Blue whale portraits: pieces of the puzzle

By Dawn Barlow, MSc Student, Oregon State University

Perhaps you’ve read some posts about New Zealand blue whales on this blog from the past field season in the South Taranaki Bight (STB). I know I eagerly awaited updates from the field while the team was in New Zealand and I was in Southern California, finishing undergrad and writing funding proposals and grad school applications. Now that undergrad is done and dusted, I’ve arrived in Newport and begun to settle in to my next chapter as the newest member of the GEMM Lab, joining the blue whale research team as a MSc student in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. Since no blue whale news has made it onto this blog in some time, I’m excited to share what has happened since the team returned from the field!

As you may have heard from Leigh, Callum, and Kristin, 2016 was a fruitful field season. In nearly 1,500 miles of vessel surveys, the team documented blue whale foraging behavior, a pair of racing whales, four mother-calf pairs, what may be the first aerial footage of nursing behavior in baleen whales (video below), and a whale with apparent deformities. Five hydrophones units were deployed, fecal and biopsy samples were collected, oceanographic conditions were measured, and photos were taken.

I was welcomed into the GEMM Lab in early July, and presented with a workspace, a hard drive with thousands of photos, new software programs to learn, wonderfully accessible tea and coffee, and tasked with creating a photo-ID catalog of all the blue whales our team photographed this past field season. Here’s a great thing about blue whales: while they may be tricky to study, when someone sees a blue whale they are often excited to report it. In addition to the data collected by our team during the 2016 season and the 2014 pilot season, we are incorporating many photo-documented sightings of blue whales from all around New Zealand that we have received from collaborative researchers, whale watch organizations, and fishing vessels alike captured between 2004 and 2016. All these photos are precious data to us, as we can use them to better understand their ecology.

There are many unanswered questions about this population of blue whales in New Zealand — How many are there? Just how big are they? Do they stay in New Zealand year-round or are they migratory? Through the photo-ID analysis that I’ve done, we are just beginning to piece together some answers. We have now compiled records of sightings in New Zealand from every month of the year. I’ve identified 94 unique individual blue whales, 26 of which were sighted in the STB during the 2016 season. Five whales were seen in multiple years (Figure 1), including one whale that was seen in three different years, in three different places, and with three different calves! And what might all of this mean? At this point it’s still speculative, but these findings hint at year-round residency and seasonal movement patterns within New Zealand waters… with more data and more analysis I will be able to say these things more conclusively.

New Zealand Blue Whale Photo-ID

NZ Blue Whale Photo-ID
Figure 1. Blue whale photographed off of Westport on 31 January 2013 (above) by the Australian Antarctic Division (data provided by Mike Double), and in the South Taranaki Bight on 2 February 2016 (below). Note how the tear in the dorsal fin has healed over the three-year period.

Perhaps you’ve read Leila’s post about photogrammetry, and how she is able to make measurements using aerial photographs captured using an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS, aka ‘drone’). Using the same method, I will soon be able to tell you how long these whales really are (Figure 2).

sighting 22 UAS reduced
Figure 2. An aerial photograph captured with the UAS during the 2016 season, which will be used to measure the length of these whales using photogrammetry.

How many of them are there? Well, that’s a trickier question. Using a straightforward abundance calculation based on our rate of re-sightings, the estimate I came up with is 594 ± 438. In other words, I can say with 95% confidence that there are between 156 and 1031 blue whales in New Zealand. How helpful is this? Well, not very! The wide confidence intervals in this estimate are problematic, and it is difficult to draw any conclusions when the range of possible numbers is so large. So stay tuned as I will be learning more about modeling population abundance estimates in order to provide a more precise and descriptive answer.

But stepping back for a minute, what does it matter how many whales there are and what they’re doing? In 2014, Leigh demonstrated that the STB is an important foraging ground for these blue whales. However, the STB is also a region heavily used by industry, experiencing active oil and gas extraction (Figure 3), seismic surveying, shipping traffic, and proposed seafloor mining. If we don’t know how the blue whales are using this space, then how can we know what effect the presence of industry will have on their ecology? It is our hope that findings from this study can guide effective conservation and management of these ocean giants as well as the ecosystem they are part of.

Figure 2. A blue whale surfaces in front of an oil rig in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Photo by Deanna Elvines.
Figure 3. A blue whale surfaces in front of an oil rig. Photo by Deanna Elvines.

Keeping these goals in mind, I’m eagerly awaiting the start of our 2017 field season in the STB. As I look through all these photos I feel like I’m getting to know this group of whales just a little bit and I look forward to being on the water seeing them myself, maybe even recognizing some from the 2016 photos. More time on the water and more data will bring us closer to the piecing together the story of these whales, and inevitably open doors to more questions than we started with. And in the meantime, I’m grateful for the community I’ve found here in the GEMM Lab, at Hatfield Marine Science Center, and in Newport.

Cetaceans in the news

By Florence Sullivan, MSc Student Oregon State University, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife

It’s been a couple long, busy weeks here at the GEMM lab as my field season has wrapped up and new labmates are just getting started. There are students in the lab at all hours organizing, processing, and analyzing data. Much of our work investigating the spatial and temporal patterns of marine mammals around the globe takes long hours of parsing through information to bring you results. Systematic sampling is an important research tool but, sometimes, exciting discoveries just wash up at your front door.

Humpback Whale stranding in Puget Sound

http://westseattleblog.com/2016/08/stranded-whale-reported-south-of-fauntleroy-ferry-dock/

Just recently on August 7, 2016, a 39 foot, juvenile female Humpback whale stranded at the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal in West Seattle, WA. This is very close to my home town, and a recent GEMM lab intern was in the area at the time, so we have a photo of this event for you!  The humpback came ashore while still alive, but despite efforts to keep it comfortable and wet, the whale died before the tide returned.

Humpback whale stranded at Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal, West Seattle. photo credit: Sarah Wiesner
Humpback whale stranded at Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal, West Seattle. photo credit: Sarah Wiesner

A cursory necropsy, conducted on site by researchers from NOAA fisheries and the Cascadia Research Collective, showed the animal had multiple internal parasites and injuries associated with beaching, as well as being in poor nutritional condition overall. There were also bites on the lower jaw consistent with killer whale encounters, and a pod of orca had been spotted in the area the previous day. Necropsies are an important source of data about the basic physiology and biology of marine mammals that is not accessible through any other means. The carcass was towed to a deep-water disposal site approved by federal and state agencies and sunk.  Humpback whale sightings in the Salish Sea have increased in the last five years. This, together with the fact that this juvenile was in poor nutritional condition, could indicate that there is competition for resources.

New Species Discovered!

There have been two new species of cetaceans discovered in recent months!

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/07/new-whale-species/

http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/07/27/487665728/mysterious-and-known-as-the-raven-scientists-identify-new-whale-species

The first exciting announcement was published in the journal Marine Mammal Science in July. Japanese fishermen in the North Pacific have long reported a small, black beaked whale they call karasu, “raven.” In 2013, Japanese researchers published a paper about this black, beaked whale variant of the sub-family Berardiinae using three stranded carcasses, but the sample size was too small to make any conclusions. Three years later there is strong genetic evidence that this is a new species of beaked whale based on (1) genetic analysis of samples from a stranded animal on St. George, Alaska (2) skeletons in a high school in Unalaska, Alaska, (3) skeletons in the Smithsonian archives, and (4) skeletons in other museum and institutional collections around the Pacific Rim. The species still needs to be described and named, but some researchers have suggested Berardius beringiae to honor the sea where it was found. What do you think?

This beaked whale stranded in the Aleutian Islands in 2004, and was measured by Reid Brewer of the University of Alaska Southeast.  Analysis of tissue samples later identified the whale as one of the new species. Photo Credit: Don Graves

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/new-species-ancient-river-dolphin-discovered-exctinct-millions-years-ago-180960146/

The second announcement of a new species came from the Smithsonian Institution earlier this month. A skull of the newly-named Arktocara yakataga species was found more than 60 years ago near the present day city of Yakutat, Alaska. Obviously belonging to a prehistoric dolphin, the skull was kept at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History until new research found that it was actually a previously undiscovered species. A. yakatoga is thought to be a relative of the present day South Asian River Dolphin, and is both the northernmost, and one of the oldest dolphin fossils found to date. This new find is a reminder to everyone that not all discoveries are made in the field. Museum and archival collections continue to play an important role in the advancement of science and knowledge. Check out the link above to see some awesome artistic renderings of the new species, as well as a 3D scan of the skull in question.

Humpbacks vs Orcas

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/mms.12343/full

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/08/humpback-whales-save-animals-killer-whales-explained/

Sounds like the next big B-Sci-fi movie doesn’t it? Well, this story is the latest to go viral on the internet. Published on July 20, 216 in the journal Marine Mammal Science, the study investigated accounts of humpback whales interfering with killer whale attacks. Researchers looked at 115 interactions between the two species. Humpbacks initiated 57% of the interactions, and 87% of these moments occurred when the killer whales were attacking or feeding on prey.  Surprisingly, only 11% of the prey in these events were humpback whales, while the remaining 89% ranged from other cetaceans to pinnipeds, to a sunfish! The authors suggest that the humpback whales were alerted to attacking killer whales in the area by vocalizations, and that this attracts them to the scene regardless of the species being attacked. Although kin selection (care for or defense of relatives to preserve your family’s genetics even though the action may be detrimental to self), or reciprocity (exchange between individuals for mutual benefit) might explain some of this behavior, the fact that humpback whales so often defended other species means that we cannot rule out the possibility of altruistic behavior.  This is a pretty fascinating read, and definitely opens up some new questions for researchers!

Humpback whales.
Humpback whales. Photo credit: Florence Sullivan

Olympians in Rio: keep your mouths closed! But what are the resident marine animals to do?

By Leila Lemos, Ph.D. Student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, OSU

August 5th was the Olympic games opening date in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the city where I am from. The opening ceremony was a big success and everybody seems to be enjoying the sporting events and all of the news that the city is offering. However, behind all the colors, magic and joy of this big event, Brazilians are very unsatisfied about hosting an event like this while the whole country is simultaneously dealing with a big educational, health, political and economic crisis at the moment.

Unfortunately, the crisis also affects the environment and is consequently affecting athletes that are competing in our “carioca” waters. Guanabara Bay, more specifically, where the sailing competitions are taking place, receive waters from more than 50 rivers and streams, as displayed below.

Figure 1: Hydrographic map of the Guanabara Bay region, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, showing rivers and streams (in blue) that feed into the Bay.
Figure 1: Hydrographic map of the Guanabara Bay region, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, showing rivers and streams (in blue) that feed into the Bay.

 

Much of the water is not treated and brings sewage and garbage from upstream (Fig.2). Although the government reports that the pollution index in the Bay conforms to national and international standards, and that the areas where competitions are taking place are clean and present no risk to athlete health, public health experts advise athletes to keep their mouth closed whenever they are in contact with the water, as reported by the Independent newspaper (http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/olympics/2016-rio-olympics-water-feces-athletes -mouth-shut-brazil-a7163021.html). The goal was to clean up 80% of the Bay in time for the Olympic games, however this goal was far from achieved and the “solution” was to install barriers to try to avoid waste and untreated sewage reaching the event area.

Figure 2: Pollution contrasting with the beauty of the Sugar Loaf, one of the main tourist attractions in the city. The photo shows the area where competitions are taking place. Source: http://www.insidethegames.biz/articles/1027142/brazilian-politician-accused-of-undermining-effort-to-clean-guanabara-bay-by-publicity-seeking-jump-into-water
Figure 2: Pollution contrasting with the beauty of the Sugar Loaf, one of the main tourist attractions in the city. The photo shows the area where competitions are taking place.
Source: http://www.insidethegames.biz/articles/1027142/brazilian-politician-accused-of-undermining-effort-to-clean-guanabara-bay-by-publicity-seeking-jump-into-water.

 

Bacteria, fecal coliforms and metals occur in the Bay. Professionals from Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), one of the world’s main public health research institutions, found a drug-resistant bacterium in the Bay waters, which is resistant to antibiotics and may cause multiple infections (https://www.rt.com/news/214807-brazil-olympic-venue-superbug/). Metals like mercury, one of the most toxic metals, can also be found in the Bay and shows long-term effects on marine life of the ecosystem.

Guanabara Bay used to be part of the migratory route of Southern right whales (Eubalaena australis), but unfortunately we do not see the whales in the area anymore. We also do not see turtles any longer and populations of prawns are extremely reduced. On the other hand, mussels, biological indicators of ambient pollution due to their sessile and filter-feeding habits, are continuously proliferating in the Bay. These individuals can accumulate high pollutant levels and are not safe to eat when present in polluted areas. However, local fishermen persist in eating mussels and fish from the Bay.

The Guiana dolphin (Sotalia guianensis) is the only mammal that still frequents the Bay waters and, while about 400 Guiana dolphins inhabited the region in the 80s, currently there are only 34 individuals (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-06-27/rio27s-dolphins-need-olympic-effort-to-survive-toxic-waters/7543544). The project MAQUA, responsible for monitoring the dolphins in the Guanabara Bay, correlated the decline of the population with worsening water quality, fishing and noise, as published in an article in “O Globo”, the main Brazilian newspaper (http://oglobo.globo.com/rio/populacao-de-golfinhos-da-baia-de-guanabara-sofre-reducao-de-90-em-tres-decadas-1-16110633).
In this article they presented pictures of dolphins from the Guiana dolphin population in the Bay, including the unfortunate consequences on human interactions (Fig.3).

Figure 3: Guiana dolphins in Guanabara Bay, Rio de Janeiro. A: some of the remaining individuals of Guiana dolphin population from the Guanabara Bay; B: a dolphin plays with a plastic bag; C: a dolphin that suffered an accident with a nylon yarn when young presents a scar across its whole circumference; D: a dolphin exhibit the absence of the pectoral fin. Source: O Globo, 2015 (http://oglobo.globo.com/rio/populacao-de-golfinhos-da-baia-de-guanabara-sofre-reducao-de-90-em-tres-decadas-1-16110633).
Figure 3: Guiana dolphins in Guanabara Bay, Rio de Janeiro. A: some of the remaining individuals of Guiana dolphin population from the Guanabara Bay; B: a dolphin plays with a plastic bag; C: a dolphin that suffered an accident with a nylon yarn when young presents a scar across its whole circumference; D: a dolphin exhibit the absence of the pectoral fin.
Source: O Globo, 2015 (http://oglobo.globo.com/rio/populacao-de-golfinhos-da-baia-de-guanabara-sofre-reducao-de-90-em-tres-decadas-1-16110633).

 

This dolphin population is living in heavily polluted waters caused solely by human behavior. Although dolphins may distinguish between trash and food, they feed on contaminated fish – a consequence of bioaccumulation.

During my master’s degree at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, I undertook a toxicological analysis of different species of dolphins (Lemos et al. 2013; http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0147651313003370). We found high levels of different metals, such as mercury and cadmium, in animals along the north coast of Rio de Janeiro. Just like the mussels, dolphins bioaccumulate high pollutant levels in their tissues and organs, primarily via feeding, but also through dermal contact. Metals and other pollutants present in polluted waters, like the Guanabara Bay, enter the food chain and affect multiple trophic levels, compromising health.

Dolphins from the Guanabara Bay are feeding on the same prey as the local fisherman, and act as sentinels of the environment, warning of public health concerns for humans. Just like humans, these dolphins are long-lived and large mammals, but they live every day in these waters and must open their mouths to survive. If we are concerned about human athletes spending a few hours in the water, we should be outraged at the conditions we force marine animals to live in daily in the Rio de Janeiro region. The dolphins have the intrinsic right to live in a non-polluted environment and be healthy.

Recapping and Reflecting on the International Marine Conservation Conference!

By: Amanda Holdman, MS student, Geospatial Ecology and Marine Megafauna Lab & Oregon State Research Collective for Applied Acoustics, MMI

The GEMM Lab recently returned from the 4th International Marine Conservation Congress (IMMC4) in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, and it was a whirlwind of activity to say the least. The flights were long and the morning coffee was scarce, but the setting was beautiful and plenty of scientific fun was had! The IMCC conferences are the largest international academic conferences on marine conservation and the theme of this year’s conference was to “Make Science Matter”, or in my interpretation “to use conservation science to drive policy change and implementation”. Over five days we were exposed to a flood of new ideas, hypothesis, methods/techniques, analyses and findings – even presenting our own!

Leigh, Florence, and I were all slated to give a talk on the opening day of presentations. Leigh presented on her new method for analyzing animal movement data in space and time, Florence on the effects of vessel activities on gray whales, and myself on the habitat use of harbor porpoise off of the Oregon Coast.

The conference was filled with non-stop talks, lunch sessions that incorporated workshops, student activities with plenary speakers, and an evening activity planned for every night. Short breaks during the conference shenanigans allowed for some exploring of the St. John’s area including Signal Hill, Cape Spear, and the George Street Festival. Highlights included humpback mom and calf, fin whales (my first time seeing them), dozens of seabirds I wish I could identify and some popular Canadian music.

IMG_0204View from Signal Hill, where the first transatlantic wireless signal was received in 1901.

IMG_0224 The Arkells playing at the George St. Festival.

IMG_0244 Light house at Cape Spear – the Eastern most point of North America!

The conference was an awesome place to learn, meet and network with new friends, and catch up with some familiar faces. For Florence and I, our research fit perfectly into the theme of the IMCC conference. Being able to translate results of our work into relevant actions that can lead to improved marine conservation was an amazing feeling. Entering the academic sphere for the first time can be daunting, but the IMCC community was friendly, open and dedicated. Having others outside of our OSU family take an interest in our research truly shows that all of our hard work has paid off. We received great feedback and even some suggestions we could incorporate into our manuscript submissions! Definitely not something to be taken for granted!

On a more personal note, my talk, “The spatio-temporal distribution and ecological drivers of harbor porpoise off of the Oregon coast” seemed to be well received, I was honored to be awarded runner up for best student presentation by the conference!

IMG_0257

I would not have received this award if it was not for Leigh, my committee members, OSU, and my lab mates. I couldn’t have been more proud of our lab and the feedback that we received at IMCC.

But now, the stress is over, the audience is gone, I’m still riding my high but I’ve found a moment of quietness on the plane ride home to analyze myself. I’ve been to a few regional conferences, and have been lucky enough to attend two large international conferences. However, now that I am nearing the end of graduate school (23 months down, 4 to go), it thus seems like a sensible time to reflect on how to make the most of these trips and experiences.

Apart from managing our research projects and scientific writing in graduate school, we are faced with the big challenge of presenting our research to a range of audiences. Oral presentations are one of the most important ways in which we communicate scientific results to other scientists and to be honest, NOTHING paralyses me more than having to present my work – or so I thought.

I am no stranger to sweaty palms and a racing heart. Whether it’s 5 people, 50 people, or 500 people – public speaking has always been a gut wrenching experience for me. When it comes to presentations, my flight response is in full swing, and the only thing that keeps me from running away from the presentation is that I would be more embarrassed fleeing than just giving the presentation.

However, gradual exposure and better practice over the past couple of years has helped me get over my fear of public speaking. I can’t say that I never get nervous when I have to speak in front of other people, but now my fear is controllable. Now, when I feel myself starting to get anxious I remember that while these feelings are very much real, they do not mean that I cannot give a good talk. The trick for me was learning to be separate from my anxiety by acknowledging it and allowing myself to have that feeling, and then deciding that even with that feeling I can move forward. It took quite a bit of practice for me not to be overwhelmed by these feelings of anxiety – but I’m happy to report that presenting in large groups DOES get easier with practice!

So for me, speaking at IMCC granted me with a sense of confidence, perhaps even a career-changing affirmative opportunity. Scouting out your audience or the room you speak in advance, writing your talk well before the delivery date, and practicing it numerous times reduces an enormous amount of pre-presentation jitters.  I’ve learned how to manage the jitters in order to give a good presentation. In fact, I think public speaking can even be fun in addition to being a great way to spread your message!

Doing a masters (Or PhD) means you constantly challenge yourself and improve your skills. As I continue to encounter new situations and tackle new challenges, I expect that I will go through more cycles of lag and growth as I did with public speaking. I hope that I will have the perspective and patience to appreciate the lag times as integral parts of my development. The IMCC conference was only a snapshot of a major high, but it was an important milestone of my scientific career and personal journey.

Here’s a few more pictures from the beautiful St. Johns! IMG_0253Jelly bean row!

IMG_0193Eating lunch and overlooking the harbor at Signal Hill.

IMG_0273Boat houses at Quidi Vidi Harbour.

 

Papahānaumokuākea: soon to be the world’s largest marine protected area?

By Erin Pickett, MS student, Oregon State University

On January 29, 2016, a group of native Hawaiian community leaders and conservation practitioners wrote a letter of request to President Barack Obama asking him to expand Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument1

Papahānaumokuākea is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and at the time of its creation in 2006, it became the world’s largest fully protected marine area2. The monument encompasses 140,000 square miles and surrounds the Northwestern Hawaiian Island (NWHI) chain, which extends about 2000 km northwest from the main Hawaiian Islands to Kure atoll (see map below). This monument was originally created through use of the Antiquity Act of 1906, which grants the President of the United States the authority to protect valuable public land through the establishment of a national monument3. The initial letter of request sent to President Obama in January called on the President to use his executive power to expand Papahānaumokuākea marine national monument.

This letter of request was put simply. The letter writers believed that as an island boy himself, President Barack Obama understands the importance of the ocean to the people of Hawai’i, especially future generations. This letter and the discussions that have since followed it, emphasize not only the biological value of conserving this large swath of marine habitat, but also the cultural significance of preserving such a place. In the field of marine biology we don’t traditionally think of marine protected areas (MPAs) as “…cultural seascapes that have meaning and significance in the formation and perpetuation of oceanic identity4,” however in the case of the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea, cultural justification is aptly interwoven with biological conservation. The proposed expansion of this marine protected area is especially significant to me for this reason.

While I am not native Hawaiian, much of my life is tied to the ocean. My personal life and my current career as a master’s student of marine science are driven by aloha and malama ‘āina. These two concepts are core tenets of Hawaiian culture and they describe a profound love (aloha) and deep respect and sense of caring (malama) for the āina, or land. I have never felt more aloha or such a strong sense of caring for a place than for Papahānaumokuākea.

Papahānaumokuākea is a sacred place; a place where the Hawaiian people believe life began. Today, the islands, atolls and the surrounding ocean within the monument continue to create and sustain vast quantities of life, in the form of marine species. The use of the monument is limited to cultural, scientific and educational activities, while activities such as commercial fishing and deep-sea mining are prohibited4,5. One primary benefit of large MPAs is that they improve the state of an ecosystem by supporting sufficient numbers of large and far-ranging predators6. The waters surrounding the NWHI support high numbers of large fish, sharks, marine mammals and seabirds. A total of 7,000 known species exist here, 25% of which are endemic7. The expansion of this monument would mean greater protection for these species, and for important pelagic habitats such as seamounts. Underwater seamounts are biodiversity hot spots and a vast number of them exist outside of the current boundaries but within the limits of the proposed expansion of the monument. Far ranging top predators such as seabirds would benefit greatly from an expanded protected area that would reduce the chance of interactions with longline fishing vessels. The foraging ranges of many of the 14 million seabirds that exist in the monument extend beyond its current boundaries4,8. The Hawaiian longline fishery is especially dangerous for Laysan and black-footed albatross, and hooks an estimated 1,000-2,000 of each species per year9.

The Laysan albatross, or mōlī, as it is known in Hawaiian, is the species that captured my attention the most during my time in Papahānaumokuākea. In 2010, I worked for the NOAA/NMFS Hawaiian monk seal research program on Laysan Island. While our work on Laysan was focused on the Hawaiian monk seal, it was hard to miss the energy of the presence of the mōlī. We had the opportunity to observe these birds come to the island to make nests, lay eggs and raise their chicks. The incessant sound of hundreds of thousands of albatross whistling and clicking their beaks at their mates and with their chicks is one I will never forget. You can hear these sounds for yourself in a video that Rachael included in a previous blog post about her time on Midway atoll. On Laysan, I had the opportunity to connect deeply with a natural place and this connection reinforced the feeling of aloha ‘aina.

While in the NWHI, we occupied much of our daily life with not only observing and connecting with the wildlife, but also with carrying out conservation activities, such as monitoring the local monk seal population and removing marine debris from beaches. While Laysan is remote, it has not escaped the far reaches of marine plastic pollution (see Rachael’s blog for more on this). Additionally, many of the NWHI are in a perpetual state of restoration and invasive species removal projects. After Laysan, I spent time working on Lisianski Island and then Kure atoll, where we worked tirelessly to eradicate an invasive weed, Verbesina encelioides, and replace it with native plants that we had cultivated. Throughout all of these activities, there was always a feeling that it was our duty to malama ‘aina, to care for and protect these fragile islands and the species that depend on them.

A significant amount of momentum has been gained since January, with one important development being a formal proposal that outlines the main points of this request to the President. These include a request to expand the perimeter of the monument to the limits of the U.S. exclusive economic zone, which lies an additional 150 nm beyond its current boundaries. This expansion would more than quadruple the monument’s current size and make it the world’s largest contiguously protected area. The Obama administration has sent delegates to Hawaii to learn more and has intentions to develop an official federal proposal10. While the timeline of this is unclear, a local coalition of community leaders are actively garnering public support to encourage the Obama administration to sign this expansion into law.

There was a meeting held last night on Kauai to hear public input regarding the proposed expansion of Papahānaumokuākea and because I was not able to attend I was inspired to write this blog to share my thoughts about why I believe further protection of this monument is a pono (moral, just, righteous) decision. The place-based connection I have with Hawai’i and its surrounding waters are what have guided my career in the fields of marine science and conservation. For me, this connection is with Hawai’i, but for you it may your own hometown, island, backyard or nearby mountain peak.

Our love of these places is significant because it facilitates a greater understanding of why they are important to protect. In the field of conservation today, it is especially critical that we foster these types of connections. Preserving wild places, whether they be remote island ecosystems or more easily accessible nature parks, is one way we can ensure that more people have the opportunity to make these connections.

 

References

1 Eagle, N. (2016). Honolulu Civil Beat. Hawaiians Press Obama to Expand NW Islands Marine Monument. Retrieved from http://www.civilbeat.org/2016/02/should-obama-expand-papahanaumokuakea/

2 Pew Charitable Trust. Global Ocean Legacy-Hawaii (2016). Fact sheet.Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument: Expanding protections to conserve Hawaiian culture and biodiversity Retrieved from: http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/fact-sheets/2016/05/papahanaumokuakea-marine-national-monument

3 “Antiquities Act” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 4 March 2016. Web. 2 August 2016.

4 Kerr, J., et al. 2016. PUʻUHONUA: A PLACE OF SANCTUARY. The Cultural and Biological Significance of the proposed expansion for the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

5 Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument: Resource Protection. Retrieved from: http://www.papahanaumokuakea.gov/resource/

6 Edgar, Graham J., et al. “Global conservation outcomes depend on marine protected areas with five key features.” Nature 506.7487 (2014): 216-220.

7 National Marine Sanctuaries (2016), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Accessed on 01 February 2016: http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/#PM

8 Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument Management Plan 2008; KE Keller, AD Anders, SA Shaffer, MA Kappes, B Flint, and A Friedlander, 2009. Seabirds: A Marine Biogeographic Assessment of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

9 Cousins, K.L., et al. Managing pelagic longline-albatross interactions in the North Pacific Ocean. Retrieved from: http://www.wpcouncil.org/documents/managebird.pdf

10 Eagle, N. (2016). Hawaii Lawmakers To Obama: Don’t Grow Marine Monument. Honolulu Civil Beat. Retrieved from: http://www.civilbeat.org/2016/05/hawaii-lawmakers-to-obama-dont-grow-marine-monument/

 

Making a Splash

By: Cathryn Wood, Lawrence University ’17, summer REU in the GEMM Lab

Greetings from Port Orford! My name is Cathryn, and I am the fourth member of the GEMM Lab’s gray whale foraging ecology research team, which includes Florence, Kelli, and the other Catherine (don’t worry, I go by Cat). Nearly 5 weeks into field season, I am still completely amazed with my first West Coast experience and doing what I’ve always dreamt of: studying marine mammals. Coming from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, this may seem slightly out of place, but my mom can attest; she read “Baby Beluga” to me every night when I was a toddler. Now a rising senior majoring in biology at Lawrence University, I’ve been focusing my coursework on aquatic and marine ecology to prepare for graduate school where I plan to specialize in marine science. Being part of this research is a very significant step for me into the field.

So how did I end up here, as part of this amazing project and dream, women-in-science team? I am interning through OSU’s Ocean Sciences REU program at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, where the GEMM Lab is located. REU stands for “Research Experience for Undergraduates ”, and is an NSF-funded research internship program found in numerous universities around the country. These internships allow undergrads to conduct independent research projects under the guidance of a faculty mentor at the program’s institution. I applied to several REUs this past winter, and was one of 12 undergrads accepted for the program at HMSC. Each of us is paired with different faculty members to work on various projects that cover a diverse range of topics in the marine sciences; everything from estuarine ecology, to bioacoustics. I was ecstatic to learn that I had been paired with Dr. Torres as my faculty mentor to work on Florence’s gray whale project, which had been my first choice during the application process.

My particular research this summer is going to complement Florence’s master’s thesis work by asking new questions regarding the foraging data. While her project focuses on the behavioral states of foraging whales, I will be looking at the whale tracks to see if there are patterns in their foraging behavior found at the individual level. Traditionally, ecological studies have accepted classical niche theory, treating all individuals within a population as ecological equivalents with the same niche width. Any variances present among individuals are often disregarded as having an insignificant consequence on the population dynamics as a whole, but this simplification can overlook the true complexity of that population . The presence of niche variation among conspecifics is known to occur in at least 93 species across a diverse array of taxa, so the concept of individual specialization, and how it can affect ecological processes is gaining recognition progressively in the field (Bolnick et al., 2003). My goal is to determine whether or not the gray whales in this study, and presumably others in the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG), exhibit individual specialization in their foraging strategies . There are many ways in which individuals can specialize in foraging, but I will be specifically determining if fine scale spatial patterns in the location of foraging bouts exists, regardless of time.

To address my question, I am using the whale tracking data from both 2015 and 2016, and learning to use some very important software in the spatial ecology world along the way through a method that Dr. Torres introduced to me. Starting in ArcGIS, I generate a kernel density layer of a raw track (Fig. 1 ), which describes the relative distribution of where the tracked whale spent time (Fig. 2 ). Next, using the isopleth function in the software Geospatial Modelling Environment, I generate a 50% density contour line that distinguishes where the whale spent at least 50% of its time during the track (Fig. 3 ). Under the assumption that foraging took place in these high density areas, we use these 50% contour lines to describe foraging bout locations. I now go back to ArcGIS to make centroids within each 50% line, which mark the exact foraging bout locations (Fig. 4 ).

Fig.1 Raw individual whale track.
Fig. 1 Raw individual whale track.
Fig. 2 Kernel Density map of whale track.
Fig. 2 Kernel Density map of whale track.
Fig. 3 50% isopleth contours of locations with highest foraging densities
Fig. 3 50% isopleth contours of locations with highest foraging densities
Fig. 4 Final centroids to signify foraging bouts
Fig. 4 Final centroids to signify foraging bouts

These centroids will be determined for every track by an individual whale, and then compared relative to foraging locations of all tracked whales to determine if the individual is foraging in different locations than the population. Then, the tracks of individuals who repeatedly visit the site at least three times will be compared with one another to determine if the repeat whales show spatial and/or temporal patterns in their foraging bout locations, and if specialization at a fine scale is occurring in this population. If you did not quite follow all those methods, no worries, it was a lot for me to take in at first too. I’ve finally gotten the hang of it though, and am grateful to now have these skills going into grad school.

Because I am interested in behavioral ecology and the concept of individuality in animal populations, I am extremely excited to see how this research plays out. Results could be very eye-opening into the fine scale foraging specialization of the PCFG sub-population because they already demonstrate diet specialization on mysid (as opposed to their counterparts in the Bering Sea who feed on benthic organisms) and large scale individual residency patterns along the Pacific Northwest (Newell, 2009; Calambokidis et al., 2012). Most significantly, understanding how individuals vary in their feeding strategies could have very important implications for future conservation measures for the whales, especially during this crucial foraging season where they replenish their energy reserves.  Management efforts geared for an “average population” of gray whales could ultimately be ineffective if in fact individuals vary from one another in their foraging strategies. Taking into account the ways in which variation occurs amongst individuals is therefore crucial knowledge for successful conservation approaches.

My project is unique from those of the other REUs because I am simultaneously in the midst of assisting in field season number two of Florence’s project. While most of the other interns are back at Hatfield spending their days in the lab and doing data analyses like a 9-5 job, I am with the team down in Port Orford for field season. This means we’re out doing research every dawn as weather allows. Though I may never have an early bird bone in my body, the sleepy mornings are totally worth it because ecology field work is my favorite part of research. To read more about our methods in the field, check out Florence’s post.

Since Catherine’s last update, we’ve had an eventful week. To our dismay, Downrigger Debacle 2.0 occurred. (To read about the first one, see Kelli’s post). This time it was not the line – our new line has been great. It was a little wire that connected the downrigger line to the pipe that the GoPro and TDR are connected to. It somehow snapped due to what I presume was stress from the currents.   Again, it was Catherine and I in the kayak, with a very successful morning on the water coming to a close when it happened. Again, I was in the bow, and she was in the stern deploying the equipment – very déjà vu. When she reeled in an equipment-less line, we at first didn’t know how to break it to Florence and Kelli who were up on the cliff that day. Eventually, Catherine radioed “Brace yourselves…” and we told them the bad news. Once again, they both were very level-headed, methodical, and un-blaming in the moments to follow. We put together the same rescue dive team as last time, and less than a week later, they set off on the mission using the GPS coordinates I had marked while in the kayak. Apparently, between the dredging taking place in the harbor and the phytoplankton bloom, visibility was only about 2 feet during the dive, but they still recovered the equipment, with nothing but baked goods and profuse thanks as payment. We are very grateful for another successful recovery, and are confident that our new attachment mechanism for the downrigger will not require a third rescue mission (Fig. 6-8). Losing the equipment twice now has taught us some very important things about field work. For one, no matter how sound you assume your equipment to be, it is necessary to inspect it for weak points frequently – especially when salt water and currents are in the picture. Perhaps even more importantly, we’ve gotten to practice our problem solving skills and see firsthand how necessary it is to act efficiently and calmly when something goes wrong. In ecological field research you have to be prepared for  anything.

Fig. 5 Original setup of GoPro and TDR.
Fig. 5 Original setup of GoPro and TDR.
Fig. 6 Photo taken after the wire that connected the pole to the downrigger line snapped.
Fig. 6 Photo taken after the wire that connected the pole to the downrigger line snapped.
Fig. 7 New mechanism for attaching the pole to the downrigger line.
Fig. 7 New mechanism for attaching the pole to the downrigger line.
Fig. 8 Equipment rescue team: Aaron Galloway and Taylor Eaton diving, Greg Ryder operating the boat, and Florence on board to direct the GPS location of where the equipment was lost.
Fig. 8 Equipment rescue team: Aaron Galloway and Taylor Eaton diving, Greg Ryder operating the boat, and Florence on board to direct the GPS location of where the equipment was lost.

In other news, unlike our slow-whale days during the first two weeks of the project, we have recently had whales to track nearly every day from the cliff! In fact, the same, small, most likely juvenile, whale pictured in Catherine’s last post has returned several times, and we’ve nicknamed her “Buttons” due to two distinguishing white spots on her tail peduncle near the fluke. Though we tend to refer to Buttons as “her”, we cannot actually tell what the sex is definitively…until now. Remember in Catherine’s post when she described how Buttons defecated a lot, and how our team if, given the opportunity, is supposed to collect the feces when we’re out in the kayak for Leila’s project?  Everything from hormone levels to reproductive status to, yes, sex, is held in that poop! Well, Miss (or Mr.) Buttons was in Tichenor Cove today, and to our delight, she performed well in the defecation department once again. Florence and I were on cliff duty tracking her and Kelli and Catherine were in Tichenor on the kayak when we first noticed the defecation.  I then radioed down to the kayak team to stop what they were doing and paddle quickly to go collect it before it sank (Fig. 9).  Even in these situations, it is important to stay beyond 100 yards of the animal, as required by the MMPA. Florence and I cheered them on and our ladies did indeed get the poop sample, without disturbing the whale (Fig. 10). It was a sight to behold.

Fig. 9 Kelli and Catherine on a mission.
Fig. 9 Kelli and Catherine on a mission.
Fig. 10 Kelli and Catherine collecting the feces.
Fig. 10 Kelli and Catherine collecting the feces.

We were able to track Buttons for the remainder of our time on the cliff, and were extremely content with the day’s work as we packed all the gear up later in the afternoon. Right before we were about to leave, however, Buttons had one more big treat for us. As we looked to the harbor before starting the trek back to the truck, we paused briefly after noticing a large, white splash in the middle of the harbor, not far from the dock. We paused for a second and thought “No, it can’t be, was that —?” and then we see it again and unanimously yelled “BREACH!” Buttons breached about five times on her way back to Tichenor Cove from where she had been foraging in Mill Rocks. It is rare to see a gray whale breach, so this was really special. Florence managed to capture one of the breaches on video:

At first I thought a big ole humpback had arrived, but nope, it was our Buttons! I am in awe of this little whale, and am forever-grateful to be in the presence of these kinds of moments. She’s definitely made her splash here in Port Orford. I think our team has started to as well.

 

Bolnick, D. I., Svanback, R., Fordyce, J. A., Yang, L. H., Davis, J. M., Hulsey, C. D., & Forrister, M. L. (2003). Ecology of Individuals: Incidence and Implications of Individual Specialization. The American Naturalist, 161(1), 28.

Calambokidis, J., Laake, J. L., & Klimek, A. (2012). Updated analysis of abundance and population structure of seasonal gray whales in the Pacific Northwest, 1998-2010 (Vol. 2010).

Newell, C. (2009). Ecological Interrelationships Between Summer Resident Gray Whales (Eschrichtius robustus) and Their Prey, Mysid Shrimp (Holmesimysis sculpta and Neomysis rayi) along the Central Oregon Coast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dredging and low visibility doesn’t stop us! We paddle on.

By: Catherine Lo, Research Intern, Oregon State University ‘16

Hello everyone! My name is Catherine Lo and I am a recent graduate from Oregon State University with a Bachelor’s of Science in Biology with a focus in Marine Biology. It has been an incredible whirlwind leading up to this point: long nights studying for finals, completing my degree, and planning the next steps for my future. I am fortunate to be working as a summer research intern for the GEMM Lab under the supervision of Dr. Leigh Torres and Msc. student Florence Sullivan in their research on the foraging ecology of gray whales. I have dreamed of working with marine mammals, potentially as a research veterinarian and so, capturing this position has been a great opportunity to begin my career.

The days go slow, but the weeks go fast. It’s already week 4 of our field season and the team and I are definitely in the groove of our research. The alarm(s) goes off at 5:00 AM…okay maybe closer to 5:30 AM (oops!), getting dressed for either the kayak or cliff based work, scarfing down breakfast that is usually a diet consisting of toast and peanut butter, and then heading off to the beach to launch the kayak. But this week it was different. A dredging event in Port Orford coordinated by the US Army Corps of Engineers is now taking place right next to the port’s jetty near our study site (Figure 1). This is an important process to move the sediment built up during the year in order for ships to safely navigate in and out of the port. We knew this was going to happen at some point over the summer, and worried that it might impact our research methods and objectives, but at the same time it offers some new opportunities: the chance to see how our GoPro and mysid sampling methods in Tichenor Cove are impacted by the sediment flow from the dredging activities.

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Figure 1. View of the dredger from the cliff field site in Port Orford.

My teammate Kelli and I were stationed on the cliff during the first deposit of sediment after the dredge’s first night and morning’s worth of scooping sand. None of us knew where the actual deposit site would be so we kept a good eye on it. The ship headed past the jetty. Turned around and, as a concerned feeling mustered within our field team, it began lowering the platform holding the sand just 250 yards away from our primary study site in Tichenor Cove! At this point, we knew things were going to be different in our samples. Unfortunately along with the sediment stirring up from dredging, we think a phytoplankton bloom is occurring simultaneously. Our GoPro footage lately has been rather clouded making it difficult to identify any mysid relative to our past footage. You can compare Figure 2 to the GoPro image found in Figure 2 of a previous post. It is times like these that we learn how dynamic the ocean is, how human activity can alter the ocean ecosystem, and how to adapt to changes, whether these adaptations are within our reach or not. We are interested to see how our sample sites will change again over time as the dredging operation finishes and the phytoplankton bloom ends.

Figure 2. This GoPro image taken in Tichenor Cove illustrates exactly how murky our view of the water column is with the sediment dredging operation in close proximity.
Figure 2. This GoPro image taken in Tichenor Cove illustrates exactly how murky our view of the water column is with the sediment dredging operation in close proximity.

Aside from the current water clarity situation, we’ve also had some exciting moments! Given how few whales we’ve seen thus far and how the ones we have tracked are predominately hanging by Mill Rocks, which is ~1km east of Tichenor Cove, Dr. Leigh Torres—our head advisor—thought it would be a good idea to check out the mysid scene over there to see what the attraction was. So, we sent our kayak team over there to conduct a few GoPro drops and zooplankton net tows and figure out what is so enticing for the whales.

While conducting this sampling work at Mill Rocks, I and my teammate were lucky enough to encounter a gray whale foraging. And believe me, we were going “off-the-walls” as soon as we heard from the cliff team and saw a blow as the whale surfaced nearby. It was one of those “best time of my life” moments where my dreams of kayaking this close to a whale came true. We fumbled around for our waterproof camera to get clear shots of its lateral flanks for photo identification while also trying to contain our excitement to a more decent level, and at the same time we had to make sure we were not in the whale’s path. There it was; surface after surface, we admired the immense size and beauty of a wild animal before our eyes. The worst part of it was when our camera battery died not long after taking a few pictures, but in a way it gave us a chance to really appreciate the existence of these animals. Note to self during research: always check your batteries are fully charged before heading out!

It baffles me how so often people walk along beaches or drive by without knowing an animal as incredible as this whale is just outside of the shoreline. Every time I’m inside pulling out time stamps or doing photo identification, I always think, “I wonder if there’s a whale in Tichenor Cove or at Mill Rocks right now…Yeah, there probably is one”. Alas, the data management work needs to be done and there’s always the next day for an opportunity of a sighting.

For a few days, our kayak team wasn’t able to work due to a small craft advisory. If you’ve ever been to Port Orford, you’d understand the severity of how windy it gets here. Ranging between 15 knots to 25 knots as early as 7am, so it gets rather difficult to maintain position at each of our sampling stations in our kayak. Fortunately our cliff team was able to set out. We were lucky to see a small whale foraging inside Tichenor Cove and later move onto Mill Rocks. This little one was giving us quite a show! Almost every time it came to the surface, defecation was observed shortly after. As unpleasant as feces might be, it can actually provide an abundance of information about a specific whale including sex, reproductive status, hormone levels, and much more. While doing our research, we are always keeping an eye out for signs of defecation in order to collect samples for another lab member’s PhD work. Here you can check out more information about Leila’s research. Figure 3 depicts a great image of defecation captured by our cliff team.

Figure 3. Gray whale defecating as it dives into the water in Tichenor Cove.
Figure 3. Gray whale defecating as it dives into the water in Tichenor Cove.
Figure 4. Gray whale swimming in Tichenor Cove taken by fellow intern Cathryn Wood.
Figure 4. Gray whale swimming in Tichenor Cove taken by fellow intern Cathryn Wood.

In addition to helping out Leila’s work, we recently began a collaboration with Aaron Galloway from The Oregon Institute of Marine Biology (OIMB). Aaron and his post-doc are looking at the fatty acid composition of mysid as an approach to eventually infer the diet of an aquatic animal. Check out his website which is linked to his name to learn more about the basis of his approach! While we collect mysid samples for them, in return they give us substantial information about the energy content of the mysid. This information on the energetic content of mysid will help the GEMM Lab answer questions about how much mysid gray whales need to eat.

Oregon State University and University of Oregon have a long-standing, intense rivalry. However, as an Alumna from Oregon State, I am amazed and thrilled to see how these two institutions can come together and collaborate. I mean, we’re all here for the same thing. Science, right? It creates the opportunity to apply integrative research by taking advantage of various expertise and resources. If we have those chances to reach out to others, why not make the most of it? In the end, sound science is what really matters, not rooting for the ducks or beavers.

My marine science background is based on my experiences looking at tidepools and hopping around on rocks to understand how vast intertidal communities range from invertebrates to algae. These experiences were an incredible part of my life, but now I look at the ocean unsure of what animals or environmental situations I might encounter. That’s what makes it so attractive. Don’t get me wrong. The intertidal will always hold a special place in my heart, but the endless possibilities of being a part of this marine mammal research team is priceless. I have learned so much about myself including my strengths and weaknesses. Living in Port Orford, which is a small coastal town with just a little over 1,000 people gives you a new perspective. The community has been very welcoming and I have appreciated how so much interest is placed on the kind of work we do. As I eat my nightly bowl of ice cream, I think about how, from here on out, the good and the bad can only bring a lifetime of skills and memories.

Figure 5. Me being extremely happy to be out on the kayak on a beautiful morning.
Figure 5. Me being extremely happy to be out on the kayak on a beautiful morning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the highs to the lows, that’s just how it blows!

 

By: Kelli Iddings, MSc Student, Duke University, Nicholas School of the Environment

The excitement is palpable as I wait in anticipation. But finally, “Blow!” I shout as I notice the lingering spray of seawater expelled from a gray whale as it surfaces to breathe. The team and I scurry about the field site taking our places and getting ready to track the whale’s movements. “Gray whale- Traveling- Group 1- Mark!” I exclaim mustering enough self-control to ignore the urge to drop everything and stand in complete awe of what in my mind is nothing short of a miracle. I’ve spotted a gray whale searching and foraging for food! As a student of the Master of Environmental Management program at Duke University, I am collaborating on a project in Port Orford, Oregon where my team and I are working to gain a better understanding of the interactions between the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales and their prey. Check out this blog post written earlier by my teammate Florence to learn more about the methods of the project and what motivated us to take a closer look at the foraging behavior of this species.

Understanding the dynamics of gray whale foraging within ecosystems where they are feeding is essential to paint a more comprehensive picture of gray whale health and ecology—often with the intent to protect and conserve them. A lot of our recent effort has been focused on developing and testing methods that will allow us to answer the questions that we are asking. For example, what species of prey are the PCFG whales feeding on in Port Orford? Based on the results of a previous study (Newell and Cowles 2006) that was conducted in Depoe Bay, Oregon, and a lot of great knowledge from the local fisheries and the Port Orford community, we hypothesized that the whales were feeding on a small, shrimp-like crustacean in the order Mysida. Given the results of our videos, and the abundance of mysid, it looks like we are right (Fig. 1)!

DSCF0776[3]
Figure 1: Mysids, only 5-25mm in length, collected in Tichenor Cove using a downrigger to lower a weighted plankton net into the water column from our kayak.
Mysids are not typically the primary food source of gray whales. In their feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi Seas near Alaska, the whales feed on benthic amphipods on the ocean floor by sucking up sediment and water and pushing it through baleen plates that trap the food as the water and sediment is filtered out. However, gray whales demonstrate flexible feeding strategies and are considered opportunistic feeders, meaning they are not obligate feeders on one prey item like krill-dependent blue whales. In Oregon, mysid congregate in dense swarms by the billions, which we hypothesize, makes it energetically worthwhile for the massive 13-15m gray whales to hang around and feed! Figure 2 illustrates a mysid swarm of this kind in Tichenor Cove.

DCIM102GOPROG0132732.
Figure 2: Image captured using a Hero 4 Black GoPro. Rocky Substrate is visible in lower portion of image and a clear swarm of mysid is aggregated around this area.

Once we know what the gray whales are eating, and why, we ask follow up questions like how is the distribution of mysid changing across space and time, if at all? Are there patterns? If so, are the patterns influencing the feeding behavior and movement of the whales? For the most part, we are having success characterizing the relative abundances of mysid. No conclusions can be made yet, but there are a few trends that we are noticing. For instance, it seems that the mysid are, as we hypothesized, very dense and abundant around the rocky shoreline where there are kelp beds. Could these characteristics be predictors of critical habitat that whales seek as foraging grounds? Is it the presence of kelp that mysid prefer? Or maybe it’s the rocky substrate itself? Distance to shore? Time and data analysis will tell. We have also noticed that mysid seem to prefer to hang out closer to the bottom of the water column. Last, but certainly not least, we are already noticing differences in the sizes and life stages of the mysid over the short span of one week at our research site! We are excited to explore these patterns further.

The biggest thing we’re learning out here, however, is the absolute necessity for patience, ingenuity, adaptability, and perseverance in science. You heard that right, as with most things, I am learning more from our failures, than I am from our successes.  For starters, understanding mysid abundance and distribution is great in and of itself, but we cannot draw any conclusions about how those factors are affecting whales if the whales don’t come! We were very fortunate to see whales while training on our instruments in Newport, north of our current study site. We saw whales foraging, whales searching, mother/calf pairs, and even whales breaching! Since we’ve been in Port Orford, we have seen only three whales, thrown in among the long hours of womanpower (#WomenInScience) we have been putting in! We are now learning the realities of ecological science that >gasp< fieldwork can be boring! Nevertheless, we trust that the whales will hear our calls (Yes, our literal whale calls. Like I said, it can get boring up on the cliff) and head on over to give the cliff team in Port Orford some great data—and excitement!

Then, there is the technology. Oh, the joys of technology. You see I’ve never considered myself a “techie.” Honestly, I didn’t even know what a hard drive was until some embarrassing time in the not-so-distant past. And now, here I am working on a project that is using novel, technology rich approaches to study what I am most passionate about. Oh, the irony. Alas, I have been putting on my big girl britches, saddling up, and taking the whale by the fluke. Days are spent syncing a GoPro, Time-Depth Recorder (TDR), GPS, associated software, and our trusty rugged laptop, all the while navigating across multiple hard drives, transferring and organizing massive amounts of data, reviewing and editing video footage, and trouble shooting all of it when something, inevitably, crashes, gets lost, or some other form of small tragedy associated with data management. Sounds fun, right? Nonetheless, within the chaos and despair, I realize that technology is my friend, not my foe. Technology allows us to collect more data than ever before, giving us the ability to see trends that we could not have seen otherwise, and expending much less physical effort doing so. Additionally, technology offers many alternatives to other invasive and potentially destructive methods of data collection. The truth is if you’re not technologically savvy in science these days, you can expect to fall behind. I am grateful to have an incredible team of support and such an exciting project to soften the blow. Below (Fig. 3) is a picture of myself embracing my new friend technology.

DSCF0758
Figure 3: Retrieving the GoPro, and some tag-a-long kelp, from the water after a successful deployment in Tichenor Cove.

Last but not least, there are those moments that can best be explained by the Norwegian sentiment “Uff da!” I was introduced to the expression while dining at The Crazy Norwegian, known famously for having the best fish and chips along the entire west coast and located dangerously close to the field station. The expression dates back to the 19th century, and is used readily to concisely convey feelings of surprise, astonishment, exhaustion, and sometimes dismay. This past week, the team was witness to all of these feelings at once as our GoPro, TDR, and data fell swiftly to the bottom of the 42-degree waters of Tichenor cove after the line snapped during deployment. Uff da!!! With our dive contact out of town, red tape limiting our options, the holiday weekend looming ahead, and the dreadful thought of losing our equipment on a very tight budget, the team banded together to draft a plan. And what a beautiful plan it was! The communities of Port Orford, Oregon State University, and the University of Oregon’s Institute of Marine Biology came together in a successful attempt to retrieve the equipment. We offer much gratitude to Greg Ryder, our retrieval boat operator, OSU dive safety operator Kevin Buch, and our divers, Aaron Galloway and Taylor Eaton! After lying on the bottom of the cove for almost three days, the divers retrieved our equipment within 20 minutes of the dive – thanks to the quick and mindful action of our kayak team to mark a waypoint on the GPS at the time of the equipment loss. Please enjoy this shot (Fig. 4) of Aaron and Taylor surfacing with the gear as much as we do!

Figure 4: Aaron Galloway and Taylor Eaton surface with our lost piece of equipment after a successful dive retrieval mission.
Figure 4: Aaron Galloway and Taylor Eaton surface with our lost piece of equipment after a successful dive retrieval mission.

The moral of the story is that science isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. It takes hard work, long hours, frustration, commitment, collaboration, and preparedness. But moments come along when your team sits around a dining room table, exhausted from waking and paddling at 5 am that morning, and continues to drive forward. You creatively brainstorm, running on the fumes of the passion and love for the ocean and creatures within it that brought everyone together in the first place; each person growing in his or her own right. Questions are answered, conclusions are drawn, and you go to bed at the end of it all with a smile on your face, anxiously anticipating the little miracles that the next day’s light will bring.

References

Newell, C. and T.J. Cowles. (2006). Unusual gray whale Eschrichtius robustus feeding in the summer of 2005 off the central Oregon Coast. Geophysical Research Letters, 33:10.1029/2006GL027189

Sunny south meets windy west

By Lauren Ashley, senior at Savannah State University and current summer intern in the GEMM Lab

Enjoying South Beach, Oregon. Photo by Katherine Bartels
Enjoying South Beach, Oregon. Photo by Katherine Bartels

My name is Lauren Ashley and I am a rising senior from Savannah State University. I am a marine science major, with dreams of becoming a veterinarian. I would have never thought I would experience a summer on the northwest coast. And let me tell you guys, it is a huge adjustment!

I secured an internship with the Living Marine Resources Cooperative Science Center (LMRCSC). I am working in the GEMM Lab at Oregon State University where I am developing an interactive display for the visitor center at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. This display will convey the results from our LMRCSC funded project about the impacts of environmental and climate change on California sea lions and their prey.

I am processing and creating the interactive maps for display through the software ArcGIS 10.3. The amount of challenges I have run into coincide with the amount of things I have learned about the software. The biggest tool I have in my arsenal for problem solving is patience. Somedays, some of the biggest challenges I face, when processing information, seem to have the most simple of solutions, as unconventional and out of the box as they may be. For example, I needed to add a raster depicting the California sea lions forecasted distribution but the files seemed to be incorrect. I went in the conventional way, several times I may add, trying to correct the data. Nothing seemed to work. Eventually my research mentor showed me that the problem could be solve simply by copying the raw data and pasting it to a blank excel file. In a course of a single day the maps can transform based on feedback and edits. And boy does that take time and thought. I am fortunate to be the intern of such a proficient GIS user. Most of what I have learned so far has come at the grace of her teachings.

As I learn to communicate science to a broad audience, most of which have no science background, I have discovered that people learn and process information in many different ways. The biggest challenge thus far is finding a balance where the map conveys information that is not too overwhelming or too broad that it takes away from the true learning outcome. We don’t want to confuse or bore our audience. The outcome of this display is to inform our audience of how environmental change influences the distribution of not just one species at a time, but a community of species through predator and prey interactions.

The very first map that I made for this project, putting it nicely, was terrible. The map, displayed below, had no labeling besides the title whatsoever. The legend was non-existent so even though I knew what the data was no one else knew. And, even though the green shapes of the Pacific northwest were obvious to me, I was told that many viewers would not know that they we looking at Oregon, Washington and Vancouver Island. As time has passed, the maps I produce have developed quite a bit, though I still have many chafes and challenges ahead of me. It is certainly becoming clear to me that effective science communication is a tricky goal.

My first attempt at a map to relate scientific results on sea lion distribution patterns to a general, non-scientific audience.
My first attempt at a map to relate scientific results on sea lion distribution patterns to a general, non-scientific audience.

Upon hearing that this internship, starting in June, would be in Newport, Oregon, my close family and friends grew excited for me, even though I would be away from them for 10 weeks.  I, on the other hand, was not too excited. Truthfully, I was nervous. I did not want to make any assumptions about a place I had barely even heard of.  The southeast USA is my home, and upon arriving in Newport after my four hour flight and a two hour drive I realized that I was transported to a whole new world. Everything was foreign to me, from the living arrangements to the time zone.

The first adjustment I had to make was a time adjustment. In Oregon, I am three hours behind where I usually am, and let me tell you, it is not fun waking up at 3:45 when you are used to waking up at 6:45 ET. To be honest, even after three weeks, I’m still not sure I am completely adjusted to Pacific Time. I have the dark circles to prove it.

Anyone that has ever been to/lived in Georgia can accurately describe the weather in two simple words: HOT and HUMID. I am used to 100 °F days during the summer and here the highest I have yet to experience is 64°F. In other words: I am freezing my tail off! The cold windy days do not usually agree with my choice of attire. I have resorted to wearing long-sleeve shirts and hoodies on a daily basis.

But all of that aside, Oregon is the MOST breathtakingly beautiful place I have ever been to. There is nothing like the Pacific Northwest coast. After my internship is up, I would not be opposed to taking a road trip to explore this whole coast. This first month has consisted of whale watching, hikes along the big creek trails, and long walks on the beach, lots of beer, and plenty of seafood. The atmosphere of this small town is very refreshing compared to life in the city.

At the Yaquina Lighthouse, Photo by Katherine Bartels
At the Yaquina Lighthouse, Photo by Katherine Bartels

Unmanned Aircraft Systems: keep your distance from wildlife!

By Leila Lemos, Ph.D. Student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, OSU

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or “drones” are becoming commonly used to observe natural landscapes and wildlife. These systems can provide important information regarding habitat conditions, distribution and abundance of populations, and health, fitness and behavior of the individuals (Goebel et al. 2015, Durban et al. 2016).

The benefits for the use of UAS by researchers and wildlife managers are varied and include reduced errors of population estimations, reduced observer fatigue, increased observer safety, increased survey effort, and access to remote settings and harsh environments (Koski et al. 2010, Vermeulen et al. 2013, Goebel et al. 2015, Smith et al. 2016). Importantly, data gathered from UAS can provide needed information for the conservation and management of several species. Although it is often assumed that wildlife incur minimal disturbance from UAS due to the reduced noise compared to traditional aircraft used for wildlife monitoring (Acevedo-Whitehouse et al. 2010), the impacts of UAS on most wildlife populations is currently unexplored.

Several studies have tried to comprehend the effects of UAS flights over animals and so far there is no evidence of behavioral disturbance. For instance Vermeulen et al. (2013) conducted a study where authors observed a group of elephants’ reaction or warning behavior while a UAS passed ten times over the individuals at altitudes of 100 and 300 meters, and no disturbance was recorded. Furthermore, a study conducted by Acevedo-Whitehouse et al. (2010) reported that six different species of large cetaceans (Bryde’s whale, fin whale, sperm whale, humpback whale, blue whale and gray whale) did not display avoidance behavior when approached by the UAS for blow sampling, suggesting that the system caused minimal distress (negative stress) to the individuals.

However, the fact that we cannot visually see an effect in the animal does not mean that a stress response is not occurring. A study analyzed the effects of UAS flights on movements and heart rate responses of American black bears in northwestern Minnesota (Ditmer et al. 2015). It was observed that all bears, including an individual that was hibernating, responded to UAS flights with increased heart rates (123 beats per minute above the pre-flight baseline). In contrast, no behavioral response by the bears was recorded (Figure 1).

By Leila Lemos, Ph.D. Student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, OSU Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or “drones” are becoming commonly used to observe natural landscapes and wildlife. These systems can provide important information regarding habitat conditions, distribution and abundance of populations, and health, fitness and behavior of the individuals (Goebel et al. 2015, Durban et al. 2016). The benefits for the use of UAS by researchers and wildlife managers are varied and include reduced errors of population estimations, reduced observer fatigue, increased observer safety, increased survey effort, and access to remote settings and harsh environments (Koski et al. 2010, Vermeulen et al. 2013, Goebel et al. 2015, Smith et al. 2016). Importantly, data gathered from UAS can provide needed information for the conservation and management of several species. Although it is often assumed that wildlife incur minimal disturbance from UAS due to the reduced noise compared to traditional aircraft used for wildlife monitoring (Acevedo-Whitehouse et al. 2010), the impacts of UAS on most wildlife populations is currently unexplored. Several studies have tried to comprehend the effects of UAS flights over animals and so far there is no evidence of behavioral disturbance. For instance Vermeulen et al. (2013) conducted a study where authors observed a group of elephants’ reaction or warning behavior while a UAS passed ten times over the individuals at altitudes of 100 and 300 meters, and no disturbance was recorded. Furthermore, a study conducted by Acevedo-Whitehouse et al. (2010) reported that six different species of large cetaceans (Bryde’s whale, fin whale, sperm whale, humpback whale, blue whale and gray whale) did not display avoidance behavior when approached by the UAS for blow sampling, suggesting that the system caused minimal distress (negative stress) to the individuals. However, the fact that we cannot visually see an effect in the animal does not mean that a stress response is not occurring. A study analyzed the effects of UAS flights on movements and heart rate responses of American black bears in northwestern Minnesota (Ditmer et al. 2015). It was observed that all bears, including an individual that was hibernating, responded to UAS flights with increased heart rates (123 beats per minute above the pre-flight baseline). In contrast, no behavioral response by the bears was recorded (Figure 1).
Figure 1: (A) Movement rates (meters per hour) of an adult female black bear with cubs prior to, during, and after a UAS flight (gray bar); (B) The corresponding heart rate (beats per minute) of the adult female black bear. Source: Modified from Figure 1 from Ditmer et al. 2015.

 

Therefore, behavioral analysis alone may not be able to describe the complete effects of UAS on wildlife, and it is important to consider other possible stress responses of wildlife.

Regarding marine mammals, only a few studies have systematically documented the effects of UAS on these animals. A review of these studies was produced by Smith et al. (2016) and the main factors influencing behavioral disturbance were identified as (1) noise and visual stimulus (from the UAS or its shadow), and (2) flight altitude of the UAS. Thus, studies that approach marine mammals closely with UAS (e.g., blow sampling in cetaceans) should be closely monitored for behavioral reactions because the noise level and visual stimulus will likely be increased.

Fortunately, when UAS work is applied to cetaceans and sirenians (manatees and dugongs) the air-water interface acts as a barrier to sound so these animals are unlikely to be acoustically disturbed by UAS. However, acoustic detection and response are still possible when an animal’s ears are exposed in the air during a surfacing event.

The best way to minimize stress responses in wildlife is to use caution while operating UAS at any altitude. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “UAS can also be disruptive to both people and animals if not used safely, appropriately, or responsibly”. Therefore, since 2012, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has required UAS operators in the United States to have a certified and registered aircraft, a licensed pilot, and operational approval, known as Section 333 Exemption (Note: in late August 2016, the 333 will be replaced by a revision to part 107). These authorizations require an air worthiness statement or certificate and registered aircraft. Public entities, like Oregon State University, operate under a certificate of authorization (COA.) As a public entity OSU certifies its own aircraft and sets standards for UAS operators. These permit requirements discourage illegal operations and improves safety.

Regarding marine mammals, all UAS operators should also be aware of The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972. This law makes it illegal to harass marine mammals in the wild, which may cause disruption to behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering. A close UAS approach has the potential to cause harassments to marine mammals, thus federal guidelines recommend keeping a safe distance from these animals in the wild. The required vertical distance is 1000 ft for most marine mammals, but increases for endangered animals such as the North Atlantic right whales with a required buffer of 1500 ft (http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/uas.html). Therefore, NOAA evaluates all scientific research that use UAS within 1000 ft of marine mammals in order to ensure that the benefits outweigh possible hazards. NOAA distributes research permits accordingly.

Of course, with new technology the rules are always changing. In fact, last week the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the FAA finalized the first operational rules for routine commercial use of small UAS. These new guidelines aim to support new innovations in order to spur job growth, advance critical scientific research and save lives, and are designed to minimize risks to other aircraft and people and property on the ground. These new regulations include several requirements (e.g., height and speed restrictions) and hopefully allow for a streamlined system that enables beneficial and exciting wildlife research.

For my PhD project we are using UAS to collect aerial images from gray whales in order to describe behavioral patterns and apply a photogrammetry methodology. Through these methods we will determine the overall body condition and health of the individuals for comparison to variable ambient ocean noise levels. This project is conducted in collaboration with the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Lab.

Since October 2015, we have conducted 31 over-flights of gray whales using our UAS (DJI Phantom 3) and no behavioral disturbance has been observed. When over the whale(s) we generally fly between 25 and 40 m above the animals. We have a FAA certified UAS operator and fly under our NOAA/NMFS permit 16111. Prior to each flight we ensure that the weather conditions are safe, the whales are behaving normally, and that no on-lookers from shore or other boats will be disturbed.

Here is a video showing the launch and retrieval of the UAS system, our research vessel, the surrounding Oregon coastline beauty and gray whale individuals. The video includes some interesting footage of a gray whale foraging over a shallow reef, indicating that this UAS flight did not disturb the animal’s natural behavior patterns.

We all have the responsibility to help keep wildlife safe. Here in the GEMM Lab, we commit to using UAS safely and responsibly, and aim to use this new and exciting technology to continue our efforts to better protect and understand marine mammals.

 

References

Acevedo‐Whitehouse K, Rocha‐Gosselin A and Gendron D. 2010. A novel non‐invasive tool for disease surveillance of free‐ranging whales and its relevance to conservation programs. Anim. Conserv. 13(2):217–225.

Ditmer MA, Vincent JB, Werden LK, Tanner JC, Laske TG, Iaizzo PA, Garshelis DL and Fieberg JR. 2015. Bears Show a Physiological but Limited Behavioral Response to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Current Biology 25:2278–2283.

Durban JW, Moore MJ, Chiang G, Hickmott LS, Bocconcelli A, Howes G, Bahamonde PA, Perryman WL and Leroi DJ. 2016. Photogrammetry of blue whales with an unmanned hexacopter. Marine Mammal Science. DOI: 10.1111/mms.12328.

Goebel ME, Perryman WL, Hinke JT, Krause DJ, Hann NA, Gardner S and LeRoi DJ. 2015. A small unmanned aerial system for estimating abundance and size of Antarctic predators. Polar Biol. 38(5):619-630.

Koski WR, Abgrall P and Yazvenko SB. 2010. An inventory and evaluation of unmanned aerial systems for offshore surveys of marine mammals. J. Cetacean Res. Manag. 11(3):239–247.

NOAA. Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Responsible Use to Help Protect Marine Mammals. In: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/uas.html. Accessed in: 06/12/2016.

Smith CE, Sykora-Bodie ST, Bloodworth B, Pack SM, Spradlin TR and LeBoeuf NR. 2016. Assessment of known impacts of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) on marine mammals: data gaps and recommendations for researchers in the United States1 J. Unmanned Veh. Syst. 4:1–14.

Vermeulen C, Lejeune P, Lisein J, Sawadogo P and Bouché P. 2013. Unmanned aerial survey of elephants. PLoS One. 8(2):e54700.