Roger Payne: A life dedicated to whale conservation

By Dr. Alejandro A. Fernández Ajó, Postdoctoral Scholar, Marine Mammal Institute – OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna (GEMM) Lab.

On Saturday, June 10, Dr. Roger Payne passed away. Throughout his remarkable life, he made impactful contributions to the study, understanding, and conservation of whales. His passion, research, and advocacy efforts played a pivotal role in reshaping public perception, and thus promoting the conservation of these giants, profoundly influencing generations of researchers in the field of conservation biology, including myself.

Roger in Patagonia where here found his love for Southern Right Whales. Credit: Mariano Sironi.

Roger in Patagonia where here found his love for Southern Right Whales. Credit: Dr. Mariano Sironi / ICB.

In 1970, Roger and his first wife Katy Paine began the Southern Right Whale (SRW) Research Program in Patagonia, Argentina, which in 1996 was continued by the Whale Conservation Institute of Argentina (the ICB) , becoming the longest continually running research program on a great whale (based on known individuals) in existence. In this study, Dr. Payne recognized that individual whales can be identified by the unique marks on their heads, establishing an important milestone for photo-ID, a technique that forms the bedrock of whale science.

I am proud to say that I am part of his legacy, as a member of the ICB. With the SRW program, I continued advancing research on SRW through my doctoral dissertation by advancing methods in conservation physiology (see blog post) to understand the underlaying mechanisms affecting young whales’ mortality in Patagonia (see blog post ).

Probably, one of the most remarkable contributions of Dr. Payne to the field and to whale conservation was his groundbreaking discovery of the humpback whale song. In the mid-20th century, the world’s whale populations were intensively killed by commercial whalers, threatening their extinction. In the late 1960s, Payne and his collaborators unveiled the melodic symphonies of humpback whales, marking the start of modern whale biology and catalyzing the global conservationist movement “Save the Whales”. These haunting songs connected humans with these enigmatic animals in an emotional manner, raising public opinion and support for whale conservation that ultimately led to the global moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982.

Listen to this story on NPR featuring Roger Payne’s LP, ‘Songs of the Humpback Whale,’ released in 1970, which played a pivotal role in sparking the global environmental movement “Save the Whales”, helping whale populations on the brink of extinction. Photo: Ocean Alliance.

While he continued to believe that science provides essential information about the necessary changes needed to protect whales, Dr. Payne strongly believe in that the paths to accelerate these changes often involve a combination of activism and creative arts.

…All of the great movements in human history have been based not on data but on emotion and passion, and a dream of a better society and a better life. For unless people connect emotionally with a problem they won’t connect with the numbers and the data that describe its dimensions…

“…It seems highly likely that the changes we so desperately need will only come by invoking emotions, and that is something that poets, musicians, writers, playwrights, sculptors, painters, dancers, composers—in fact, creative people of every stripe do well, but that scientists do at their peril. For the real challenge here is to get the world to fall so deeply in love with Nature that we will no longer tolerate the destruction of creation, and will risk our careers and our lives to save all plankton, mosses, ferns, trees, flowers, jellyfish, crinoids, nautiloids, crabs, bees, butterflies, beetles, squid, fishes, frogs, turtles, birds, and mammals—in other words, we will fight to save all of the non-human “Other”…”

From the “Final Voyage

Roger Payne’s influence and legacy continue to inspire generations of scientists and conservationists. His work expanded our understanding of whales, deepened our empathy for these creatures, and paved the way for international collaborations aimed at protecting marine life and preserving our oceans. Today, there are many of us who, inspired by Roger, dedicate our lives to research, environmental education, and conservation. And following Roger’s teachings, we constantly ask questions to seek answers that allow us to continue learning about whales in a changing world.

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Familiar flukes and flanks: The 9th GRANITE field season is underway

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

The winds are consistently (and sometimes aggressively) blowing from the north here on the Oregon coast, which can only mean one thing – summer has arrived! Since mid-May, the GRANITE (Gray whale Response to Ambient Noise Informed by Technology and Ecology) team has been looking for good weather windows to survey for gray whales and we have managed to get five great field work days already. In today’s blog post, I am going to share what (and who) we have seen so far.

On our first day of the field season, PI Leigh Torres, postdoc KC Bierlich and myself, were joined by a special guest: Dr. Andy Read. Andy is the director of the Duke University Marine Lab, where he also runs his own lab, which focuses on conservation biology and ecology of marine vertebrates. Andy was visiting the Hatfield Marine Science Center as part of the Lavern Weber Visiting Scientist program and was hosted here by Leigh. For those of you that do not know, Andy was Leigh’s graduate school advisor at Duke where she completed her Master’s and doctoral degrees. It felt very special to have Andy on board our RHIB Ruby for the day and to introduce him to some friends of ours. The first whale we encountered that day was “Pacman”. While we are always excited to re-sight an individual that we know, this sighting was especially mind-blowing given the fact that Leigh had “just” seen Pacman approximately two months earlier in Guerrero Negro, one of the gray whale breeding lagoons in Mexico (read this blog about Leigh and Clara’s pilot project there). Aside from Pacman, we saw five other individuals, all of which we had seen during last year’s field season. 

The first day of field work for the 2023 GRANITE field season! From left to right: Leigh Torres, Lisa Hildebrand, Andy Read, and KC Bierlich. Source: L. Torres.

Since that first day on the water, we have conducted field work on four additional days and so far, we have only encountered known individuals in our catalog. This fact is exciting because it highlights the strong site fidelity that Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales have to areas within their feeding range. In fact, I am examining the residency and space use of each individual whale we have observed in our GRANITE study for one of my PhD chapters to better understand the level of fidelity individuals have to the central Oregon coast. Furthermore, this site fidelity underpins the unique, replicate data set on individual gray whale health and ecology that the GRANITE project has been able to progressively build over the years. So far during this field season in 2023, we have seen 13 unique individuals, flown the drone over 10 of them and collected four fecal samples from two, which represent critical data points from early on in the feeding season.

Our sightings this year have not only highlighted the high site fidelity of whales to our study area but have also demonstrated the potential for internal recruitment of calves born to “PCFG mothers” into the PCFG. Recruitment to a population can occur in two ways: externally (individuals immigrate into a population from another population) or internally (calves born to females that are part of the population return to, or stay, within their mothers’ population). Three of the whales we have seen so far this year are documented calves from females that are known to consistently use the PCFG range, including our central Oregon coast study area. In fact, we documented one of these calves, “Lunita”, just last year with her mother (see Clara’s recap of the 2022 field season blog for more about Lunita). The average calf survival estimate between 1997-2017 for the PCFG was 0.55 (Calambokidis et al. 2019), though it varied annually and widely (range: 0.34-0.94). Considering that there have been years with calf survival estimates as low as ~30%, it is therefore all the more exciting when we re-sight a documented calf, alive and well!

“Lunita”, an example of successful internal recruitment

We have also been collecting data on the habitat and prey in our study system by deploying our paired GoPro/RBR sensor system. We use the GoPro to monitor the benthic substrate type and relative prey densities in areas where whales are feeding. The RBR sensor collects high-frequency, in-situ dissolved oxygen and temperature data, enabling us to relate environmental metrics to relative prey measurements. Furthermore, we also collect zooplankton samples with a net to assess prey community and quality. On our five field work days this year, we have predominantly collected mysid shrimp, including gravid (a.k.a. pregnant) individuals, however we have also caught some Dungeness and porcelain crab larvae. The GEMM Lab is also continuing our collaboration with Dr. Susanne Brander’s lab at OSU and her PhD student Lauren Kashiwabara, who plan on conducting microplastic lab experiments on wild-caught mysid shrimp. Their plan is to investigate the growth rates of mysid shrimp under different temperature, dissolved oxygen, and microplastic load conditions. However, before they can begin their experiments, they need to successfully culture the mysids in the lab, which is why we collect samples for them to use as their ‘starter culture’. Stay tuned to hear more about this project as it develops!

So, all in all, it has been an incredibly successful start to our field season, marked by the return of many familiar flukes and flanks! We are excited to continue collecting rock solid GRANITE data this summer to increase our efforts to understand gray whale ecology and physiology. 



Calambokidis, J., Laake, J., and Perez, A. (2019). Updated analyses of abundance and population structure of seasonal gray whales in the Pacific Northwest, 1996-2017. IWC, SC/A17/GW/05 for the Workshop on the Status of North Pacific Gray Whales. La Jolla: IWC.

Title: “Blown away”: measuring the blowholes of whales from drones

By Annie Doron, Undergraduate Intern, Oregon State University, GEMM Laboratory  

Hey up! My name is Annie Doron, and I am an undergraduate Environmental Science student from the University of Sheffield (UK) on my study year abroad. One of my main motivations for undertaking this year abroad was to gain experience working in a marine megafauna lab. Whales in particular have always captivated my interest, and I have been lucky enough to observe  humpback whales in Iceland and The Azores, and even encountered one whilst diving in Australia! For the past 10 months, I have had the unique opportunity to work in the GEMM Lab analyzing Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales off the Oregon Coast (Figure 1). I must admit, it has been simply wonderful! 

Figure 1. Aerial image of a PCFG gray whale off the Oregon Coast. 

How did I end up getting involved with the GEMM Lab? I was first accepted into Scarlett Arbuckle’s research-based class in fall term 2022, which is centered around partnering with a mentor for a research project. Having explored the various fields of research at HMSC, I contacted Leigh Torres with interest in getting involved in the GEMM Lab and to establish a research project suitable for a totally inexperienced, international, undergraduate student. Thankfully, Leigh forwarded my email to KC Bierlich who offered to be my mentor for the class, and the rest is history! I first began analyzing drone imagery to measure length and body condition of  PCFG gray whales, which provided an opportunity to get involved with the lab and gain experience using the photogrammetry software MorphoMetriX (Torres & Bierlich, 2020) (see KC’s blog), which is used to make morphometric measurements of whales. Viewing drone imagery of whales sparked my interest in how they use their blowholes (otherwise called ‘nares’) to replenish their oxygen stores; this led to us establishing a research project for the class where we tested if we could use MorphoMetriX to measure blowholes from drone imagery.

Extending this project into winter and spring terms (via research credits) has enabled me to continue working with Leigh and KC, as well as to collaborate with Clara Bird and Jim Sumich. Thanks to KC, who has patiently guided me through the ins and outs of working on a research project, I now feel more confident handling and manipulating large datasets, analyzing drone footage (i.e., differentiating between behavioral states, recording breathing sequences, detecting when a whale is exhaling vs inhaling, etc.), and speaking in public (although I still get pretty bad stage fright, but I think that is a typical conundrum undergrads face). Whatsmore, applying  R – a programming language used for statistical analysis and data visualization, which I have been trying to wrap my head around for years – to my own dataset has helped me greatly enhance my skills using it. 

So, what exciting things have we been working on this year? Given that we often cannot simply study a whale from inside a laboratory – due to size-related logistical implications – we must use proxies (i.e., a variable that is representative of an immeasurable variable). Since cetaceans must return to the surface to offload carbon dioxide and replenish their oxygen stores, measuring their breath frequency and magnitude is one way to study a whale’s oxygen consumption, in turn offering insight into its energy expenditure (Williams, 1999). Blowholes are one proxy we can use to study breath magnitude. Blowholes can be utilized in this way by measuring inhalation duration (the amount of time a whale is inhaling, which is based on a calculation developed by Jim Sumich) and blowhole area (the total area of a blowhole) to gauge variations in tidal volume (the amount of air flowing in and out of the lungs).

Measuring inhalation duration and blowhole area is important because a larger blowhole area (i.e., one that is more dilated) and a longer inhalation duration is indicative of higher oxygen intake, which can infer stress. For example, in this population, higher stress levels are associated with increased vessel traffic (Lemos et al., 2022), and skinnier whales have higher stress levels compared to chubby, healthy whales (Lemos, Olsen, et al., 2022). Hence, measuring the variation around blowholes could be utilized to predict challenges whales face from climate change and anthropogenic disturbance, including fishing (Scordino et al., 2017) and whale watching industry threats (Sullivan & Torres, 2018) (see Clara’s blog), as well as to inform effective management strategies. Furthermore, measuring the variables inhalation duration and blowhole area could help to identify whether whales are taking larger breaths associated with certain ‘gross behavior states’, otherwise known as ‘primary states’, which include: travel, forage, rest, social (Torres et al., 2018). This could enable us to assess the energetic costs of different foraging tactics (i.e., head standing, side-swimming, and bubble blasting (Torres et al., 2018), as well as consequences of disturbance events, on an individual and population health perspective. 

Inhalation duration has been explored in the past by using captive animals. For example, there have been studies on heart rate and breathing of bottlenose dolphins in human care facilities (Blawas et al., 2021; Fahlman et al., 2015). Recently, Nazario et al. (2022) was able to measure inhalation duration and blowhole area using suction-cup video tags. Her study led us to consider if it was possible to measure the parameters and variation around respiration by measuring blowhole area and inhalation duration of PCFGs from drone imagery. We employed MorphoMetriX to study the length, width, and area of a blowhole (Figure 2). Preliminary analyses verified that the areas of the left and right blowholes are very similar (Figure 3); this finding saved us a lot of time because from thereon we only measured either the left or right side. Interestingly, we see some variation in blowhole area within and across individuals (Figure 4). This variation changes within individuals based on primary state. For example, the whales “Glacier”, “Nimbus”, and “Rat” show very little variation whilst traveling but a large amount whilst foraging. Comparatively, “Dice” shows little variation whilst foraging and large variation whilst traveling. Whilst considering cross-individual comparisons, we can see that “Sole”, “Rat”, “Nimbus”, “Heart”, “Glacier”, “Dice”, and “Coal” each exhibit relatively large amounts of variation, yet “Mahalo”, “Luna”, “Harry”, “Hummingbird” and “Batman” exhibit very little. One potential reason for some individuals displaying higher levels of variation than others could be higher levels of exposure to disturbance events that we were unable to measure or evaluate in this study.

Figure 2. How we measured the length, width, and area of a blowhole using MorphoMetriX.

Figure 3. Data driven evidence that the left and the right blowhole areas are very similar. 

Figure 4. Variation in blowhole area amongst individual PCFG whales. The hollow circles represent the means, and the color represents the primary state the whale is exhibiting, foraging (purple) vs. traveling (blue), which will be further explored in Clara’s PhD.

Now, we are venturing into June and are at a stage where we (KC, Clara, Jim, Leigh, and I) are preparing to publish a manuscript! What a way to finish such a fantastic year! The transition from a 3-month-long pilot study to a much larger data analysis and eventual preparation for a manuscript has been a monumental learning experience. If anybody had told me a year ago that I would be involved in publishing a body of work – especially one that is so meaningful to me – I would simply not have believed them! We hope this established methodology for measuring blowholes will help other researchers carry out blowhole measurements using drone imagery across different populations and species. Further research is required to explore the differences in inhalation duration and blowhole area between different primary states, specifically across different foraging tactics.

It has been a great privilege working with the GEMM Lab these past months, and I was grateful to be included in their monthly lab meetings, during which members gave updates and we discussed recently published papers. Seeing such an enthusiastic, kind, and empathic group of people working together taught me what working in a supportive lab could look and feel like. In spite of relocating from Corvallis to Bend after my first term, I was happy to be able to continue working remotely for the lab for the remainder of my time (even though I was ~200 miles inland). I thoroughly enjoyed living in Corvallis, highlights of which were scuba diving adventures to the Puget Sound and coastal road trips with friends. The appeal to move arose from Bend’s reputation as an adventure hub – with unlimited opportunities for backcountry ski access – as well as its selection of wildlife ecology courses (with a focus on species specific to central Oregon). I moved into ‘Bunk & Brew’ (Bend’s only hostel, which is more like a big house of friends with occasional hostel guests) on January 1st after returning from spending Christmas with friends in my old home in Banff, Canada. I have since been enjoying this wonderful multifaceted lifestyle; working remotely in the GEMM Lab, attending in-person classes, working part-time at the hostel, as well as skiing volcanoes (Mount Hood, Middle and South Sister (Figure 5) or climbing at Smith Rock during my days off. Inevitably, I do miss the beautiful Oregon coast, and I will always be grateful for this ideal opportunity and hope this year marks the start of my marine megafauna career!

Figure 5. What I get up to when I’m not studying blowholes! (This was taken at 5am on the long approach to Middle and North Sister. North Sister is the peak featured in the backdrop).


Blawas, A. M., Nowacek, D. P., Allen, A. S., Rocho-Levine, J., & Fahlman, A. (2021). Respiratory sinus arrhythmia and submersion bradycardia in bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Journal of Experimental Biology, 224(1), jeb234096.

Fahlman, A., Loring, S. H., Levine, G., Rocho-Levine, J., Austin, T., & Brodsky, M. (2015). Lung mechanics and pulmonary function testing in cetaceans. Journal of Experimental Biology, 218(13), 2030–2038.

Lemos, L. S., Haxel, J. H., Olsen, A., Burnett, J. D., Smith, A., Chandler, T. E., Nieukirk, S. L., Larson, S. E., Hunt, K. E., & Torres, L. G. (2022). Effects of vessel traffic and ocean noise on gray whale stress hormones. Scientific Reports, 12(1), 18580.

Lemos, L. S., Olsen, A., Smith, A., Burnett, J. D., Chandler, T. E., Larson, S., Hunt, K. E., & Torres, L. G. (2022). Stressed and slim or relaxed and chubby? A simultaneous assessment of gray whale body condition and hormone variability. Marine Mammal Science, 38(2), 801–811.

Nazario, E. C., Cade, D. E., Bierlich, K. C., Czapanskiy, M. F., Goldbogen, J. A., Kahane-Rapport, S. R., van der Hoop, J. M., San Luis, M. T., & Friedlaender, A. S. (2022). Baleen whale inhalation variability revealed using animal-borne video tags. PeerJ, 10, e13724.

Scordino, J., Carretta, J., Cottrell, P., Greenman, J., Savage, K., & Scordino, J. (2017). Ship Strikes and Entanglements of Gray Whales in the North Pacific Ocean. Cambridge: International Whaling Commission, 1924–2015.

Sullivan, F. A., & Torres, L. G. (2018). Assessment of vessel disturbance to gray whales to inform sustainable ecotourism: Vessel Disturbance to Whales. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 82(5), 896–905.

Sumich, J. L. (1994). Oxygen extraction in free-swimming gray whale caves. Marine Mammal Science, 10(2), 226–230.

Torres, W., & Bierlich, K. (2020). MorphoMetriX: A photogrammetric measurement GUI for morphometric analysis of megafauna. Journal of Open Source Software, 5(45), 1825.

Torres, L. G., Nieukirk, S. L., Lemos, L., & Chandler, T. E. (2018). Drone Up! Quantifying Whale Behavior From a New Perspective Improves Observational Capacity. Frontiers in Marine Science, 5, 319.
Williams, T. M. (1999). The evolution of cost efficient swimming in marine mammals: Limits to energetic optimization. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 354(1380), 193–201.

As waters warm, what are “anomalous conditions” in the face of climate change?

By Dr. Dawn Barlow, Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the Effects of Climate Change on the World’s Ocean (ECCWO) conference. This meeting brought together experts from around the world for one week in Bergen, Norway, to gather and share the latest information on how oceans are changing, what is at risk, responses that are underway, and strategies for increasing climate resilience, mitigation, and adaptation. I presented our recent findings from the EMERALD project, which examines gray whale and harbor porpoise distribution in the Northern California Current over the past three decades. Beyond sharing my postdoctoral research widely for the first time and receiving valuable feedback, the ECCWO conference was an incredibly fruitful learning experience. Marine mammals can be notoriously difficult to study, and often the latest methodological approaches or conceptual frameworks take some time to make their way into the marine mammal field. At ECCWO, I was part of discussions at the ground floor of how the scientific community can characterize the impacts of climate change on the ecosystems, species, and communities we study.

One particular theme became increasingly apparent to me throughout the conference: as the oceans warm, what are “anomalous conditions”? There was an interesting dichotomy between presentations focusing on “extreme events,” “no-analog conditions,” or “non-stationary responses,” compared with discussions about the overall trend of increasing temperatures due to climate change. Essentially, the question that kept arising was, what is our frame of reference? When measuring change, how do we define the baseline?

Marine heatwaves have emerged as an increasingly prevalent phenomenon in recent years (see previous GEMM Lab blogs about marine heatwaves here and here). The currently accepted and typically applied definition of a marine heatwave is when water temperatures exceed a seasonal threshold (greater than the 90th percentile) for a given length of time (five consecutive days or longer) (Hobday et al. 2016). These marine heatwaves can have substantial ecosystem-wide impacts including changes in water column structure, primary production, species composition, distribution, and health, and fisheries management such as closures and quota changes (Cavole et al. 2016, Oliver et al. 2018). Through some of our own previous research, we documented that blue whales in Aotearoa New Zealand shifted their distribution (Barlow et al. 2020) and reduced their reproductive effort (Barlow et al. 2023) in response to marine heatwaves. Concerningly, recent projections anticipate an increase in the frequency, intensity, and duration of marine heatwaves under global climate change (Frölicher et al. 2018, Oliver et al. 2018).

However, as the oceans continue to warm, what baseline do we use to define anomalous events like marine heatwaves? Members of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Ecosystem Task Force recently put forward a comment article in Nature, proposing revised definitions for marine heatwaves under climate change, so that coastal communities have the clear information they need to adapt (Amaya et al. 2023). The authors posit that while a “fixed baseline” approach, which compares current conditions to an established period in the past and has been commonly used to-date (Hobday et al. 2016), may be useful in scenarios where a species’ physiological limit is concerned (e.g., coral bleaching), this definition does not incorporate the combined effect of overall warming due to climate change. A “shifting baseline” approach to defining marine heatwaves, in contrast, uses a moving window definition for what is considered “normal” conditions. Therefore, this shifting baseline approach would account for long-term warming, while also calculating anomalous conditions relative to the current state of the system.

An overview of two different definitions for marine heatwaves, relative to either fixed or shifting baselines. Reproduced from Amaya et al. 2023.

Why bother with these seemingly nuanced definitions and differences in terminology, such as fixed versus shifting baselines for defining marine heatwave events? The impacts of these events can be extreme, and potentially bear substantial consequences to ecosystems, species, and coastal communities that rely on marine resources. With the fixed baseline definition, we may be headed toward perpetual heatwave conditions (i.e., it’s almost always hotter than it used to be), at which point disentangling the overall warming trends from these short-term extremes becomes nearly impossible. What the shifting baseline definition means in practice, however, is that in the future temperatures would need to be substantially higher than the historical average in order to qualify as a marine heatwave, which could obscure public perception from the concerning reality of warming oceans. Yet, the authors of the Nature comment article claim, “If everything is extremely warm all of the time, then the term ‘extreme’ loses its meaning. The public might become desensitized to the real threat of marine heatwaves, potentially leading to inaction or a lack of preparedness.” Therefore, clear messaging surrounding both long-term warming and short-term anomalous conditions are critically important for adaptation and resource allocation in the face of rapid environmental change.

While the findings presented and discussed at an international climate change conference could be considered quite disheartening, I left the ECCWO conference feeling re-invigorated with hope. Crown Prince Haakon of Norway gave the opening plenary and articulated that “We need wise and concerned scientists in our search for truth”. Later in the week, I was a co-convenor of a session that gathered early-career ocean professionals, where we discussed themes such as how we deal with uncertainty in our own climate change-related ocean research, and importantly, how do we communicate our findings effectively. Throughout the meeting, I had formal and informal discussions about methods and analytical techniques, and also about what connects each of us to the work that we do. Interacting with driven and dedicated researchers across a broad range of disciplines and career stages gave me some renewed hope for a future of ocean science and marine conservation that is constructive, collaborative, and impactful.

Enjoying the ~anomalously~ sunny April weather in Bergen, Norway, during the ECCWO conference.

Now, as I am diving back in to understanding the impacts of environmental conditions on harbor porpoise and gray whale habitat use patterns through the EMERALD project, I am keeping these themes and takeaways from the ECCWO conference in mind. The EMERALD project draws on a dataset that is about as old as I am, which gives me some tangible perspective on how things have things changed in the Northern California Current during my lifetime. We are grappling with what “anomalous” conditions are in this dynamic upwelling system on our doorstep, whether these anomalies are even always bad, and how conditions continue to change in terms of cyclical oscillations, long-term trends, and short-term events. Stay tuned for what we’ll find, as we continue to disentangle these intertwined patterns of change.

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Amaya DJ, Jacox MG, Fewings MR, Saba VS, Stuecker MF, Rykaczewski RR, Ross AC, Stock CA, Capotondi A, Petrik CM, Bograd SJ, Alexander MA, Cheng W, Hermann AJ, Kearney KA, Powell BS (2023) Marine heatwaves need clear definitions so coastal communities can adapt. Nature 616:29–32.

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, Branch TA, Torres LG (2023) Environmental conditions and marine heatwaves influence blue whale foraging and reproductive effort. Ecol Evol 13:e9770.

Cavole LM, Demko AM, Diner RE, Giddings A, Koester I, Pagniello CMLS, Paulsen ML, Ramirez-Valdez A, Schwenck SM, Yen NK, Zill ME, Franks PJS (2016) Biological impacts of the 2013–2015 warm-water anomaly in the northeast Pacific: Winners, losers, and the future. Oceanography 29:273–285.

Frölicher TL, Fischer EM, Gruber N (2018) Marine heatwaves under global warming. Nature 560.

Hobday AJ, Alexander L V., Perkins SE, Smale DA, Straub SC, Oliver ECJ, Benthuysen JA, Burrows MT, Donat MG, Feng M, Holbrook NJ, Moore PJ, Scannell HA, Sen Gupta A, Wernberg T (2016) A hierarchical approach to defining marine heatwaves. Prog Oceanogr.

Oliver ECJ, Donat MG, Burrows MT, Moore PJ, Smale DA, Alexander L V., Benthuysen JA, Feng M, Sen Gupta A, Hobday AJ, Holbrook NJ, Perkins-Kirkpatrick SE, Scannell HA, Straub SC, Wernberg T (2018) Longer and more frequent marine heatwaves over the past century. Nat Commun 9:1–12.

SST, EKE, SSH: Wading Through the Alphabet Soup of Oceanographic Parameters related to Deep-Dwelling Odontocetes

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

Predator-Prey Inference: A Tale as Old as Time

It’s a tale as old as time: where there’s prey, there’ll be predators.

As apex predators, cetaceans act as top-down regulators of ecosystem function. While baleen whales act as “ecosystem engineers,” facilitating nutrient cycling in the ocean (Roman et al., 2014), toothed whales, or “odontocetes,” can impart keystone-level effects — that is, they disproportionately control the marine community’s food-web structure (Valls, Coll, & Christensen, 2015). The menus of prey vary widely by species — ranging from mircronekton to fish to squid – and by extension, vary widely across trophic levels.

So, it naturally follows the old adage: where there’s an abundance of prey, there’ll be an abundance of cetaceans. Yet, creating models that accurately depict this predator-prey relationship is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not as straightforward.

Detecting the ‘Predator’ Half of the Equation

Scientists have successfully documented cetacean presence drawing upon a myriad of methods, each bearing its unique advantages and limitations.

Visual surveys — spanning viewpoints from land, boats, and air — can attain precise spatial data and species ID. However, this data can be constrained by “availability bias” — that is, scientists can only observe cetaceans visible at the surface, not those obscured by the ocean’s depths. Species that spend less time near the surface are more likely to elude the observer’s line of sight, thereby being missed in the data. Consequently, visual surveys have historically undersampled deep-diving species. For instance, since its discovery by western science in 1945, the Hubb’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon carlshubbi) has only been observed alive twice by OSU MMI’s very own Bob Pitman, once in 1994 and another time in 2021.

Scientists have also been increasingly conducting acoustic surveys to document cetacean presence. Acoustic recorders can “hear” each cetacean species at different ranges. Baleen whales, which bellow low-frequency calls, can be heard as far as across ocean basins (Munk et al., 1994). Toothed whales whistle, echolocate, and buzz at frequencies so high they’re considered ultrasonic. But it comes at a trade-off: high-frequency sounds have shorter wavelengths, meaning they are heard across smaller ranges. This high variability, which scientists refer to as “detection range,” translates to not always knowing where the vocalizing cetacean that was recorded is: as such, acoustic data can lack the high-resolution spatial precision often achieved by visual surveys. Nevertheless, acoustic data triumphs in temporal extent, sometimes managing to record continuously at six months at a time. Additionally, animals can elude visual detection in poor weather conditions or if they have a cryptic surface expression, but detected in acoustic surveys (e.g., North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) (Ganley, Brault, & Mayo, 2019; Clark et. al, 2010). Thus, acoustic surveys may be especially optimal for recording elusive deep-dwellers that occupy the often rough Oregon waters, such as beaked whales, the focus of my research in collaboration with the GEMM Lab.

Figure 1: HALO Project researchers Marissa Garcia (left; Yang Center via Cornell) and Imogen Lucciano (right; OSU MMI) among three Rockhopper acoustic recording units, ahead of deployment off the Oregon coast. Credit: Marissa Garcia.

Detecting the ‘Prey’ Half of the Equation

Prey can be measured by numerous methods. Most directly, prey can be measured “in-situ” — that is, prey is collected directly from the site where the cetaceans are detected or observed. A 2020 study combined fish trawls with a towed hydrophone array to identify which fish species odontocetes along the continental shelf of West Ireland (e.g., pilot whales, sperm whales, and Sowerby’s beaked whales) were feasting; the results found that odontocetes primarily fed upon mesopelagic fish and cephalopods (Breen et al., 2020). While trawls can glean species ID of prey, associating this prey data with depth and biomass can prove challenging.

Alternatively, prey can be detected via active acoustics. Echosounders release an acoustic signal that descends through the water column and then echoes back once it hits a sound-scattering organism. Beaked whales forage within deep scattering layers typically composed of myctophid fish and squid, both of which can echo back echosounder pings (Hazen et al., 2011). Thus, echosounder data can map prey density through the water column. When mapping prey density of beaked whales, Hazen et al. 2011 found a strong positive correlation among prey density, ocean vertical structure, and clicks primarily produced while foraging – suggesting beaked whales forage at depth when encountering large, multi-species aggregations of prey.

Figure 2: An example of prey mapping via a Simrad EK60 120 kHz split-beam echosounder. Credit: Rachel Kaplan (OSU MMI) via the HALO Project.

Most relevant to the HALO Project, prey is measured using proximate indices, which are more easily quantifiable metrics of ocean conditions, such as collected from ships via CTD casts or via satellite imagery, that are indirectly related to prey abundance. CTD data can provide information related to the water column structure, including depth and strength of the thermocline, depth of the mixed layer, depth of the euphotic zone, and total chlorophyll concentration in the euphotic zone (Redfern et al. 2006). Satellite imagery can characterize the dynamic patterns of the surface later, including sea surface temperature (SST), salinity, surface chlorophyll a, sea surface height (SSH), and sea surface currents (Virgili et al., 2022; Redfern et al., 2006). Ocean model data products can, such as the Regional Ocean Modeling System (ROMS) which models how an oceanic region of interest responds to physical processes, can provide water column variables related to eddy kinetic energy (EKE) and average temperature gradients (Virgili et al., 2022). In the case of my research with the HALO Project, we will be using oceanographic data collected through the Ocean Observatories Initiative to inform odontocete species distribution models.

Connecting the Dots: Linking Deep-Dwelling Top Predators and Prey

While scientists have made significant advances with collecting both cetacean and prey data, connecting the dots between the ecology of deep-dwelling odontocetes and the oceanographic parameters indicative of their prey still remains a challenge.

In the absence of in situ sampling, species distribution models of marine top predators often derive proxies for “prey data” from static bathymetric and dynamic surface water variables (Virgili et al., 2022). However, surface variables may be irrelevant to toothed whale prey inhabiting great depths (Virgili et al., 2022). Within the HALO Project, the deepest Rockhopper acoustic recording unit is recording odontocetes at nearly 3,000 m below the surface, putting into question the relevance of oceanographic parameters collected at the surface.

Figure 3: Schematic depicting the variation among different zones in the water column. Conditions at the surface may not represent conditions at depth. Credit: Barbara Ambrose, NOAA via NOAA Ocean Explorer.

In my research, I am setting out to estimate which oceanographic variables are optimal for explaining deep-dwelling odontocete presence. A 2022 study using visual survey data found that surface, subsurface, and static variables best explained beaked whale presence, whereas only surface and deep-water variables – not static – best explained sperm whale presence (Virgili et al., 2022). These results are associated with each species’ distinct foraging ecologies; beaked whales may truly only rely on organisms that live near the seabed, whereas sperm whales also feast upon meso-to-bathypelagic organisms, so they may be more sensitive to changes in water column conditions (Virgili et al., 2022). This study expanded the narrative: deep-water variables can also be key to predicting deep-dwelling odontocete presence. The oceanographic variables must be tailored to the ecology of each species of interest.

In the months ahead, I seek to build on this study by investigating which parameters best predict odontocete presence using an acoustic approach instead — I am looking forward to the results to come!



Breen, P., Pirotta, E., Allcock, L., Bennison, A., Boisseau, O., Bouch, P., Hearty, A., Jessopp, M., Kavanagh, A., Taite, M., & Rogan, E. (2020). Insights into the habitat of deep diving odontocetes around a canyon system in the northeast Atlantic ocean from a short multidisciplinary survey. Deep-Sea Research. Part I, Oceanographic Research Papers, 159, 103236.

Clark, C.W., Brown, M.W., & Corkeron, P. (2010). Visual and acoustic surveys

for North Atlantic right whales, Eubalaena glacialis, in Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts, 2001–2005: Management implications. Marine Mammal Science, 26(4), 837-854.

Ganley, L.C., Brault, S., & Mayo, C.A. (2019). What we see is not what there is: Estimating North Atlantic right whale Eubalaena glacialis local abundance. Endangered Species Research, 38, 101-113.

Hazen, E. L., Nowacek, D. P., St Laurent, L., Halpin, P. N., & Moretti, D. J. (2011). The relationship among oceanography, prey fields, and beaked whale foraging habitat in the Tongue of the Ocean. PloS One, 6(4), e19269–e19269.

Munk, W. H., Spindel, R. C., Baggeroer, A., & Birdsall, T. G. (1994). The Heard Island Feasibility Test. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 96(4), 2330–2342.

Redfern, J. V., Ferguson, M. C., Becker, E. A., Hyrenbach, K. D., Good, C., Barlow, J., Kaschner, K., Baumgartner, M. F., Forney, K. A., Ballance, L. T., Fauchald, P., Halpin, P., Hamazaki, T., Pershing, A. J., Qian, S. S., Read, A., Reilly, S. B., Torres, L., & Werner, F. (2006). Techniques for cetacean–habitat modeling. Marine Ecology. Progress Series (Halstenbek), 310, 271–295.

Roman, J., Estes, J. A., Morissette, L., Smith, C., Costa, D., McCarthy, J., Nation, J., Nicol, S., Pershing, A., & Smetacek, V. (2014). Whales as marine ecosystem engineers. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 12(7), 377–385.

Valls, A., Coll, M., & Christensen, V. (2015). Keystone species: toward an operational concept for marine biodiversity conservation. Ecological Monographs, 85(1), 29–47.

Virgili, A., Teillard, V., Dorémus, G., Dunn, T. E., Laran, S., Lewis, M., Louzao, M., Martínez-Cedeira, J., Pettex, E., Ruiz, L., Saavedra, C., Santos, M. B., Van Canneyt, O., Vázquez Bonales, J. A., & Ridoux, V. (2022). Deep ocean drivers better explain habitat preferences of sperm whales Physeter macrocephalus than beaked whales in the Bay of Biscay. Scientific Reports, 12(1), 9620–9620.

Dealing with uncertainty in ecology and conservation biology

By Dr. Alejandro A. Fernández Ajó, Postdoctoral Scholar, Marine Mammal Institute – OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna (GEMM) Lab. 

Ecological research focuses on understanding how species and ecosystems interact and function, as well as understanding what drives changes in these interactions and functions over time. Thus, ecology is a critical component of conservation biology. Although uncertainty is present in any research, it is a pervasive characteristic of ecology and conservation biology, often due to our inability to control the complexity of natural systems. Uncertainty poses challenges to decision-making, policy development, and effective conservation strategies, and therefore needs to be understood and addressed when conducting ecological studies and conservation efforts.

There are several sources of uncertainty in ecological research and conservation biology. One of the primary sources arises from incomplete or limited data (epistemic uncertainty). Ecological systems are complex, and obtaining comprehensive data on all relevant variables and scales is often challenging or impossible. Data may be lacking or unavailable for certain species, habitats, or regions, which can hinder the ability to fully understand ecological dynamics and make accurate predictions. Additionally, ecological data may be uncertain or variable due to measurement errors (see blog post), sampling biases, or changes in data collection methods over time (Regan et al. 2002). Furthermore, another source of uncertainty arises from language (linguistic uncertainty). Linguistic uncertainty can result from lack of agreement in the terms and definitions used in the scientific vocabulary (see blog post), which can often result in ambiguous, vague, or context dependent interpretations (Regan et al 2002). These two source-types of uncertainty can create a complex set of challenges.

Uncertainty in ecological research and conservation biology has important implications for decision-making and policy development. When faced with uncertain information, decision-makers may adopt a cautious approach, leading to delayed or ineffective conservation actions. Alternatively, they may make decisions based on incomplete or biased data, which can lead to unintended consequences or wasted resources. Uncertainty can also affect the public’s perception of ecological issues, leading to skepticism, misinformation, or lack of support for conservation initiatives. In addition, uncertainty can also pose challenges in setting conservation priorities. With limited resources, conservation organizations and policymakers must prioritize efforts to protect species or habitats that are at the greatest risk. However, uncertainties in data or predictions can affect the accuracy of risk assessments, leading to potential misallocation of resources. Finally, uncertainty may also arise when assessing the success of conservation interventions, making it difficult to determine the effectiveness of the conservation actions.

Despite the challenges posed by uncertainty, there are ways to address and mitigate its impacts in ecological research and conservation biology. Here are some strategies that the GEMM Lab implements to navigate these nuances in ecological research:

Improving data quality and quantity: Robust data can provide a more accurate understanding of ecological dynamics and facilitate evidence-based decision-making. In this direction, the GEMM Lab develops comprehensive data collection and monitoring efforts that can help reduce uncertainty. The TOPAZ and GRANITE projects, which study gray whale ecology off the Oregon coast, are good examples in this direction due to continuous research efforts since 2015. With these projects we have developed and standardized data collection and analytical methods, improved data accuracy and precision, and are filling knowledge gaps through targeted research.

Emphasizing adaptive management: Adaptive management is an approach that involves learning from ongoing conservation actions and adjusting strategies based on new information (Allen et al. 2015). This approach recognizes that uncertainties are inherent in ecological systems and promotes flexibility in conservation planning. Monitoring and evaluating conservation interventions, and adjusting management strategies, accordingly, can help mitigate the impacts of uncertainty. With OBSIDIAN, OPAL, and HALO projects the GEMM Lab works towards a better understanding of cetaceans’ distribution and its interactions with the oceanographic conditions (e.g., ocean temperature). These research projects can help to forecast the occurrence of whale aggregations and inform management to reduce conflicts when overlapping with human activities. For instance, results from the OPAL project have been incorporated into Dungeness Crab fishing regulations to reduce entanglement risk to whales, and the GEMM Lab is now investigating the effectiveness of these regulations in the SLATE project.

With these projects, along with the many other research efforts conducted by the GEMM lab and the MMI, we are advancing research in marine ecology, through the development and application the best possible science to generate the needed ecological data for effective conservation and management of the marine environment.

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Regan, H. M., Colyvan, M., & Burgman, M. A. (2002). A taxonomy and treatment of uncertainty for ecology and conservation biology. Ecological applications, 12(2), 618-628.

Allen, C. R., & Garmestani, A. S. (2015). Adaptive management (pp. 1-10). Springer Netherlands.

New GEMM Lab publication reveals how blue whale feeding and reproductive effort are related to environmental conditions

By Dr. Dawn Barlow, Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Learning by listening

Studying mobile marine animals that are only fleetingly visible from the water’s surface is challenging. However, many species including baleen whales rely on sound as a primary form of communication, producing different vocalizations related to their fundamental needs to feed and reproduce. Therefore, we can learn a lot about these elusive animals by monitoring the patterns of their calls. In the final chapter of my PhD, we set out to study blue whale ecology and life history by listening. I am excited to share our findings, recently published in Ecology and Evolution.

Blue whales produce two distinct types of vocalizations: song is produced by males and is hypothesized to play a role in breeding behavior, and D calls are a hypothesized social call produced by both sexes in association with feeding behavior. We analyzed how these different calls varied seasonally, and how they related to environmental conditions.

This paper is a collaborative study co-authored by Dr. Holger Klinck and Dimitri Ponirakis of the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics, Dr. Trevor Branch of the University of Washington, and GEMM Lab PI Dr. Leigh Torres, and brings together multiple methods and data sources. Our findings shed light on blue whale habitat use patterns, and how climate change may impact both feeding and reproduction for this species of conservation concern.

The South Taranaki Bight: an ideal study system

Baleen whales typically migrate between high-latitude, productive feeding grounds and low-latitude breeding grounds. However, the New Zealand blue whale population is present in the South Taranaki Bight (STB) region year-round, which uniquely enabled us to monitor their behavior, ecology, and life history across seasons and years from a single location. We recorded blue whale vocalizations from Marine Autonomous Recording Units (MARUs) deployed at five locations in the STB for two full years (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Study area map and blue whale call spectrograms. Left panel: map of the study area in the South Taranaki Bight region, with hydrophone (marine autonomous recording unit; MARU) locations denoted by the stars. Gray lines show bathymetry contours at 50 m depth increments, from 0 to 500 m. Location of the study area within New Zealand is indicated by the inset map. Right panels: example spectrograms of the two blue whale call types examined: the New Zealand song recorded on 31 May 2016 (top) and D calls recorded 20 September 2016 (bottom). Figure reproduced from Barlow et al. (2023).

We found that the two vocalization types had different seasonal occurrence patterns (Fig. 2). D calls were associated with upwelling conditions that indicate feeding opportunities, lending evidence for their function as a foraging-related call.

Figure 2. Average annual cycle in the song intensity index (dark blue) and D calls (green) per day of the year, computed across all hydrophone locations and the entire two-year recording period. Figure reproduced from Barlow et al. (2023).

In contrast, blue whale song showed a very clear seasonal peak in the fall and was less obviously correlated with environmental conditions. To investigate the hypothesized function of song as a breeding call, we turned to a perhaps unintuitive source of information: historical whaling records. Whenever a pregnant whale was killed during commercial whaling operations, the length of the fetus was measured. By looking at the seasonal pattern in these fetal lengths, we can presume that births occur around the time of year when fetal lengths are at their longest. The records indicated April-May. By back-calculating the 11-month gestation time for a blue whale, we can presume that mating occurs generally in May-June, which is the exact time of the peak in song intensity from our recordings (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Annual song intensity and the breeding cycle. Top panel: average yearly cycle in song intensity index, computed across the five hydrophone locations and the entire recording period; dark blue line represents a loess smoothed fit. Bottom panel: fetal length measurements from whaling catch records for Antarctic blue whales (gray, measurements rounded to the nearest foot), pygmy blue whales in the southern hemisphere (blue, measurements rounded to the nearest centimeter). Measurements from blue whales caught within the established range of the New Zealand population are denoted by the dark red triangles. Calving presumably takes place around or shortly after fetal lengths are at their maximum (April–May), which implies that mating likely occurs around May–June, coincident with the peak song intensity. Figure reproduced from Barlow et al. (2023).

With this evidence for D calls as feeding-related calls and song as breeding-related calls, we had a host of new questions, we used this gained knowledge to explore how changing environmental conditions might impact multiple life history processes for New Zealand blue whales

Marine heatwaves impact multiple life history processes

Our study period between January 2016 and February 2018 spanned both typical upwelling conditions and dramatic marine heatwaves in the STB region. While we previously documented that the marine heatwave of 2016 affected blue whale distribution, the population-level impacts on feeding and reproductive effort remained unknown. In our recent study, we found that during marine heatwaves, D calls were dramatically reduced compared to during productive upwelling conditions. During the fall breeding peak, song intensity was likewise dramatically reduced following the marine heatwave. This relationship indicates that following poor feeding conditions, blue whales may invest less effort in reproduction. As marine heatwaves are projected to become more frequent and more intense under global climate change, our findings are perhaps a warning for what is to come as animal populations must contend with changing ocean conditions.

More than a decade of research on New Zealand blue whales

Ten years ago, Leigh first put forward a hypothesis that the STB region was an undocumented blue whale foraging ground based on multiple lines of evidence (Torres 2013). Despite pushback and numerous challenges, Leigh set out to prove her hypothesis through a comprehensive, multi-year data collection effort. I was lucky enough to join the team in 2016, first as a Masters’ student, and then as a PhD student. In the time since Leigh’s hypothesis, we not only documented the New Zealand blue whale population (Barlow et al. 2018), we learned a great deal about what drives blue whale feeding behavior (Torres et al. 2020) and habitat use patterns (Barlow et al. 2020, 2021), and developed forecast models to predict blue whale distribution for dynamic management of the STB (Barlow & Torres 2021). We also documented their unique, year-round presence in the STB, distinct from the migratory or vagrant presence of other blue whale populations (Barlow et al. 2022b). We now understand how marine heatwaves impact both feeding opportunities and reproductive effort (Barlow et al. 2023). We even analyzed blue whale skin condition (Barlow et al. 2019) and acoustic response to earthquakes (Barlow et al. 2022a) along the way. A decade later, it is humbling to reflect on how much we have learned about these whales. This paper is also the final chapter of my PhD, and as I reflect on how I have grown both personally and scientifically since I interviewed with Leigh as a wide-eyed undergraduate student in fall 2015, I am filled with gratitude for the opportunities for learning and growth that Leigh, these whales, and many mentors and collaborators have offered over the years. As is often the case in science, the more questions you ask, the more questions you end up with. We are already dreaming up future studies to further understand the ecology, health, and resilience of this blue whale population. I can only imagine what we might learn in another decade.

Figure 5. A blue whale mother and calf pair come up for air in the South Taranaki Bight. Photo by Dawn Barlow.

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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, Estrada Jorge M, Klinck H, Torres LG (2022a) Shaken, not stirred: blue whales show no acoustic response to earthquake events. R Soc Open Sci 9:220242.

Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Branch TA, Torres LG (2023) Environmental conditions and marine heatwaves influence blue whale foraging and reproductive effort. Ecol Evol 13:e9770.

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, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Holt Colberg M, Torres LG (2022b) Temporal occurrence of three blue whale populations in New Zealand waters from passive acoustic monitoring. J Mammal.

Barlow DR, Pepper AL, Torres LG (2019) Skin deep: An assessment of New Zealand blue whale skin condition. Front Mar Sci 6:757.

Barlow DR, Torres LG (2021) Planning ahead: Dynamic models forecast blue whale distribution with applications for spatial management. J Appl Ecol 58:2493–2504.

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.

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

Torres LG, Barlow DR, Chandler TE, Burnett JD (2020) Insight into the kinematics of blue whale surface foraging through drone observations and prey data. PeerJ 8:e8906.

How do we study the impact of whale watching?

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

Since its start, the GEMM Lab has been interested in the effect of vessel disturbance on whales. From former student Florence’s masters project to Leila’s PhD work, this research has shown that gray whales on their foraging grounds have a behavioral response to vessel presence (Sullivan & Torres, 2018) and a physiological response to vessel noise (Lemos et al., 2022). Presently, our GRANITE project is continuing to investigate the effect of ambient noise on gray whales, with an emphasis on understanding how these effects might scale up to impact the population as a whole (Image 1).

To date, all this work has been focused on gray whales feeding off the coast of Oregon, but I’m excited to share that this is about to change! In just a few weeks, Leigh and I will be heading south for a pilot study looking at the effects of whale watching vessels on gray whale mom/calf pairs in the nursing lagoons of Baja California, Mexico.

Image 1. Infographic for the GRANITE project. Credit: Carrie Ekeroth

We are collaborating with a Fernanda Urrutia Osorio, a PhD candidate at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, to spend a week conducting fieldwork in one of the nursing lagoons. For this project we will be collecting drone footage of mom/calf pairs in both the presence and absence of whale watching vessels. Our goal is to see if we detect any differences in behavior when there are vessels around versus when there are not. Tourism regulations only allow the whale watching vessels to be on the water during specific hours, so we are hoping to use this regulated pattern of vessel presence and absence as a sort of experiment.

Image 2. A mom and calf pair.  NOAA/NMFS permit #21678.

The lagoons are a crucial place for mom/calf pairs, this is where calves nurse and grow before migration, and nursing is energetically costly for moms. So, it is important to study disturbance responses in this habitat since any change in behavior caused by vessels could affect both the calf’s energy intake and the mom’s energy expenditure. While this hasn’t yet been investigated for gray whales in the lagoons, similar studies have been carried out on other species in their nursing grounds.

Video 1. Footage of “likely nursing” behavior. NOAA/NMFS permit #21678.

We can use these past studies as blueprints for both data collection and processing. Disturbance studies such as these look for a wide variety of behavioral responses. These include (1) changes in activity budgets, meaning a change in the proportion of time spent in a behavior state, (2) changes in respiration rate, which would reflect a change in energy expenditure, (3) changes in path, which would indicate avoidance, (4) changes in inter-individual distance, and (5) changes in vocalizations. While it’s not necessarily possible to record all of these responses, a meta-analysis of research on the impact of whale watching vessels found that the most common responses were increases in the proportion of time spent travelling (a change in activity budget) and increased deviation in path, indicating an avoidance response (Senigaglia et al., 2016).

One of the key phrases in all these possible behavioral responses is “change in ___”. Without control data collected in the absence of whale watching vessels, it impossible to detect a difference. Some studies have conducted controlled exposures, using approaches with the research vessel as proxies for the whale watchers (Arranz et al., 2021; Sprogis et al., 2020), while others use the whale watching operators’ daily schedule and plan their data collection schedule around that (Sprogis et al., 2023). Just as ours will, all these studies collected data using drones to record whale behavior and made sure to collect footage before, during, and after exposure to the vessel(s).

One study focused on humpback mom/calf pairs found a decrease in the proportion of time spent resting and an increase in both respiration rate and swim speed during the exposure (Sprogis et al., 2020). Similarly, a study focused on short-finned pilot whale mom/calf pairs found a decrease in the mom’s resting time and the calf’s nursing time (Arranz et al., 2021). And, Sprogis et al.’s  study of Southern right whales found a decrease in resting behavior after the exposure, suggesting that the vessels’ affect lasted past their departure (Sprogis et al., 2023, Image 3). It is interesting that while these studies found changes in different response metrics, a common trend is that all these changes suggest an increase in energy expenditure caused by the disturbance.

However, it is important to note that these studies focused on short term responses. Long term impacts have not been thoroughly estimated yet. These studies provide many valuable insights, not only into the response of whales to whale watching, but also a look at the various methods used. As we prepare for our fieldwork, it’s useful to learn how other researchers have approached similar projects.

Image 3. Visual ethogram from Sprogis et al. 2023. This shows all the behaviors they identified from the footage.

I want to note that I don’t write this blog intending to condemn whale watching. I fully appreciate that offering the opportunity to view and interact with these incredible creatures is valuable. After all, it is one of the best parts of my job. But hopefully these disturbance studies can inform better regulations, such as minimum approach distances or maximum engine noise levels.

As these studies have done, our first step will be to establish an ethogram of behaviors (our list of defined behaviors that we will identify in the footage) using our pilot data. We can also record respiration and track line data. An additional response that I’m excited to add is the distance between the mom and her calf. Former GEMM Lab NSF REU intern Celest will be rejoining us to process the footage using the AI method she developed last summer (Image 4). As described in her blog, this method tracks a mom and calf pair across the video frames, and allows us to extract the distance between them. We look forward to adding this metric to the list and seeing what we can glean from the results.

Image 4. Example of a labelled frame from SLEAP, highlighting labels: rostrum, blowhole, dorsal, dorsal-knuckle, and tail. This labels are drawn to train the software to recognize the whales in unlabelled frames.

While we are just getting started, I am excited to see what we can learn about these whales and how best to study them. Stay tuned for updates from Baja!

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Arranz, P., Glarou, M., & Sprogis, K. R. (2021). Decreased resting and nursing in short-finned pilot whales when exposed to louder petrol engine noise of a hybrid whale-watch vessel. Scientific Reports, 11(1), 21195.

Lemos, L. S., Haxel, J. H., Olsen, A., Burnett, J. D., Smith, A., Chandler, T. E., Nieukirk, S. L., Larson, S. E., Hunt, K. E., & Torres, L. G. (2022). Effects of vessel traffic and ocean noise on gray whale stress hormones. Scientific Reports, 12(1), Article 1.

Senigaglia, V., Christiansen, F., Bejder, L., Gendron, D., Lundquist, D., Noren, D., Schaffar, A., Smith, J., Williams, R., Martinez, E., Stockin, K., & Lusseau, D. (2016). Meta-analyses of whale-watching impact studies: Comparisons of cetacean responses to disturbance. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 542, 251–263.

Sprogis, K. R., Holman, D., Arranz, P., & Christiansen, F. (2023). Effects of whale-watching activities on southern right whales in Encounter Bay, South Australia. Marine Policy, 150, 105525.

Sprogis, K. R., Videsen, S., & Madsen, P. T. (2020). Vessel noise levels drive behavioural responses of humpback whales with implications for whale-watching. ELife, 9, e56760.

Sullivan, F. A., & Torres, L. G. (2018). Assessment of vessel disturbance to gray whales to inform sustainable ecotourism. Journal of Wildlife Management, 82(5), 896–905.

Announcing our new project: SLATE – Scar-based Long-term Assessment of Trends in whale Entanglements

By Solène Derville, Postdoc, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Science, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Filling the gaps

Reports of whale entanglements have been on the rise over the last decade on the US West Coast, with Dungeness crab fishing gear implicated in many cases (Feist et al., 2021; Samhouri et al., 2021; Santora et al., 2020). State agencies are responsible for managing this environmental issue that has implications both for the endangered whale sub-populations that are subject to entanglements, and for the fishing activities, which play an important social, cultural, and economic role for coastal communities. In Oregon, the Oregon Whale Entanglement Working Group (today the Oregon Entanglement Advisory Committee, facilitated by ODFW – Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife) formed in 2017, tasked with developing options to reduce entanglement risk. The group members composed of managers, researchers and fishermen identified that a lack of information and understanding of whale distribution in Oregon waters was a significant knowledge gap of high priority.

In response, the GEMM Lab and its collaborators at ODFW developed the OPAL project (Overlap Predictions About Large whales, phase 1: 2018-2022). The first phase of the project (phase 1) was developed to 1) model and predict large whale distribution off the coast of Oregon in relation to dynamic environmental conditions, and 2) assess overlap with commercial crab fishing gear to inform conservation efforts. Although this first phase was extended up to June as a result of COVID, it is now coming to an end. As a postdoc in the GEMM Lab, I have been the main analyst working on this project. The habitat use models that I generated from several years of aerial and boat-based surveys provide improved knowledge about where and when rorqual whales (combining blue, humpback and fin) are most abundant (Derville et al., 2022). Moreover, we are about to publish an analysis of overlap between whale predicted densities and commercial Dungeness crab fishing effort. This analysis of co-occurrence over 10 years shows distinct spatio-temporal patterns in relation to climatic fluctuations affecting the northern California Current System (Derville et al., In review).

Although we are quite satisfied with the outputs of these four years of research, this is not the end of it! Project OPAL continues into a second phase (2022-2025; supported by NOAA Section 6 funding), during which models will be improved and refined via incorporation of new survey data (helicopter and boat-based) as well as prey data (krill and fish distribution). PhD student Rachel Kaplan is a key contributor to this research, and I will do my best to keep assisting her in this journey in the years to come.

Announcing SLATE!

As this newly acquired knowledge leads to potentially new management measures in Oregon, it becomes essential for managers to evaluate their impacts on the entanglement issue. But how do we know exactly how many entanglements occur during any year within Oregon waters? Is recording reports of entanglements or signs of entanglements in stranded whales enough? The simple answer is no. Entanglements are notoriously under-detected and under-reported (Tackaberry et al., 2022). Over the US West Coast, entanglements are also relatively rare events that can easily go unnoticed in the immensity of the ocean. Moreover, entangled large whales are often able to carry the fishing gear for some time away from the initial gearset location, which makes it hard to locate the origin of the gear causing problems (van der Hoop et al., 2017).

Figure 1: Graphical representation of the SLATE project representing the different tasks described below. Work in progress…

Our approach to the challenge of assessing humpback whale entanglement rates in Oregon waters is to use scar analysis. Our new “SLATE” (Scar-based Long-term Assessment of Trends in whale Entanglements, Figure 1) project will be using scar-based methods as a proxy to detect unobserved entanglement events (e.g., Basran et al., 2019; Bradford et al., 2009; George et al., 2017; Knowlton et al., 2012; Robbins, 2012). Indeed, this approach has been effective to detect potential interactions with fishing gear at a much higher frequency than entanglement reports in the Atlantic Ocean (e.g., only 10% of entanglements of humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine were estimated to be reported; Robbins, 2012). We will be examining hundreds of photographs of humpback whales observed in Oregon waters to try to detect wrapping scars and notches that result from entanglement events. Based on this scar pattern, we will assign each whale a qualitative probability of prior entanglement (i.e., uncertain, low, high). We will specifically be looking at the caudal peduncle (the attachment point of the whale’s fluke, see Figure 2) following a methodology developed in the Gulf of Maine by Robbins & Mattila, (2001).

Figure 2: Examples of unhealed injuries interpreted as entanglement related in 2010 in the Gulf of Maine. Figure reproduced from (Robbins, 2012).

Data please?

While this approach is to-date the most applicable way to assess otherwise undetected entanglements, it is sometimes limited by sample size. Although we plan to collect more photos in the field in summer 2023 and 2024, this long-term analysis of scarring patterns would not be possible without the contribution of the Cascadia Research Collective (CRC) led by John Calambokidis. The CRC humpback whale catalogue will be crucial to assessing entanglement rates at the individual level over the last decade.

Moreover, as we have been contemplating the task ahead of us, we realized that the data collected through traditional scientific surveys might not be sufficient to achieve our goal. We need the help of the people who live off the ocean and encounter whales on a day-to-day basis: fishermen. That is why we decided to solicit interested fishermen to take photographs of whales while at sea. Starting this year, we will work with at least three self-selected fishermen who are interested in supporting this program and collecting data to support the research efforts. Participants will be provided a stipend, equipped with a high-quality camera, and trained to photograph whales while following National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) guidelines.

And here come the statistics…

If we have some of my previous blogs (e.g., May 2022, June 2018), you know that I usually participate in projects that have a significant statistical modeling component. As part of the SLATE project, I will be trying out some new approaches that I never had the opportunity to work with before, which makes me feels both super excited and slightly apprehensive!

First, I will analyze humpback whale scarring at the population level. That means I will be using all available photos of whales in Oregon waters without considering individual identification, and I will model the probability of entanglement scars in relation to space and time. This model will help us answer questions such as: did whales have a higher chance of becoming entangled in certain years over others? Did whales observed in a certain zone in Oregon waters have a higher risk of getting entangled?

Second, I will analyze humpback whale scarring at the individual level. This time, we will only use encounters of a selected number of individuals that have a long recapture history, meaning that they were photo-identified and resighted several times throughout the last decade. Using a genetic database produced by the Cetacean Conservation and Genomic Laboratory (CCGL, Marine Mammal Institute), we will also be able to tell to which “Distinct Population Segment” (DPS) some of these individual whales belong. Down the line, this is an important piece of information because humpback whale DPS do not breed in the same areas, and these groups have different levels of population health. Then, we will use what is known as a “multi-event mark-recapture model” to estimate the probability of entanglement as a function of time and spatial residency or DPS assignment, while accounting for detection probability and survival.

Through these analyses, our goal is to produce a single indicator to help managers assess the effects of mandatory or voluntary changes in Oregon fishing practices. In the end, we hope that these models will provide a measurable and robust way of monitoring whale entanglements in fishing gear off the coast of Oregon.



Basran, C. J., Bertulli, C. G., Cecchetti, A., Rasmussen, M. H., Whittaker, M., & Robbins, J. (2019). First estimates of entanglement rate of humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae observed in coastal Icelandic waters. Endangered Species Research, 38(February), 67–77.

Bradford, A. L., Weller, D. W., Ivashchenko, Y. v., Burdin, A. M., & Brownell, R. L. (2009). Anthropogenic scarring of western gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus). Marine Mammal Science, 25(1), 161–175.

Derville, S., Barlow, D. R., Hayslip, C. E., & Torres, L. G. (2022). Seasonal, Annual, and Decadal Distribution of Three Rorqual Whale Species Relative to Dynamic Ocean Conditions Off Oregon, USA. Frontiers in Marine Science, 9, 1–19.

Derville, S., Buell, T., Corbett, K., Hayslip, C., & Torres, L. G. (n.d.). Exposure of whales to entanglement risk in Dungeness crab fish-ing gear in Oregon, USA, reveals distinctive spatio-temporal and climatic patterns. Biological Conservation.

Feist, B. E., Samhouri, J. F., Forney, K. A., & Saez, L. E. (2021). Footprints of fixed-gear fisheries in relation to rising whale entanglements on the U.S. West Coast. Fisheries Management and Ecology, 28(3), 283–294.

George, J. C., Sheffield, G., Reed, D. J., Tudor, B., Stimmelmayr, R., Person, B. T., Sformo, T., & Suydam, R. (2017). Frequency of injuries from line entanglements, killer whales, and ship strikes on bering-chukchi-beaufort seas bowhead whales. Arctic, 70(1), 37–46.

Knowlton, A. R., Hamilton, P. K., Marx, M. K., Pettis, H. M., & Kraus, S. D. (2012). Monitoring North Atlantic right whale Eubalaena glacialis entanglement rates: A 30 yr retrospective. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 466(Kraus 1990), 293–302.

Robbins, J. (2012). Scar-Based Inference Into Gulf of Maine Humpback Whale Entanglement : 2010 (Issue January). Report to the Northeast Fisheries Science Center National Marine Fisheries Service, EA133F09CN0253 Item 0003AB, Task 3.

Robbins, J., & Mattila, D. K. (2001). Monitoring entanglements of humpback whales ( Megaptera novaeangliae ) in the Gulf of Maine on the basis of caudal peduncle scarring. SC/53/NAH25. Report to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission, 14, 1–12.

Samhouri, J. F., Feist, B. E., Fisher, M. C., Liu, O., Woodman, S. M., Abrahms, B., Forney, K. A., Hazen, E. L., Lawson, D., Redfern, J., & Saez, L. E. (2021). Marine heatwave challenges solutions to human-wildlife conflict. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 288, 20211607.

Santora, J. A., Mantua, N. J., Schroeder, I. D., Field, J. C., Hazen, E. L., Bograd, S. J., Sydeman, W. J., Wells, B. K., Calambokidis, J., Saez, L., Lawson, D., & Forney, K. A. (2020). Habitat compression and ecosystem shifts as potential links between marine heatwave and record whale entanglements. Nature Communications, 11, 536.

Tackaberry, J., Dobson, E., Flynn, K., Cheeseman, T., Calambokidis, J., & Wade, P. R. (2022). Low Resighting Rate of Entangled Humpback Whales Within the California , Oregon , and Washington Region Based on Photo-Identification and Long-Term Life History Data. Frontiers in Marine Science, 8(January), 1–13.

van der Hoop, J., Corkeron, P., & Moore, M. (2017). Entanglement is a costly life-history stage in large whales. Ecology and Evolution, 7(1), 92–106.

A Matter of Time: Adaptively Managing the Timescales of Ocean Change and Human Response

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

Ocean ecosystems are complex and dynamic, shaped by the interconnected physical and biogeochemical processes that operate across a variety of timescales. A trip on the “ocean conveyer belt”, which transports water from the North Atlantic across the global ocean and back in a process called thermohaline circulation, takes about a thousand years to complete. Phytoplankton blooms, which cycle nutrients through the surface ocean and feed marine animals, often occur at the crucial, food-poor moment of spring, and last for weeks or months. The entanglement of a whale in fishing gear, a major anthropogenic threat to ocean life that drives the GEMM Lab’s Project OPAL, can happen in seconds.

Compounding this complexity, even the timescales that research has clarified are changing. Many processes in the ocean are shifting – and often accelerating – due to global climate change. Images of melting sea ice, calving glaciers, and coastal erosion all exemplify our natural world’s rapid reorganization, and even discrete events can have dramatic repercussions and leave their mark for years. For example, a marine heatwave that occurred in 2014-2015 raised temperatures up to 2.5° C warmer than usual, redistributed species northward along the United States’ West Coast, spurred harmful algal blooms, and shut down fisheries. The toxic blooms also caused marine mammal strandings, domoic acid poisoning in California sea lions, and seabird mass death events (McCabe et al., 2016).

Figure 1. Figures like this Stommel diagram reveal the broad temporal and spatial scales over which ocean phenomena occur. Source: Sloyan et al., 2019

As humans seek to manage ocean ecosystems and mitigate the effects of climate change, our political processes have their own time scales, interconnected cycles, and stochasticity, just like the ocean. At the federal level in the United States, the legislative process takes place over months to decades, sometimes punctuated by relatively quicker actions enacted through Executive Orders. In addition, just as plankton have their turnover times, so do governmental branches. Both the legislative branch and the executive branch change frequently, with new members of Congress coming in every two years, and the president and administration changing every four or eight years. Turnover in both of these branches may constitute a total regime shift, with new members seeking to redirect science policy efforts.

The friction between oceanic and political timescales has historically made crafting effective ocean conservation policy difficult. In recent years, the policy approach of “adaptive management” has sought to respond to the challenges at the tricky intersection of politics, climate change, and ocean ecosystems. The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Technical Guide to Adaptive Management highlights its capacity to deal with the uncertainty inherent to changing ecosystems, and its ability to accommodate progress made through research: “Adaptive management [is a decision process that] promotes flexible decision making that can be adjusted in the face of uncertainties as outcomes from management actions and other events become better understood. Careful monitoring of these outcomes both advances scientific understanding and helps adjust policies or operations as part of an iterative learning process” (Williams et al, 2009).

Over the last several years, adaptive management policy approaches have been key as resource managers along the West Coast have responded to the problem of whale entanglement in fishing gear. When the 2014-2015 marine heatwave event caused anomalously low krill abundance in the central California Current region, humpback whales used a tactic called “prey-switching”, and fed on inshore anchovy schools rather than offshore krill patches. The resulting habitat compression fueled an increase in humpback whale entanglement events in Dungeness crab fishing gear (Santora et al, 2020). 

This sudden uptick in whale entanglements necessitated strategic management responses along the West Coast. In 2017, the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group developed the Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program (RAMP) to analyze real-time whale distribution and ocean condition data during the fishing season, and provide contemporaneous assessments of entanglement risk to the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. The Oregon Whale Entanglement Working Group (OWEWG) formed in 2017, tasked with developing options to reduce risk. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) has guided whale entanglement reduction efforts by identifying four areas of ongoing work: accountability, risk reduction, best management practices, and research – with regular, scheduled reviews of the regulations and opportunities to update and adjust them.

Figure 2. Entanglement in fishing gear can occur in seconds and may negatively impact whales for years. Source Scott Benson/NOAA

The need for research to support the best possible policy is where the GEMM Lab comes in. ODFW has established partnerships with Oregon State University and Oregon Sea Grant in order to improve understanding of whale distributions along the coast that can inform management efforts. Being involved in this cooperative “iterative learning process” is exactly why I’m so glad to be part of Project OPAL. Initial results from this work have already shaped ODFW’s regulations, and the framework of adaptive management and assessment means that regulations can continue being updated as we learn more through our research.

Ecosystem management will always be complex, just like ecosystems themselves. Today, the pace at which the climate is changing causes many people concern and even despair (Bryndum-Buchholz, 2022). Building adaptive approaches into marine policymaking, like the ones in use off the West Coast, introduces a new timescale into the U.S. policy cycle – one more in line with the rapid changes that are occurring within our dynamic ocean.



Williams, B. L., Szaro, R. C., and Shapiro, C. D. 2009. Adaptive management: the U.S. Department of the Interior Technical Guide. Adaptive Management Working Group, v pp.

Bryndum-Buchholz, A. (2022). Keeping up hope as an early career climate-impact scientist. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 79(9), 2345–2350.

McCabe, R. M., Hickey, B. M., Kudela, R. M., Lefebvre, K. A., Adams, N. G., Bill, B. D., Gulland, F. M., Thomson, R. E., Cochlan, W. P., & Trainer, V. L. (2016). An unprecedented coastwide toxic algal bloom linked to anomalous ocean conditions. Geophys Res Lett, 43(19), 10366–10376.

Santora, J. A., Sydeman, W. J., Schroeder, I. D., Wells, B. K., & Field, J. C. (2011). Mesoscale structure and oceanographic determinants of krill hotspots in the California Current: Implications for trophic transfer and conservation. Progress in Oceanography, 91(4), 397–409.

Sloyan, B. M., Wilkin, J., Hill, K. L., Chidichimo, M. P., Cronin, M. F., Johannessen, J. A., Karstensen, J., Krug, M., Lee, T., Oka, E., Palmer, M. D., Rabe, B., Speich, S., von Schuckmann, K., Weller, R. A., & Yu, W. (2019). Evolving the Physical Global Ocean Observing System for Research and Application Services Through International Coordination. Frontiers in Marine Science, 6, 449.