Keeping up with the HALO project: Recovering Rockhopper acoustic recording units and eavesdropping on Northern right whale dolphins

Marissa Garcia, PhD Student, Cornell University, Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics

It was a June morning on the Pacific Ocean, and the R/V Pacific Storm had come to a halt on its journey back to shore. The night before, the Holistic Assessment of Living marine resources off Oregon (HALO) project team had disembarked from Newport and began the long transit to NH 65, a site 65 nautical miles offshore along the Newport Hydrographic line (NH line). Ever since the 1960s, researchers have been conducting oceanographic studies along the NH line; the HALO project seeks to add the biological dimension to these historical data collections.

We were on a mission to recover our first set of Rockhoppers that we had deployed in October 2021, just nine months earlier. The Rockhopper is an underwater passive acoustic recording unit developed by K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics at Cornell University. Earlier versions of underwater recorders were optimized to record baleen whales. By contrast, the Rockhopper is designed to record both baleen whales and dolphins on longer and deeper deployments, making it apt for research endeavors such as the HALO project. Three units, deployed at NH 25, 45, and 65, continuously recorded the soundscape of the Oregon waters for six months. In June, we were headed out to sea to recover these three units, collect the acoustic data, and deploy three new units.

Figure 1: The HALO project routinely surveys the trackline spanning between NH 25 and NH 65 on the NH line. Credit: Leigh Torres.

With the ship paused, our first task was to recover the Rockhopper we had deployed at NH 65. This Rockhopper deployment at NH 65 was our deepest successful deployment to date, moored at nearly 3,000 m.

So, how does one recover an underwater recording unit that is nearly 3,000 m below the surface? When the Rockhopper was deployed, it was anchored to the seafloor with a 60 kg cast iron anchor. It seems improbable that an underwater recording unit — anchored by such heavy weights — can eventually rise to the surface, but this capability is made possible through a piece of attached equipment called the acoustic release. By sending a signal of a numbered code from a box on the boat deck through the water column to the Rockhopper, the bottom of the acoustic release will begin to spin and detach from the weights. The weights are then left on the seafloor, as the Rockhopper slowly rises to the surface, now unhindered by the weights. Since these weights are composed of iron, they will naturally erode, without additional pollution contributed to the ecosystem. At NH 65, it took approximately an hour for the Rockhopper to reach the surface.

Figure 2: A diagram of the Rockhopper mooring. Of particular importance to this blog post is the acoustic release (Edgtech PORT MFE release) and the 60 kg anchor (Source: Klinck et al., 2020).

The next challenge is finding the Rockhopper bobbing amongst the waves in the vast ocean — much like searching for a needle in a haystack. The color of the Rockhopper helps aid in this quest. It’s imperative anyone out on the boat deck wears a life jacket; if someone goes overboard while wearing a life-jacket, on-board passengers can more easily spot a bright orange spot in an otherwise blue-green ocean with white caps. The design of the Rockhopper functions similarly; the unit is contained in a bright orange hard hat, helping researchers on-board to more easily spot the device, especially in an ocean often characterized by high sea state.

We also use a Yagi antenna to listen for the VHF (Very High Frequency) signal of the recovery gear, a signal the Rockhopper emits once it’s surfaced above the waterline. Pointing the antenna toward the ocean, we can detect the signal, which will become stronger when we point antenna in the direction of the Rockhopper; once we hear that strong signal, we can recommend to the boat captain to start moving the vessel in that direction.

Figure 3: Derek Jaskula, a member of the field operations team at the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics, points the Yagi antenna to detect the signal from the surfaced Rockhopper. Credit: Marissa Garcia.

At that point, all eyes are on the water, binoculars scanning the horizon for the orange. All ears are eager for the exciting news: “I see the Rockhopper!”

Once that announcement is made, the vessel carefully inches toward the Rockhopper until it is just next to the vessel’s side. Using a hook, the Rockhopper is pulled upward and back onto the deck.

What we weren’t expecting, however, during this recovery was to have our boat surrounded by two dolphin species: Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens) and Northern right whale dolphins (Lissodelphis borealis).

One HALO team member shouted, “I see Northern right whale dolphins!”

Charged with excitement, I quickly climbed up the crow’s nest to get a birds-eye look at the ocean bubbling around us with surfacing dolphins. Surely enough, I spotted the characteristic stripe of the Pacific-white sided dolphins zooming beneath the surface, in streaks of white. But what I was even more eager to see were the Northern right whale dolphins, flipping themselves out of the water, unveiling their bright white undersides. Because they lack dorsal fins, we on-board colloquially refer to Northern right whale dolphins as “sea slugs” to describe their appearance as they surface.

Figure 4: The Northern right whale dolphin (Lissodelphis borealis) surfaces during a HALO cruise. Source: HALO Project Team Member. Permit: NOAA/NMFS permit #21678.

In my analysis of the HALO project data for my PhD, I am interested in using acoustics to describe how the distribution of dolphins and toothed whales in Oregon waters varies across space and time. One species I am especially fascinated to study in-depth is the Northern right whale dolphin. To my knowledge, only three papers to date have attempted to describe their acoustics — two of which were published in the 1970s, and the most recent of which was published fifteen years ago (Fish & Turl, 1976; Leatherwood & Walker, 1979; Rankin et al., 2007).

Leatherwood & Walker (1979) proposed that Northern right whale dolphins produced two categories of whistles: a high frequency whistle that turned into burst-pulse vocalizations, and low frequency whistles. However, Rankin et al. (2007) proposed that Northern right whale dolphins may not actually produce whistles, based on two lines of evidence. First, Rankin et al. (2007) combined visual and acoustic survey, and all vocalizations recorded were localized via beamforming methods to verify that recorded vocalizations were produced by the visually observed dolphins. The visual surveying component is key to validating the vocalizations of the species, which also hints that the HALO project’s multi-surveying approach (acoustic and visual) could help arrive at similar results. Second, the Rankin et al. (2007) explored the taxonomy of the Northern right whale dolphin to verify which vocalizations the species is likely to produce based on the vocal repertoire of its close relatives. The right whale dolphin is closely related to dolphins in the genus Lagenorhynchus — which includes white-sided dolphins — and Cephalorhynchus — which includes Hector’s dolphin. The vocal repertoire of these relatives don’t produce whistles, and instead predominantly produced pulsed sounds or clicks (Dawson, 1991; Herman & Tavolga, 1980). Northern right whale dolphins primarily produce echolocation clicks trains and burst-pulses. Although Rankin et al. (2007) claims that the Northern right whale dolphin does not produce whistles, stereotyped burst-pulse series may be unique to individuals, just as dolphin species use stereotyped signature whistles, or they may be relationally shared just as discrete calls of killer whales are.

Figure 5: The Northern right whale dolphin (Lissodelphis borealis) produces burst-pulses. There exists variation in series of burst-pulses. The units marked by (a) and (b) ultimately get replaced by the unit marked by (c). (Source: Rankin et al., 2007).

We have just finished processing the first round of acoustic data for the HALO project, and it is ready now for analysis. Already previewing an hour of data on the Rockhopper by NH 25, we identified potential Northern right whale dolphin recordings . So far, we have only visually observed Northern right whale dolphins nearby Rockhopper units placed at sites NH 65 and NH 45, so it was surprising to acoustically detect this species on the most inshore unit at NH 25. I look forward to demystifying the mystery of Northern right whale dolphin vocalizations as our research on the HALO project continues!

Figure 6: Potential Northern right whale dolphin vocalizations recorded at the Rockhopper deployed at NH 25.

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References

Dawson, S. (1991). Clicks and Communication: The Behavioural and Social Contexts of Hector’s Dolphin Vocalizations. Ethology, 88(4), 265–276. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1439-0310.1991.tb00281.x

Fish, J. F. & Turl, C. W. (1976). Acoustic Source Levels of Four Species of Small Whales.

Herman, L. M., and Tavolga, W. N. (1980). “The communication systems of cetaceans,” in Cetacean behavior: Mechanisms and functions, edited by L. M. Herman (Wiley, New York), 149–209.

Klinck, H., Winiarski, D., Mack, R. C., Tessaglia-Hymes, C. T., Ponirakis, D. W., Dugan, P. J., Jones, C., & Matsumoto, H. (2020). The Rockhopper: a compact and extensible marine autonomous passive acoustic recording system. Global Oceans 2020: Singapore – U.S. Gulf Coast, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1109/IEEECONF38699.2020.9388970

Leatherwood, S., and Walker, W. A. (1979). “The northern right whale dolphin Lissodelphis borealis Peale in the eastern North Pacific,” in Behavior of marine animals, Vol. 3: Cetaceans, edited by H. E. Winn and B. L. Olla (Plenum, New York), 85–141.

Rankin, S., Oswald, J., Barlow, J., & Lammers, M. (2007). Patterned burst-pulse vocalizations of the northern right whale dolphin, Lissodelphis borealis. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 121(2), 1213–1218. https://doi.org/10.1121/1.2404919


Different blue whale populations sing different songs

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

In human cultures, how you sound is often an indicator of where you are from. Have you ever taken a linguistics quiz that tries to guess what part of the United States you grew up in? Questions about whether you pronounce the sugary sweet treat caramel as “carr-mul” or “care-a-mel”, whether you say “soda” or “pop”, or whether a certain type of intersection is called a “roundabout”, “rotary”, or “traffic circle” are used to make a guess at where in the country you were raised. I have spent time in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, I was amused to learn that the shoes you might wear in summertime can be called flip flops, slippers, thongs, or jandals, depending on which English-speaking country you are in. We know that listening to how someone speaks can tell us about their heritage or culture. As it turns out, the same is true for blue whales. We can learn a lot about blue whales by listening to them.

A blue whale comes up for air in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. We catch only a short glimpse of these ocean giants when they are at the surface. By listening to their vocalizations using acoustic recordings, we can gain a whole new perspective on their lives. Photo by D. Barlow.

Sound is an incredibly important sense to marine mammals, particularly since sound waves can efficiently transmit over long distances in the ocean where other senses, such as vision or smell, are limited. Therefore, passive acoustic monitoring—placing hydrophones underwater to listen for an extended period of time and record the sounds of animals and their environment—is a highly effective tool for studying marine mammals, including blue whales. Throughout the world, blue whales sing. In this case, “song” is defined as a limited number of sound types that are produced in succession to form a recognizable pattern (McDonald et al. 2006). These songs are presumed to be produced by males only, most likely used to maintain associations and mediate social interactions, and seem to play a role in reproduction (Oleson et al. 2007, Lewis et al. 2018). Furthermore, these songs are highly stereotyped, and stable over decadal scales (McDonald et al. 2006).

Figure reproduced from McDonald et al. (2006), illustrating the variation and in blue whale songs from different geographic regions, and their stability over time: Recordings from New Zealand (A), the Central North Pacific (B), Australia (C), the Northeast Pacific (D) and North Indian Ocean (E) illustrate the stable character of the blue whale song over long time periods. All song types for which long time spans of recordings are available show some frequency drift through time, but only minor change in character. These examples were chosen because recordings over a significant time span were available to the authors in raw form, and not because these song types are more stable than the others.

Fascinatingly, blue whale songs have acoustic characteristics that are distinct between geographic regions. A blue whale in the northeast Pacific sings a different song than a blue whale in the north Atlantic; the song heard around Australia is distinct from the one sung off the coast of Chile, and so on. Therefore, differences in blue whale songs between areas can be used as a provisional hypothesis about population structure (McDonald et al. 2006, Samaran et al. 2013, Balcazar et al. 2015). Vocalizations may evolve more rapidly than traditional markers such as genetics or morphology that are often used to delineate populations, particularly in long-lived mammalian species such as blue whales (McDonald et al. 2006).

Figure reproduced from McDonald et al. (2006): Blue whale residence and population divisions suggested from their song types. Arrows indicate the direction of seasonal movements.

Despite the general rule of thumb that population-specific blue whale songs occur in separate geographic regions, there are examples throughout the southern hemisphere where songs from different populations overlap and are recorded in the same location (Samaran et al. 2010, 2013, Tripovich et al. 2015, McCauley et al. 2018, Buchan et al. 2020, Leroy et al. 2021). However, these examples may be instances where the populations temporally or ecologically partition their use of the area. For example, there may be differences in the timing of peak occurrence so that overlap is minimized by alternating which population is predominantly present in different seasons (Leroy et al. 2018). Alternatively, whales from different populations may overlap in space and time, but occupy different ecological niches at the same site. In this case, an area may simultaneously be a migratory corridor for one population and a foraging ground for another (Tripovich et al. 2015).

Figure reproduced from Leroy et al. (2021): Distribution of the five blue whale acoustic populations of the Indian Ocean: the Sri Lankan—NIO (yellow); Madagascan—SWIO (orange); Australian—SEIO (blue); and Arabian Sea—NWIO (red) pygmy blue whales; the hypothesized Chagos pygmy blue whale (green); and the Antarctic blue whale (black dashed line). These distributions have been inferred from the acoustic recordings conducted in the area. The long-term recording sites used to infer these distribution areas are indicated by red stars. Blue whale illustration by Alicia Guerrero.

In the South Taranaki Bight (STB) region of New Zealand, where the GEMM lab has been studying blue whales for the past decade (Torres 2013), the New Zealand song type is recorded year-round (Barlow et al. 2018). New Zealand blue whales rely on a productive upwelling system in the STB that supports an important foraging ground (Barlow et al. 2020, 2021). Antarctic blue whales also seasonally pass through New Zealand waters, likely along their migratory pathway between polar feeding grounds and lower latitude areas (Warren et al. 2021). What does it mean in terms of population connectivity or separation when two different populations occasionally share the same waters? How do these different populations ecologically partition the space they occupy? What drives their differing occurrence patterns? These are the sorts of questions I am diving into as we continue to explore the depths of our acoustic recordings from the STB region. We still have a lot to learn about these blue whales, and there is a lot to be learned through listening.

References:

Balcazar NE, Tripovich JS, Klinck H, Nieukirk SL, Mellinger DK, Dziak RP, Rogers TL (2015) Calls reveal population structure of blue whales across the Southeast Indian Ocean and the Southwest Pacific Ocean. J Mammal 96:1184–1193.

Barlow DR, Bernard KS, Escobar-Flores P, Palacios DM, Torres LG (2020) Links in the trophic chain: Modeling functional relationships between in situ oceanography, krill, and blue whale distribution under different oceanographic regimes. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 642:207–225.

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

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

Buchan SJ, Balcazar-Cabrera N, Stafford KM (2020) Seasonal acoustic presence of blue, fin, and minke whales off the Juan Fernández Archipelago, Chile (2007–2016). Mar Biodivers 50:1–10.

Leroy EC, Royer JY, Alling A, Maslen B, Rogers TL (2021) Multiple pygmy blue whale acoustic populations in the Indian Ocean: whale song identifies a possible new population. Sci Rep 11:8762.

Leroy EC, Samaran F, Stafford KM, Bonnel J, Royer JY (2018) Broad-scale study of the seasonal and geographic occurrence of blue and fin whales in the Southern Indian Ocean. Endanger Species Res 37:289–300.

Lewis LA, Calambokidis J, Stimpert AK, Fahlbusch J, Friedlaender AS, Mckenna MF, Mesnick SL, Oleson EM, Southall BL, Szesciorka AR, Širović A (2018) Context-dependent variability in blue whale acoustic behaviour. R Soc Open Sci 5.

McCauley RD, Gavrilov AN, Jolli CD, Ward R, Gill PC (2018) Pygmy blue and Antarctic blue whale presence , distribution and population parameters in southern Australia based on passive acoustics. Deep Res Part II 158:154–168.

McDonald MA, Mesnick SL, Hildebrand JA (2006) Biogeographic characterisation of blue whale song worldwide: using song to identify populations. J Cetacean Res Manag 8:55–65.

Oleson EM, Wiggins SM, Hildebrand JA (2007) Temporal separation of blue whale call types on a southern California feeding ground. Anim Behav 74:881–894.

Samaran F, Adam O, Guinet C (2010) Discovery of a mid-latitude sympatric area for two Southern Hemisphere blue whale subspecies. Endanger Species Res 12:157–165.

Samaran F, Stafford KM, Branch TA, Gedamke J, Royer J, Dziak RP, Guinet C (2013) Seasonal and Geographic Variation of Southern Blue Whale Subspecies in the Indian Ocean. PLoS One 8:e71561.

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

Tripovich JS, Klinck H, Nieukirk SL, Adams T, Mellinger DK, Balcazar NE, Klinck K, Hall EJS, Rogers TL (2015) Temporal Segregation of the Australian and Antarctic Blue Whale Call Types (Balaenoptera musculus spp.). J Mammal 96:603–610.

Warren VE, Širović A, McPherson C, Goetz KT, Radford CA, Constantine R (2021) Passive Acoustic Monitoring Reveals Spatio-Temporal Distributions of Antarctic and Pygmy Blue Whales Around Central New Zealand. Front Mar Sci 7:1–14.

Learning to Listen for Animals in the Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supporting marine life conservation as an outsider: Blue whales and earthquakes

By Mateo Estrada Jorge, Oregon State University undergraduate student, GEMM Lab REU Intern

Introduction

My name is Mateo Estrada and this past summer I had the pleasure of working with Dawn Barlow and Dr. Leigh Torres as a National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) intern. I had the chance to proactively learn about the scientific method in the marine sciences by studying the acoustic behaviors of pygmy blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda) that are documented residents of the South Taranaki Bight region in New Zealand (Torres 2013, Barlow et al. 2018). I’ve been interested in conducting scientific research since I began my undergraduate education at Oregon State University in 2015. Having the opportunity to apply the skills I gained through my education in this REU has been a blessing. I’m a physics and computer science major, but more than anything I’m a scientist and my passion has taken me in new, unexpected directions that I’m going to share in this blog post. My message for any students who feel like they haven’t found their path yet is: hang in there, sometimes it takes time for things to take shape. That has been my experience and I’m sure it’s been the experience of many people interested in the sciences. I’m a Physics and Computer Science student, so why am I studying blue whales, and more specifically, how can I be doing marine science research having only taken intro to biology 101?

My background

I decided to apply for the REU in the Spring 2021 because it was a chance to use my programming skills in the marine sciences. I’m also passionate about conservation and protecting the environment in a pragmatic way, so I decided to find a niche where I could put my technical skills to good use. Finally, I wanted to explore a scientific field outside of my area of expertise to grow as a student and to learn from other researchers. I was mostly inspired by anecdotal tales of Physicist Richard Feynman who would venture out of the physics department at Caltech and into other departments to learn about what other scientists were investigating to inspire his own work. This summer, I ventured into the world of marine science, and what I found in my project was fascinating.

Whale watching tour

Figure 1. Me standing on a boat on the Pacific Ocean off Long Beach, CA.

To get into the research mode, I decided to go on a whale watching tour with the Aquarium of the Pacific. The tour was two hours long and the sunburn was worth it because we got to see four blue whales off the Long Beach coast in California. I got to see the famous blue whale blow and their splashes. It was the first time I was on a big boat in the ocean, so naturally I got seasick (Fig 1). But it was exciting to get a chance to see blue whales in action (luckily, I didn’t actually hurl). The marine biologist onboard also gave a quick lecture on the relative size of blue whales and some of their behaviors. She also pointed out that they don’t use Sonar to locate whales as this has been shown to disturb their calling behaviors. Instead, we looked for a blow and splashing. The tour was a wonderful experience and I’m glad I got to see some whales out in nature. This experience also served as a reminder of the beauty of marine life and the responsibility I feel for trying to understand and help conserving it.

Context of blue whale calling

Sound plays a significant role in the marine environment and is a critical mode of communication for many marine animals including baleen whales. Blue whales produce different vocalizations, otherwise known as calls.  Blue whale song is theorized to be produced by males of the species as a form of reproductive behavior, similar to how male peacocks engage females by displaying their elongated upper tail covert feathers in iridescent colors as a courtship mechanism. Then there are “D calls” that are associated with social mechanisms while foraging, and these calls are made by both female and male blue whales (Lewis et al. 2018) (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Spectrogram of Pygmy blue whale D calls manually (and automatically) selected, frequency 0-150 Hz.

Understanding research on blue whales

The most difficult part about coming into a project as an outsider is catching up. I learned how anthropogenetic (human made) noise affects blue whale communication. For example, it has been showing that Mid Frequency Active Sonar signals employed by the U.S. Navy affect blue whale D calling patterns (Melcón 2012). Furthermore, noise from seismic airguns used for oil and gas exploration has also impact blue whale calling behavior (Di Lorio, 2010). Understanding the environmental context in which the pygmy blue whales live and the anthropogenic pressures they face is essential in marine conservation. Protecting the areas in which they live is important so they can feed, reproduce and thrive effectively. What began as a slowly falling snowflake at the start of a snowstorm turned into a cascading avalanche of knowledge pouring into my mind in just two weeks.

Figure 3. The white stars show the hydrophone locations (n = 5). A bathymetric scale of the depth is also given.

The research question I set out to tackle in my internship was: do blue whales change their calling behavior in response to natural noise events from earthquake activity? To do this, I used acoustic recordings from five hydrophones deployed in the South Taranaki Bight (Fig. 3), paired with an existing dataset of all recorded earthquakes in New Zealand (GeoNet). I identified known earthquakes in our acoustic recordings, and then examined the blue whale D calls during 4 hours before and after each earthquake event to look for any change in the number of calls, call energy, entropy, or bandwidth.

A great mentor and lab team

The days kept passing and blending into each other, as they often do with remote work. I began to feel isolated from the people I was working with and the blue whales I was studying. The zoom calls, group chats, and working alongside other remote interns kept me afloat as I adapted to a work world fully online. Nevertheless, I was happy to continue working on this project because I felt like I was slowly becoming part of the GEMM Lab. I would meet with my mentor Dawn Barlow at least once a week and we would spend time talking about the project and sorting out the difficult details of data processing. She always encouraged my curiosity to ask questions. Even if they were silly questions, she was happy to ponder them because she is a curious scientist like myself.

What we learned

Pygmy blue whales from the South Taranaki Bight region do not change their acoustic behavior in response to earthquake activity. The energy of the earthquake, magnitude, depth, and distance to the origin all had no influence on the number of blue whale D calls, the energy of their calling, the entropy, and the bandwidth. A likely reason for why the blue whales would have no acoustic response to earthquakes (magnitude < 5) is that the STB region is a seismically active region due to the nearby interface of the Australian and Pacific plates. Because of the plate tectonics, the region averages about 20,000 recorded earthquakes per year (GeoNet: Earthquake Statistics). Given that pygmy blue whales are present in the STB region year-round (Barlow et al. 2018), the blue whales may have adapted to tolerate the earthquake activity (Fig 4).

Figure 4. Earthquake signal from MARU (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and blue whale D calls, Frequency 0-150 Hz.

Looking at the future

I presented my work at the end of my REU internship program, which was a difficult challenge for me because I am often intimidated by public speaking (who isn’t?). Communicating science has always been a big interest of me. I love reading news articles about new breakthroughs and being a small part of that is a huge privilege for me. Finding my own voice and having new insights to contribute to the scientific world has always been my main objective. Now I will get to deliver a poster presentation of my REU work at the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO) Conference in March 2022. I am both excited and nervous to take on this new adventure of meeting seasoned professionals, communicating my results, and learning about the ocean sciences. I hope to gain new inspirations for my future academic and professional work.

References:

About Earthquake Drums – GeoNet. geonet.Org. Retrieved June 23, 2021, from https://www.geonet.org.nz/about/earthquake/drums

Barlow, D. R., Torres, L. G., Hodge, K. B., Steel, D., Scott Baker, C., Chandler, T. E., Bott, N., Constantine, R., Double, M. C., Gill, P., Glasgow, D., Hamner, R. M., Lilley, C., Ogle, M., Olson, P. A., Peters, C., Stockin, K. A., Tessaglia-Hymes, C. T., & Klinck, H. (2018). Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endangered Species Research, 36, 27–40. https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00891

Di Iorio, L., & Clark, C. W. (2010). Exposure to seismic survey alters blue whale acoustic communication. Biology Letters, 6(3), 334–335. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2009.0967

Lewis, L. A., Calambokidis, J., Stimpert, A. K., Fahlbusch, J., Friedlaender, A. S., McKenna, M. F., Mesnick, S. L., Oleson, E. M., Southall, B. L., Szesciorka, A. R., & Sirović, A. (2018). Context-dependent variability in blue whale acoustic behaviour. Royal Society Open Science, 5(8). https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.180241

Melcón, M. L., Cummins, A. J., Kerosky, S. M., Roche, L. K., Wiggins, S. M., & Hildebrand, J. A. (2012). Blue whales respond to anthropogenic noise. PLoS ONE, 7(2), 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0032681

Torres LG. 2013 Evidence for an unrecognised blue whale foraging ground in New Zealand. NZ J. Mar. Freshwater Res. 47, 235–248. (doi:10. 1080/00288330.2013.773919)

Detecting blue whales from acoustic data

By Dawn Barlow, PhD student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

In January of 2016, five underwater recording units were dropped to the seafloor in New Zealand to listen for blue whales (Fig. 1). These hydrophones sat listening for two years, brought to the surface only briefly every six months to swap out batteries and offload the data. Through all seasons and conditions when scientists couldn’t be on the water, they recorded the soundscape, generating a wealth of acoustic data with the potential to greatly expand our knowledge of blue whale ecology

Figure 1. Locations of the five Marine Autonomous Recording Units (MARUs) in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand.

We have established that blue whales are present in New Zealand waters year-round 1. However, many questions remain regarding their distribution across daily, seasonal, and yearly scales. Our two-year acoustic dataset from five hydrophones throughout the STB region is a goldmine of information on blue whale occurrence patterns and the soundscape they inhabit. Having year-round occurrence data will allow us to examine what environmental and anthropogenic factors may influence blue whale distribution patterns. The hydrophones were listening for whales around the clock, every day, while we were on the other side of the world awaiting the recovery of the data to answer our questions.

Before any questions of seasonal distribution or anthropogenic impacts and noise can be addressed, however, we need to know something far more basic: when and where did we record blue whale vocalizations? This may seem like a simple, stepping-stone question, but it is actually quite involved, and the reason I spent the last month working with a team of acousticians at Cornell University’s Center for Conservation Bioacoustics. The expert research group here at Cornell, led by Dr. Holger Klinck, have been instrumental in our New Zealand blue whale research, including developing and building the recording units, hydrophone deployment and recovery, data processing, analysis, and advice. I am thrilled to work with all of them, and had an incredibly productive month of learning about acoustics from the best.

Blue whales produce multiple vocalizations that we are interested in documenting. The New Zealand song (Fig. 2A) is highly stereotyped and unique to the Southwest Pacific Ocean 2,3. Low-frequency downsweeps, or “D calls” (Fig. 2B), are far more variable and produced by blue whale populations around the world 4. Furthermore, Antarctic blue whales produce a highly-stereotyped “Z call” (Fig. 2C) and are known to be present in New Zealand waters occasionally 5.

Figure 2. Spectrograms of (A) the New Zealand blue whale song, (B), D calls, and (C) Antarctic Z calls.

One way to determine when blue whales were vocalizing is for an analyst to manually review the entirety of the two years of sound recordings for each of the five hydrophones by hand to scan for and select individual vocalizations. An alternative approach is to develop a detector algorithm to locate calls in the data based on their stereotypical characteristics. Over the past month I built, tested, and ran detectors for each blue whale call type using what is called a data template detector. This technique uses example signals from the data that the analyst selects as templates. The templates should be clear signals, and representative of the variation in calls contained in the dataset. Then, by comparing pixel characteristics between the template spectrograms and the spectrogram of the recording of interest using certain matching criteria (e.g. threshold for spectrogram correlation, detection frequency range), the algorithm searches for other signals like the templates in the full dataset. For example, in Fig. 3 you can see units of blue whale song I selected as templates for my detector.

Figure 3. Spectrogram of selected sound clips of New Zealand blue whale song, with units used as templates for a detector shown inside the teal boxes.

Testing the performance of a detector algorithm is critical. Therefore, a dataset is needed where calls were identified by an analyst and then used as the “ground truth”, to which the detector results are compared. For my ground truth dataset, I took a subset of 52 days and hand-browsed the spectrograms to identify and log New Zealand blue whale song, D calls, and Antarctic Z calls. In evaluating detector performance, there are three important metrics that need to be weighed: precision (the proportion of detections that are true), recall (the proportion of true calls identified by the detector), and false alarm rate (the number of false positive detections per hour). Ideally, the detector should be optimized to maximize precision and recall and minimize the false positives.

The STB region is highly industrial, and our two-year acoustic dataset contains periods of pervasive seismic airgun noise from oil and gas exploration. Ideally, a detector would be able to identify blue whale vocalizations even in the presence of airgun operations that dominate the soundscape for months. For blue whale song, the detector did quite well! With a precision of 0.91 and recall of 0.93, the detector could pick out song units over airgun noise (Fig. 4). A false alarm rate of 8 false positives per hour is a sacrifice worth making to identify song during seismic operations (and the false positives will be removed in a subsequent step). For D calls, seismic survey activity presented a different challenge. While the detector did well at identifying D calls during airgun operation, the first several detector attempts also logged every single airgun blast as a blue whale vocalization—clearly problematic. Through an iterative process of selecting template signals, and adjusting the number of templates used and the correlation threshold, I was able to come up with a detector which selected D calls and missed most airgun blasts. This success felt like a victory.

Figure 4. An example of spectrograms of simultaneous recordings from the five hydrophones illustrating seismic airgun noise (strong broadband signals that appear as repetitive black, vertical lines) overlapping New Zealand blue whale song. The red boxes are detection events selected by the detector, demonstrating its ability to capture song even during airgun operation.

After this detector development and validation process, I ran each detector on the full two-year acoustic dataset for all five recording units. This step was a good exercise in patience as I eagerly awaited the outputs for the many hours they took to run. The next step in the process will be for me to go through and validate each detector event to eliminate any false positives. However, running the detectors on the full dataset has allowed for exciting preliminary examinations of seasonal blue whale acoustic patterns, which need to be refined and expanded upon as the analysis continues. For example, sometimes the New Zealand song dominates the recordings on all hydrophones (Fig. 5), whereas other times of year song is less common. Similarly, there appear to be seasonal patterns in D calls and Antarctic Z calls, with peaks and dips in detections during different times of year.

Figure 5. An example spectrogram of simultaneous recordings from all five hydrophones during a time when New Zealand blue whale song dominated the recordings, with numerous, overlapping calls.

As with many things, the more questions you ask, the more questions you come up with. From preliminary explorations of the acoustic data my head is buzzing with ideas for further analysis and with new questions I hadn’t thought to ask of the data before. My curiosity has been fueled by scrolling through spectrograms, looking, and listening, and I am as excited as ever to continue researching blue whale ecology. I would like to thank the team at the Center for Conservation Bioacoustics for their support and guidance over the past month, and I look forward to digging deeper into the stories being told in the acoustic data!

Figure 6. A pair of blue whales observed in February 2017 in the South Taranaki Bight. Photo: L. Torres.

References

1.          Barlow, D. R. et al. Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger. Species Res. 36, 27–40 (2018).

2.          McDonald, M. A., Mesnick, S. L. & Hildebrand, J. A. Biogeographic characterisation of blue whale song worldwide: using song to identify populations. J. Cetacean Res. Manag. 8, 55–65 (2006).

3.          Balcazar, N. E. et al. Calls reveal population structure of blue whales across the Southeast Indian Ocean and the Southwest Pacific Ocean. J. Mammal. 96, 1184–1193 (2015).

4.          Oleson, E. M. et al. Behavioral context of call production by eastern North Pacific blue whales. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 330, 269–284 (2007).

5.          McDonald, M. A. An acoustic survey of baleen whales off Great Barrier Island, New Zealand. New Zeal. J. Mar. Freshw. Res. 40, 519–529 (2006).


Coastal oceanography takes patience

Joe Haxel, Acoustician, Assistant Professor, CIMRS/OSU

Greetings GEMM Lab blog readers. My name is Joe Haxel and I’m a close collaborator with Leigh and other GEMM lab members on the gray whale ecology, physiology and noise project off the Oregon coast. Leigh invited me for a guest blog appearance to share some of the acoustics work we’ve been up to and as you’ve probably guessed by now, my specialty is in ocean acoustics. I’m a PI in NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory’s Acoustics Program and OSU’s Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies where I use underwater sound to study a variety of earth and ocean processes.

As a component of the gray whale noise project, during the field seasons of 2016 and 2017 we recorded some of the first measurements of ambient sound in the shallow coastal waters off Oregon between 7 and 20 meters depth. In the passive ocean acoustics world this is really shallow, and with that comes all kinds of instrument and logistical challenges, which is probably one of the main reasons there is little or no acoustic baseline information in this environment.

For instance, one of the significant challenges is rooted in the hydrodynamics surrounding mobile recording systems like the drifting hydrophone we used during the summer field season in 2016 (Fig 1). Decoupling motion of the surface buoy (e.g., caused by swell and waves) from the submerged hydrophone sensor is critical, and here’s why. Hydrophones convert pressure fluctuations at the sensor/ water interface to a calibrated voltage recorded by a logging system. Turbulence resulting from moving the sensor up and down in the water column with surface waves introduces non-acoustic pressure changes that severely contaminate the data for noise level measurements. Vertical and horizontal wave motions are constantly acting on the float, so we needed to engineer compliance between the surface float and the suspended hydrophone sensor to decouple these accelerations. To overcome this, we employed a couple of concepts in our drifting hydrophone design. 1) A 10 cm diameter by 3 m long spar buoy provided floatation for the system. Spar buoys are less affected by wave motion accelerations compared to most other types of surface floatation with larger horizontal profiles and drag. 2) A dynamic shock cord that could stretch up to double its resting length to accommodate vertical motion of the spar buoy; 3) a heave plate that significantly reduced any vertical motion of the hydrophone suspended below it. This was a very effective design, and although somewhat cumbersome in transport with the RHIB between deployment sites, the acoustic data we collected over 40 different drifts around Newport and Port Orford in 2016 was clean, high quality and devoid of system induced contamination.

Figure 1. The drifting hydrophone system used for 40 different drifts recording ambient noise levels in 7-20 m depths in the Newport and Port Orford, OR coastal areas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spatial information from the project’s first year acoustic recordings using the drifting hydrophone system helped us choose sites for the fixed hydrophone stations in 2017. Now that we had some basic information on the spatial variability of noise within the study areas we could focus on the temporal objectives of characterizing the range of acoustic conditions experienced by gray whales over the course of the entire foraging season at these sites in Oregon. In 2017 we deployed “lander” style instrument frames, each equipped with a single, omni-directional hydrophone custom built by Haru Matsumoto at our NOAA/OSU Acoustics lab (Fig. 2). The four hydrophone stations were positioned near each of the ports (Yaquina Bay and Port Orford) and in partnership with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Marine Reserves program in the Otter Rock Marine Reserve and the Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve. The hydrophones were programmed on a 20% duty cycle, recording 12 minutes of every hour at 32 kHz sample rate, providing spectral information in the frequency band from 10 Hz up to a 13 kHz.

Figure 2. The hydrophone (black cylinder) on its lander frame ready for deployment.

Here’s where the story gets interesting. In my experience so far putting out gear off the Oregon coast, anything that has a surface expression and is left out for more than a couple of weeks is going to have issues. Due to funding constraints, I had to challenge that theory this year and deploy 2 of the units with a surface buoy. This is not typically what we do with our equipment since it usually stays out for up to 2 years at a time, is sensitive, and expensive. The 2 frames with a surface float were going to be deployed in Marine Reserves far enough from the traffic lanes of the ports and in areas with significantly less traffic and presumably no fishing pressure.  The surface buoy consisted of an 18 inch diameter hard plastic float connected to an anchor that was offset from the instrument frame by a 150 foot weighted groundline. The gear was deployed off Newport in June and Port Orford in July. What could go wrong?

After monthly buoy checks by the project team, including GPS positions, and buoy cleanings my hopes were pretty high that the surface buoy systems might actually make it through the season with recoveries scheduled in mid-October. Had I gambled and won? Nope. The call came in September from Leigh that one of the whale watching outfits in Depoe Bay recovered a free floating buoy matching ours. Bummer. Alternative recovery plans initiated and this is where things began to get hairy. Fortunately, we had an ace in our back pocket. We have collaborators at the Oregon Coast Aquarium (OCA) who have a top-notch research diving team led by Jim Burke. In the last week of October, they performed a successful search dive on the missing unit near Gull Rock and attached a new set of floats directly to the instrument frame. The divers were in the water for a short 20 minutes thanks to the good series of marks recorded during the buoy checks throughout the summer (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. OCA divers, Jenna and Doug, heading out for a search dive to locate and mark the Gull Rock hydrophone lander.

 

 

 

 

 

We had surface marker floats on the frame, but there was a new problem. Video taken by Jenna and Doug from the OCA dive team revealed the landers were pretty sanded in from a couple of recent October storms (Fig. 4). Ugghhh!

Figure 4. Sanded in lander at Gull Rock. Notice the sand dollars and bull kelp wrapped on the frame.

Alternative recovery plan adjustment: we’re gonna need a diver assisted recovery with 2 boats. One to bring a dive team to air jet the sand out away from the legs of the frame and another larger vessel with pulling power to recover the freed lander. Enter the R/V Pacific Surveyor and Capt. Al Pazar. Al, Jim and I came up with a new recovery plan and only needed a decent weather window of a few hours to get the job done. Piece of cake in November off the Oregon coast, right?

The weather finally cooperated in early December in-line with the OCA dive team and R/V Pacific Surveyor’s availability. The 2 vessels and crew headed up to Gull Rock for the first recovery operation of the day. At first we couldn’t locate the surface floats. Oh no. It seemed the rough fall/ winter weather and high seas since late October were too much for the crab floats? As it turns out, we eventually found the floats eastward about 200 m but couldn’t initially see them in the glare and whitecapping conditions that morning. The lander frame had broken loose from its weakened anchor legs in the heavy weather (as it was designed to do through an Aluminum/ Stainless Steel galvanic reaction over time) and rolled or hopped eastward by about 200 m (Fig. 5). Oh dear!

Figure 5. A hydrophone lander after recovery. Notice all but 1 of the concrete anchor legs missing from the recovered lander and the amount of bio-fouling on the hydrophone (compared to Figure 2).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thankfully, the hydrophone was well protected, and no air jetting was required. With OCA divers out of the water and clear, the Pacific Surveyor headed over to the floats and easily pulled the lander frame and hydrophone on board (Fig. 6). Yipee!

On to the next hydrophone station. This station, deployed ~ 800 m west of the south reef off of South Beach near the Yaquina Bay port entrance. It was deployed entirely subsurface and was outfitted with an acoustic release transponder that I could communicate with from the surface and command to release a pop-up messenger float and line for eventual recovery of the instrument frame. Once on station, communication with the release was established easily (a good start) and we began ranging and moving the OCA vessel Gracie Lynn in to a position within about 2 water depths of the unit (~40 m). I gave the command to the transponder and the submerged release confirmed it was free of its anchor and heading for the surface, but it never made it. Uh oh. Turns out this lander had also broke free of its anchored legs and rolled/ hopped 800 m eastward until it was pinned up against the boulder structure of the south reef. Amazingly, OCA divers Jenna and Doug located the messenger float ~ 5 m below the surface and the messenger line had been fouled by the rolling frame so it could not reach the surface. They dove down the messenger line and attached a new recovery line to the lander frame and the Pacific Surveyor hauled up the frame and hydrophone in-tact (Fig. 6). Double recovery success!

Figure 6. R/V Pacific Surveyor recovering hydrophone landers off Gull Rock and South Beach.

The hydrophone data from both systems looks outstanding and analysis is underway. This recovery effort took a huge amount of patience and the coordination of 3 busy groups (NOAA/OSU, OCA, Capt. Al). Thanks to these incredible collaborations and some heroic diving from Jim Burke and his OCA dive team, we now have a unique and unprecedented shallow water passive acoustic data set from the energetic waters off the Oregon coast.

So that’s some of the story from the 2016 and 2017 field season acoustic point of view. I’ll save the less exciting, but equally successful instrument recoveries from Port Orford for another time.

A Marine Mammal Odyssey, Eh!

By Leila Lemos, PhD student

Dawn Barlow, MS student

Florence Sullivan, MS

The Society for Marine Mammalogy’s Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals happens every two years and this year the conference took place in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Logo of the Society for Marine Mammalogy’s 22nd Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, 2017: A Marine Mammal Odyssey, eh!

The conference started with a welcome reception on Sunday, October 22nd, followed by a week of plenaries, oral presentations, speed talks and posters, and two more days with different workshops to attend.

This conference is an important event for us, as marine mammalogists. This is the moment where we get to share our projects (how exciting!), get important feedback, and hear about different studies that are being conducted around the world. It is also an opportunity to network and find opportunities for collaboration with other researchers, and of course to learn from our colleagues who are presenting their work.

The GEMM Lab attending the opening plenaries of the conference!

The first day of conference started with an excellent talk from Asha de Vos, from Sri Lanka, where she discussed the need for increased diversity (in all aspects including race, gender, nationality, etc.) in our field, and advocated for the end of “parachute scientists” who come into a foreign (to them) location, complete their research, and then leave without communicating results, or empowering the local community to care or act in response to local conservation issues.  She also talked about the difficulty that researchers in developing countries face accessing research that is hidden behind journal pay walls, and encouraged everyone to get creative with communication! This means using blogs and social media, talking to science communicators and others in order to get our stories out, and no longer hiding our results behind the ivory tower of academia.  Overall, it was an inspirational way to begin the week.

On Thursday morning we heard Julie van der Hoop, who was this year’s recipient of the F.G. Wood Memorial Scholarship Award, present her work on “Drag from fishing gear entangling right whales: a major extinction risk factor”. Julie observed a decrease in lipid reserves in entangled whales and questioned if entanglements are as costly as events such as migration, pregnancy or lactation. Tags were also deployed on whales that had been disentangled from fishing gear, and researchers were able to see an increase in whale speed and dive depth.

Julie van der Hoop talks about different drag forces of fishing gears
on North Atlantic Right Whales.

There were many other interesting talks over the course of the week. Some of the talks that inspired us were:

— Stephen Trumble’s talk “Earplugs reveal a century of stress in baleen whales and the impact of industrial whaling” presented a time-series of cortisol profiles of different species of baleen whales using earplugs. The temporal data was compared to whaling data information and they were able to see a high correlation between datasets. However, during a low whaling season concurrent to the World War II in the 40’s, high cortisol levels were potentially associated to an increase in noise from ship traffic.

— Jane Khudyakov (“Elephant seal blubber transcriptome and proteome responses to single and repeated stress”) and Cory Champagne (“Metabolomic response to acute and repeated stress in the northern elephant seal”) presented different aspects of the same project. Jane looked at down/upregulation of genes (downregulation is when a cell decreases the quantity of a cellular component, such as RNA or protein, in response to an external stimulus; upregulation is the opposite: when the cell increases the quantity of cellular components) to check for stress. She was able to confirm an upregulation of genes after repeated stressor exposure. Cory checked for influences on the metabolism after administering ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone: a stimulating hormone that causes the release of glucocorticoid hormones by the adrenal cortex. i.e., cortisol, a stress related hormone) to elephant seals. By looking only at the stress-related hormone, he was not able to differentiate acute from chronic stress responses. However, he showed that many other metabolic processes varied according to the stress-exposure time. This included a decrease in amino acids, mobilization of lipids and upregulation of carbohydrates.

— Jouni Koskela (“Fishing restrictions is an essential protection method of the Saimaa ringed seal”) talked about the various conservation efforts being undertaken for the endangered Lake Saimaa ringed seal. Gill nets account for 90% of seal pup mortality, but if new pups can reach 20kg, only 14% of them will drown in these fishing net entanglements. Working with local industry and recreational interests, increased fishing restrictions have been enacted during the weaning season. In addition to other year-round restrictions, this has led to a small, but noticeable upward trend in pup production and population growth! A conservation success story is always gratifying to hear, and we wish these collaborative efforts continued future success.

— Charmain Hamilton (“Impacts of sea-ice declines on a pinnacle Arctic predator-prey relationship: Habitat, behaviour, and spatial overlap between coastal polar bears and ringed seals”) gave a fascinating presentation looking at how changing ice regimes in the arctic are affecting spatial habitat use patterns of polar bears. As ice decreases in the summer months, the polar bears move more, resulting in less spatial overlap with ringed seal habitat, and so the bears have turned to targeting ground nesting seabirds.  This spatio-temporal mismatch of traditional predator/prey has drastic implications for arctic food web dynamics.

— Nicholas Farmer’s presentation on a Population Consequences of Disturbance (PCoD) model for assessing theoretical impacts of seismic survey on sperm whale population health had some interesting parallels with new questions in our New Zealand blue whale project. By simulating whale movement through modeled three-dimensional sound fields, he found that the frequency of the disturbance (i.e., how many days in a row the seismic survey activity persisted) was very important in determining effects on the whales. If the seismic noise persists for many days in a row, the sperm whales may not be able to replenish their caloric reserves because of ongoing disturbance. As you can imagine, this pattern gets worse with more sequential days of disturbance.

— Jeremy Goldbogen used suction cup tags equipped with video cameras to peer into an unusual ecological niche: the boundary layer of large whales, where drag is minimized and remoras and small invertebrates compete and thrive. Who would have thought that at a marine mammal conference, a room full of people would be smiling and laughing at remoras sliding around the back of a blue whale, or barnacles filter feeding as they go for a ride with a humpback whale? Insights from animals that occupy this rare niche can inform improvements to current tag technologies.

The GEMM Lab was well represented this year with six different talks: four oral presentations and two speed talks! It is evident that all of our hard work and preparation, such as practicing our talks in front of our lab mates two weeks in advance, paid off.  All of the talks were extremely well received by the audience, and a few generated intelligent questions and discussion afterwards – exactly as we hoped.  It was certainly gratifying to see how packed the room was for Sharon’s announcement of our new method of standardizing photogrammetry from drones, and how long the people stayed to talk to Dawn after her presentation about an unique population of New Zealand blue whales – it took us over an hour to be able to take her away for food and the celebratory drinks she deserved!

GEMM Lab members on their talks. From left to right, top to bottom: Amanda Holdman, Leila Lemos, Solène Derville, Dawn Barlow, Sharon Nieukirk, and Florence Sullivan.

 

GEMM Lab members at the closing celebration. From left to right: Florence Sullivan, Leila Lemos, Amanda Holdman, Solène Derville, and Dawn Barlow.

We are not always serious, we can get silly sometimes!

The weekend after the conference many courageous researchers who wanted to stuff their brains with even more specialized knowledge participated in different targeted workshops. From 32 different workshops that were offered, Leila chose to participate in “Measuring hormones in marine mammals: Current methods, alternative sample matrices, and future directions” in order to learn more about the new methods, hormones and matrices that are being used by different research groups and also to make connections with other endocrinologist researchers. Solène participated in the workshop “Reproducible Research with R, Git, and GitHub” led by Robert Shick.  She learned how to better organize her research workflow and looks forward to teaching us all how to be better collaborative coders, and ensure our analysis is reproducible by others and by our future selves!

On Sunday none of us from the GEMM Lab participated in workshops and we were able to explore a little bit of the Bay of Fundy, an important area for many marine mammal species. Even though we didn’t spot any marine mammals, we enjoyed witnessing the enormous tidal exchange of the bay (the largest tides in the world), and the fall colors of the Annaoplis valley were stunning as well. Our little trip was fun and relaxing after a whole week of learning.

The beauty of the Bay of Fundy.

GEMM Lab at the Bay of Fundy; from left to right: Kelly Sullivan (Florence’s husband and a GEMM Lab fan), Florence Sullivan, Dawn Barlow, Solène Derville, and Leila Lemos.

We do love being part of the GEMM Lab!

It is amazing how refreshing it is to participate in a conference. So many ideas popping up in our heads and an increasing desire to continue doing research and work for conservation of marine mammals. Now it’s time to put all of our ideas and energy into practice back home! See you all in two years at the next conference in Barcelona!

Flying out of Halifax!

Hearing is believing

Dr. Leigh Torres, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab, Marine Mammal Institute, Oregon State University

Dr. Holger Klinck, Bioacoustics Research Program, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University

For too long the oil and gas industry has polluted the ocean with seismic airgun noise with little consequence. The industry uses seismic airguns in order to find their next lucrative reserve under the seafloor, and because their operations are out of sight and the noise is underwater many have not noticed this deafening (literally1) noise. As terrestrial and vision-dependent animals, we humans have a hard time appreciating the importance of sound in the marine environment. Most of the ocean is a dark place, where vision does not work well, so many animals are dependent on sound to survive. Especially marine mammals like whales and dolphins.

But, hearing is believing, so let’s have a listen to a recording of seismic airguns firing in the South Taranaki Bight (STB) of New Zealand, a known blue whale feeding area. This is a short audio clip of a seismic airgun firing every ~8 seconds (a typical pattern). Before you hit play, close your eyes and imagine you are a blue whale living in this environment.

Now, put that clip on loop and play it for three months straight. Yes, three months. This consistent, repetitive boom is what whales living in a region of oil and gas exploration hear, as seismic surveys often last 1-4 months.

So, how loud is that, really? Your computer or phone speaker is probably not good enough to convey the power of that sound (unless you have a good bass or sub-woofer hooked up). Industrial seismic airgun arrays are among the loudest man-made sources2 and the noise emitted by these arrays can travel thousands of kilometers3. Noise from a single seismic airgun survey can blanket an area of over 300,000 km2, raising local background noise levels 100-fold4.

Now, oil and gas representatives frequently defend their seismic airgun activities with two arguments, both of which are false. You can hear both these arguments made recently in this interview by a representative of the oil and gas industry in New Zealand defending a proposal to conduct a 3 month-long seismic survey in the STB while blue whales will be feeding there.

First, the oil and gas industry claim that whales and dolphins can just leave the area if they choose. But this is their home, where they live, where they feed and breed. These habitats are not just anywhere. Blue whales come to the STB to feed, to sustain their bodies and reproductive capacity. This habitat is special and is not available anywhere else nearby, so if a whale leaves the STB because of noise disturbance it may starve. Similarly, oil and gas representatives have falsely claimed that because whales stay in the area during seismic airgun activity this indicates they are not being disturbed. If you had the choice of starving or listening to seismic booming you might also choose the latter, but this does not mean you are not disturbed (or annoyed and stressed). Let’s think about this another way: imagine someone operating a nail gun for three months in your kitchen and you have nowhere else to eat. You would stay to feed yourself, but your stress level would elevate, health deteriorate, and potentially have hearing damage. During your next home renovation project you should be happy you have restaurants as alternative eateries. Whales don’t.

Second, the oil and gas industry have claimed that the frequency of seismic airguns is out of the hearing range of most whales and dolphins. This statement is just wrong. Let’s look at the spectrogram of the above played seismic airgun audio clip recorded in the STB. A spectrogram is a visual representation of sound (to help us vision-dependent animals interpret sound). Time is on the horizontal axis, frequency (pitch) is on the vertical axis, and the different colors on the image indicate the intensity of sound (loudness) with bright colors illustrating areas of higher noise. Easily seen is that as the seismic airgun blasts every ~8 seconds, there is elevated noise intensity across all frequencies (bright yellow, orange and green bands). This noise intensity is especially high in the 10 – 80 Hz frequency range, which is exactly where many large baleen whales – like the blue whale – hear and communicate.

A spectrogram of the above played seismic airgun audio clip recorded in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Airgun pulses every ~8 seconds are evident by elevated noise intensity across all frequencies (bright yellow, orange and green bands), which are especially intense in the 10 – 80 Hz frequency range.

In the big, dark ocean, whales use sound to communicate, find food, and navigate. So, let’s try to imagine what it’s like for a whale trying to communicate in an environment with seismic airgun activity. First, let’s listen to a New Zealand blue whale call (vocalization) recorded in the STB. [This audio clip is played at 10X the original speed so that it is more audible to the human hearing frequency range. You can see the real time scale in the top plot.]

Now, let’s look at a spectrogram of seismic airgun pulses and a blue whale call happening at the same time. The seismic airgun blasts are still evident every ~8 seconds, and the blue whale call is also evident at about the 25 Hz frequency (within the pink box). Because blue whales call at such a low frequency humans cannot hear their call when played at normal speed, so you will only hear the airgun pulses if you hit play. But you can see in the spectrogram that five airgun blasts overlapped with the blue whale call.

No doubt this blue whale heard the repetitive seismic airgun blasts, and vocalized in the same frequency range at the same time. Yet, the blue whale’s call was partially drowned out by the intense seismic airgun blasts. Did any other whale hear it? Could this whale hear other whales? Did it get the message across? Maybe, but probably not very well.

Some oil and gas representatives point toward their adherence to seismic survey guidelines and use of marine mammal observers to reduce their impacts on marine life. In New Zealand these guidelines only stop airgun blasting when animals are within 1000 m of the vessel (1.5 km if a calf is present), yet seismic airgun blasts are so intense that the noise travels much farther. So, while these guidelines may be a start, they only prevent hearing damage to whales and dolphins by stopping airguns from blasting right on top of animals.

So, what does this mean for whales and other marine animals living in habitat where seismic airguns are operating? It means their lives are disturbed and dramatically altered. Multiple scientific studies have shown that whales change behavior5, distribution6, and vocalization patterns7 when seismic airguns are active. Other marine life like squid8, spiny lobster9, scallops10, and plankton11 also suffer when exposed to airgun noise. The evidence has mounted. There is no longer a scientific debate: seismic airguns are harmful to marine animals and ecosystems.

What we are just starting to study and understand is the long-term and population level effects of seismic airguns on whales and other marine life. How do short term behavioral changes, movement to different areas, and different calling patterns impact an individual’s ability to survive or a population’s ability to persist? These are the important questions that need to be addressed now.

Seismic airgun surveys to find new oil and gas reserves are so pervasive in our global oceans, that airgun blasts are now heard year round in the equatorial Atlantic3, 12. As reserves shrink on land, the industry expands their search in our oceans, causing severe and persistent consequences to whales, dolphins and other marine life. The oil and gas industry must take ownership of the impacts of their seismic airgun activities. It’s imperative that political, management, scientific, and public pressure force a more complete assessment of each proposed seismic airgun survey, with an honest evaluation of the tradeoff between economic benefits and costs to marine life.

Here are a few ways we can reduce the impact of seismic airguns on marine life and ecosystems:

  • Restrict seismic airgun operation in and near sensitive environmental areas, such as marine mammal feeding and breeding areas.
  • Prohibit redundant seismic surveys in the same area. If one group has already surveyed an area, that data should be shared with other groups, perhaps after an embargo period.
  • Cap the number and duration of seismic surveys allowed each year by region.
  • Promote the use of renewable energy sources.
  • Develop new and quieter survey methods.

Even though we cannot hear the relentless booming, this does not mean it’s not happening and harming animals. Please listen one more time to 1 minute of what whales hear for months during seismic airgun operations.

 

More information on seismic airgun surveys and their impact on marine life:

Boom, Baby, Boom: The Environmental Impacts of Seismic Surveys

A Review of the Impacts of Seismic Airgun Surveys on Marine Life

Sonic Sea: Emmy award winning film about ocean noise pollution and its impact on marine mammals.

Atlantic seismic will impact marine mammals and fisheries

 

References:

  1. Gordon, J., et al., A review of the effects of seismic surveys on marine mammals. Marine Technology Society Journal, 2003. 37(4): p. 16-34.
  2. National Research Council (NRC), Ocean Noise and Marine Mammals. 2003, National Academy Press: Washington. p. 204.
  3. Nieukirk, S.L., et al., Sounds from airguns and fin whales recorded in the mid-Atlantic Ocean, 1999–2009. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 2012. 131(2): p. 1102-1112.
  4. Weilgart, L., A review of the impacts of seismic airgun surveys on marine life. 2013, Submitted to the CBD Expert Workshop on Underwater Noise and its Impacts on Marine and Coastal Biodiversity 25-27 February 2014: London, UK. .
  5. Miller, P.J., et al., Using at-sea experiments to study the effects of airguns on the foraging behavior of sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico. Deep Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers, 2009. 56(7): p. 1168-1181.
  6. Castellote, M., C.W. Clark, and M.O. Lammers, Acoustic and behavioural changes by fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) in response to shipping and airgun noise. Biological Conservation, 2012. 147(1): p. 115-122.
  7. Di lorio, L. and C.W. Clark, Exposure to seismic survey alters blue whale acoustic communication. Biology Letters, 2010. 6(1): p. 51-54.
  8. Fewtrell, J. and R. McCauley, Impact of air gun noise on the behaviour of marine fish and squid. Marine pollution bulletin, 2012. 64(5): p. 984-993.
  9. Fitzgibbon, Q.P., et al., The impact of seismic air gun exposure on the haemolymph physiology and nutritional condition of spiny lobster, Jasus edwardsii. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2017.
  10. Day, R.D., et al., Exposure to seismic air gun signals causes physiological harm and alters behavior in the scallop Pecten fumatus. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2017. 114(40): p. E8537-E8546.
  11. McCauley, R.D., et al., Widely used marine seismic survey air gun operations negatively impact zooplankton. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 2017. 1(7): p. s41559-017-0195.
  12. Haver, S.M., et al., The not-so-silent world: Measuring Arctic, Equatorial, and Antarctic soundscapes in the Atlantic Ocean. Deep Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers, 2017. 122: p. 95-104.

 

 

 

The five senses of fieldwork

By Leila Lemos, PhD student

 

This summer was full of emotions for me: I finally started my first fieldwork season after almost a year of classes and saw my first gray whale (love at first sight!).

During the fieldwork we use a small research vessel (we call it “Red Rocket”) along the Oregon coast to collect data for my PhD project. We are collecting gray whale fecal samples to analyze hormone variations; acoustic data to assess ambient noise changes at different locations and also variations before, during and after events like the “Halibut opener”; GoPro recordings to evaluate prey availability; photographs in order to identify each individual whale and assess body and skin condition; and video recordings through UAS (aka “drone”) flights, so we can measure the whales and classify them as skinny/fat, calf/juvenile/adult and pregnant/non-pregnant.

However, in order to collect all of these data, we need to first find the whales. This is when we use our first sense: vision. We are always looking at the horizon searching for a blow to come up and once we see it, we safely approach the animal and start watching the individual’s behavior and taking photographs.

If the animal is surfacing regularly to allow a successful drone overflight, we stay with the whale and launch the UAS in order to collect photogrammetry and behavior data.

Each team member performs different functions on the boat, as seen in the figure below.

Figure 1: UAS image showing each team members’ functions in the boat at the moment just after the UAS launch.
Figure 1: UAS image showing each team members’ functions in the boat at the moment just after the UAS launch.

 

While one member pilots the boat, another operates the UAS. Another team member is responsible for taking photos of the whales so we can match individuals with the UAS videos. And the last team member puts the calibration board of known length in the water, so that we can later calculate the exact size of each pixel at various UAS altitudes, which allows us to accurately measure whale lengths. Team members also alternate between these and other functions.

Sometimes we put the UAS in the air and no whales are at the surface, or we can’t find any. These animals only stay at the surface for a short period of time, so working with whales can be really challenging. UAS batteries only last for 15-20 minutes and we need to make the most of that time as we can. All of the members need to help the UAS pilot in finding whales, and that is when, besides vision, we need to use hearing too. The sound of the whale’s respiration (blow) can be very loud, especially when whales are closer. Once we find the whale, we give the location to the UAS pilot: “whale at 2 o’clock at 30 meters from the boat!” and the pilot finds the whale for an overflight.

The opposite – too many whales around – can also happen. While we are observing one individual or searching for it in one direction, we may hear a blow from another whale right behind us, and that’s the signal for us to look for other individuals too.

But now you might be asking yourself: “ok, I agree with vision and hearing, but what about the other three senses? Smell? Taste? Touch?” Believe it or not, this happens. Sometimes whales surface pretty close to the boat and blow. If the wind is in our direction – ARGHHHH – we smell it and even taste it (after the first time you learn to close your mouth!). Not a smell I recommend.

Fecal samples are responsible for the 5th sense: touch!

Once we identify that the whale pooped, we approach the fecal plume in order to collect as much fecal matter as possible (Fig.2).

Figure 2: A: the poop is identified; B: the boat approaches the feces that are floating at the surface (~30 seconds); C: one of the team members remains at the bow of the boat to indicate where the feces are; D: another team member collects it with a fine-mesh net. Filmed under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).
Figure 2: A: the poop is identified; B: the boat approaches the feces that are floating at the surface (~30 seconds); C: one of the team members remains at the bow of the boat to indicate where the feces are; D: another team member collects it with a fine-mesh net. Filmed under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).

 

After collecting the poop we transfer all of it from the net to a small jar that we then keep cool in an ice chest until we arrive back at the lab and put it in the freezer. So, how do we transfer the poop to the jar? By touching it! We put the jar inside the net and transfer each poop spot to the jar with the help of water pressure from a squeeze bottle full of ambient salt water.

Figure 3: Two gray whale individuals swimming around kelp forests. Filmed under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).
Figure 3: Two gray whale individuals swimming around kelp forests. Filmed under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).

 

That’s how we use our senses to study the whales, and we also use an underwater sensory system (a GoPro) to see what the whales were feeding on.

GoPro video of mysid swarms that we recorded near feeding gray whales in Port Orford in August 2016:

Our fieldwork is wrapping up this week, and I can already say that it has been a success. The challenging Oregon weather allowed us to work on 25 days: 6 days in Port Orford and 19 days in the Newport and Depoe Bay region, totaling 141 hours and 50 minutes of effort. We saw 195 whales during 97 different sightings and collected 49 fecal samples. We also performed 67 UAS flights, 34 drifter deployments (to collect acoustic data), and 34 GoPro deployments.

It is incredible to see how much data we obtained! Now starts the second part of the challenge: how to put all of this data together and find the results. My next steps are:

– photo-identification analysis;

– body and skin condition scoring of individuals;

– photogrammetry analysis;

– analysis of the GoPro videos to characterize prey;

– hormone analysis laboratory training in November at the Seattle Aquarium

 

For now, enjoy some pictures and a video we collected during the fieldwork this summer. It was hard to choose my favorite pictures from 11,061 photos and a video from 13 hours and 29 minutes of recording, but I finally did! Enjoy!

Figure 4: Gray whale breaching in Port Orford on August 27th. (Photo by Leila Lemos; Taken under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).
Figure 4: Gray whale breaching in Port Orford on August 27th. (Photo by Leila Lemos; Taken under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).

 

Figure 5: Rainbow formation through sunlight refraction on the water droplets of a gray whale individual's blow in Newport on September 15th. (Photo by Leila Lemos; Taken under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).
Figure 5: Rainbow formation through sunlight refraction on the water droplets of a gray whale individual’s blow in Newport on September 15th. (Photo by Leila Lemos; Taken under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis).

 

Likely gray whale nursing behavior (Taken under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis):

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.