Return of the whales: The GRANITE 2022 field season comes to a close

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

It’s hard to believe that it’s already been four and half months since we started the field season (check out Lisa’s blog for a recap of where we began), but as of this weekend the GRANITE project’s 8th field season has officially ended! As the gray whales wrap up their foraging season and start heading south for the winter, it’s time for us to put our gear into storage, settle into a new academic year, and start processing the data we spent so much time collecting.

The field season can be quite an intense time (40 days equaling over 255 hours on the water!), so we often don’t take a moment to reflect until the end. But this season has been nothing short of remarkable. As you may remember from past blogs, the past couple years (2020-21) have been a bit concerning, with lower whale numbers than previously observed. Since many of us started working on the project during this time, most of us were expecting another similar season. But we were wrong in the best way. From the very first day, we saw more whales than in previous years and we identified whales from our catalog that we hadn’t seen in several years.

Image 1: Collage of photos from our field season.

We identified friends – old and new!

This season we had 224 sightings of 63 individual whales. Of those 63, 51 were whales from our catalog (meaning we have seen them in a previous season). Of these 51 known whales, we only saw 20 of them last year! This observation brings up interesting questions such as, where did most of these whales forage last year? Why did they return to this area this year? And, the classic end of season question, what’s going to happen next year?

We also identified 12 whales that were not in our catalog, making them new to the GEMM lab. Two of our new whales are extra exciting because they are not just new to us but new to the population; we saw two calves this year! We were fortunate enough to observe two mom-calf pairs in July. One pair was of a “new” mom in our catalog and her calf. We nicknamed this calf “Roly-poly” because when we found this mom-calf pair, we recorded some incredible drone footage of “roly-poly” continuously performing body rolls while their mom was feeding nearby (video 1). 

Video 1: “Roly-poly” body rolling while their mom headstands. NOAA/NMFS permit #21678.

The other pair includes a known GEMM lab whale, Luna, and her calf (currently nicknamed “Lunita”). We recently found “Lunita” feeding on their own in early October (Image 2), meaning that they are now independent from its mom (for more on mom-calf behavior check out Celest’s recent blog). We’ll definitely be on the lookout for Roly-Poly and Lunita next year!

Image 2: (left) drone image of Luna and Lunita together in July and (right) drone image of Lunita on their own in October.  NOAA/NMFS permit #21678.

We flew, we scooped, we collected heaps of data!

From our previous blogs you probably know that in addition to photo-ID images, our other two most important forms of data collection are drone flights (for body condition and behavior data) and fecal samples (for hormone analysis). And this season was a success for both! 

We conducted 124 flights over 49 individual whales. The star of these flights was a local favorite Scarlett who we flew over 18 different times. These repeat samples are crucial data for us because we use them to gain insight into how an individual’s body condition changes throughout the season. We also recorded loads of behavior data, collecting footage of different foraging tactics like headstanding, side-swimming, and surfacing feeding on porcelain crab larvae (video 2)!

Video 2: Two whales surface feeding on porcelain crab larvae. NOAA/NMFS permit #21678.

We also collected 61 fecal samples from 26 individual whales (Image 3). The stars of that dataset were Soléand Peak who tied with 7 samples each. These hard-earned samples provide invaluable insight into the physiology and stress levels of these individuals and are a crucial dataset for the project.

Image 3: Photos of fecal sample collection. Left – a very heavy sample, center: Lisa and Enrico after collecting the first fecal sample of the season, right: Clara and Lisa celebrating a good fecal sample collection.

On top of all that amazing data collection we also collected acoustic data with our hydrophones, prey data from net tows, and biologging data from our tagging efforts. Our hydrophones were in the water all summer recording the sounds that the whales are exposed to, and they were successfully recovered just a few weeks ago (Image 4)! We also conducted 69 net tows to sample the prey near where the whales were feeding and identify which prey the whales might be eating (Image 5). Lastly, we had two very successful tagging weeks during which we deployed (and recovered!) a total of 9 tags, which collected over 30 hours of data (Image 6; check out Kate’s blog for more on that).

Image 4 – Photos from hydrophone recovery.
Image 5: Photos from zooplankton sampling.
Image 6: Collage of photos from our two tagging efforts this season.

Final thoughts

All in all, it’s been an incredible season. We’ve seen the return of old friends, collected lots of awesome data, and had some record-breaking days (28 whales in one day!). As we look toward the analysis phase of the year, we’re excited to dig into our eight-year dataset and work to understand what might explain the increase in whales this year.

To end on a personal note, looking through photos to put in this blog was the loveliest trip down memory lane (even though it only ended a few days ago) – I am so honored and proud to be a part of this team. The work we do is hard; we spend long hours on a small boat together and it can be a bit grueling at times. But, when I think back on this season, my first thoughts are not of the times I felt exhausted or grumpy, but of all the joy we felt together. From the incredible whale encounters to the revitalizing snacks to the off-key sing alongs, there is no other team I would rather do this work with, and I so look forward to seeing what next season brings. Stay tuned for more updates from team GRANITE!

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Surprises at Sea

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

By Renee Albertson, Senior Instructor and Research Associate, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Marine Mammal Institute

Going to sea is always full of surprises, and the most recent Northern California Current (NCC) cruise was no different. We had surprises both logistical and scientific, disappointing and delightful. By the end, what stood out clearly is that with a great team of people like the one aboard the R/V Bell M. Shimada, any challenging situation is made the best of, and any exciting moment is only more so.

Our great science party enjoys the Seattle skyline at the end of the September 2022 NCC cruise.

A few days into the cruise, engine trouble caused the Commanding Officer to decide that we needed to cut the trip short, halt instrument deployment operations, and head in to port. Lucky for us, this new plan included 30 hours of transit to Seattle, and long transits are exactly when we collect marine mammal observations. We were able to keep surveying as we moved up the coast and through the Strait of Juan de Fuca into Seattle. There were many surprises here too – we did not find whales in areas where we have previously sighted many, and overall made fewer sightings than is typical.

For example, we expected to see many whales on the Heceta Head Line (south of Newport), whose shallow depth makes the region a rich underwater garden that supports prey and attracts whales. Instead, we saw hardly any whales in this area. Perhaps they simply weren’t present, or perhaps we missed spotting some whales due to the heavy fog, which makes sighting animals that are not near the ship difficult to impossible. This dearth of animals led us to have to interesting conversations with other researchers as we speculated about what might be going on. The scientists on board these NCC cruises collectively research a wide range of oceanographic fields, including ocean chemistry, phytoplankton, zooplankton, fish, seabirds, and marine mammals. Bringing these data together can provide a better understanding of how the ecosystem is changing over time and help contextualize observations in the moment.

Though we often think about how the distributions of prey structure those of foraging whales, we started to wonder whether a lower trophic level could be at play here. Interestingly, in situ phytoplankton analyses showed a type of diatom called Pseudo-nitzchia along much of our cruise track, with the highest concentration off Cape Meares. In stressful conditions, these diatoms sometimes produce the toxin domoic acid, and we wondered whether this could possibly be related to the low whale counts.

Cells of Pseudo-nitzschia, a genus of microalgae that includes several species that make the neurotoxin domoic acid. NOAA photo courtesy of Vera Trainer.

Along the northern Oregon coast and near the Columbia River, the number of whales we observed increased dramatically. The vast majority were humpbacks, some of which were quite active, breaching and tail slapping the surface of the water. On our best day, we turned into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and sighted about 20 whales in quick succession, as well as a sea otter, and both Steller and California sea lions.

Simultaneously as we surveyed for whales, we were able to continue collecting concurrent echosounder data, which reveals the presence of nearby prey like krill and forage fish. Early in the trip, other researchers also collected krill samples that we could bring back to shore and analyze for their caloric content. Even with a shorter time at sea, we felt lucky to be able to fulfill these scientific goals.

Research cruises always center around two things: science and people. Discussing the scientific surprises we observed with other researchers aboard was inspirational, and left us with interesting questions to pursue. Navigating changes to the cruise plan highlighted the importance of the people aboard even more. Everyone worked together to refine our plans with cooperation and positivity, and we all marveled at what a great group it was, often saying, “Good thing we like each other!”

The cruise ended by transiting under the Fremont Bridge into Lake Union.

On the last day of the cruise, we transited into Seattle, moving through the Ballard Locks and into Lake Union. It was an incredible experience to see the city from the water, and an amazing way to cap off the trip. With the next NCC cruise ahead in a few months, we are excited to get back out to sea together soon and tackle whatever surprises come our way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

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

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

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

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

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

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


Putting Fitbits on whales: How tag data allows for estimating calories burned by foraging PCFG gray whales

By: Kate Colson, MSc Student, University of British Columbia, Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, Marine Mammal Research Unit

Hello! My name is Kate Colson and I am a master’s student at the University of British Columbia, co-supervised by Dr. Andrew Trites of the Marine Mammal Research Unit and Dr. Leigh Torres of the GEMM Lab. As part of my thesis work, I have had the opportunity to spend the summer field season with Leigh and the GEMM Lab team. 

For my master’s I am studying the foraging energetics of Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales as part of the much larger Gray whale Response to Ambient Noise Informed by Technology and Ecology (GRANITE) project. Quantifying the energy expenditure of PCFG gray whales during foraging can help establish a baseline for how disturbance impacts the ability of this unique population to meet their energy needs. Additionally, determining how many calories are burned during different PCFG foraging behaviors might help explain why some gray whales are in better body condition than others.

To understand how much energy different PCFG foraging behaviors cost, I am using data from suction cup tags we have temporarily applied on PCFG gray whales (Figure 1). You can read more about the why the GEMM Lab started using these tags in an earlier blog here. What I want to talk about in this blog is how exactly we can use this tag data to estimate energy expenditure of PCFG gray whales. 

Figure 1. The famous “Scarlett” with a suction cup tag just attached using a carbon fiber pole (seen on far right). This minimally invasive tag has many data sensors, all of which sample at high frequencies, that can allow for an estimation of energy expenditure for different gray whale behaviors. Source: GEMM Lab; National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) permit no. 21678 

The suction cups tags used in this project have many data sensors that are useful for describing the movement of the tagged whale including accelerometers, magnetometers, gyroscopes, and pressure sensors, and all are sampling at high frequencies. For example, the accelerometer is taking 400 measurements per second! The accelerometer, magnetometer, and gyroscope take measurements in 3 dimensions along the X, Y, and Z-axes. The whale’s movement around the X-axis indicates roll (if the whale is swimming on its side), while movement around the Y-axis indicates pitch (if the whales head is oriented towards the surface or the sea floor). Changes in the whale’s movement around the Z-axis indicates if the whale is changing its swimming direction. Together, all of these sensors can describe the dive profile, body orientation, fluking behavior, and fine-scale body movements of the animal down to the second (Figure 2). This allows for the behavior of the tagged whale to be specifically described for the entirety of the tag deployment. 

Figure 2. An example of what the tag sensor data looks like. The top panels show the depth of the animal and can be used to determine the diving behavior of the whale. The middle panels show the body roll of the whale (the X axis) —a roll value close to 0 means the whale is swimming “normally” with no rotation to either side, while a higher roll value means the whale is positioned on its side. The bottom panels show the fluking behavior of the animal: each spike is the whale using its tail to propel itself through the water, with higher spikes indicating a stronger fluke stroke. Source: GEMM Lab, NMFS permit no. 21678

Although these suction cup tags are a great advancement in collecting fine-scale data, they do not have a sensor that actually measures the whale’s metabolism, or rate of calories burned by the whale. Thus, to use this fine-scale tag data as an estimate for energy expenditure, a summary metric must be calculated from the data and used as a proxy. The most common metric found in the literature is Overall Dynamic Body Acceleration (ODBA) and many papers have been published discussing the pros and cons of using ODBA as a proxy for energy expenditure (Brown et al., 2013; Gleiss et al., 2011; Halsey, 2017; Halsey et al., 2011; Wilson et al., 2020). The theory behind ODBA is that because an animal’s metabolic rate is primarily comprised of movement costs, then measuring the acceleration of the body is an effective way of determining energy expenditure. This theory might seem very abstract, but if you have ever worn a Fitbit or similar fitness tracking device to estimate how many calories you’ve burned during a workout, the same principle applies. Those fitness devices use accelerometers and other sensors, to measure the movement of your limbs and produce estimates of energy used. 

So now that we’ve established that the goal of my research is to essentially use these suction cup tags as Fitbits for PCFG gray whales, let’s look at how accelerometry data has been used to detect foraging behavior in large whales so far. Many accelerometry tagging studies have used rorquals as a focal species (see Shadwick et al. (2019) for a review). Well-known rorqual species include humpback, fin, and blue whales. These species forage by using lunges to bulk feed on dense prey patches in the water column. Foraging lunges are indicated by isolated periods of high acceleration that are easily detectable in the tag data (Figure 3; Cade et al., 2016; Izadi et al., 2022). 

Figure 3. Top image: A foraging blue whale performing a surface lunge (Photo credit: GEMM Lab). Note the dense aggregation of krill in the whale’s mouth. Bottom image: The signature acceleration signal for lunge feeding (adapted from Izadi et al., 2022). Each color represents one of the 3D axes of whale movement. The discrete periods of high acceleration represent lunges

However, gray whales feed very differently from rorquals. Gray whales primarily suction feed on the benthos, using their head to dig into the sediment and filter prey out of the mud using their baleen. Yet,  PCFG gray whales often perform many other foraging behaviors such as headstanding and side-swimming (Torres et al., 2018). Additionally, PCFG gray whales tend to feed in water depths that are often shallower than their body length. This shallow depth makes it difficult to isolate signals of foraging in the accelerometry data from random variation in the data and separate the tag data into periods of foraging behaviors (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Top image: A foraging PCFG gray whale rolls on its side to feed on mysid prey. Bottom image: The graph shows the accelerometry data from our suction cup tags that can be used to calculate Overall Dynamic Body Acceleration (ODBA) as a way to estimate energy expenditure. Each color represents a different axis in the 3D motion of the whale. The X-axis is the horizontal axis shows forward and backward movement of the whale, the Y-axis shows the side-to-side movement of the whale, and the Z-axis shows the up-down motion of the whale. Note how there are no clear periods of high acceleration in all 3 axes simultaneously to indicate different foraging behaviors like is apparent during lunges of rorqual whales. However, there is a pattern showing that when acceleration in the Z-axis (blue line) is positive, the X- and Y-axes (red and green lines) are negative. Source: GEMM Lab; NMSF permit no. 21678

But there is still hope! Thanks to the GEMM Lab’s previous work describing the foraging behavior of the PCFG sub-group using drone footage, and the video footage available from the suction cup tags deployed on PCFG gray whales, the body orientation calculated from the tag data can be a useful indication of foraging. Specifically, high body roll is apparent in many foraging behaviors known to be used by the PCFG, and when the tag data indicates that the PCFG gray whale is rolled onto its sides, lots of sediment (and sometimes even swarms of mysid prey) is seen in the tag video footage. Therefore, I am busy isolating these high roll events in the collected tag data to identify specific foraging events. 

My next steps after isolating all the roll events will be to use other variables such as duration of the roll event and body pitch (i.e., if the whales head is angled down), to define different foraging behaviors present in the tag data. Then, I will use the accelerometry data to quantify the energetic cost of performing these behaviors, perhaps using ODBA. Hopefully when I visit the GEMM Lab again next summer, I will be ready to share which foraging behavior leads to PCFG gray whales burning the most calories!

References

Brown, D. D., Kays, R., Wikelski, M., Wilson, R., & Klimley, A. P. (2013). Observing the unwatchable through acceleration logging of animal behavior. Animal Biotelemetry1(1), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1186/2050-3385-1-20

Cade, D. E., Friedlaender, A. S., Calambokidis, J., & Goldbogen, J. A. (2016). Kinematic diversity in rorqual whale feeding mechanisms. Current Biology26(19), 2617–2624. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2016.07.037

Duley, P. n.d. Fin whales feeding [photograph]. NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center Photo Gallery. https://apps-nefsc.fisheries.noaa.gov/rcb/photogallery/finback-whales.html

Gleiss, A. C., Wilson, R. P., & Shepard, E. L. C. (2011). Making overall dynamic body acceleration work: On the theory of acceleration as a proxy for energy expenditure. Methods in Ecology and Evolution2(1), 23–33. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2041-210X.2010.00057.x

Halsey, L. G. (2017). Relationships grow with time: A note of caution about energy expenditure-proxy correlations, focussing on accelerometry as an example. Functional Ecology31(6), 1176–1183. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2435.12822

Halsey, L. G., Shepard, E. L. C., & Wilson, R. P. (2011). Assessing the development and application of the accelerometry technique for estimating energy expenditure. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology – A Molecular and Integrative Physiology158(3), 305–314. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cbpa.2010.09.002

Izadi, S., Aguilar de Soto, N., Constantine, R., & Johnson, M. (2022). Feeding tactics of resident Bryde’s whales in New Zealand. Marine Mammal Science, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1111/mms.12918

Shadwick, R. E., Potvin, J., & Goldbogen, J. A. (2019). Lunge feeding in rorqual whales. Physiology34, 409–418. https://doi.org/10.1152/physiol.00010.2019

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 Science5, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2018.00319

Wilson, R. P., Börger, L., Holton, M. D., Scantlebury, D. M., Gómez-Laich, A., Quintana, F., Rosell, F., Graf, P. M., Williams, H., Gunner, R., Hopkins, L., Marks, N., Geraldi, N. R., Duarte, C. M., Scott, R., Strano, M. S., Robotka, H., Eizaguirre, C., Fahlman, A., & Shepard, E. L. C. (2020). Estimates for energy expenditure in free-living animals using acceleration proxies: A reappraisal. Journal of Animal Ecology89(1), 161–172. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2656.13040

Reuniting with some old friends: The 8th GRANITE field season is underway

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

We are almost halfway through June which means summer has arrived! Although, here on the Oregon coast, it does not entirely feel like it. We have been swinging between hot, sunny days and cloudy, foggy, rainy days that are reminiscent of those in spring or even winter. Despite these weather pendulums, the GEMM Lab’s GRANITE project is off to a great start in its 8th field season! The field team has already ventured out onto the Pacific Ocean in our trusty RHIB Ruby on four separate days looking for gray whales and in this blog post, I am going to share what we have seen so far.

The core GRANITE field team before the May 24th “trial run”. From left to right: Leigh Torres, KC Bierlich, Clara Bird, Lisa Hildebrand, Alejandro Fernández Ajó. Source: L. Torres.

PI Leigh, PhD candidate Clara and I headed out for a “trial run” on May 24th. While the intention for the day was to make sure all our gear was running smoothly and we still remembered how to complete the many tasks associated with our field work (boat loading and trailering, drone flying and catching, poop scooping, data download, to name a few), we could not resist surveying our entire study range given the excellent conditions. It was a day that all marine field scientists hope for – low winds (< 5 kt all day) and a 3 ft swell over a long period. Despite surveying between Waldport and Depoe Bay, we only encountered one whale, but it was a whale that put a smile on each of our faces. After “just” 252 days, we reunited with Solé, the star of our GRANITE dataset, with record numbers of fecal samples and drone flights collected. This record is due to what seems to be a strong habitat or foraging tactic preference by Solé to remain in a relatively small spatial area off the Oregon coast for most of the summer, rather than traveling great swaths of the coast in search for food. Honest truth, on May 24th we found her exactly where we expected to find her. While we did not collect a fecal sample from her on that day, we did perform a drone flight, allowing us to collect a critical early feeding season data point on body condition. We hope that Solé has a summer full of mysids on the Oregon coast and that we will be seeing her often, getting rounder each time!

Our superstar whale Solé. Her identifying features are a small white line on her left side (green box) and a white dot in front of her dorsal hump on the right side (red circle). Source: GEMM Lab. Photograph captured under NOAA/NMFS permit #21678

Just a week after this trial day, we had our official start to the field season with back-to-back days on the water. On our first day, postdoc Alejandro, Clara and I were joined by St. Andrews University Research Fellow Enrico Pirotta, who is another member of the GRANITE team. Enrico’s role in the GRANITE project is to implement our long-term, replicate dataset into a framework called Population consequences of disturbance (PCoD; you can read all about it in a previous blog). We were thrilled that Enrico was able to join us on the water to get a sense for the species and system that he has spent the last several months trying to understand and model quantitatively from a computer halfway across the world. Luckily, the whales sure showed up for Enrico, as we saw a total of seven whales, all of which were known individuals to us! Several of the whales were feeding in water about 20 m deep and surfacing quite erratically, making it hard to get photos of them at times. Our on-board fish finder suggested that there was a mid-water column prey layer that was between 5-7 m thick. Given the flat, sandy substrate the whales were in, we predicted that these layers were composed of porcelain crab larvae. Luckily, we were able to confirm our hypothesis immediately by dropping a zooplankton net to collect a sample of many porcelain crab larvae. Porcelain crab larvae have some of the lowest caloric values of the nearshore zooplankton species that gray whales likely feed on (Hildebrand et al. 2021). Yet, the density of larvae in these thick layers probably made them a very profitable meal, which is likely the reason that we saw another five whales the next day feeding on porcelain crab larvae once again.

On our most recent field work day, we only encountered Solé, suggesting that the porcelain crab swarms had dissipated (or had been excessively munched on by gray whales), and many whales went in search for food elsewhere. We have done a number of zooplankton net tows across our study area and while we did collect a good amount of mysid shrimp already, they were all relatively small. My prediction is that once these mysids grow to a more profitable size in a few days or weeks, we will start seeing more whales again.

The GRANITE team from above, waiting & watching for whales, as we will be doing for the rest of the summer! Source: GEMM Lab.

So far we have seen nine unique individuals, flown the drone over eight of them, collected fecal samples from five individuals, conducted 10 zooplankton net tows and seven GoPro drops in just four days of field work! We are certainly off to a strong start and we are excited to continue collecting rock solid GRANITE data this summer to continue our efforts to understand gray whale ecology and physiology.

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Literature cited

Hildebrand L, Bernard KS, Torres LGT. 2021. Do gray whales count calories? Comparing energetic values of gray whale prey across two different feeding grounds in the Eastern North Pacific. Frontiers in Marine Science 8. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2021.683634

Experiencing a Physical Manifestation of my PhD at Sea in the NCC

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

I always have a small crisis before heading into the field, whether for a daytrip or a several-month stint. I’m always dying to go – up until the moment when it is actually time to leave, and I decide I’d rather stay home, keep working on whatever has my current focus, and not break my comfortable little routine.

Preparing to leave on the most recent Northern California Current (NCC) cruise was no different. And just as always, a few days into the cruise, I forgot about the rest of my life and normal routines, and became totally immersed in the world of the ship and the places we went. I learned an exponential amount while away. Being physically in the ecosystem that I’m studying immediately had me asking more, and better, questions to explore at sea and also bring back to land. 

Many of these questions and realizations centered on predator-prey relationships between krill and whales at fine spatial scales. We know that distributions of prey species are a big factor in structuring whale distributions in the ocean, and one of our goals on this cruise was to observe these relationships more closely. The cruise offered an incredible opportunity to experience these relationships in real time: while my labmates Dawn and Clara were up on the flying bridge looking for whales, I was down in the acoustics lab, watching incoming echosounder data in order to identify krill aggregations. 

From left, Clara and Dawn survey for marine mammals on the flying bridge.

We used radios to stay in touch with what we were each seeing in real time, and learned quickly that we tended to spot whales and krill almost simultaneously. Experiencing this coherence between predator and prey distributions felt like a physical manifestation of my PhD. It also affirmed my faith in one of our most basic modeling assumptions: that the backscatter signals captured in our active acoustic data are representative of the preyscape that nearby whales are experiencing.

Being at sea with my labmates also catalyzed an incredible synthesis of our different types of knowledge. Because of the way that I think about whale distributions, I usually just focus on whether a certain type of whale is present or not while surveying. But Clara, with her focus on cetacean behavior, thinks in a completely different way from me. She timed the length of dives and commented on the specific behaviors she noticed, bringing a new level of context to our observations. Dawn, who has been joining these cruises for five years now, shared her depth of knowledge built through returning to these places again and again, helping us understand how the system varies through time.

Observing whale behavior, such as for these humpbacks, provides valuable information on how they are using a given area.

One of the best experiences of the cruise for me was when we conducted a targeted net tow in an area of foraging humpbacks on the Heceta Head Line off the central Oregon coast. The combination of the krill signature I was seeing on the acoustics display, and the radio reports from Dawn and Clara of foraging dives, convinced me that this was an opportunity for a net tow,  if possible, to see exactly what zooplankton was in the water near the whales. Our chief scientist, Jennifer Fisher, and the ship’s officers worked together to quickly turn the ship around and get a net in the water, in an effort to catch krill from the aggregation I had seen.  

This unique opportunity gave me a chance to test my own interpretation of the acoustics data, and compare what we captured in the net with what I expected from the backscatter signal. It also prompted me to think more about the synchrony and differences between what is captured by net tows and echosounder data, two primary ways for looking at whale prey. 

Collecting tiny yet precious krill samples associated with foraging humpbacks!

Throughout the entire cruise, the opportunity to build my intuition and notice ecological patterns was invaluable. Ecosystem modeling gives us the opportunity to untangle incredible complexity and put dynamic relationships in mathematical terms, but being out on the ocean provides the chance to develop a feel for these relationships. I’m so glad to bring this new perspective to my next round of models, and excited to continue trying to tease apart fine-scale dynamics between whales and krill.

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Yonder Whales and Nearby Prey: A New Look at a Familiar System

Rachel Kaplan1, Dawn Barlow2, Clara Bird3

1PhD student, Oregon State University College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

2Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

3PhD Candidate, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

What do peanut butter m&ms, killer whales, affogatos, tired eyes, and puffins all have in common? They were all major features of the recent Northern California Current (NCC) ecosystem survey cruise. 

The science party of the May 2022 Northern California Current ecosystem cruise.

We spent May 6–17 aboard the NOAA vessel Bell M. Shimada in northern California, Oregon, and Washington waters. This fabulously interdisciplinary cruise studies multiple aspects of the NCC ecosystem three times per year, and the GEMM lab has put marine mammal observers aboard since 2018.

This cruise was a bit different than usual for the GEMM lab: we had eyes on both the whales and their prey. While Dawn Barlow and Clara Bird observed from sunrise to sunset to sight and identify whales, Rachel Kaplan collected krill data via an echosounder and samples from net tows in order to learn about the preyscape the whales were experiencing. 

From left, Rachel, Dawn, and Clara after enjoying some beautiful sunset sightings. 

We sailed out of Richmond, California and went north, sampling as far north as La Push, Washington and up to 200 miles offshore. Despite several days of challenging conditions due to wind, rain, fog, and swell, the team conducted a successful marine mammal survey. When poor weather prevented work, we turned to our favorite hobbies of coding and snacking.

Rachel attends “Clara’s Beanbag Coding Academy”.

Cruise highlights included several fin whales, sperm whales, killer whales, foraging gray whales, fluke slapping and breaching humpbacks, and a visit by 60 pacific white-sided dolphins. While being stopped at an oceanographic sampling station typically means that we take a break from observing, having more time to watch the whales around us turned out to be quite fortunate on this cruise. We were able to identify two unidentified whales as sei whales after watching them swim near us while paused on station. 

Marine mammal observation segments (black lines) and the sighting locations of marine mammal species observed during the cruise.

On one of our first survey days we also observed humpbacks surface lunge feeding close to the ship, which provided a valuable opportunity for our team to think about how to best collect concurrent prey and whale data. The opportunity to hone in on this predator-prey relationship presented itself in a new way when Dawn and Clara observed many apparently foraging humpbacks on the edge of Heceta Bank. At the same time, Rachel started observing concurrent prey aggregations on the echosounder. After a quick conversation with the chief scientist and the officers on the bridge, the ship turned around so that we could conduct a net tow in order to get a closer look at what exactly the whales were eating.

Success! Rachel collects krill samples collected in an area of foraging humpback whales.

This cruise captured an interesting moment in time: southerly winds were surprisingly common for this time of year, and the composition of the phytoplankton and zooplankton communities indicated that the seasonal process of upwelling had not yet been initiated. Upwelling brings deep, cold, nutrient-rich waters to the surface, generating a jolt of productivity that brings the ecosystem from winter into spring. It was fascinating to talk to all the other researchers on the ship about what they were seeing, and learn about the ways in which it was different from what they expected to see in May.

Experiencing these different conditions in the Northern California Current has given us a new perspective on an ecosystem that we’ve been observing and studying for years. We’re looking forward to digging into the data and seeing how it can help us understand this ecosystem more deeply, especially during a period of continued climate change.

The total number of each marine mammal species observed during the cruise.

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New publication by GEMM Lab reveals sub-population health differences in gray whales 

Dr. KC Bierlich, Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna (GEMM) Lab

In a previous blog, I discussed the importance of incorporating measurement uncertainty in drone-based photogrammetry, as drones with different sensors, focal length lenses, and altimeters will have varying levels of measurement accuracy. In my last blog, I discussed how to incorporate photogrammetric uncertainty when combining multiple measurements to estimate body condition of baleen whales. In this blog, I will highlight our recent publication in Frontiers in Marine Science (https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2022.867258) led by GEMM Lab’s Dr. Leigh TorresClara Bird, and myself that used these methods in a collaborative study using imagery from four different drones to compare gray whale body condition on their breeding and feeding grounds (Torres et al., 2022).

Most Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whales migrate to their summer foraging grounds in Alaska and the Arctic, where they target benthic amphipods as prey. A subgroup of gray whales (~230 individuals) called the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG), instead truncates their migration and forages along the coastal habitats between Northern California and British Columbia, Canada (Fig. 1). Evidence from a recent study lead by GEMM Lab’s Lisa Hildebrand (see this blog) found that the caloric content of prey in the PCFG range is of equal or higher value than the main amphipod prey in the Arctic/sub-Arctic regions (Hildebrand et al., 2021). This implies that greater prey density and/or lower energetic costs of foraging in the Arctic/sub-Arctic may explain the greater number of whales foraging in that region compared to the PCFG range. Both groups of gray whales spend the winter months on their breeding and calving grounds in Baja California, Mexico. 

Figure 1. The GEMM Lab field team following a Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whale swimming in a kelp bed along the Oregon Coast during the summer foraging season. 

In January 2019 an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) was declared for gray whales due to the elevated numbers of stranded gray whales between Mexico and the Arctic regions of Alaska. Most of the stranded whales were emaciated, indicating that reduced nutrition and starvation may have been the causal factor of death. It is estimated that the population dropped from ~27,000 individuals in 2016 to ~21,000 in 2020 (Stewart & Weller, 2021).

During this UME period, between 2017-2019, the GEMM Lab was using drones to monitor the body condition of PCFG gray whales on their Oregon coastal feeding grounds (Fig. 1), while Christiansen and colleagues (2020) was using drones to monitor gray whales on their breeding grounds in San Ignacio Lagoon (SIL) in Baja California, Mexico. We teamed up with Christiansen and colleagues to compare the body condition of gray whales in these two different areas leading up to the UME. Comparing the body condition between these two populations could help inform which population was most effected by the UME.

The combined datasets consisted of four different drones used, thus different levels of photogrammetric uncertainty to consider. The GEMM Lab collected data using a DJI Phantom 3 Pro, DJI Phantom 4, and DJI Phantom 4 Pro, while Christiansen et al., (2020) used a DJI Inspire 1 Pro. By using the methodological approach described in my previous blog (here, also see Bierlich et al., 2021a for more details), we quantified photogrammetric uncertainty specific to each drone, allowing cross-comparison between these datasets. We also used Body Area Index (BAI), which is a standardized relative measure of body condition developed by the GEMM Lab (Burnett et al., 2018) that has low uncertainty with high precision, making it easier to detect smaller changes between individuals (see blog here, Bierlich et al., 2021b). 

While both PCFG and ENP gray whales visit San Ignacio Lagoon in the winter, we assume that the photogrammetry data collected in the lagoon is mostly of ENP whales based on their considerably higher population abundance. We also assume that gray whales incur low energetic cost during migration, as gray whale oxygen consumption rates and derived metabolic rates are much lower during migration than on foraging grounds (Sumich, 1983). 

Interestingly, we found that gray whale body condition on their wintering grounds in San Ignacio Lagoon deteriorated across the study years leading up to the UME (2017-2019), while the body condition of PCFG whales on their foraging grounds in Oregon concurrently increased. These contrasting trajectories in body condition between ENP and PCFG whales implies that dynamic oceanographic processes may be contributing to temporal variability of prey available in the Arctic/sub-Arctic and PCFG range. In other words, environmental conditions that control prey availability for gray whales are different in the two areas. For the ENP population, this declining nutritive gain may be associated with environmental changes in the Arctic/sub-Arctic region that impacted the predictability and availability of prey. For the PCFG population, the increase in body condition across years may reflect recovery of the NE Pacific Ocean from the marine heatwave event in 2014-2016 (referred to as “The Blob”) that resulted with a period of low prey availability. These findings also indicate that the ENP population was primarily impacted in the die-off from the UME. 

Surprisingly, the body condition of PCFG gray whales in Oregon was regularly and significantly lower than whales in San Ignacio Lagoon (Fig. 2). To further investigate this potential intrinsic difference in body condition between PCFG and ENP whales, we compared opportunistic photographs of gray whales feeding in the Northeastern Chukchi Sea (NCS) in the Arctic collected from airplane surveys. We found that the body condition of PCFG gray whales was significantly lower than whales in the NCS, further supporting our finding that PCFG whales overall have lower body condition than ENP whales that feed in the Arctic (Fig. 3). 

Figure 2. Boxplots showing the distribution of Body Area Index (BAI) values for gray whales imaged by drones in San Ignacio Lagoon (SIL), Mexico and Oregon, USA. The data is grouped by phenology group: End of summer feeding season (departure Oregon vs. arrival SIL) and End of wintering season (arrival Oregon vs. departure SIL). The group median (horizontal line), interquartile range (IQR, box), maximum and minimum 1.5*IQR (vertical lines), and outliers (dots) are depicted in the boxplots. The overlaid points represent the mean of the posterior predictive distribution for BAI of an individual and the bars represents the uncertainty (upper and lower bounds of the 95% HPD interval). Note how PCFG whales at then end of the feeding season (dark green) typically have lower body condition (as BAI) compared to ENP whales at the end of the feeding season when they arrive to SIL after migration (light brown).
Figure 3. Boxplots showing the distribution of Body Area Index (BAI) values of gray whales from opportunistic images collected from a plane in Northeaster Chukchi Sea (NCS) and from drones collected by the GEMM Lab in Oregon. The boxplots display the group median (horizontal line), interquartile range (IQR box), maximum and minimum 1.5*IQR (vertical lines), and outlies (dots). The overlaid points are the BAI values from each image. Note the significantly lower BAI of PCFG whales on Oregon feeding grounds compared to whales feeding in the Arctic region of the NCS.

This difference in body condition between PCFG and ENP gray whales raises some really interesting and prudent questions. Does the lower body condition of PCFG whales make them less resilient to changes in prey availability compared to ENP whales, and thus more vulnerable to climate change? If so, could this influence the reproductive capacity of PCFG whales? Or, are whales that recruit into the PCFG adapted to a smaller morphology, perhaps due to their specialized foraging tactics, which may be genetically inherited and enables them to survive with reduced energy stores?

These questions are on our minds here at the GEMM Lab as we prepare for our seventh consecutive field season using drones to collect data on PCFG gray whale body condition. As discussed in a previous blog by Dr. Alejandro Fernandez Ajo, we are combining our sightings history of individual whales, fecal hormone analyses, and photogrammetry-based body condition to better understand gray whales’ reproductive biology and help determine what the consequences are for these PCFG whales with lower body condition.

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References

Bierlich, K. C., Hewitt, J., Bird, C. N., Schick, R. S., Friedlaender, A., Torres, L. G., … & Johnston, D. W. (2021). Comparing Uncertainty Associated With 1-, 2-, and 3D Aerial Photogrammetry-Based Body Condition Measurements of Baleen Whales. Frontiers in Marine Science, 1729.

Bierlich, K. C., Schick, R. S., Hewitt, J., Dale, J., Goldbogen, J. A., Friedlaender, A.S., et al. (2021b). Bayesian Approach for Predicting Photogrammetric Uncertainty in Morphometric Measurements Derived From Drones. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 673, 193–210. doi: 10.3354/meps13814

Burnett, J. D., Lemos, L., Barlow, D., Wing, M. G., Chandler, T., & Torres, L. G. (2018). Estimating morphometric attributes of baleen whales with photogrammetry from small UASs: A case study with blue and gray whales. Marine Mammal Science35(1), 108–139.

Christiansen, F., Rodrı́guez-González, F., Martı́nez-Aguilar, S., Urbán, J., Swartz, S., Warick, H., et al. (2021). Poor Body Condition Associated With an Unusual Mortality Event in Gray Whales. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 658, 237–252. doi:10.3354/meps13585

Hildebrand, L., Bernard, K. S., and Torres, L. G. (2021). Do Gray Whales Count Calories? Comparing Energetic Values of Gray Whale Prey Across Two Different Feeding Grounds in the Eastern North Pacific. Front. Mar. Sci. 8. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2021.683634

Stewart, J. D., and Weller, D. (2021). Abundance of Eastern North Pacific Gray Whales 2019/2020 (San Diego, CA: NOAA/NMFS)

Sumich, J. L. (1983). Swimming Velocities, Breathing Patterns, and Estimated Costs of Locomotion in Migrating Gray Whales, Eschrichtius Robustus. Can. J. Zoology. 61, 647–652. doi: 10.1139/z83-086

Torres, L.G., Bird, C., Rodrigues-Gonzáles, F., Christiansen F., Bejder, L., Lemos, L., Urbán Ramírez, J., Swartz, S., Willoughby, A., Hewitt., J., Bierlich, K.C. (2022). Range-wide comparison of gray whale body condition reveals contrasting sub-population health characteristics and vulnerability to environmental change. Frontiers in Marine Science. 9:867258. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2022.867258

Memoirs from above: drone observations of blue, humpback, Antarctic minke, and gray whales

By KC Bierlich, Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

With the GRANITE field season officially over, we are now processing all of the data we collected this summer. For me, I am starting to go through all the drone videos to take snapshots of each whale to measure their body condition. As I go through these videos, I am reflecting on the different experiences I am fortunate enough to have with flying different drones, in different environments, over different species of baleen whales: blue, humpback, Antarctic minke, and now gray whales. Each of these species have a different morphological design and body shape (Woodward et al., 2006), which leads to different behaviors that are noticeable from the drone. Drones create immense opportunity to learn how whales thrive in their natural environments [see previous blog for a quick history], and below are some of my memories from above. 

I first learned how drones could be used to study the morphology and behavior of large marine mammals during my master’s degree at Duke University, and was inspired by the early works of John Durban (Durban et al., 2015, 2016) Fredrick Christiansen (Christiansen et al., 2016) and Leigh Torres (Torres et al., 2018). I immediately recognized the value and utility of this technology as a new tool to better monitor the health of marine mammals. This revelation led me to pursue a PhD with the Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing (MaRRS) Lab led by Dr. Dave Johnston where I helped further develop tools and methods for collecting drone-based imagery on a range of species in different habitats. 

When flying drones over whales, there are a lot of moving parts; you’re on a boat that is moving, flying something that is moving, following something that is moving. These moving elements are a lot to think about, so I trained hard, so I did not have to think about each step and flying felt intuitive and natural. I did not grow up playing video games, so reaching this level of comfort with the controls took a lot of practice. I practiced for hours over the course of months before my first field excursion and received some excellent mentorship and training from Julian Dale, the lead engineer in the MaRRS Lab. Working with Julian and the many hours of training helped me establish a solid foundation in my piloting skills and feel confident working in various environments on different species. 

Blue whales offshore of Monterey, California. 

In 2017 and 2018 I was involved in collaborative project with the MaRRS Lab and Goldbogen Lab at Stanford University, where we tagged and flew drones over blue whales offshore of Monterey, California. We traveled about an hour offshore and reliably found groups of blue whales actively feeding. Working offshore typically brought a large swell, which can often make landing the drone back into your field partner’s hands tricky as everything is bobbing up and down with the oscillations of the swell. Fortunately, we worked from a larger research vessel (~56 ft) and quickly learned that landing the drone in the stern helped dampen the effects of bobbing up and down. The blue whales we encountered often dove to a depth of around 200 m for about 20-minute intervals, then come to the surface for only a few minutes. This short surface period provided only a brief window to locate the whale once it surfaced and quickly fly over it to collect the imagery needed before it repeated its dive cycle. We learned to be patient and get a sense of the animal’s dive cycle before launch in order to time our flights so the drone would be in the air a couple of minutes before the whale surfaced. 

Once over the whales, the streamlined body of the blue whales was noticeable, with their small, high aspect ratio flippers and fluke that make them so well adapted for fast swimming in the open ocean (Fig. 1) (Woodward et al., 2006). I also noticed that because these whales are so large (often 21 – 24 m), I often flew at higher altitudes to be able fit them within the field of view of the camera. It was also always shocking to see how small the tagging boat (~8 m) looked when next to Earth’s largest creatures. 

Figure 1. Two blue whales surface after a deep dive offshore of Monterey, Ca. (Image credit: Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing under NOAA permit 14809-03)

Antarctic minke whales and humpback whales along the Western Antarctic PeninsulaA lot of the data included in my dissertation came from work along the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP), which had a huge range of weather conditions, from warm and sunny days to cold and snowy/foggy/rainy/windy/icy days. A big focus was often trying to keep my hands warm, as it was often easier to fly without gloves in order to better feel the controls. One of the coldest days I remember was late in the season in mid-June (almost winter!) in Wilhemina Bay where ice completely covered the bay in just a couple hours, pushing the whales out into the Gerlache Strait; I suspect this was the last ice-free day of the season. Surprisingly though, the WAP also brought some of the best conditions I have ever flown in. Humpback and Antarctic minke whales are often found deep within the bays along the peninsula, which provided protection from the wind. So, there were times where it would be blowing 40 mph in the Gerlache Strait, but calm and still in the bays, such as Andvord Bay, which allowed for some incredible conditions for flying. Working from small zodiacs (~7 m) allowed us more maneuverability for navigating around or through the ice deep in the bays (Fig. 2) 

Figure 2. Navigating through ice-flows along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. (Image credit: Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing under NOAA permit 14809-03 and ACA permits 2015-011 and 2020-016.)

Flying over Antarctic minke whale was always rewarding, as they are very sneaky and can quickly disappear under ice flows or in the deep, dark water. Flying over them often felt like a high-speed chase, as their small streamlined bodies makes them incredibly quick and maneuverable, doing barrel rolls, quick banked turns, and swimming under and around ice flows (Fig. 3). There would often be a group between 3-7 individuals and it felt like they were playing tag with each other – or perhaps with me!  

Figure 3. Two Antarctic minke whales swimming together along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. (Image credit: Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing under NOAA permit 14809-03 and ACA permits 2015-011 and 2020-016.)

Humpbacks displayed a wide range of behaviors along the WAP. Early in the season they continuously fed throughout the entire day, often bubble net feeding in groups typically of 2-5 animals (Fig. 4). For as large as they are, it was truly amazing to see how they use their pectoral fins to perform quick accelerations and high-speed maneuvering for tight synchronized turns to form bubble nets, which corral and trap their krill, their main food source (Fig. 4) (Woodward et al., 2006). Later in the season, humpbacks switched to more resting behavior in the day and mostly fed at night, taking advantage of the diel vertical migration of krill. This behavior meant we often found humpbacks snoozing at the surface after a short dive, as if they were in a food coma. They also seemed to be more curious and playful with each other and with us later in the season (Fig. 5).

We also encountered a lot of mom and calf pairs along the WAP. Moms were noticeably skinny compared to their plump calf in the beginning of the season due to the high energetic cost of lactation (Fig. 6). It is important for moms to regain this lost energy throughout the feeding season and begin to wean their calves. I often saw moms refusing to give milk to their nudging calf and instead led teaching lessons for feeding on their own.

Figure 4. Two humpback whales bubble-net feeding early in the feeding season (December) along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. (Image credit: Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing under NOAA permit 14809-03 and ACA permits 2015-011 and 2020-016.)
Figure 5. A curious humpback whale dives behind our Zodiac along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. (Image credit: Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing under NOAA permit 14809-03 and ACA permits 2015-011 and 2020-016.)
Figure 6. A mom and her calf rest at the surface along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Note how the mom looks skinnier compared to her plump calf, as lactation is the most energetically costly phase of the reproductive cycle. (Image credit: Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing under NOAA permit 14809-03 and ACA permits 2015-011 and 2020-016.)

Gray whales off Newport, Oregon

All of these past experiences helped me quickly get up to speed and jump into action with the GRANITE field team when I officially joined the GEMM Lab this year in June. I had never flown a DJI Inspire quadcopter before (the drone used by the GEMM Lab), but with my foundation piloting different drones, some excellent guidance from Todd and Clara, and several hours of practice to get comfortable with the new setup, I was flying over my first gray whale by day three of the job. 

The Oregon coast brings all sorts of weather, and some days I strangely found myself wearing a similar number of layers as I did in Antarctica. Fog, wind, and swell could all change within the hour, so I learned to make the most of weather breaks when they came. I was most surprised by how noticeably different gray whales behave compared to the blue, Antarctic minke, and humpback whales I had grown familiar with watching from above. For one, it is absolutely incredible to see how these huge whales use their low-aspect ratio flippers and flukes (Woodward et al., 2006) to perform low-speed, highly dynamic maneuvers to swim in very shallow water (5-10 m) so close to shore (<1m sometimes!) and through kelp forest or surf zones close to the beach. They have amazing proprioception, or the body’s ability to sense its movement, action, and position, as gray whales often use their pectoral fins and fluke to stay in a head standing position (see Clara Bird’s blog) to feed in the bottom sediment layer, all while staying in the same position and resisting the surge of waves that could smash them against the rocks (Video 1) . It is also remarkable how the GEMM Lab knows each individual whale based on natural skin marks, and I started to get a better sense of each whale’s behavior, including where certain individuals typically like to feed, or what their dive cycle might be depending on their feeding behavior. 

Video 1. Two Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales “head-standing” in shallow waters off the coast of Newport, Oregon. NOAA/NMFS permit #21678

I feel very fortunate to be a part of the GRANITE field team and to contribute to data collection efforts. I look forward to the data analysis phase to see what we learn about how the morphology and behavior of these gray whales to help them thrive in their environment. 

References: 

Christiansen, F., Dujon, A. M., Sprogis, K. R., Arnould, J. P. Y., and Bejder, L. (2016).Noninvasive unmanned aerial vehicle provides estimates of the energetic cost of reproduction in humpback whales. Ecosphere 7, e01468–18.

Durban, J. W., Fearnbach, H., Barrett-Lennard, L. G., Perryman, W. L., & Leroi, D. J. (2015). Photogrammetry of killer whales using a small hexacopter launched at sea. Journal of Unmanned Vehicle Systems3(3), 131-135.

Durban, J. W., Moore, M. J., Chiang, G., Hickmott, L. S., Bocconcelli, A., Howes, G., et al.(2016). Photogrammetry of blue whales with an unmanned hexacopter. Mar. Mammal Sci. 32, 1510–1515.

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 Science5, 319.

Woodward, B. L., Winn, J. P., and Fish, F. E. (2006). Morphological specializations of baleen whales associated with hydrodynamic performance and ecological niche. J. Morphol. 267, 1284–1294.

The Unpredictable Nature of Field Work & a Mystery Mysid

By Jasen C. White, GEMM Lab summer intern, OSU senior, Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences

Field work is predictably unpredictable. Even with years of experience and exhaustive planning, nature always manages to throw a few curveballs, and this gray whale foraging ecology field season is no exception. We are currently in our sixth week of data collection here in Port Orford, and we have been battling the weather, our equipment, and a notable lack of whales and their zooplankton prey. Throughout all of these setbacks, Team “Heck Yeah” has lived up to its mantra as we have approached each day ready to hit the ground running. When faced with any of our myriad of problems, we have managed to work collaboratively to assess our options and develop solutions to keep the project on track. 

For those of you that are unfamiliar with Port Orford, it is windy here, and when it is not, it can be foggy. Both of these weather patterns have the potential to make unsafe paddling conditions for our kayak sampling team. This summer we have frequently delayed or altered our field work routines to accommodate these weather patterns. Occasionally, we had to call off kayaking altogether as the winds and swell precluded us from maintaining our boat “on station” at the predetermined GPS coordinates during our samples, only for the winds to die down once we had returned to shore and completed the daily gear maintenance. Despite weather challenges, we have made the most of our data collection opportunities over these past six weeks, and we have only been forced to give up four total days of data collection. Flexibility to take advantage of the good weather windows when they arrive is the key!

Equipment issues can be even more unpredictable than the weather. The first major stumbling block for our equipment was a punctured membrane in the dissolved oxygen probe that we lower into the water at each of our twelve sample locations. This puncture was likely the result of a stray urchin’s spine that was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Soon after noticing the problem, we quickly rallied to refurbish the membrane, recalibrate the sensor, and design a protective housing using some plumbing parts from the local hardware store to prevent any future damage to the membrane (Figures 1a-d). Within 6 days, we were back up and running with the dissolved oxygen sensor.

Figure 1. a) Punctured dissolved oxygen sensor membrane; b) plans for constructing a protective housing for the sensor; c) the new protective housing for the dissolved oxygen sensor (yellow) is attached to the sensor array; d) intern Jasen White measuring seawater for the dissolved oxygen sensor calibration after replacing the punctured membrane. Source: A. Dawn

The next major equipment issue involved a GoPro camera whose mounting hardware snapped while being retrieved at a sample site. This event was captured on the camera itself (see below). Fortunately, thanks to our collaborators at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, we were soon able to recover the lost GoPro camera, and in the meantime, we relied on our spare to continue sampling. 

Figure 2. The steel cable of the downrigger used to deploy and retrieve our sensor array had worn down until only two strands remained intact. Source: J. White.

The most recent equipment problem was a fraying cable (Figure 2) on our downrigger. We use the downrigger as a winch to lower and raise our sensor array and zooplankton nets into the water to obtain our samples. Fortunately, keen eyes on our team noticed the fray before it fully separated while the sensor array was in the water which could have resulted in losing our gear. We were quickly able to find the necessary repair part locally and get back on the water to finish out our sample regime within an hour of noticing the problem. 

Finally, as Damian mentioned in his post last week, this season seemed to start much slower than the previous field seasons. In the early weeks, many of our zooplankton sampling nets repeatedly came up almost empty. There was often nothing but murky water to see in the GoPro videos that accompany the zooplankton samples. Likely due to the lack of prey, we have only managed to spot a couple of transitory whales that rarely entered our study area. Those few whales that we did observe were difficult to track as the relatively high winds and waves quickly dissipated the tell-tale blows and camouflaged their briefly exposed backs and flukes. 

Our determination and perseverance have recently started to pay off, however, as the prey abundance in at least some of our sample sites has begun to increase. This increase in prey has also corresponded to a slight increase in whale sightings. One whale even spent nearly 30 minutes around the sampling station that consistently yields the most prey, likely indicating foraging behavior. These modest increases in zooplankton prey and whale sightings provide more evidence in support of the hypothesis Damian mentioned last week that reduced whale abundance in the area is likely the result of low prey abundance.

Figure 3. Example of a previously unidentified mysid that dominates several of our zooplankton samples. Due to the unique fat and flat telson (the “tail”) portion, we have been affectionately calling these “beavertail” mysids. Source: J. White.

As the zooplankton abundance finally started to increase, we noticed an interesting shift in the kinds of prey that we are capturing compared to previous seasons. Donovan Burns, an intern from the 2019 field season, noted in his blog post that the two most common types of zooplankton they found in their samples were the mysid species Holmesimysis sculpta and members of the genus Neomysis. While Neomysis mysid shrimp are continuing to make up a large proportion of our prey samples this year, we have noticed that many of our samples are dominated by a different type of mysid shrimp (Figure 3) which, in previous years, was a very rare capture. After searching through several mysid identification guides, this unknown mysid appears to be a member of the genus Lucifer, identified based on the presence of some distinctive characteristics that are unique to this genus (Omori 1992). 

This observation is interesting because historically, Lucifer mysid shrimp are typically found in warmer tropical and subtropical waters and were rarely reported in the eastern North Pacific Ocean before the year 1992 (Omori 1992). Additionally, a key to common coastal mysid shrimp of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia does not include members of the Lucifer genus, nor does it include any examples of mysids that resemble these new individuals showing up in our zooplankton nets (Daly and Holmquist 1986). If our initial identification of this mysid species is correct, then the sudden rise in the abundance of a typically warm water mysid species in Port Orford may indicate some fascinating shifts in oceanographic conditions that could lend some insight into why our prey and subsequent whale observations are so different this year than in years past.

Figure 4. View from the cliff site where we track gray whales using a theodolite. Source: A. Dawn.

As the 2021 field season draws to a close in Port Orford, I cannot help but reflect on what a wonderful opportunity we have been given through this summer internship program. I have loved the short time that I have spent living in this small but lively community for these past five weeks. Most days we could either be found kayaking around the nearshore to sample for the tiny creatures that our local gray whales call dinner, or we were on a cliff, gazing at the tirelessly beautiful, rugged coastline (Figure 4), hoping to glimpse the blow of a foraging whale so that we could track its course with our theodolite. Though the work can be physically exhausting during long and windy kayaking trips, mentally taxing when processing the data for each of the new samples after a full day of fieldwork, or incredibly frustrating with equipment failures, weather delays and shy whales, it is also tremendously satisfying to know that I contributed in a small but meaningful way to the mission of the GEMM Lab. I cannot imagine a better way to obtain the experience that my fellow interns and I have gained from this work, and I know that it will serve each of us well in our future ambitions.

References

Daly, K. L., and C. Holmquist. 1986. A key to the Mysidacea of the Pacific Northwest. Canadian Journal of Zoology 64:1201–1210.

Omori, M. 1992. Occurrence of Two Species of Lucifer (Dendrobranchiata: Sergestoidea: Luciferidae) off the Pacific Coast of America. Journal of Crustacean Biology 12:104–110.