 2019)! Selection pressures associated with social cognition are also believed to have contributed to such growth (Connor et al. 1998; Marino 2002; Shultz and Dunbar 2010 ). Further, their neural organization has increased in complexity, leading to greater function and usage of the cortical portion of the brain, which is the portion responsible for higher level activity (Oelschläger and Oelschläger 2002). 

Figure 3. Structure of humpback whale brain representative of baleen species used to infer about gray whales (Hof and Van Der Gucht 2007). 

Though research about baleen whale brain morphology is not as pervasive as that of toothed whales (due to increased susceptibility of toothed whales to captivity given the feasibility of their capture and subsequent analysis in lab/controlled setting), studies have indicated that the brain of baleen whales share similarities to those of humans (Wade et. al 2012). In particular, similarities exist in the frontal lobe of the brain, which is responsible for the complex activities of self-awareness, reasoning, and behavior, as well as for problem-solving and motivation (Hof and Van Der Gucht 2007) (Figure 3). These findings indicate that baleen whales, including the gray whale, have the capability to exhibit intentional preference and take part in conscious decision-making in the recognition of different prey species. The mechanisms responsible for how gray whales may discern prey likely involve a number of the sensory systems, differing in respect to spatial scale (Torres 2017). Thus, gray whales likely rely on various sensory methods, such as vision, sound perception/reception, chemoreception, or an oceanographic stimulus, at differing scales to locate and discern prey. The sensory method employed is dependent on their distance from prey. 

Though we cannot yet confirm whether and/or how gray whales are capable of distinguishing between prey species, what is certain, is that the gray whale is intelligent and quite similar to us. Moreover, they are representative of strength and endurance, providing lessons we can learn from and qualities we can embody. Despite the threats to the species from fishing gear entanglement, ship collisions, climate change, oil industry developments, and being historically hunted, they have remarkably persisted. Thus, we must ensure the existence of the gray whale so they too may thrive for the rest of time, with healthy lives and habitat that is rightfully theirs.

P.S. I would like to thank the GEMM Lab, Oregon State University, Shalynn Pack, Port Orford Sustainable Seafood, Port Orford Co-op, South Coast Tours, Nicki’s Knick Knacks, Leigh Torres, Lisa Hildebrand, Allison Dawn, Clara Bird, Tom Calvanese, Maddie English, Jasen White, and Damian Amerman-Smith for making the internship as special and memorable as it is/was. 


Connor, R. C., Mann, J., Tyack, P. L., and Whitehead, H. (1998). Social evolution in toothed whales. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 13(6): 228– 232. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0169‐5347(98)01326‐3 

Hildebrand, L. (2020). Tonight’s specials include mysids, amphipods, and more: an examination of the zooplankton prey of Oregon gray whales and its impact on foraging choices and prey selection. Master’s thesis, Oregon State University. 

Hof, P.R., and Van Der Gucht, E. (2007). Structure of the cerebral cortex of the humpback whale, Megaptera novaengliae(Cetacea, Mysticeti, Balaenopteridae). The Anatomical Record 290:1-31 doi: 10.1002/ar.a.20407

Marino, L. (2002). Convergence of complex cognitive abilities in cetaceans and primates. Brain, Behavior, and Evolution59: 21–32. doi:  https://doi. org/10.1159/000063731 

Oelschläger, H.A., and Oelschläger, J.S. (2002). Brains. In: Perrin WF, Wu¨ rsig B, Thewissen JGM, editors. Encyclopedia of marine mammals. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. p 133–158.            

Shultz, S., & Dunbar, R. (2010). Encephalization is not a universal macroevolutionary phenomenon in mammals but is associated with sociality. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107(50): 21582–21586. doi: https://doi.org/10.1073/ pnas.1005246107 

Torres, L.G. (2017). A sense of scale: foraging cetaceans’ use of scale-dependent multimodal sensory systems. Marine Mammal Science 33: 1170-1193. doi:  10.1111/mms.12426 

Wade, P.R., Reeves, R.R., and Mesnick, S.L. (2012). Social and behavioral factors in cetacean responses to overexploitation: are odontocetes less “resilient” than mysticetes?. The Journal of Marine Biology 2012: 1-15. doi:10.1155/2012/567276

Do gray whales count calories? New GEMM Lab publication compares energetic values of prey available to gray whales on two feeding grounds in the eastern North Pacific

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

Predators have high energetic requirements that must be met to ensure reproductive success and population viability. For baleen whales, this task is particularly challenging since their foraging seasons are typically limited to short temporal windows during summer months when they migrate to productive high latitude environments. Foraging success is a balancing act whereby baleen whales must maximize the amount of energy they intake, while minimizing the amount of energy they expend to obtain food. Maximization of energy intake can be achieved by targeting the most beneficial prey. How beneficial a particular prey type (or prey patch) is can depend on a number of factors such as abundance, density, quality, size, and availability. Determining why baleen whales target particular prey types or patches is an important factor to enhance our understanding of their ecology and can ultimately aid in informing their management and conservation.

The GEMM Lab has several research projects in Newport and Port Orford, Oregon, on the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG), which is a sub-group of gray whales from the Eastern North Pacific (ENP) population. While ENP gray whales feed in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas (Arctic) in the summer months, the PCFG utilizes the range from northern California, USA to northern British Columbia, Canada. Our work to date has revealed a number of new findings about the PCFG including that they successfully gain weight during the summer on Oregon foraging grounds (Soledade Lemos et al. 2020). Furthermore, females that consistently use the PCFG range as their foraging grounds have successfully reproduced and given birth to calves (Calambokidis & Perez 2017). Yet, the abundance of the PCFG (~250 individuals; Calambokidis et al. 2017) is two orders of magnitude smaller than the ENP population (~20,000; Stewart & Weller 2021). So, why do more gray whales not use the PCFG range as their foraging grounds when it provides a shorter migration while also allowing whales to meet their high energetic requirements and ensure reproductive success? There are several hypotheses regarding this ecological mystery including that prey abundance, density, quality, and/or availability are higher in the Arctic than in the PCFG range, thus justifying the much larger number of gray whales that migrate further north for the summer feeding season. 

Figure 1. Locations of prey samples collected with a light trap (open circles) or opportunistic collections of surface swarms of crab larvae (black triangles) in Newport, along the Oregon coast in the Pacific Northwest coast of the United States.

Our recent paper in Frontiers in Marine Science addressed the hypothesis that prey quality in the Arctic is higher than that of PCFG prey. To test this hypothesis, we first determined the quality (energetic value) of nearshore Oregon zooplankton species that PCFG gray whales are assumed to feed on (based on observations of fine-scale spatial and temporal overlap of foraging gray whales and sampled zooplankton). We obtained prey samples from nearshore reefs along the Oregon coast (Figure 1) as part of the GRANITE project using a light trap, which is a modified water jug with a weight and two floats attached to it, allowing the trap to sit approximately 1 meter above the seafloor. The trap contained a light which attracted zooplankton and effectively captured epibenthic prey of gray whales. Traps were left to soak overnight in locations where gray whales had been observed feeding extensively and collected the following morning. After identifying each specimen to species level and sorting them into reproductive stages, we used a bomb calorimeter to determine the caloric content of each species by month, year, and reproductive stage. We then compared these values to the literature-derived caloric value of the predominant benthic amphipod species that  ENP gray whales feed on in the Arctic. These comparisons allowed us to extrapolate the caloric values gained from each prey type to estimated energetic requirements of pregnant and lactating female gray whales (Villegas-Amtmann et al. 2017). 

Figure 2. Median caloric content and interquartile ranges by (A) species, (B) reproductive stage, and (C) month. Sizes of the zooplankton images are scaled at actual ratios relative to one another.

So, what did we find? Our sampling along the Oregon coast revealed six predominant zooplankton species: two mysid shrimp (Neomysis rayiiHolmesimysis sculpta), two amphipods (Atylus tridensPolycheria osborni), and two types of crab larvae (Dungeness crab megalopae, porcelain crab larvae). These six Oregon prey species showed significant differences in their caloric values, with N. rayii and Dungeness crab megalopae having significantly higher calories per gram than the other prey species (Figure 2), though Dungeness crab megalopae stood out as the caloric gold mines for feeding gray whales in the PCFG range. Furthermore, month and reproductive stage also influenced  the caloric content of some prey species, with gravid (aka pregnant) female mysid shrimp significantly increasing in calories throughout the summer (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Caloric content of different reproductive stages as a function of day of year (DOY; ranging from June to October) for the mysids Holmesimysis sculpta and Neomysis rayii, and the amphipod Atylus tridens. A. tridens is only represented on one panel due to small sample size of this species for the empty brood pouch and gravid reproductive stages. Asterisks indicate significant regressions (p<0.05).

The comparison of our Oregon prey caloric values to the predominant Arctic amphipod (Ampelisca macrocephala) proved our hypothesis wrong:  Arctic amphipods do not have higher caloric value than Oregon prey, which would have help to explain why many more gray whales feed in the Arctic. We found that two Oregon prey species (N. rayii and Dungeness crab megalopae) have higher caloric values than A. macrocephala. If we translate the caloric contents of these prey to gray whale energetic needs, these differences mean that lactating and pregnant gray whales feeding in the PCFG area would need between 0.7-1.03 and 0.22-0.33 metric tons of prey less per day if they fed on Dungeness crab megalopae or N. rayii, respectively, than a whale feeding on Arctic A. macrocephala (Figure 4). 

Figure 4. Daily prey requirements (A: metric tons; B: number of individuals) needed by pregnant and lactating female gray whales to meet their energetic requirements on the foraging ground. Energetic requirement estimates obtained from Villegas-Amtmann et al. (2017). Note the logarithmic scale of y-axis in panel (B).

If quality were the only prey metric that gray whales used to evaluate which food to eat, then it would make very little sense for so many gray whales to migrate to the Arctic when there are prey types of equal and greater quality available to them in the PCFG range. However, quality is not the only metric that influences gray whale foraging decisions. We therefore posit that the abundance, density, and availability of benthic amphipods in the Arctic are higher than the prey species found in the PCFG range. In fact, knowledge of the pulsed reproductive cycle of Dungeness and porcelain crabs allows us to conclude that the larvae of these two species are only available for a few weeks in the late spring and early summer on the Oregon coast. While mysid shrimp, such as N. rayii, are continuously available in the PCFG range throughout the summer, they may occur in less dense and more patchy aggregations than Arctic benthic amphipods. However, current estimates of prey density and abundance for either region are not available, and we do not have data on the energetic costs of the different foraging strategies. While there are still several unknowns, we have documented that higher prey quality in the Arctic is not the reason for the difference in gray whale foraging ground use in the eastern North Pacific.


Calambokidis, J., & Perez, A. 2017. Sightings and follow-up of mothers and calves in the PCFG and implications for internal recruitment. IWC Report SC/A17/GW/04 for the Workshop on the Status of North Pacific Gray Whales (La Jolla: IWC).

Calambokidis, J., Laake, J., & Perez, A. 2017. Updated analysis of abundance and population structure of seasonal gray whales in the Pacific Northwest, 1996-2015. IWC Report SC/A17/GW/05 for the Workshop on the Status of North Pacific Gray Whales (La Jolla: IWC).

Soledade Lemos, L., Burnett, J. D., Chandler, T. E., Sumich, J. L., & Torres, L. G. 2020. Intra- and inter-annual variation in gray whale body condition on a foraging ground. Ecosphere 11(4):e03094.

Stewart, J. D., & Weller, D. W. 2021. Abundance of eastern North Pacific gray whales 2019/2020. Department of Commerce, NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-SWFSC-639. United States: NOAA. doi:10.25923/bmam-pe91.

Villegas-Amtmann, S., Schwarz, L. K., Gailey, G., Sychenko, O., & Costa, D. P. 2017. East or west: the energetic cost of being a gray whale and the consequence of losing energy to disturbance. Endangered Species Research 34:167-183.

Taking a breather

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

While standing at the Stone Shelter at the Saint Perpetua Overlook in 2016, I took in the beauty of one of the many scenic gems along the Pacific Coast Highway. Despite being an East Coast native, I felt an unmistakable draw to Oregon. Everything I saw during that morning’s hike, from the misty fog that enshrouded evergreens and the ocean with mystery, to the giant banana slugs, felt at once foreign and a place I could call home. Out of all the places I visited along that Pacific Coast road trip, Oregon left the biggest impression on me.

Figure 1. View from the Stone Shelter at the Cape Perpetua Overlook, Yachats, OR. June 2016.

For my undergraduate thesis, which I recently defended in May 2021, I researched blue whale surface interval behavior. Surface interval events for oxygen replenishment and rest are a vital part of baleen whale feeding ecology, as it provides a recovery period before they perform their next foraging dive (Hazen et al., 2015; Roos et al., 2016). Despite spending so much time studying the importance of resting periods for mammals, that 2016 road trip was my last true extended resting period/vacation until, several years later in 2021, I took another road trip. This time it was across the country to move to the place that had enraptured me.

Now that I am settled in Corvallis, I have reflected on my journey to grad school and my recent road trip; both prepared me for a challenging and exciting new chapter as an incoming MSc student within the Marine Mammal Institute (MMI).

Part 1: Journey to Grad School

When I took that photo at the Cape Perpetua Overlook in 2016, I had just finished the first two semesters of my undergraduate degree at UNC Chapel Hill. As a first-generation, non-traditional student those were intense semesters as I made the transition from a working professional to full-time undergrad.

By the end of my freshman year I was debating exactly what to declare as my major, when one of my marine science TA’s, Colleen, (who is now Dr. Bove!), advised that I “collect experiences, not degrees.” I wrote this advice down in my day planner and have never forgotten it. Of course, obtaining a degree is important, but it is the experiences you have that help lead you in the right direction.

That advice was one of the many reasons I decided to participate in the Morehead City Field Site program, where UNC undergraduates spend a semester at the coast, living on the Duke Marine Lab’s campus in Beaufort, NC. During that semester, students take classes to fulfill a marine science minor while participating in hands-on research, including an honors thesis project. The experience of designing, carrying out, and defending my own project affirmed that graduate school in the marine sciences was right for me. As I move into my first graduate TA position this fall, I hope to pay forward that encouragement to other undergraduates who are making decisions about their own future path.

Figure 2. Final slide from my honors thesis defense. UNC undergraduates, and now fellow alumni, who participated in the Morehead City Field Site program in Fall 2018.

Part 2: Taking a Breather

Like the GEMM Lab’s other new master’s student Miranda, my road trip covered approximately 2,900 miles. I was solo for much of the drive, which meant there was no one to argue when I decided to binge listen to podcasts. My new favorite is How To Save A Planet, hosted by marine biologist Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Alex Blumberg. At the end of each episode they provide a call to action & resources for listeners – I highly recommend this show to anyone interested in what you can do right now about climate change.

Along my trip I took a stop in Utah to visit my parents. I had never been to a desert basin before and engaged in many desert-related activities: visiting Zion National Park, hiking in 116-degree heat, and facing my fear of heights via cliff jumping.

Figure 3. Sandstone Rocks at Sand Hollow National Park, Hurricane, Utah. June 2021.

 My parents wanted to help me settle into my new home, as parents do, so we drove the rest of the way to Oregon together. As this would be their first visit to the state, we strategically planned a trip to Crater Lake as our final scenic stop before heading into Corvallis.

Figure 4. Wizard Island in Crater Lake National Park, Klamath County, OR. June 2021.

This time off was filled with adventure, yet was restorative, and reminded me the importance of taking a break. I feel ready and refreshed for an intense summer of field work.

Part 3: Rested and Ready

Despite accumulating skills to do research in the field over the years, I have yet to do marine mammal field work (or even see a whale in person for that matter.) My mammal research experience included analyzing drone imagery, behind a computer, that had already been captured. As you can imagine, I am extremely excited to join the Port Orford team as part of the TOPAZ/JASPER projects this summer, collecting ecological data on gray whales and their prey. I will be learning the ropes from Lisa Hildebrand and soaking up as much information as possible as I will be taking over as lead for this project next year.

It will take some time before my master’s thesis is fully developed, but it will likely focus on assessing the environmental factors that influence gray whale zooplankton prey availability, and the subsequent impacts on whale movements and health. For five years, the Port Orford project has conducted GoPro drops at 12 sampling stations to collect data on zooplankton relative abundance.

Figures 5 & 6. GEMM GoPro drop stick assembly and footage demonstrating mysid data collection. July 2021.

Paired with this GoPro is a Time-Depth Recorder (TDR) that provides temperature and depth data. The 2021 addition to this GoPro system is a new dissolved oxygen (DO) sensor the GEMM Lab has just acquired. This new piece of equipment will add to the set of parameters we can analyze to describe what and how oceanographic factors drive prey variability and gray whale presence in our study site.My first task as a GEMM Lab student is to get to know this DO sensor, figure out how it works, set it up, test it, attach it to the GoPro device, and prepare it for data collection during the upcoming Port Orford project starting in 1 week!

Figure 7. The GEMM lab’s new RBR solo3 getting ready for Port Orford. July 2021.

Dissolved oxygen plays a vital role in the ocean; however, climate change and increased nutrient loading has caused the ocean to undergo deoxygenation. According to the IUCN’s 2019 Issues Brief, these factors have resulted in an oxygen decline of 2% since the middle of the 20th century, with most of this loss occurring within the first 1000 meters of the ocean. Two percent may not seem like much, but many species have a narrow oxygen threshold and, like pH changes in coral reef systems, even slight changes in DO can have an impact. Additionally, the first 1000 meters of the ocean contains the greatest amount of species richness and biodiversity.

Previous research done in a variety of systems (i.e., estuarine, marine, and freshwater lakes) shows that dissolved oxygen concentrations can have an impact on predator-prey interactions, where low dissolved oxygen results in decreased predation (Abrahams et al., 2007; Breitburg et al., 1997; Domenici et al., 2007; Kramer et al., 1987); and changes in DO also change prey vertical distributions (Decker et al., 2004). In Port Orford, we are interested in understanding the interplay of factors driving zooplankton community distribution and abundance while investigating the trophic interaction between gray whales and their prey.

I have spent some time with our new DO sensor and am looking forward to its first deployments in Port Orford! Stay tuned for updates from the field!


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Little whale, big whale, swimming in the water: A quick history on how aerial photogrammetry has revolutionized the ability to obtain non-invasive measurements of whales

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

The morphology and body size of an animal is one of the most fundamental factors for understanding a species ecology. For instance, fish body size and fin shape can influence its habitat use, foraging behavior, prey type, physiological performance, and predator avoidance strategies (Fig 1). Morphology and body size can thus reflect details of an individual’s current health, likelihood of survival, and potential reproductive success, which directly influences a species life history patterns, such as reproductive status, growth rate, and energetic requirements. Collecting accurate morphological measurements of individuals is often essential for monitoring populations, and recent studies have demonstrated how animal morphology has profound implications for conservation and management decisions, especially for populations inhabiting anthropogenically-altered environments (Miles 2020) (Fig. 1). For example, in a study on the critically endangered European eel, De Meyer et al. (2020) found that different skulls sizes were associated with different ecomorphs (a local variety of a species whose appearance is determined by its ecological environment), which predicted different diet types and resulted with some ecomorphs having a greater exposure to pollutants and toxins than others. However, obtaining manual measurements of wild animal populations can be logistically challenging, limited by accessibility, cost, danger, and animal disturbance. These challenges are especially true for large elusive animals, such as whales that are often in remote locations, spend little time at the surface of the water, and their large size can preclude safe capture and live handling.

Figure 1. Top) A pathway framework depicting how the morphology of an animal influences its habitat use, behavior, foraging, physiology, and performance. These traits all affect how successful an animal is in its environment and can reflect an individual’s current health, likelihood of survival, and potential reproductive success. This individual success can then be scaled up to assess overall population health, which in turn can have direct implications for conservation. Bottom) an example of morphological differences in fish body size and fin shape from Walker et al. (2013). Fineness ratio (f) = length of body ­÷ max body width. 

Photogrammetry is a non-invasive method for obtaining accurate morphological measurements of animals from photographs. The two main types of photogrammetry methods used in wildlife biology are 1) single camera photogrammetry, where a known scale factor is applied to a single image to measure 2D distances and angles and 2) stereo-photogrammetry, where two or more images (from a single or multiple cameras) are used to recreate 3D models. These techniques have been used on domestic animals to measure body condition and estimate weight of dairy cows and lactating Mediterranean buffaloes (Negretti et al., 2008; Gaudioso et al., 2014) and on wild animals to measure sexual dimorphism in Western gorillas (Breuer et al., 2007), shoulder heights of elephants (Schrader et al., 2006), nutritional status of Japanese macaques (Kurita et al., 2012), and the body condition of brown bears (Shirane et al., 2020). Over 70 years ago, Leedy (1948) encouraged wildlife biologists to use aerial photogrammetry from aircraft for censusing wild animal populations and their habitats, where photographs can be collected at nadir (straight down) or an oblique angle, and the scale can be calculated by dividing the focal length of the camera by the altitude or by using a ratio of selected points in an image of a known size. Indeed, aerial photogrammetry has been wildly adopted by wildlife biologists and has proven useful in obtaining measurements in large vertebrates, such as elephants and whales.

Whitehead & Payne (1978) first demonstrated the utility of using aerial photogrammetry from airplanes and helicopters as a non-invasive technique for estimating the body length of southern right whales. Prior to this technique, measurements of whales were traditionally limited to assessing carcasses collected from scientific whaling operations, or opportunistically from commercial whaling, subsistence hunting, stranding events, and bycatch. Importantly, aerial photogrammetry provides a method to collect measurements of whales without killing them. This approach has been widely adopted to obtain body length measurements on a variety of whale and dolphin species, including bowhead whales (Cubbage & Calambokidis, 1987), southern right whales (Best & Rüther, 1992), fin whales (Ratnaswamy and Wynn, 1993), common dolphins (Perryman and Lynn, 1993), spinner dolphins (Perryman & Westlake 1998), and killer whales (Fearnbach et al. 2012). Aerial photogrammetry has also been used to measure body widths to estimate nutritive condition related to reproduction in gray whales (Perryman and Lynn, 2002) and northern and southern right whales (Miller et al., 2012). However, these studies collected photographs from airplanes and helicopters, which can be costly, limited by weather and infrastructure to support aircraft research efforts and, importantly, presents a potential risk to wildlife biologists (Sasse 2003). 

The recent advancement and commercialization of unoccupied aircraft systems (UAS, or drones) has revolutionized the ability to obtain morphological measurements from high resolution aerial photogrammetry across a variety of ecosystems (Fig. 2). Drones ultimately bring five transformative qualities to conservation science compared to airplanes and helicopters: affordability, immediacy, quality, efficiency, and safety of data collection. Durban et al. (2015) first demonstrated the utility of using drones for non-invasively obtaining morphological measurements of killer whales in remote environments. Since then, drone-based morphological measurements have been applied to a wide range of studies that have increased our understanding on different whale populations. For example, Leslie et al. (2020) used drone-based measurements of the skull to distinguish a unique sub-species of blue whales off the coast of Chile. Groskreutz et al. (2019) demonstrated how long-term nutritional stress has limited body growth in northern resident killer whales, while Stewart et al. (2021) found a decrease in body length of North Atlantic Right whales since 1981 that was associated with entanglements from fishing gear and may be a contributing factor to the decrease in reproductive success for this endangered population. 

Drone imagery is commonly used to estimate the body condition of baleen whales by measuring the body length and width of individuals. Recently, the GEMM Lab used body length and width measurements to quantify intra- and inter-seasonal changes in body condition across individual gray whales (Lemos et al., 2020). Drones have also been used to measure body condition loss in humpback whales during the breeding season (Christiansen et al., 2016) and to compare the healthy southern right whales to the skinnier, endangered North Atlantic right whales (Christiansen et al., 2020). Drone-based assessments of body condition have even been used to measure how calf growth rate is directly related to maternal loss during suckling (Christiansen et al., 2018), and even estimate body mass (Christiansen et al., 2019). 

Drone-based morphological measurements can also be combined with whale-borne inertial sensing tag data to study the functional morphology across several different baleen whale species. Kahane-Rapport et al. (2020) used drone measurements of tagged whales to analyze the biomechanics of how larger whales require longer times for filtering the water through their baleen when feeding. Gough et al. (2019) used size measurements from drones and swimming speeds from tags to determine that a whale’s “walking speed” is 2 meters per second – whether the largest of the whales, a blue whale, or the smallest of the baleen whales, an Antarctic minke whale. Size measurements and tag data were combined by Segre et al. (2019) to quantify the energetic costs of different sized whales when breaching. 

Taken together, drones have revolutionized our ability to obtain morphological measurements of whales, greatly increasing our capacity to better understand how these animals function and perform in their environments. These advancements in marine science are particularly important as these methods provide greater opportunity to monitor the health of populations, especially as they face increased threats from anthropogenic stressors (such as vessel traffic, ocean noise, pollution, fishing entanglement, etc.) and climate change. 

Drone-based photogrammetry is one of the main focuses of the GEMM Lab’s project on Gray whale Response to Ambient Noise Informed by Technology and Ecology (GRANITE). This summer we have been collecting drone videos to measure the body condition of gray whales feeding off the coast of Newport, Oregon (Fig. 2). As we try to understand the physiological stress response of gray whales to noise and other potential stressors, we have to account for the impacts of overall nutritional state of each individual whale’s physiology, which we infer from these body condition estimates. 

Figure 2. Drones can help collect images of whales to obtain morphological measurements using photogrammetry and help us fill knowledge gaps for how these animals interact in their environment and to assess their current health. Bottom photo is an image collected by the GEMM Lab of a gray whale being measured in MorphoMetriX software to estimate its body condition. 


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