….aaaand we’re off! The blue whale team heads to New Zealand

By Dawn Barlow, MSc Student, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Oregon State University

Today we are flying to the other side of the world and boarding a 63-foot boat to study the largest animals ever to have inhabited this planet: blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus). Why do we study them, and how will we do it? Before I tell you, first let me say that no fieldwork is ever straightforward, and consequently no fieldwork lacks exciting learning opportunities. I have learned a lot about the logistics of an international field season in the past month, which I will share with you here!

The South Taranaki Bight, which lies between the north and south islands of New Zealand, is the study area for this survey.
Research vessel Star Keys will be our home for the month of February as we look for whales.

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS, a.k.a. “drones”) are becoming more prevalent in our field as a powerful and minimally invasive tool for studying marine mammals. Last year, our team was able to capture what we believe is the first aerial footage of nursing behavior in baleen whales, in addition to feeding and traveling behaviors. And beyond behavior, these aerial images contain morphological and physiological information about the whales such as how big they are, whether they are pregnant or lactating, and if they are in good health. I’ll start making a packing list for you to follow along with. So far it contains two drones and all of their battery supplies and chargers.

Aerial image of a blue whale mother and calf captured by a drone during the 2016 field season.

Perhaps you read my first GEMM Lab blog post, about identifying individual blue whales from photographs? Using these individual IDs, I plan to generate an abundance estimate for this blue whale population, as well as look at residency and movement patterns of individuals. Needless to say, we will be collecting photo-ID images this year as well! Add two large pelican cases with cameras and long lenses to the packing list.

Blue whale photo-ID image, showing the left and right sides of the same whale. I have identified 99 unique individuals so far, and look forward to adding to our catalog this year!

Now wouldn’t it be great to capture video of animal behavior in some way other than with the UAS? Maybe even from underwater? Add two GoPros and all of their associated paraphernalia to the mounting gear pile.

Now, bear with me. There is a wealth of physiological information contained in blue whale fecal matter. And when hormone analysis from fecal samples is paired with photogrammetry from UAS images, we can develop a valuable picture of individual and population-level health, stress, nutrition, and reproductive status. So, say we are able to scoop up lots of blue whale fecal samples – wouldn’t that be fantastic? Yes! Alright, add two nets, a multitude of jars, squirt bottles, and gloves to the gear list. And then we still need to bring them back to our lab here in Newport. How does that happen? Well, we need to filter out the sea water, transfer the samples to smaller tubes, and freeze them… in the field, on a moving vessel. Include beakers, funnels, spatulas, and centrifuge tubes on the list. Yes, we will be flying back with a Styrofoam cooler full of blue whale “poopsicles”. Of course, we need a cooler!

Alright, and now remember the biopsy sampling that took place last season? Collecting tissue samples allows us to assess the genetic structure of this population, their stable isotopic trophic feeding level, and hormone levels. Well, we are prepared to collect tissue samples once again! Remember to bring small tubes and scalpel blades for storing the samples, and to get ethanol when we arrive in Wellington.

An important piece in investigating the habitat of a marine predator is learning about the prey they are consuming. In the case of our blue whales, this prey is krill (Nyctiphanes australis). We study the prey layer with an echo sounder, which sends out high frequency pings that bounce off anything they come in contact with. From the strength of the signal that bounces back it is possible to tell what the composition of the prey layer is, and how dense. The Marine Mammal Institute here at OSU has an echo sounder, and with the help of colleagues and collaborators, positive attitudes, and perseverance, we successfully got the transducer to communicate with the receiver, and the receiver to communicate with the software, and the software to communicate with the GPS.  Add one large pelican case for the receiver. Can we fit the transducer in there as well? Hmmm, this is going to be heavy…

Blue whale team members and colleagues troubleshoot and test the Simrad EK60 echo sounder before packing it to take to New Zealand.

Now the daunting, ever-growing to-do lists have been checked off and re-written and changed and checked off again. The mountain of research gear has been evaluated and packed and unpacked and moved and re-evaluated and packed again. The countdown to our departure date has ended, and this evening Leigh, Todd, and I fly out of Portland and make our way to Wellington, New Zealand. To think that from here all will be smooth and flawless is naïve, but not being able to contain my excitement seems reasonable. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep, but more likely it’s the dreams coming true for a marine ecologist who loves nothing more than to be at sea with the wind in her face, looking for whales and creatively tackling fieldwork challenges.

In the midst of the flurry of preparations, it can be easy to lose sight of why we are doing this—why we are worrying ourselves over poopsicle transport and customs forms and endless pelican cases of valuable equipment for the purpose of spending several weeks on a vessel we haven’t yet set foot on when we can’t even guarantee that we’ll find whales at all. This area where we will work (Figure 1) is New Zealand’s most industrially active region, where endangered whales share the space with oil rigs, shipping vessels, and seismic survey vessels that have been active since October in search of more oil and gas reserves. It is a place where we have the opportunity to study how these majestic giants fit into this ecosystem, to learn what about this habitat is driving the presence of the whales and how they’re using the space relative to industry. It is an opportunity for me as a scientist to pursue questions in ecology—the field of study that I love. It is also an opportunity for me as a conservation advocate to find my voice on issues of industry presence, resource extraction, and conflicts over ocean spaces that extend far beyond one endangered species and one region of the world.

Fieldwork preparations have made clear to me once again the strength and importance of collaboration in science. Kim Bernard from OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and Craig Hayslip from the Marine Mammal Institute’s Whale Telemetry Group spent half a day troubleshooting the echosounder with us. Western Work Boats has manufactured a pole mount for the echosounder transducer, and Kristin Hodge is joining us from Cornell University’s Bioacoustics Research Program to assist with data collection. Callum Lilley and Mike Ogle from the New Zealand Department of Conservation will join us in Wellington to collect the biopsy samples, and Rochelle Constantine and Scott Baker will facilitate the archiving and transport of the tissue samples back to Newport for analysis. Scientific colleagues at NIWA will collaborate on oceanographic aspects and conduct stable isotope analysis of tissue samples. We are also grateful to the indispensable logistical support from Kathy Minta and Minda Stiles in the OSU Marine Mammal Institute. And, of course we could not do any of this work without the generous funding support from The Aotearoa Foundation, The New Zealand Department of Conservation, Greenpeace Aotearoa New Zealand, OceanCare, The International Fund for Animal Welfare Oceanea Office, Kiwis Against Seabed Mining, the OSU Marine Mammal Institute, and the Thorpe Foundation. Our science is stronger when we pool our energy and expertise, and I am thrilled to be working with this great group of people.

Stay tuned, the next several blogs will be posted from the field by the New Zealand blue whale team!

Assembling a Toolbox

By Dawn Barlow, MSc student, Oregon State University

toolbox
Source: https://www.ohrd.wisc.edu/home/portals/0/toolbox.jpg

The season has shifted since the post I wrote this summer about diving into the world of New Zealand blue whales and the beginnings of my masters research. My fieldwork will take place during the upcoming austral summer, which will require me to miss the winter term here on campus. This quarter, I have put my research on the back burner for the time being in favor of a full load of coursework. But my project is still there, simmering subtly and persistently, and giving relevance to the coursework that I’m focusing my energy on this fall term.

As an undergraduate student, I acquired a broad scientific background and had the opportunity to dabble in the areas of biology that piqued my interest. I arrived here with a basic understanding of chemistry, physics, cell biology, anatomy, marine ecology and conservation biology. I gained experience working in the field with intertidal sea stars, snails, mussels, crabs and barnacles, with bottlenose dolphins and with humpback whales. But now my focus has narrowed as I’ve honed in on the specific questions that I will pursue over the next two years. My passion lies in marine ecology and conservation. Now, as a graduate student studying the ecology of a little-known population in a highly industrial area, this passion can come to fruition. For my masters, I hope to do the following:

A) Use photo-identification analysis to obtain a population abundance estimate for blue whales in New Zealand

B) Investigate blue whale residency and distribution patterns in New Zealand waters

C) Develop a comprehensive blue whale habitat use model for the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand, which incorporates physical and biological data

Down the road I hope to have implemented a capture-recapture abundance estimate model that best fits the dynamics of this population of blue whales, to have mapped where sightings have occurred and where the highest densities of blue whales are found in both space and time, and to have paired blue whale presence and absence with prey distribution, remote-sensed environmental data, and in situ oceanographic data. But how does one accomplish these things? I need a toolbox to draw from. And so this fall, I am assembling my toolbox, learning programs and analytical skills. I am taking methods courses—statistics, data management in R, analysis in GIS, methods in physiology and behavior of marine megafauna—that are no longer explorations into the world of natural science, but rather tools for exploring, identifying, and interpreting specific phenomena in ecology. While each comes with its own hiccups and headaches (see Florence’s post about this…), they are powerful tools.

Aside from coursework, the research I’m conducting has gained weight and relevance beyond being an investigation in ecology. My study area lies in the South Taranaki Bight of New Zealand, which is a contentious proposed seabed mining site for iron sands. As an undergraduate student I read case studies and wrote papers on the environmental impacts of industry, and I decided to go graduate school because I want to do research that has direct conservation applications. Last week I compiled all the data I’ve processed on blue whale sightings, seasonal residency, and photo identification for the South Taranaki Bight, which will be included as evidence submitted in environmental court in New Zealand by my advisor, Dr. Leigh Torres. “Applied conservation science” has been an abstract idea that has excited and motivated me for a long time, and now I am partaking in this process, experiencing applied conservation science firsthand.

And so my toolbox is growing, and the scope of my work is simultaneously narrowing in focus and expanding in relevance. The more tools I acquire, the more excited I am to apply them to my research. As I build my toolbox this fall, this process is something I look forward to enhancing while I’m in the field, when I dig deeper into data analysis, and as I grow as a conservation scientist.

A blue whale dives in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Photo by Leigh Torres.
A blue whale dives in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Photo by Leigh Torres.

Blue whale portraits: pieces of the puzzle

By Dawn Barlow, MSc Student, Oregon State University

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

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

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

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

New Zealand Blue Whale Photo-ID

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

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

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

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

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

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

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