Having worked almost exclusively on humpback whales for the past 5 years, I recently realized how specialized I have become when I was asked to participate in an expedition targeting another legendary cetacean, which I discovered I knew so little about: the sperm whale. On November 18th I boarded a catamaran with a team of 8 other seamen, film makers and scientists, all ready to sail off the west coast of New Caledonia in the search of this elusive animal. The expedition was named “Code CODA” in reference to the unique patterned series of clicks produced by sperm whales.
As I prepared for the expedition, I did my scientific literature homework and felt a growing awe for sperm whales. At every step of my research, whether I investigated their morphology, physiology, social behavior, feeding habits… everything about them appeared to be exceptional. Below is a list summarizing five mind-blowing facts everyone should know about sperm whales.
Sperm whales are the largest of the odontocetes species, which is the group of “toothed whales” that also includes dolphins, porpoises and beaked whales. They show a strong sexual dimorphism, unusual for a cetacean, as adult males can be about twice as big as adult females. Indeed, male sperm whales can reach up to 18 m and 56 tons (approximately the weight of 9 elephants!). Their massive block-shaped head is perhaps their most distinctive feature. It contains the largest brain in the animal kingdom and as a comparison, it is claimed that an entire car could fit in it! By its morphology alone, the sperm whale hence appears like an all-round champion of cetaceans.
Sperm whales are some of the best divers among air-breathing sea creatures. They have been recorded down to 2,250 m, and sperm whale carcasses have been found entangled in deep-sea cables suggesting that they can dive even deeper. In these dark and cold waters, sperm whales hunt for fish and squids (and sometimes check out ROVs, see videos of a surprising deep sea encounter made in 2015 off the coast of Louisiana, on Nautilus Live). They are renowned for attacking giant (Architeuthis spp) and colossal (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) squids, which can reach more than 10 m in length. The squid sucker scars born by sperm whales give evidence of these titan combats. Because sperm whales only have teeth on the lower jaw, they cannot chew and may end up eating their prey alive. But every problem has its solution… sperm whales have evolved the longest digestive system in the world: it can reach 300 m long! Their stomach is divided into four compartments, the first of which is covered by a thick and muscular lining that can resist the assault of live prey.
The digestion of sperm whale prey happens in the next digestive compartments, but one component will resist: the squids’ beaks! As beaks accumulate in the digestive system (up to 18,000 beaks were found in a specimen!), they cause an irritation that is responsible for the production of a waxy substance known as ‘ambergris’. After a while, this substance is thought to be occasionally secreted along with the whale’s poop (although it has been speculated that large pieces of ambergris might be expelled by the mouth… charming!). Ambergris may be found floating at sea or washed up on coastlines, where it may make one happy beachcomber! The latest report of such a lucky finding of ambergris in 2016 was estimated at more than US$71,000 for a 1.57 kg lump. Indeed, ambergris is a valued additive used in perfume, although it has now mostly been replaced by synthetic equivalents. The use of ambergris in cooking, incense or medication in ancient Egypt and the Middle Ages is also reported.
Sperm whales are highly social animals. They are organized in “clans” with their own vocal repertoire and behavioral traits that differ geographically. Clans are formed by several connected social units, which are ruled by a complex matrilineal system. While adult males typically live solitary lives, females remain in family units composed of their close female relatives. Within these groups, females take communal care of the calves, even nursing the calves of other females. Every female can act as a babysitter to the group’s calves at the surface while the clan members perform deep foraging dives of approximately 40 min. Juvenile males may also provide care to the younger calves in the group as they remain in the group far past weaning, up to 9 to 19 years old. When attacked by predators (mostly killer whales), all the group members will protect the younger and most vulnerable individuals by adopting a compact formation, either the “marguerite” (facing inwards with their tails out and the young at the center for protection) or the “heads-out” version.
Like other toothed whales, sperm whales use sound to echolocate and communicate. But again, sperm whales stand out from the crowd with the unique spermaceti organ that allows them to produce the most powerful sound in the animal kingdom, reaching a source level of about 230 dB within frequencies of 5 to 25 kHz (this is louder than the sound of a jet engine at take-off). The spermaceti organ is a large cavity surrounded by a tough and fibrous wall called “the case”, and is filled with up to 1,900 liters of a fatty and waxy liquid called “spermaceti”. The spermaceti oil is chemically very different from the oils found in the melons (heads) of most other species of odontocetes, which also explains why sperm whales were particularly targeted by whalers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, the spermaceti oil has exceptional lubricant properties, and thus was used in fine machinery and even in the aerospace industry.
Sperm whales are among the most widely distributed animals in the world, as they roam waters from the ice-edge to the equator. While pre-whaling global abundance is thought to have been 1,110,000 sperm whales, the most recent estimate suggests that only about a third of this number currently populates the ocean. It is our absolute duty to make sure that these marvelous, superlative animals recover from our past mistakes and that they can be admired by future generations.
Gero, Shane, Jonathan Gordon, and Hal Whitehead (2013) “Calves as Social Hubs: Dynamics of the Social Network within Sperm Whale Units.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280 (1763). https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2013.1113
Møhl, Bertel, Magnus Wahlberg, Peter T. Madsen, Anders Heerfordt, and Anders Lund (2003) “The Monopulsed Nature of Sperm Whale Clicks.” The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 114 (2): 1143–54. https://doi.org/10.1121/1.1586258
Raven, H C, and William K Gregory (1933) “The Spermaceti Organ and Nasal Passages of the Sperm Whale (Physeter Catodon) and Other Odontocetes.” American Museum Novitates, no. 677.
At this year’s virtual State of the Coast conference, I enjoyed tuning into a range of great talks, including one by Zach Penney from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. In his presentation, “More Than a Tradition: Treaty rights and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission,” Penney described a tribal “covenant with resources,” and noted the success of this approach — “You don’t live in a place for 15,000 years by messing it up.”
Indigenous management of resources in the Pacific Northwest dates back thousands of years. From oak savannahs to fisheries to fires, local tribes managed diverse natural systems long before colonial settlement of the area that is now Oregon. We know comparatively little, however, about how Indigenous groups in Oregon interacted with whale populations before the changes brought by colonialism and commercial whaling.
I’m curious about how this missing knowledge could inform our understanding of the coastal Oregon ecosystems in which many GEMM Lab projects take place. My graduate research will be part of the effort to identify co-occurrence between whales and fishing in Oregon, with the goal of helping to reduce whale entanglement risk. Penney’s talk, ongoing conversations about decolonizing science, and my own concerns about becoming the scientist that I want to be, have all led me to ask a new set of questions: What did humans know in the past about whale distributions along the Oregon coast? What lost knowledge can be reclaimed from history?
As I started reading about historical Indigenous whale use in Oregon, I was struck by how little we know today, and how this learning process became a multidisciplinary treasure hunt. Clues as to how Indigenous groups interacted with whales along the Oregon coast lie in oral histories, myths, journals, and archaeological artifacts.
Much of what I read hinged on the question: did Indigenous tribes in Oregon historically hunt whales? Many signs point to yes, but it’s a surprisingly tricky question to answer conclusively. Marine systems and animals, including seals and whales, remain an important part of cultures in the Pacific Northwest today – but historically, documentation of hunting whales in Oregon has been limited. Whale bones have been found in coastal middens, and written accounts describe opportunistic harvests of beached whales. However, people have long believed that only a few North American tribes outside of the Arctic regularly hunted whales.
But in 2007, archaeologists Robert Losey and Dongya Yang found an artifact that started to shift this narrative. While studying a collection of tools housed at the Smithsonian Institution, they discovered the tip of a harpoon lodged in a whale flipper bone. This artifact came from the Partee site, which was inhabited around AD 300-1150 and is located near present-day Seaside, Oregon.
Through DNA testing, Losey and Yang determined that the harpoon was made of elk bone, and that the elk was not only harvested locally, but also used locally. This new piece of evidence suggested that whaling did in fact take place at the Partee site, likely by the Tillamook or Clatsop tribes that utilized this area.
Several years later, this discovery inspired Smithsonian Museum of Natural History archaeologist Torben Rick and University of Oregon PhD student Hannah Wellman to comb through the rest of the animal remains in the Smithsonian’s collection from northwest Oregon. Rick and Wellman scrutinized 187 whale bones for signs of hunting or processing, and found that about a quarter of the marks they inspected could have come from either hunting or the opportunistic harvest of stranded whales. They examined tools from the midden as well, and found that they were more suited to hunting animals, like seals and sea lions, or fishing.
However, Wellman and Rick also used DNA testing to identify which whale species were represented in the midden – and the DNA analyses suggested a different story. Genetic results revealed that the majority of whale bones in the midden came from gray whales, a third from humpback whales, and a few from orca and minke. Modern gray whale stranding events are not uncommon, and so it follows logically that these bones could have simply come from people harvesting beached whales. However, humpback strandings are rare – suggesting that such a large proportion of humpback bones in the midden is likely evidence of people actively hunting humpback whales.
These results shed new light on whale harvesting practices at the Partee Site, and, like so much research, they suggest a new set of questions. What does the fact that there were orca, minke, gray, and humpback whales off the Oregon coast 900 years ago tell us about the history of this ecosystem? Could artifacts that have not yet been found provide more conclusive evidence of hunting? What would it mean if these artifacts are found one day, or if they are never found?
What we learn about the past can also change how we understand this ecosystem today, and provide new context as we try to understand the impacts of climate change on whale populations in Oregon. I’m interested in how learning more about historical Indigenous whaling practices could provide more information about whale population baselines, ideas for management strategies, and a new lens on the importance of whales in the Pacific Northwest. Even if we can’t fully reclaim lost knowledge from history, maybe we can still read enough clues to help us see both the past and present more fully.
Braun, Ashley. “New Research Offers a Wider View on Indigenous North American Whaling.” Hakai Magazine, November 2016, www.hakaimagazine.com/news/new-research-offers-wider-view-indigenous-north-american-whaling/.
Eligon, John. “A Native Tribe Wants to Resume Whaling. Whale Defenders Are Divided.” New York Times, November 2019.
Hannah P. Wellman, Torben C. Rick, Antonia T. Rodrigues & Dongya Y. Yang (2017) Evaluating Ancient Whale Exploitation on the Northern Oregon Coast Through Ancient DNA and Zooarchaeological Analysis, The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology, 12:2, 255-275, DOI: 10.1080/15564894.2016.1172382
Losey, R., & Yang, D. (2007). Opportunistic Whale Hunting on the Southern Northwest Coast: Ancient DNA, Artifact, and Ethnographic Evidence. American Antiquity, 72(4), 657-676. doi:10.2307/25470439
Sanchez, Gabriel (2014). Conference paper: Cetacean Hunting at the Par-Tee site (35CLT20)?: Ethnographic, Artifact and Blood Residue Analysis Investigation.
Alexa Kownacki first contacted me in October 2016 to enquire about being my PhD student and joining the GEMM Lab. She spoke with passion, intellect, curiosity and honesty, to which I was immediately drawn. Over the next four years, we were privileged to have her brilliance, kindness, wit and effervescence in our world. I am devastated to communicate here – on the GEMM Lab blog that Alexa frequently contributed to with enthusiasm and talent – that Alexa Kownacki passed away on Tuesday, November 17, 2020. The GEMM Lab has been shocked and deeply saddened by losing Alexa from our lives. She embodied joy, and recognized and relished beauty everywhere, and in each of us. Her ability to give support, love, and understanding was limitless, as was her passion for marine conservation and education. Our sorrow is profound, but we want to remember Alexa’s life with the brightness, color and laughter it deserves, for that’s how she lived. Below are memories of Alexa from each of us in the GEMM Lab who knew and loved Alexa, followed by a video montage of Alexa in life. Please visit this memorial website to contribute your stories of Alexa, as well as read other tributes and post photos.
Alexa loved the ocean and seemed more at-home while at-sea than almost anyone I know. I asked Alexa to join me aboard the RV Oceanus for a STEM research cruise in September 2018 where we took high school students and teachers to sea to teach them how we collect marine mammal and oceanographic data. (Alexa wrote a lovely blog about this cruise.) I was not surprised by her enthusiasm – that was her nature – but I was utterly amazed at how easily Alexa mentored the students, communicated with the crew, balanced teaching with humor and humility, created learning moments everywhere, and supported everyone on-board so they felt welcomed and comfortable. During this cruise, Alexa was my partner, my teammate. We were both in our element and shared so much joy with the privilege to be at-sea, laughter at the excitement and adventure, inspiration at watching the next generation of marine scientists learn, and awe for the beauty that the ocean holds. This is how I will remember you, Alexa. Your free, beautiful, kind, joyous spirit will always be with me.
For anyone who knew Alexa, you knew she had an uncanny ability to connect with others on such a personal level that made you feel truly valued and loved. No matter the circumstances, she made it a point to always show up for those she cared about, which makes it extremely difficult to choose just one memory to remember her by. Instead, I’m choosing to remember her by the way she made me feel, as a human and a friend. Even during the most challenging of times, Alexa always wanted to know how I was doing and what I was doing outside of school to take care of myself. I can’t count the number of times she pulled me away from my work to go out dancing at the Peacock or drag shows, hiking on our weekends, or even making short donut runs to Benny’s Donuts. She understood that even scientists have basic needs for personal connection, fun and enjoyment, and love. If there’s anything Alexa’s passing has taught me, it is this: always show up for your fellow scientists and colleagues as people and friends first, because our support for one another will no doubt leave a longer-standing and greater impact on this world than our achievements and discoveries. Her passing will be my constant reminder that we all deserve to be treated and valued with love and dignity. Alexa, thank you for teaching me this valuable lesson, and I hope I get the chance to impact someone else’s life, as much as you have mine. I love you, and I promise I’ll visit San Diego soon.
Alexa, there are so many memories, experiences, and moments we had together that I will never forget, least of all the very first day I met you (fasten your seatbelts everyone, this story is a wildly unbelievable, yet very true, roller coaster ride). Summers were always extremely busy for you in San Diego. Yet, despite that, you didn’t hesitate when Leigh asked you to come up to Oregon in July 2018 to teach me, the newest GEMM Lab member, all there was to know about the Port Orford gray whale project. You had never met me before and you had only participated in the Port Orford project for a week the previous summer, but none of that stopped you. You flew to Portland from San Diego and made your way to Newport. We loaded up the MMI truck with all the gear and headed south towards Port Orford. So far, so good. Great, even! You pulled off the highway any chance we got so I could marvel at the beauty of the Oregon coast. But that all changed when we got to Coos Bay where we planned to stock up on groceries. You, ever so organized & thoughtful, had already compiled a grocery list but as we were going up and down the aisle, adding things to our cart, you suddenly realized that your phone was missing. We retraced our steps. Nothing. As always, you were quick on your feet, and connected to the Safeway wifi on your tablet to use the ‘Find My iPhone’ app to help solve the mystery. Lo-and-behold, your phone was no longer in the store…We drove to the location and arrived at what we always describe as a “creepy-looking motel” (although under any other circumstance the motel would have probably looked totally normal). We surveyed our surroundings and made notes (I still have that note on my phone) about all the people and vehicles we saw. One person in particular drew our attention because out of the back of his car he pulled out several…Safeway grocery bags!!! Feeling giddy about our amateur-sleuthing but also nervous because we were sitting in a pretty conspicuous white government truck in a motel parking lot, you decided that it was probably time to call the police. Two officers arrived and it soon was revealed that the man we had seen with Safeway bags had indeed just been at Safeway with his daughter. Apparently, his daughter had a habit of stealing and he told the officers he was confident that his daughter had stolen the phone and that he would call them as soon as he found it. There wasn’t much for us to do so you decided it would be best to drive to Port Orford, get settled in and once we heard from the police, we could drive back to Coos Bay. We did eventually hear from the police and drove all the way back to Coos Bay in the dark, only to find that your phone was completely destroyed. The night involved more adventures (including sleeping on the floor but that’s a whole other story), yet, the next day (the 4th of July), you let none of these events stop us from making s’mores (my first ones ever!) and watching the dinghy race & fireworks from the field station. You blazed on, with your unparalleled optimism and determination, to ensure that I not only learned everything that I needed to know to be able to run the project, but that we also had a great time while learning. Alexa, I will cherish the time we had together forever and I miss you so incredibly much.
The day Alexa moved to Oregon to start graduate school, she learned that we were sailing here in Newport as part of Yaquina Bay Yacht Club’s Wednesday night race series. She had yet to move into her apartment, but she hopped on a sailboat that very evening. Alexa was in her element, with wind in her hair and salt spray on her face. She smiled through it all as her signature laughter rang out across the bay, and by the end of the evening she had easily become friends with the entire community. This was Alexa’s way of life. She leapt at opportunities, she poured her whole self into everything she did, and she connected with everyone immediately, deeply, and genuinely. Her optimism was unending. After long, stormy weather days at sea she would enthusiastically send a sunset photo with the caption “Red sky at night, sailors delight!” She lived every moment to the fullest, and she helped all of us see beauty, humor, and joy through her eyes. “Let’s document this, I’m taking a picture!” she’d say. Oftentimes, I’d roll my eyes. “Hey, Dawn you’re not in the picture. Lean in!” she’d insist. Now I have so many photos and memories to cherish. What a constant joy it was, dear Alexa, to be your labmate and your friend. What a heartbreaking reminder your sudden departure is to take nothing for granted, to live life to the absolute fullest, to dance often and sing loudly, and to hold nothing back. Fair winds and following seas, you beautiful, bright spirit. We love and miss you dearly. Thank you for sharing your time on earth with all of us.
Alexa was a light in my life since I met her in Oregon. I first met Alexa while living in the dorms in Newport and got to be her roommate for that summer. She would always wake up in the morning and head to the basketball court with her laptop to do some exercises, always so energetic and enthusiastic! I also shared rooms with her on multiple other occasions, including my house when she needed a place and at all of the conferences we went to together. While I was pretty much dead after an entire day of talks and was ready to go to bed, she was getting ready to go dancing. She was always SO full of energy and life. Alexa indeed knew how to enjoy life, and did it graciously.
She easily became one of my greatest friends in Oregon. She was my confidant during the struggles of grad life and was always supportive no matter what happened. Last year we were in Barcelona for a conference and my passport got lost in the mail system. She saw how nervous I was and made sure to accompany me to the other side of the city to go check if my passport had arrived, even if she already had plans for that night. Also, when I was about to defend my Ph.D. she would go do groceries for me to make sure I had enough ice cream while struggling with my presentation practice. Alexa had problems, many problems, but still went above and beyond to make sure all of her friends were taken care of.
We both loved dancing and were taking dance classes in grad school. We tried to find a dance style that we both liked so we could go to dance together, but I was already taking hip hop classes and loved it. Alexa would not accept going to hip hop as she thought it was not an inclusive and diverse space and she wanted to spend her time meeting and cherishing diverse people. She was always so thoughtful and probably one of the most inclusive people I have ever met.
Alexa’s contagious laugh, caring and optimism left me a deep mark that I am going to carry close to my heart throughout my life. She is such a great inspiration for how we should live our lives. I love you Alexa and miss you dearly. Thank you for everything. Rest in peace and keep shining wherever you are. I am sure this is just a “see you later”.
I had the joy to meet Alexa when I first visited the GEMM Lab in 2018, I will always remember her for her vibrant smile, her friendly kind, and for making me feel so welcomed when I arrived in Newport, she instantly made me feel among friends. I meet her so briefly because she was heading to San Diego for the summer to work on her research, she let me borrow her desk for me to work on while she was away and she left me a note written in Spanish, my native language, which meant a lot to me, and speaks about the kind of person she was, someone who would make you feel welcomed and would try finding things in common to engage and connect. We kept connected ever since, exchanging emails about work, whales, dolphins, or just to know about how we were doing, hoping to reunite again but, unfortunately, last summer due to COVID we could not meet again. The news about her leaving us just left me shocked, although I met her briefly she really impacted me, I want to be a bit like her, and be able to share the things I love in the way she did, with passion and vibrant enthusiasm. She will be missed.
Alexa and I haven’t been in the same place at the same time for a while. On the top of my list for next time we crossed paths was to catch-up with her about her trip through the Northwest Passage and quiz her about the seabirds, the islands, and the polar bears. In September 2018, I agreed to join the R/V Oceanus on a STEM outreach cruise as a seabird observer. It was my first time as a seabird observer as I typically do better on land. I spent most of the first day in my bunk (I have queasy memories of making it up to the flying bridge, seeing the ocean, and quickly retreating). Luckily the cruise was long enough for me to gain my sea legs. I didn’t take any photos, but Alexa did and I can look back on those days through her eyes and remember the wonderful calm beautiful evening we spent on the back deck, her excitement and skill when we encountered whales, and her kind laughter when we spotted an albatross through the portal (and I wasn’t quite ready to go up to the flying bridge). I admired her outgoing confidence and enthusiasm and I will miss her presence in the GEMM lab family. In our field, people have the habit of coming round full circle and I also miss the future: reuniting with Alexa 10 years from now on a research cruise somewhere. Alexa – thank you for those moments we shared, your vision of life, and your efforts to make the ‘world a better place for all living creatures’.
Alexa threw kindness around like it was confetti and life was one big dance party. She freely gave of her time and energy and sought to raise those near her to her own level of excellence. Through her own example, she constantly reminded me, and many others, that being a kind, welcoming, and goodhearted person was just as important as academic or scientific success. Alexa always made me feel welcome in the GEMM lab (even though I’m adopted) for which I will always be grateful. What I admire most about Alexa is her strength and perseverance, and stubborn refusal to let anything life threw at her knock her off the course she chose for herself. Knowing Alexa was truly a gift. After receiving such a gift in my life, more than anything I want to say thank you to her. And so, to Alexa:Thank you for the beach breaks and the lunch dates and the ‘oh look, the sun’s out we gotta run out’ breaks. Thank you for the light and laughter you brought with you everywhere. Thank you for continually reminding me to find the joy in hard times and sitting with me in difficult moments until I could. Thank you for being goofy enough to stomp on seaweed or play on the swings with me. Thank you for keeping me entertained with silly jokes in Zoom meetings gone on too long. Thank you for being a cheerleader when I needed it, and for being so willing to share your positivity in the many pep talks you gave me. And most of all, thank you for the epic dance parties. I know you’re dancing wherever you are.
One example of Alexa’s endless determination – continuing to insist on taking selfies to document her friendships even in the age of social distancing.
I first met Alexa in Barcelona when I arrived at the apartment the GEMM lab was sharing for the conference. My first memory is that she greeted me like an old friend and made me feel instantaneously welcome. There was no awkward initial phase, we met and were friends. I adored every time we got a chance to catch up and chat. This past spring I had regular “zoom GIS dates” with Alexa to help her with GIS, but I have to admit these were 50% catch up time, and I’ve never been happier to be unproductive. She was never bothered by GIS crashing for the tenth time, something that would have most people banging their head on a desk, instead she would just say “ah well, ok so back to [whatever we were talking about]”. We bonded over field work and travel stories (she had the best travel stories). Whenever we spoke she was always supportive and kind, she truly believed in you and made sure you knew it.
Alexa, your welcoming, enthusiastic, and encouraging spirit has been an inspiration that I will carry with me always. Thank you for everything, your warm, vibrant, and brilliant presence is deeply missed.
Alexa offered to take care of some of the library plants when it was preparing to close in March. We had to buckle the plants into the backseat of my car to transport them back to Corvallis, we both found this highly amusing and naturally, Alexa wanted to document it, I am so glad she did.
Alexa was one of those rare people who is genuinely, unapologetically excited about the universe and everything in it. Like others have mentioned, if you weren’t her friend, it was only because you hadn’t met her yet. When you met her, she would quickly dig past traditional I-have-just-met-you small talk until she found a common passion or something to connect about. Our self evident enthusiasm for marine mammals and baking provided ample opportunities for geeking out together, but the ‘oh-wow-small-world’ moment that still makes me laugh is when we realised that her great uncle is the priest who celebrated my wedding!
I will remember the dedication she had to maintaining the bonds of our GEMM Lab family, regularly driving across the coastal mountains for potlucks and boardgame nights (a 2 hr round trip most folks were reluctant to make!). I will remember her laughter whether she won or lost those games, and the way she insisted we make time to set aside our work and just exist as friends. I will remember her delight when I asked her to participate in a group weaving project, and the joy in her smile at learning a new skill. Alexa is inextricably woven into the tapestry of so many lives. The fabric of the community she helped build will hold her memory, and keep us warm with the blessing of her laughter.
–Like a Sailboat–
I am standing at the edge of the shore
A ship sails in the morning breeze
And heads for the open ocean
She is beauty, She is life.
I watch her ’til she disappears over the horizon.
Someone near me says << She is Gone >>
Gone where? Gone from my sight, that’s all.
Her mast is still as tall,
Her hull still holds the strength to carry
Her cargo of humanity
Her diminishment and loss from sight is in me, not in her.
And in the moment when someone near me say:
<< She is Gone >>
There are others who, seeing a sail on the horizon,
coming towards them,
exclaim with joy: << There She Is >>
This is death.
There are no dead,
Only people on both shores.
To view a video montage put together by the GEMM lab click here.
Thank you for everything Alexa, we love and miss you, may your memory be a blessing.
Clara Bird, PhD Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab
Based on my undergrad experience I assumed that most teaching in grad school would be as a teaching assistant, and this would consist of teaching labs, grading, leading office hours, etc. However, now that I’m in graduate school, I realize that there are many different forms of teaching as a graduate student. This summer I worked as an instructor for an e-campus course, which mainly involved grading and mentoring students as they developed their own projects. Yet, this past week I was a guest teacher for Physiology and Behavior of Marine Megafauna, which was a bit more involved.
I taught a whale photogrammetry lab that I originally developed as a workshop with a friend and former lab mate, KC Bierlich, at the Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing (MaRRS) lab when I worked there. Similar to Leila’s work, we were using photogrammetry to measure whales and assess their body condition. Measuring a whale is a deceivingly simple task that gets complicated when taking into account all the sources of error that might affect measurement accuracy. It is important to understand the different sources of error so that we are sure that our results are due to actual differences between whales instead of differences in errors.
Error can come from distortion due to the camera lens, inaccurate altitude measurements from the altimeter, the whale being arched, or from the measurement process. When we draw a line on the image to make a measurement (Image 1), measurement process errors come from the line being drawn incorrectly. This potential human error can effect results, especially if the measurer is inexperienced or rushing. The quality of the image also has an effect here. If there is glare, wake, blow or refraction covering or distorting the measurer’s view of the full body of the whale then the measurer has to estimate where to begin and end the line. This estimation is subjective and, therefore, a source of error. We used the workshop as an opportunity to study these measurement process errors because we could provide a dataset including images of varying qualities and collect data from different measurers.
This workshop started as a one-day lecture and lab that we designed for the summer drone course at the Duke Marine Lab. The idea was to simultaneously teach the students about photogrammetry and the methods we use, while also using all the students’ measurements to study the effect of human error and image quality on measurement accuracy. Given this one-day format, we ambitiously decided to teach and measure in the morning, compile and analyze the students’ measurements over lunch, and then present the results of our error analysis in the afternoon. To accomplish this, we prepared as much as we could and set up all the code for the analysis ahead of time. This preparation meant several days of non-stop working, discussing, and testing, all to anticipate any issues that might come up on the day of the class. We used the measuring software MorphoMetriX (Torres & Bierlich, 2020) that was developed by KC and a fellow Duke Marine Lab grad student Walter Torres. MorphoMetriX was brand new at the time, and this newness of the software meant that we didn’t yet know all the issues that might come up and we did not have time to troubleshoot. We knew this meant that helping the students install the software might be a bit tricky and sure enough, all I remember from the beginning of that first lab is running around the room helping multiple people troubleshoot at the same time, using use all the programming knowledge I had to discover new solutions on the fly.
While troubleshooting on the fly can be stressful and overwhelming, I’ve come to appreciate it as good practice. Not only did we learn how to develop and teach a workshop, we also used what we had learned from all the troubleshooting to improve the software. I also used the code we developed for the analysis as the starting blocks for a software package I then wrote, CollatriX (Bird & Bierlich, 2020), as a follow up software to MorphoMetriX. Aside from the initial troubleshooting stress, the workshop was a success, and we were excited to have a dataset to study measurement process errors. Given that we already had all the materials for the workshop prepared, we decided to run a few more workshops to collect more data.
That brings me to my time at here at OSU. I left the Duke MaRRS lab to start graduate school shortly after we taught the workshop. Interested in running the workshop here, I reached out to a few different people. I first ran the workshop here as an event organized by the undergraduate club Ocean11 (Image 2). It was fun running the workshop a second time, as I used what I learned from the first round; I felt more confident, and I knew what the common issues would likely be and how to solve them. Sure enough, while there were still some troubleshooting issues, the process was smoother and I enjoyed teaching, getting to know OSU undergraduate students, and collecting more data for the project.
The next opportunity to run the lab came through Renee Albertson’s physiology and behavior of marine megafauna class, but during the COVID era this class had other challenges. While it’s easier to teach in person, this workshop was well suited to be converted to a remote activity because it only requires a computer, the data can be easily sent to the students, and screen sharing is an effective way to demonstrate how to measure. So, this photogrammetry module was a good fit for the marine megafauna class this term that has been fully remote due to COVID-19. My first challenge was converting the workshop into a lab assignment with learning outcomes and analysis questions. The process also involved writing R code for the students to use and writing step-by-step instructions in a way that was clear and easy to understand. While stressful, I appreciated the process of developing the lab and these accompanying materials because, as you’ve probably heard from a teacher, a good test of your understanding of a concept is being able to teach it. I was also challenged to think of the best way to communicate and explain these concepts. I tried to think of a few different explanations, so that if a student did not understand it one way, I could offer an alternative that might work better. Similar to the preparation for the first workshop, I also prepared for troubleshooting the students’ issues with the software. However, unlike my previous experiences, this time I had to troubleshoot remotely.
After teaching this photogrammetry lab last week my respect for teachers who are teaching remotely has only increased. Helping students without being able to sit next to them and walk them through things on their computer is not easy. Not only that, in addition to the few virtual office hours I hosted, I was primarily troubleshooting over email, using screen shots from the students to try and figure out what was going on. It felt like the ultimate test of my programming knowledge and experience, having to draw from memories of past errors and solutions, and thinking of alternative solutions if the first one didn’t work. It was also an exercise in communication because programming can be daunting to many students; so, I worked to be encouraging and clearly communicate the instructions. All in all, I ended this week feeling exhausted but accomplished, proud of the students, and grateful for the reminder of how much you learn when you teach.
Bird, C. N., & Bierlich, K. (2020). CollatriX: A GUI to collate MorphoMetriX outputs. Journal of Open Source Software, 5(51), 2328. https://doi.org/10.21105/joss.02328
Torres, W., & Bierlich, K. (2020). MorphoMetriX: a photogrammetric measurement GUI for morphometric analysis of megafauna. Journal of Open Source Software, 5(45), 1825. https://doi.org/10.21105/joss.01825
The ocean is vast, ever-changing, and at first glance, seemingly featureless. Yet, we know that the warm, blue tropics differ from icy polar waters, and that temperate kelp forests are different from coral reefs. In the connected fluid environment of the global oceans, how do such different habitats exist, and what separates them? On a smaller scale, you may observe a current mixing line at the ocean surface, or dive down from the surface and feel the temperature drop sharply. In a featureless ocean, what boundaries exist, and how can we delineate between different environments?
These questions have been on my mind recently as I study for my PhD Qualifying Exams, an academic milestone that involves written and oral exams prepared by each committee member for the student. The subject matter spans many different areas, including ecological theory, underwater acoustics, oceanography, zooplankton dynamics, climate change and marine heatwaves, and protected area design. Yet, in my recent studying, I was struck by a realization: since when did my PhD involve so much physics? Atmospheric pressure differences generate wind, which drive global ocean circulation patterns. Density properties of seawater create structure in the ocean, and these physical features influence productivity and aggregate prey for predators such as whales. Sound propagates through the fluid ocean as a pressure wave, and its transmission is influenced by physical characteristics of the sound and the medium it moves through. Many of these examples can be distilled and described with equations rooted in physics. Physics doesn’t behave, it simply… is. In considering the vast and dynamic ocean, there is something quite satisfying in that simple notion.
Circling back to boundaries in the ocean, there are changes in physical properties of the oceans that create boundaries, some stark and some nuanced. These physical features structure and partition the marine environment through differences in properties such as temperature, salinity, density, and pressure. Geographic partitions can occur in both horizontal and vertical dimensions of the water column, and on scales ranging from less than a kilometer to thousands of kilometers [1,2].
In the horizontal dimension, currents, fronts, and eddies mark transition zones between environments. In the time of industrial whaling, observations of temperature and salinity were made at the surface from factory whaling ships and examined to understand where the most whales were available for hunting. These early measurements identified temperature contour lines, or isotherms, and led to observations that whales were found in areas of stark temperature change and places where isotherms bent into “tongues” of interacting water masses [3,4] (Fig. 1). These areas where water masses of different properties meet are often areas of high productivity. Today, we understand that shelf break fronts, river plumes, tidal fronts, and eddies are important horizontal structures that drive elevated nutrient availability, phytoplankton production, and prey availability for mobile marine predators, including whales.
In the vertical dimension, the water column is also structured into distinct layers. Surface waters are warmed by the sunlight and are often lower in salinity due to freshwater input from rain and runoff. Below this distinct surface portion of the water column, the temperature drops sharply in a layer known as the thermocline, and below which pressure and density increase with depth. The surface layer is subject to mixing from wind input, which can draw nutrients from below up into the photic zone and spur productivity. The alternation between stratification—a water column with distinctive layers—and mixing drives optimal conditions for entire food webs to thrive [1,2].
While I began this blog post by writing about boundaries that partition different ocean environments, I have continued to learn that those boundary zones are often critically important in their own right. I started by thinking about boundaries in terms of their importance for separation, but now understand that the leaky points between them actually spur ocean productivity. Features such as fronts, currents, mixed layers, and eddies separate water masses of different properties. However, they are not truly complete and rigid boundaries, and precisely for that reason they are uniquely important in promoting productive marine ecosystems.
Many thanks to my PhD Committee members who continue to guide me through this degree and who I am lucky to learn from. In particular, the contents of this blog post were inspired by materials recommended by, and discussions with, Dr. Daniel Palacios.
1. Mann, K.H., and Lazier, J.R.N. (2006). Dynamics of Marine Ecosystems 3rd ed. (Blackwell Publishing).
2. Longhurst, A.R. (2007). Ecological Geography of the Sea 2nd ed. (Academic Press).
3. Nasu, K. (1959). Surface water conditions in the Antarctic whaling pacific area in 1956-57.
4. Machida, S. (1974). Surface temperature fields in the Crozet and Kerguelen whaling grounds. Sci. Reports Whales Res. Inst. 26, 271–287.
Ever since I was a teenager, I have been drawn to both arts and sciences. When I decided to go down the path of marine biology and research, I never thought I would one day be led to exploit my artistic skills as well as my scientific interests.
Processing data, coding, analyzing, modeling… these tasks form the core of my everyday work and are what generates my excitement and passion for research. But once a new result has come up, or a new hypothesis has been formed, how boring would it be to keep it for myself? Science is all about communication, exchanges with our peers, with stakeholders, and with the general public. Graphical representations have always been supported in research throughout the history of sciences, and particularly the life sciences (Figure 1).
I have come to realize how much I enjoy this aspect of my work, and also how much I wish I was better prepared for it! In this blogpost I will talk about visual communication in science, and tackle the question of how to make our plots, diagrams, powerpoints, figures, maps, etc. convey information that goes beyond any spoken language? I have compiled a few tips from the design and infographics fields that I think could be reinvested in our scientific communication material.
Plan, order, design
This suggestion may appear like a rather simplistic piece of advice, but any form of communication should start with a plan. What is the name of my project, the goal, and the audience? A scientific conference poster will not be created with the same design as a flyer aimed at the general public, nor will the same tools be used. Libre office powerpoint, canva, inkscape, scribus, R, plotly, GIMP… these are the open-source software I use on a regular basis but there so many more possibilities!
For whatever the type of visual you want to create, there are two major rules that need to be considered. First, embrace the empty space! You may think that you are wasting space that could be filled by all sorts of extremely valuable pieces of information… but this empty space has a purpose all by itself. The empty space brings forward the central elements of your design and will help focus the attention of the viewer toward them (top panel of Figure 2). Second, keep it neat and aligned. Whether you choose to anchor elements to each other or to an invisible grid, pay attention to details so that all images and text in the design from a harmonious whole (bottom panel in Figure 2).
Alignment is also an essential aspect to consider when editing images. More than any text, images will provide the first impression to the viewer and may subjectively communicate ideas in an instant. To make them most effective, images may follow the ‘rule of thirds’. Imagine breaking the image down into thirds, hence creating four directive lines over it (Figure 3). Placing the points of interest of the image at the intersections or along the lines will provide balance and attract the viewer’s attention. In marine mammal science where we often use pictures of animals with the ocean as a background, aligning the horizon along one of these horizontal lines may be a good technique (which I have not followed in Figure 3 though!).
When adding text to images, it is important to not overwhelm illustrations with text by trying to use extensive written material (which happens much too often). I try to keep the text to the strict minimum and let the visuals speak for themselves. When including text over or next to an image, I place the text in the empty spaces, where the eye is drawn to (Figure 4). When using dark or contrasted images, I add a semi-transparent layer in between the text and the image to make my text pop out.
Tired of using Arial, Times and Calibri but don’t know which other font to pick? One good piece of advice I found online was to choose a font that complements the purpose of the design. To do so, it is necessary to choose the message before picking the font. There are three categories of fonts (show in Image 1):
– Serif (classic style designed for books as the little feet at the extremities of the letters guide the eye along the lines of text)
– Sans serif (designed to look clean on digital screen)
– Display (more personality, but to be used in small doses!)
I have also learned that pairing fonts together is often about using opposites (Figure 5). Contrasting fonts are complementary. For instance, it is visually appealing to combine a very bold font with a very light font, or a round font with something tall. And if you need more font choices than the ones provided by your usual software, here is a web repository to freely download thousands of different fonts: https://www.dafont.com
Colors have inherent meaning that depends on individual cultures. Whether we want it or not, any plot, photo, or diagram that we present to an audience will carry a subliminal message depending on its color palette. So better make it fit with the message!
Let us go passed the boring blue shades we have used for all of our marine science presentations so far, and instead open ourselves up to an infinite choice of colors! Color nuances are defined by three things: hue (the color itself), saturation (intensity, whether the color looks more subtle or more vibrant), and value (how dark or light a color is, ranging from white to black). The color wheel helps us visualize the relationships between hues and pick the best associations (Figure 6).
First, pick the main color, the hero color for your design. Choose a cool color (blues and greens) if you want to provide a calming impression or a warm color (reds and yellows) for something more energizing. This basic principle of color theory made me think back on the black/blue dark shaded presentations that I might have attended in the past and had trouble staying awake!
Now, create your color palette, which are the three to four colors that will compose your design, ideally combining some vibrant and some more neutral colors for contrast. For instance, in a publication, a color palette may be used consistently in all plots or figures to represent a set of variables, study areas, or species . Now how do you pick the right complementary colors? The color wheel provides you with a few basic principles that should help you choose a palette (Figure 6). From monochromatic to tetradic schemes, the choice is up to you:
– monochromatic colors: varying values or saturation of a given color picked in the wheel
– analogous colors: colors sitting next to each other in the wheel
– complementary color: colors sitting opposite to each other
In practice, this means I can produce R plots or maps with color codes that match those I use in my canva presentations or posters. And finally, thumbs up to Dawn and Clara for creating our very own GEMM lab color palette based on whale photos collected in the field (Figure 7: https://github.com/dawnbarlow/musculusColors)!
I hope these few tips help you make your science as look as pretty as it is in your mind!
It’s rather amazing how, in a span of five years, the journey of your life can take twists and turns that you never expected. Long time blog readers may remember me as the graduate student who began this blog way back in February of 2015 with a recitation of our lab’s very first science outreach event. Since then, I completed my master’s thesis investigating gray whale foraging ecology (a project that just finished its 6th field season thanks to the excellent leadership of Lisa Hildebrand), fulfilled a dream of working as a marine mammal observer, and survived the existential crisis of graduation and job searching.
None of the species we study in this lab forage in straight lines. If we consider a job (and salary) as the mechanism by which most of us put food on the table (i.e. foraging) why should our path be any less complex than theirs? By April 2018, I had moved back in with my parents in Seattle and was thoroughly heartsick about how long my job search was taking, so I jumped on the first field opportunity that came my way. The project was billed as an attempt to pair discrete killer whale behaviors to specific call sequences, with collaborators from a variety of countries and backgrounds. In my enthusiasm, I ignored some red flags, and paid for it with a field season where I (1) experienced my first person-overboard situation, (2) witnessed steady verbal harassment, (3) was injured when our live-aboard trimaran was run aground on a clearly marked reef, and (4) ended up committing mutiny and leaving the project early. There have been encouraging discussions in the marine science community recently about the barriers that women & early career scientists face while in the field, particularly with regard to accessibility, equity, and unpaid/underpaid internships. I will add some learned lessons to the list of things one should consider before embarking on a new research endeavor:
If someone says they are affiliated with a university, but will not give you a project or lab website because ‘the project is quite delicate, we don’t want other folks stealing our work’, check that they actually do have university affiliations and aren’t misrepresenting their connections. Do some homework.
Don’t cross a border without a contract, and when repeated attempts to secure a description of your responsibilities and payment are put off until later, consider that this might be a pattern of behavior.
If you were told that you would work under a senior bioacoustician, and you show up to find that your new colleague had been told the same thing, but neither of you has more than a MSc degree or much experience with acoustics, add this to your tally of red flags.
If basic safety standards (like wearing a life jacket on deck) are being ignored, hold yourself to a higher standard, and lead by example.
If sustained verbal and emotional abuse is occurring, you still have not been paid, and you’ve been asked to keep working after being injured in an accident caused by negligence, it is ok to break faith and leave a project.
Entering this project, I was very keen to learn new skills in acoustics, study a new species, and build partnerships with international researchers. Instead, I learned about interpersonal conflict and resolution strategies. So, time for a new plan & another bend in my path. Thankfully, I have the immense privilege of a capable, employed husband who was able to support me while I recovered and began a new job search.
In the year that followed, I joined the team at the Environmental Science Center and taught 3rd -10th graders how to be “Salmon Heroes”. I explained salmon ecology, taking them on field experiences where we dissected salmon, measured oxygen and nitrogen levels in salmon streams, assessed habitat quality, observed migration and spawning behaviors (when fish cooperated), and brainstormed ways to protect these special (and delicious) fish.
When salmon season came to an end, we transitioned to the “Beach Hero” program, targeted at K-3rd grade, where I became part of the classroom team, teaching intertidal ecology before bringing the kids to the beach where many of them experienced low tide for the first time. In keeping with the education theme, I also worked with South Sound Nature School to provide kids with a forest-based after school program and was a summer camp counselor at Camp Long for several weeks. Still, I continued to try to find my way back to research and a data-driven career.
Another bend in my ‘foraging’ job search happened when I stumbled across a short term data contract at my local election office while searching the state and county job boards. Washington State is a vote-by-mail state, and with a record turn-out in the 2018 mid-term elections they needed help updating everyone’s contact information & verifying signatures. Let me tell you, staring at a computer screen, deciphering people’s handwriting to add emails and phone numbers to their voter registration for 8 hours a day for 6 weeks was not particularly fun. Yet, it gave me a little more experience in government databases, and gave me a lot of confidence in my election office for how transparent they are about every step of the voting process. I can’t speak for anywhere else, but in King County (Washington), you can go visit the election office & give yourself a self-guided walking tour of the whole ballot counting process from arrival to sorting to signature verification and opening to tallying. (There’s a hallway with massive windows surrounding the giant open concept floor space where everything happens, so you can observe without interfering). I’d never thought about what happens to my ballot after I mail it before, and its rather fascinating. Speaking of which, Please Vote!
Frustrated by a job search that failed to yield anything with health benefits or more than part-time hours, my Dad suggested that I apply to the University of Washington Continuing Education program, and enroll in a professional certificate to add another explicit skill to my resume. When enough pressure is applied to the system, something has to give eventually. The month where I was accepted to the UW Certificate in Statistical Analysis with R Programming was also the month I started interviewing for the Research Analyst Position at the Pacific Whale Foundation. Partially because I could prove my data management experience, and that I was serious about continuing to hone my skiIls, I was offered, and accepted the position! Hilariously or stressfully, however you want to look at it, I moved to Maui, began my new position, and started my statistics with R programming coursework all in the same week – the learning curve was STEEP.
I completed my certificate in June, and hit my one-year work anniversary last month! I’m responsible for a good portion of our database management, and use R coding on a daily basis to pull data requests, tidy historical data, and add new information. I’d never been to Maui before moving here, but now I’ve experienced the glory of Humpback whale breeding & calving season and heard whale song underwater. I’ve helped collect important life history data for false killer whales, spotted, spinner & bottlenose dolphins, and I’m looking forward to encountering more new-to-me odontocete species. It took months before I felt like I was past the ‘onboarding’ information stage, but now I’m collaborating with my colleagues on my first data analysis project (rather than simple data management) and loving my team despite the wrenches that the pandemic has thrown in our work. My job search = cetacean foraging analogy breaks down a little at this point, but my story still stands. I acknowledge my privilege of a good education and supportive husband, but I have this suggestion for job seekers: Don’t be afraid to get creative while you search for the right position, because you never know what you might stumble across and learn along the way. In the process, do your best to catch red flags, and keep yourself out of dangerous positions. My job search hasn’t been a straight path, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t full of small victories, and it did ultimately lead to a successful “prey patch”.
As I solidified my grad school plans last spring, one of the things that made me most excited to join the GEMM Lab was the direct applicability of its research to management and conservation practices. Seeing research directly plugged into current problems facing society is always inspirational to me. My graduate research will be part of the GEMM Lab’s project to identify co-occurrence between whales and fishing effort in Oregon, with the goal of helping to reduce whale entanglement risk. Recently, watching the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) Commission in action gave me a fascinating, direct look at how the management sausage gets made.
At the September Commission meeting, ODFW Marine Resources Program Manager Caren Braby presented proposed rule changes in the management of the Oregon dungeness crab fleet. As part of a coordinated effort with Washington and California, the main goal of these changes is to reduce the risk of whale entanglements, which have increased sharply in US West Coast waters since 2014.
With the aim of maximizing the benefit to whales while minimizing change to the fishery, Braby and her staff developed a recommendation for a shift in summer fishing effort, when whales are most abundant in Oregon waters. Based on diverse considerations — including the distributions of humpback whales off Oregon and season fishery economics — she outlined options along what she termed a “spectrum of reduced risk,” which included possible shifts in the fishing season, spatial extent, and number of pots deployed.
Although the GEMM Lab project to provide a robust understanding of whale distribution in Oregon waters is not yet complete, the data collected to-date has already significantly refined knowledge of whale distributions off the coast — and it directly informed the proposed monthly depth limitations for fishing effort. It is never possible to have perfect knowledge of an ecosystem, and resource managers must navigate this inherent complexity as they make decisions. As the GEMM Lab collects and analyzes more data on the distribution of whales and their prey, our ability to inform management decisions can become even more precise and effective.
Braby proposed that the fleet reduce the number of crab pots deployed by 20% and prohibit fishing at depths greater than 30 fathoms, starting May 1, for the next three seasons. The goal of this recommendation is to effectively separate the bulk of fishing effort from the deep waters where humpback whales forage, when they visit their feeding grounds off the coast of Oregon during the summer.
Following Braby’s presentation, a public comment period allowed stakeholders to offer their own opinions and requests for the Commission to consider. Fisherman, lawyers, and members of conservation nonprofits each provided succinct three-minute statements, offering a wide range of opinions and amendments to the proposed rule changes.
This comment period highlighted how truly multifaceted this decision-making process is, as well as the huge number of livelihoods, economic impacts, and types of data that must be considered. It also raised essential questions — how do you make regulations that protect whales without favoring one group of stakeholders over another? How can you balance multiple levels of law with the needs of local communities?
Even during heated moments of this meeting, the tone of the dialog impressed me. This topic is inevitably a contentious and emotional issue. Yet even people with opposing viewpoints maintained focus on their common goals and common ground, and frequently reiterated their desire to work together.
After more than six hours of presentations, comments, and deliberation, the Commission voted on the proposed rule changes. They decided to adopt somewhat more liberal rule changes than Braby had proposed — a 20% reduction in crab pots and a prohibition on fishing at depths greater than 40 fathoms, starting May 1. After three years, the Commission will evaluate the efficacy of these new policies, and plan to refine or change the rules based on the best available data.
Witnessing this decision-making process gave me a new perspective on the questions and context my research will fit into, and this understanding will help me become a better collaborator. Watching the Commission in action also underscored the difficult position managers are often put in. They must make decisions based on incomplete knowledge that will inevitably impact people’s lives — but they also need to protect the species and biodiversity, that also have an innate right to exist in natural ecosystems. Seeing the intricacies of this balancing act made me glad that I get to be part of research that can inform important management decisions in Oregon.
Fall has arrived in the Pacific Northwest. For humans, it means packing away the shorts and sandals, and getting the boots, raincoats and firewood ready. For gray whales, it means gulping down the last meal of zooplankton they will eat for several months and commencing the journey to warmer waters and sunnier skies in Mexico where they will spend the winter fasting, calving, and nursing. While the GEMM Lab may still squeeze in a day or two of field work this week, we are slowly wrapping up the 2020 field season as conditions get rougher and our beloved gray whales gradually depart our waters. This year marked the 6th year of data collection for both of our gray whale projects: the Newport project that investigates the impacts of multiple stressors on gray whale ecology and health, and the Port Orford project that explores fine-scale foraging ecology of gray whales and their zooplankton prey. Since it will be several months before the GEMM Lab heads back out onto the water again, I thought I would summarize our two field seasons, share some highlights, and muse about the drivers of our observations this summer.
Our RHIB Ruby zipped around the central and southern Oregon coast on 33 different days. The summer started slow, with several days of field work where we encountered no whales despite surveying our entire study region. Our encounters picked up towards the end of June and by the end of the summer we totaled 107 sightings, encountering 46 unique individuals, 36 of which were resightings of known individuals we have identified in previous years. Our Newport star of the summer was Solé, a female gray whale we have seen every year since 2015, and we also saw many of our other regulars including Casper, Rafael, Spray, Bit, and Heart. None of these whales shone as bright as Solé though. We flew the drone over her 8 times and collected 7 fecal samples (one of which was the biggest whale fecal sample I have ever seen!). In total, we collected 30 fecal samples and flew the drone 88 times. These data will allow us to continue measuring body condition and hormone levels of Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales that use the Oregon coast.
Our tandem research kayak Robustus may not be as zippy as Ruby (it is powered by human muscle rather than a powerful outboard engine after all), but it certainly continues to be a trusty vessel for the Port Orford team. The Port Orford research team, named the Theyodelers this year, collected 181 zooplankton samples and conducted 180 GoPro drops during the month of August from Robustus. Despite the many samples collected, the size of our prey samples remained relatively small throughout the whole season compared to previous years. The cliff team surveyed for a total of 117 hours, of which 15 were spent tracking whales with the theodolite and resulted in 40 different tracklines of whale movements. The whale situation in Port Orford was similar to the pattern of whale sightings in Newport, with low whale sightings at the start of the field season. Luckily, by the start of August (which marked the start of data collection for the Theyodelers), the number of whales using the Port Orford area, especially the two study sites, Mill Rocks & Tichenor Cove, had increased. Of the whales that came close enough to shore for us to identify using photo-id, we tracked 5 unique individuals, 3 of which we also saw in Newport this year. The Port Orford star of the summer was Smudge, with his tracklines making up a quarter of all of our tracklines collected. Smudge is also the whale we sighted most often last year in Port Orford.
Many of you may be familiar with the whale Scarlett (formally known as Scarback). Scarlett is a female, at least 24 years old (she was first documented in the PCFG range in 1996), who is well-known (and easily identified) by the large concave injury on her back that is covered in whale lice, or cyamids. No one knows for certain how Scarlett sustained this injury (though there are stories), however what we do know is that it has not prevented this female from reproducing and successfully raising several calves over her lifetime. The GEMM Lab last saw Scarlett with a calf (which we named Brown) in 2016. Since Scarlett is such a famous whale with a unique history, it shouldn’t be a surprise that one of our highlights this summer is the fact that Scarlett showed up with a new calf! In keeping with a “shades of red” theme, Leigh came up with the name Rose for the new calf. In July, the mom-calf pair put on quite a cute performance, with Rose rising up on Scarlett’s back, giving the team a glimpse of its face. The Scarlett-Rose highlight doesn’t end there though. Just last week, we had a very brief encounter in choppy, swelly waters with a small whale. The whale surfaced just twice allowing us to capture photo-id images, and as we were looking around to see where it would come up a third time, it suddenly breached approximately 20 m from the boat. Lo-and-behold, after comparing our photos of the whale to our catalogue, we realized that this elusive, breaching whale was Rose! I am excited to see whether Rose will return to the Oregon coast next summer and become a PCFG regular just like her mom.
The highlight of the field season in Port Orford is the trial, failures and small successes of a new element to the project. There is still a lot that we do not know and understand about PCFG gray whales. One such thing is the way in which gray whales maneuver their large bodies in shallow rocky habitats, often riddled with kelp, and how exactly they capture their zooplankton prey in these environments. Using drones has certainly helped bring some light into this darkness and has led to the documentation of many novel foraging behaviors (Torres et al. 2018). However, the view from above is unable to provide the fine-scale interactions between whales, kelp, reefs, and zooplankton. Instead, we must somehow find a way to watch the whales underwater. Enter CamDo. CamDo is a technology company that designs specialty products to allow for GoPro cameras to be used for time-lapsed recordings over long periods of time in harsh environmental conditions. One of their products is a housing specifically designed for long-term filming underwater – exactly what we need! The journey was not as easy as simply purchasing the housing. We also needed to build a lander for the housing to sit on (thankfully our very own Todd Chandler designed and built something for us), and coordinate with divers and a vessel to deploy and retrieve the set-up, as well as undertake weekly battery and SD cards swaps (thankfully Dave Lacey of South Coast Tours and a very generous group of divers* donated their time and resources to make this happen). We unfortunately had some technological difficulties and bad visibility for the first 4 weeks (precisely why this CamDo effort was a pilot season this year), however we had some small success in the last 2 weeks of deployment that give us hope for the future. The camera recorded a lot of things: thick layers of mysids, countless rockfish and lingcod, several swimming and foraging murres, a handful of harbor seals, and two encounters of the species we were hoping to film – gray whales! While the footage is not the ‘money shot’ we are hoping to film (aka, a headstanding gray whale eating zooplankton right in front of the camera), the fact that we captured gray whales in the first place has showed us that this set-up is a promising investment of time, money and effort that will hopefully deliver next year.
You may have picked up on the fact that we had slow starts to our field seasons in both Newport and Port Orford. Furthermore, while the number of whale sightings did increase in both locations throughout the field seasons, the number of sightings and whales per day were lower than they have been in previous years. For example, in 2018, we identified 15 different individuals in the month of August in Port Orford (compared to just 5 this year). In 2019, 63 unique whales were seen in Newport (compared to 46 this year). Interestingly, we had a greater diversity of encountered individuals at the start and end of the season in Newport, with a relatively small number of different individuals in July and August. While I cannot provide a definitive reason (or reasons) as to why patterns were observed (we will need to analyze several years of our data to try and understand why), I have some hypotheses I wish to share with you.
As I mentioned in a previous blog, this summer the coastal upwelling along the Oregon coast was delayed (Figure 1). Typically, peak upwelling occurs during the month of June or shortly thereafter, bringing nutrient-rich, deep waters to the surface and, when mixed with sunlight, a lot of productivity. This productivity sets off a chain of reactions — the input of nutrients leads to increased phytoplankton production, which in turn leads to increased zooplankton production, resulting in growth and development of larger organisms that consume zooplankton, such as rockfish and gray whales. If the timing of upwelling is delayed, then so too is this chain of reactions. As you can see from Figure 1, the red lines show that the peak upwelling this year occurred far later in the summer than any year in the last 10 years, with the exception of 2012. Gray whales may have cued into this delay and therefore also delayed their arrival to the PCFG feeding grounds, hence causing us to have low sighting rates at the start of our season. However, this is mostly speculative as we still do not understand the functional mechanisms by which cetaceans, such as gray whales, detect prey across different scales, and to what extent oceanographic conditions like upwelling may play a role in prey availability (Torres 2017).
Furthermore, the green line in Figure 1shows that even after peak upwelling was reached this year, upwelling conditions were lower than all the other peaks in the previous 10 years. We know that weak upwelling is correlated to poor body condition of PCFG gray whales in subsequent years (Soledade Lemos et al. 2020). Upon arriving to the Oregon coast feeding grounds, gray whales may have noticed that it was shaping up to be a poor prey year (we certainly noticed it in Port Orford in the emptiness of our zooplankton net). Faced with this low resource availability, individuals had to make important decisions – risk staying in a currently prey-poor environment or continue the journey onward, searching for better prey conditions elsewhere. This conundrum is known as the marginal value theorem, whereby an individual must decide whether it should abandon the patch it is currently foraging on and move on to search for a new patch without knowing how far away the next patch may be or its value relative to the current patch (Charnov 1976). If we think of the Oregon coast as the ‘current patch’, then we can see how the marginal value theorem translates to the situation gray whales may have found themselves in at the start of the summer.
Yet, an individual gray whale does not make these decisions in a vacuum. Instead, all gray whales in the same area are faced with the same conundrum. Seminal work by Pianka (1974) showed that when resources, such as food, are abundant, then competition between predators is low because there is enough food to go around. However, when resources dwindle, competition increases and the niches of predators begin to overlap more and more. With Charnov and Pianka’s theories in mind, we can see two groups of gray whales emerge from our 2020 field work observations: those that stayed in the ‘current patch’ (Oregon) and those that decided to seek out a new patch in hopes that it would be a better one. Solé certainly belongs in the first group. We saw her consistently throughout the whole summer. In fact, she was oftentimes so predictable that we would find her foraging on the same reef complex every time we went out to survey. Smudge may also belong in this group, however it is hard to say definitively since we only survey in Port Orford in late July and August. In contrast, I would place whales such as Spray and Heart in the second group since we saw them early in the summer and then not again until mid-to-late September. Where did they go in the interim? Did they go somewhere else in the PCFG range? Or did they venture all the way up to Alaska to the primary Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whale feeding grounds? Did their choice to search for food elsewhere pay off?
As I said earlier, these are all just musings for now, but the GEMM Lab is already hard at work trying to answer these questions. Stay tuned to see what we find!
* Thanks to all the divers who assisted with the pilot CamDo season: Aaron Galloway, Ross Whippo, Svetlana Maslakova, Taylor Eaton, Cori Kane, Austin Williams, Justin Smith
Charnov, E.L. 1976. Optimal Foraging, the Marginal Value Theorem. Theoretical Population Biology 9(2):129-136.
Pianka, E.R. 1974. Niche Overlap and Diffuse Competition. PNAS 71(5):2141-2145.
Soledade Lemos, L., Burnett, J.D., Chandler, T.E., Sumich, J.L., and L.G. Torres. 2020. Intra- and inter-annual variation in gray whale body condition on a foraging ground. Ecosphere 11(4):e03094.
Torres, L.G. 2017. A sense of scale: Foraging cetaceans’ use of scale-dependent multimodal sensory systems. Marine Mammal Science 33(4):1170-1193.
Torres, L.G., Nieukirk, S.L., Lemos, L., and T.E. Chandler. 2018. Drone Up! Quantifying Whale Behavior From a New Perspective Improves Observational Capacity. Frontiers in Marine Science: https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2018.00319.
Clara and I have just returned from ten fruitful days at sea aboard NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada as part of the Northern California Current (NCC) ecosystem survey. We surveyed between Crescent City, California and La Push, Washington, collecting data on oceanography, phytoplankton, zooplankton, and marine mammals (Fig. 1). This year represents the third year I have participated in these NCC cruises, which I have come to cherish. I have become increasingly confident in my marine mammal observation and species identification skills, and I have become more accepting of the things out of my control – the weather, the sea state, the many sightings of “unidentified whale species”. Careful planning and preparation are critical, and yet out at sea we are ultimately at the whim of the powerful Pacific Ocean. Another aspect of the NCC cruises that I treasure is the time spent with members of the science team from other disciplines. The chatter about water column features, musings about plankton species composition, and discussions about what drives marine mammal distribution present lively learning opportunities throughout the cruise. Our concurrent data collection efforts and ongoing conversations allow us to piece together a comprehensive picture of this dynamic NCC ecosystem, and foster a collaborative research environment.
Every time I head to sea, I am reminded of the patchy distribution of resources in the vast and dynamic marine environment. On this recent cruise we documented a stark contrast between expansive stretches of warm, blue, stratified, and seemingly empty ocean and areas that were plankton-rich and supported multi-species feeding frenzies that had marine mammal observers like me scrambling to keep track of everything. This year, we were greeted by dozens of blue and humpback whales in the productive waters off Newport, Oregon. Off Crescent City, California, the water was very warm, the plankton community was dominated by gelatinous species like pyrosomes, salps, and other jellies, and the marine mammals were virtually absent except for a few groups of common dolphins. To the north, the plume of water flowing from the Columbia River created a front between water masses, where we found ourselves in the midst of pacific white-sided dolphins, northern right whale dolphins, and humpback whales. These observations highlight the strength of ecosystem-scale and multi-disciplinary data collection efforts such as the NCC surveys. By drawing together information on physical oceanography, primary productivity, zooplankton community composition and abundance, and marine predator distribution, we can gain a nearly comprehensive picture of the dynamics within the NCC over a broad spatial scale.
This year, the marine mammals delivered and kept us observers busy. We lucked out with good survey conditions and observed many different species throughout the NCC (Table 1, Fig. 2).
Table 1. Summary of all marine mammal sightings from the NCC September 2020 cruise.
This year’s NCC cruise was unique. We went to sea as a global pandemic, wildfires, and political tensions continue to strain this country and our communities. This cruise was the first NOAA Fisheries cruise to set sail since the start of the pandemic. Our team of scientists and the ship’s crew went to great lengths to make it possible, including a seven-day shelter-in-place period and COVID-19 tests prior to cruise departure. As a result of these extra challenges and preparations, I think we were all especially grateful to be on the water, collecting data. At-sea fieldwork is always challenging, but morale was up, spirits were high, and laughs were frequent despite smiles being concealed by our masks. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this ongoing valuable data collection effort, and to be part of this team. Thanks to all who made it such a memorable cruise.