Exploring the Western Antarctic Peninsula  

By Abby Tomita, undergraduate student, OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, research intern in the GEMM and Krill Seeker Labs

This February, during the winter term of my third year at Oregon State, I was presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. After spending the last year studying the zooplankton krill as part of Project OPAL, I was invited to spend the austral winter season doing research on Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) under supervision of experts Dr. Kim Bernard and PhD student Rachel Kaplan. Additionally, we were lucky enough to participate in two research cruises along the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP). 

Figure 1. Sailing into the sunset on the RV Laurence M. Gould.

Unsurprisingly, it is no easy feat getting to the bottom of the world. After an incredibly thorough physical qualification process and two days of air travel from Portland, Oregon, we reached the lovely city of Punta Arenas, Chile. It was such a relief to arrive – but we were only halfway there. The next portion of our trip was the one that I was most anxious about, especially as someone who is prone to seasickness: crossing the Drake Passage. This stretch of the ocean, from the southernmost tip of South America to the Antarctic Peninsula, is notoriously treacherous as water in this area circulates the globe completely unobstructed by land masses. I soon learned the value of scopolamine patches and nausea bracelets, which helped me immensely through this five day journey. From Punta Arenas, we boarded the RV Laurence M. Gould, along with a seal research team from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. They were headed down south to look for crabeater seals to better understand not only their physiology, but also their role in the trophic ecology of the WAP. 

The Passage was rough, but not as terrible as I expected. The hype around it made me think I’d be faced with something as menacing as the giant wave from The Perfect Storm, and while the rocking and rolling of the ship was far from pleasant, my nausea aids, as well as the amazing people and vast selection of movies on board made it manageable. Despite being extremely nervous for the Passage, I was also very excited to celebrate my twenty-first birthday during it. It was a memorable, although untraditional birthday experience that was made all the more special by my friends on the ship who took the time to celebrate the day as best as we could. 

Figure 2. Taking in the sights of the Neumayer Channel with Kim!

The morning that we reached the Bransfield Strait was something truly unforgettable. Up until that point, I knew our destination was Antarctica, but I couldn’t really wrap my head around it because it was such a distant place and concept to me. I remember walking out onto the starboard side of the second level deck and seeing huge mountains out in the distance. For some reason, I had never considered how massively tall the mountains of the peninsula are, and just the fact that there were mountains down here at all. I joined the others at the bow, where we stood for hours in awe at the first land we had seen in days. Though many of the other scientists and crew members on board had been to this icy continent before, this was my first time, and I was in a state of disbelief. We’d finally made it and it sunk into me that I was in Antarctica, and that I would be here for the next five and half months.

After a day of hiding from strong winds in the Neumayer Channel, we were able to dock at Palmer Station (the smallest of the three US research bases in Antarctica) for our first port call, and seeing Palmer for the first time was just as exciting as seeing the continent. It looked so small at first, especially with the glacier and mountains looming behind it. Once the ship was tied up, orientation began. The station manager came onto the ship to give us an overview of what we could expect on station and the general Palmer etiquette. Next, we were given a tour of the facilities, from the lab spaces and aquarium room, up through the galley/dining area, past the hot tub and sauna, and into the lounge and bar in the GWR (Garage, Warehouse, and Recreation) building. I was surprised at how cozy the station was on the inside. In pictures, the buildings’ exteriors looked similar to the outside of a metal shipping container, but the inside was welcoming and warm. Those of us staying on station then sat through several hours of a more detailed orientation that somehow wore us out despite sitting in comfy recliner sofas the whole time. After sleeping on the rocking ship for about a week, I had some of the best sleep of my life that first night at Palmer Station.

Figure 3. Arriving at the Palmer Station pier in the first morning light.

Our first research cruise started a few days after arriving at Palmer, and just like that, we were off to explore the Southern Ocean. This leg of the trip took us south, down to Marguerite Bay and the region of Alexander Island, for ten days. The views were just spectacular everywhere we went, and it was so humbling to step out onto the deck to see gigantic mountains all around the ship. By day, us “krillers”, as our team is known, camped out on the bridge of the ship with the seal team, where we looked for sea ice floes with lounging crabeater seals. By night we conducted CTD casts, filtered water for chlorophyll, and deployed nets to catch our favorite tiny crustacean critters, along with any other zooplankton in our track. Unfortunately for both our group and the seal team, many areas that we visited were not frequented by krill or crabeater seals, though the seal team did successfully study and tag one seal over the course of the first cruise. 

Figure 4. Rachel (right) and I (left) filtering water for chlorophyll on the LMG. 

One of the highlights of this leg of the cruise was our Crossing Ceremony, as we’d crossed the Antarctic Circle (approximately 66.5ºS) shortly after leaving Palmer station. Myself and six others were crossing for the first time, so to earn our “Red Noses”, we had to pay tribute to King Neptune and his court. It would not be a Crossing Ceremony without at least some light pranking, so when they brought us out individually to the main deck, I knew something was coming our way.

Figure 5. Taking a celebratory picture with King Neptune’s court…with a surprise after.

The ten days flew by, and when we arrived back on station, we had less than a week to prepare for our next excursion on the LMG, which would be fifteen days. The time back at Palmer went quickly as we organized our lab space and entered data from the first cruise. The ship came back once more and we were off, this time heading north along the Peninsula to the Gerlache Strait. The sights were as breathtaking as ever, and I was excited to be back with my friends from the ship. 

Figure 6. Kim (left) and I (right) pour krill we caught into an XACTIC tank.

Our first day of transit was through the Lemaire Channel, one of the most stunning areas that we passed through (check out the photo gallery at the end of this post!). We spent the majority of the day on the bow and the deck of the bridge taking in the beautiful towering mountains on either side of the narrow channel and watching for penguins and humpbacks, of which there were many. This voyage segued into an extremely productive night of science for us where we caught thousands of krill that we were able to keep live in tanks on the ship, in preparation for later use for our experiments on station. Our first productive night of science was auspicious for the rest of the cruise as we caught and processed thousands more krill, and the seal team had a much more fruitful experience finding crabeater seals (they found/worked on 8 seals and named them all after fruits!). The highlight of this second cruise for me was getting to accompany the seal team onto an ice floe in the Lemaire Channel to assist them in their work on the crabeater, a female juvenile who they named Mango!

Figure 7. Watching Mango’s nose to calculate and record her breaths per minute (US NMSF Permit #25770).

Returning to Palmer for the final time on the LMG was just as exciting as arriving the first time, especially with the knowledge that we’d have one last night of celebration with our friends from the ship at the Cross Town Dinner – a night to celebrate the solstice with both the Palmer crew and LMG crew. Although the dinner and subsequent party were a blast, I felt a lingering sadness knowing that the majority of the people I spent almost two months with would be heading north, back to their respective homes while Kim, Rachel, and I stayed at Palmer for the next few months. The next day, after saying our goodbyes, the three of us stood on the Palmer pier with tears streaming down our faces, waving frantically at the ship to our friends on the deck. In spite of my sadness, I knew that the coming months would be a thrilling series of new experiences in one of the most magical and special places that I have ever had the pleasure of being in. 

Figure 8. The LMG departs Palmer Station for the last time this winter! 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lunita”, an example of successful internal recruitment

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

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



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

Navigating the Research Rollercoaster

By Amanda Rose Kent, College of Earth Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, OSU, GEMM Lab/Krill Seeker undergraduate intern

If you asked me five years ago where I’d thought I’d be today, the answer I would give would not reflect where I am now. Back then, I was a customer service representative for a hazardous waste company, and I believed that going to university and participating in research was a straightforward experience. I learned soon after I left that career and began my journey at OSU in 2020 that I wasn’t even remotely aware of the process. I knew that as part of my oceanography degree I would need to become involved in some form of research, but I had no idea where to start.

I started looking through the Oregon State website and I eventually found an outdated flier from 2018 that advertised a lab that studied plankton in Antarctica, and that was when I first reached out to Dr. Kim Bernard. My journey took off from there. As an undergraduate researcher in the URSA Engage program working with Kim and one of her graduate students, Rachel, I conducted a literature review on the ecosystem services provided by two species of krill off the coast of Oregon, including their value to baleen whales. After learning all I could from the literature about krill and how important they were to the ocean, I knew that there was so much more to learn and that this was the topic I wanted to continue to pursue. After I completed the URSA program, I remained a member of Kim’s zooplankton ecology lab.

While continuing to work with Rachel, I was given the opportunity to join the GEMM Lab’s Project HALO for a daylong cruise conducting a whale survey along the Newport Hydrographic Line. I was initially brought on to learn how to use the echosounder to collect krill data but unfortunately, the device had technical difficulties and Rachel and I were no longer needed. We decided to go on the cruise anyway, and I was able to instead learn how to survey for marine mammals (it’s not as easy as it may seem, but still very fun!).

Figure 1. Enjoying the point of view from the crow’s nest on the R/V Pacific Storm, but also very cold.

Soon, another opportunity arose to apply for a brand-new program called ARC-Learn. This two-year research program focuses on studying the Arctic using publicly available data, and with the support of my mentors, I applied and was accepted. Initially I found that there were no mentors within the program that studied krill, so I found myself becoming immersed in a new topic: harmful algal blooms (HABs). Determined to incorporate krill into this research, I started looking through the literature trying to develop my hypothesis that HABs affected zooplankton in some way. There was evidence to potentially support my hypothesis, but I ended up encountering numerous data gaps in the region I was studying. After months of roadblocks, I eventually started feeling defeated and regretted applying for the program. Rachel was quick to remind me that all experiences are valuable experiences, and that I was still gaining new skills I could use in graduate school or my career.

As my undergraduate degree progressed, I continued supporting Rachel in her graduate research, spending some time during the summer processing krill samples by sorting, sexing, and drying them to crush them into pellets. Our goal was to process them in an instrument called a bomb calorimeter, which is used to quantify the caloric content of prey species and help us better understand the energy flux required for animals higher up the food chain (like whales) and the amount they need to eat. I was only able to do this for a few weeks before heading out on the experience of a lifetime, spending three weeks on a ship traveling around the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas with one of my ARC-Learn mentors. It was a great opportunity for me to see the toxic phytoplankton (which can form HABs) I had been studying and learn about methods of sample collection and processing. If I could go back and do it again, I’d go in a heartbeat.

Figure 2. Pulling out all of the animal biomass out of the Arctic sediment.

At the beginning of my bachelor’s degree, I had expected to just work with Kim and conduct research within her lab. Instead, I have had opportunities I would never have expected five years ago. I have learned a vast amount from my graduate mentor, Rachel, which has helped influence my trajectory in my degree. I have had the privilege to not only meet giants in the field I’m interested in, but also work with them and learn from them, and to spend three weeks in the Arctic Ocean.  The experiences I have had throughout this roller-coaster helped me develop a project idea with new mentors that I eventually hope to pursue in my master’s degree. I wasn’t prepared for the number of adjustments I would make to find new experiences and start new projects, but all the experiences I had were necessary to learn about what I was interested in and what I wanted to pursue. Looking back on it all today, I have zero regrets.

Figure 3. A picture of the Norseman II, the ship I was on in the Arctic, taken by the Japanese ship JAMSTEC on a short rendezvous between the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

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

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

Predator-Prey Inference: A Tale as Old as Time

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

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

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

Detecting the ‘Predator’ Half of the Equation

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

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

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

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

Detecting the ‘Prey’ Half of the Equation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Breen, P., Pirotta, E., Allcock, L., Bennison, A., Boisseau, O., Bouch, P., Hearty, A., Jessopp, M., Kavanagh, A., Taite, M., & Rogan, E. (2020). Insights into the habitat of deep diving odontocetes around a canyon system in the northeast Atlantic ocean from a short multidisciplinary survey. Deep-Sea Research. Part I, Oceanographic Research Papers, 159, 103236. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dsr.2020.103236

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

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

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

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

Munk, W. H., Spindel, R. C., Baggeroer, A., & Birdsall, T. G. (1994). The Heard Island Feasibility Test. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 96(4), 2330–2342. https://doi.org/10.1121/1.410105

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

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

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

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

So big, but so small: why the smallest of the largest whales are not smaller

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

Baleen whales are known for their gigantism and encompass a wide range in body sizes extending from blue whales that are the largest animals to live on earth (max length ~30 m) to minke whales (max length ~10 m) that are the smallest of baleen whales (Fig. 1). While all baleen whales are filter feeders, a group called the rorquals use a feeding strategy known as lunge feeding (or intermittent engulfment filtration), which involves engulfing large volumes of prey-laden water at high speeds and then filtering the water out of their mouth using their baleen as a “sieve”. There is positive allometry associated with this feeding technique and body size, meaning that as whales are larger, this feeding strategy becomes more efficient due to increased engulfment of water volume per each lunge feeding event. In other words, a bigger body size equates to a much larger mouthful of food. For example, a minke whale (body length ~7-10 m) will engulf water volume equivalent to ~42% of its body mass, while a blue whale (~21-24 m) engulfs ~135%. Thus, filter feeding enables gigantism through efficient exploitation of large, dense patches of prey. An interesting question then arises: what is the minimum body size at which filter feeding is still efficient? Or in other words, why are the smallest of the baleen whales, minke whales, not smaller? For this blog, I will highlight a study published today in Nature Ecology and Evolution titled “Minke whale feeding rate limitations suggest constraints on the minimum body size for engulfment filtration feeding” led by friend and collaborator of the GEMM Lab Dr. Dave Cade and included myself and other collaborators as co-authors from Stanford University, UC Santa Cruz, Cascadia Research Collective, Duke University, and University of Queensland.

Figure 1. Aerial imagery collected using drones of several baleen whales of various sizes. Each species shown is considered a rorqual whale, except for gray whales. Figure from Segre et al. (2022)

The largest animals of today are marine filter feeders, such as whale sharks, manta rays, and baleen whales, which all share parallel evolutionary histories in which their large body sizes and filter-feeding morphologies are derived from smaller-bodied ancestors that targeted single prey items. Changes in ocean productivity increased the concentrations of smaller prey in the oceans around 5 million years ago, enabling filter feeding as an efficient feeding strategy through capture of abundant aggregations of prey by filtering large volumes of water. It is interesting to note, that within these filter feeding lineages of animals, there are groups of animals that are single-prey foragers with smaller body sizes. For example, the whale shark is the only filter feeder amongst the carpet sharks and the manta ray is much larger than other rays that feed on single prey items. Amongst cetaceans, the smallest single-prey foragers, dolphins (~2-3 m) and porpoises (~1.4-1.9 m), are much smaller than the smallest of the filter feeding cetaceans, minke whales (~7-10 m). These common differences in body sizes and feeding strategies within lineages suggest that there may be minimum body size requirements for this filter feeding strategy to be efficient.

To investigate the limits on minimum body size for filter feeding, our study explored the foraging behavior of Antarctic minke whales, the smallest of the rorqual baleen whales, along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Our team tagged a total of 23 individuals using non-invasive suction cup tags, like the ones we use for our tagging component in the GEMM Lab’s GRANITE project (see this blog for more details). One of my roles on the project was to obtain aerial imagery of the minke whales using drones to obtain body length measurements (sound familiar?) (Figs. 2-4). Flying drones in Antarctica over minke whales was an amazing experience. The minke whales were often found deep within the bays amongst ice floes and brash ice where they can be very tricky to spot, as they’ll often surface and then quickly disappear, hence their nickname “sneaky minkes”. They also appear “playful” and “athletic” as they are incredibly quick and maneuverable, doing barrel rolls and quick bank turns while they swim. Check out my past blog to read more on accounts of flying over these amazing whales.

Figure 2. Drone image of our team about to place a noninvasive suction cup biologging tag on an Antarctic minke whale. Photo credit: Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Lab.
Figure 3. A drone image of a newly tagged and curious Antarctic minke whale approaching our research team. Photo credit: Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Lab.
Figure 4. A drone image of a group of Antarctic minke whales swimming through the icy waters along the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo credit: Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Lab.

In total, our team collected 437 hours of tag data consisting of day- and night-time foraging behaviors. While the proportion of time spent foraging and the number of lunges per dive (~3-4) was similar between day- and night-time foraging, daytime foraging was much deeper (~72 m) compared to nighttime foraging (~28 m) due to vertical migration of Antarctic krill, their main food source. Overall, nighttime foraging was much more intense than daytime foraging, with an average of 165 lunges per hour during the night compared to 53 lunges per hour during the day. These shallower nighttime dives enabled quicker surface sequences for replenishing oxygen reserves to then return to foraging, whereas the deeper dives during the day required longer surface recovery times before beginning another foraging dive. Thus, nighttime dives are a more efficient and critical component of minke whale foraging.

When it comes to body size, there was no relationship between dive depth and dive duration with body length, except for daytime deep dives, where longer minke whales dove for longer periods than smaller whales. These longer dive times also require longer surface times to replenish oxygen reserves. Longer minke whales can gulp larger amounts of food and thus need longer filtration times to process water from each engulfment. For example, a 9 m minke whale will take 50% longer to filter water through its baleen compared to a 5 m minke whale. In turn, smaller minke whales would need to feed more frequently than larger minke whales in order to maintain efficient foraging. This decreasing efficiency with smaller body size shines light on a broader trend for filter feeders that we refer to in our study as the minimum-size constraint (MSC) hypothesis: “while the maximum size of a filter-feeding body plan will be restricted by physical properties, the minimum size is restricted by the energetic efficiency of filter feeding and the time required to extract sufficient particles from the water” (Cade et al. 2023). When we examined the scaling of maximum feeding rates of minke whales, we found evidence of a minimum size constraint on efficiency at lengths around 5 m. Interestingly, the weaning length of minke whales is reported to be 4.5 – 5.5 m. Before weaning, newborn/yearling minke whales that are smaller than 4.5 ­– 5.5 m have a different foraging strategy where they are dependent on maternal milk. Thus, it is likely that the body size at weaning is influenced by the minimum size at which this specialized foraging technique of lunge feeding becomes efficient.

This study helps inform the evolutionary pathway for filter feeding whales and suggests that efficient filter feeding and gigantism likely co-evolved within the last 5 million years when ocean conditions changed to support larger prey patches suitable for lunge feeding. It is interesting to think about the MSC hypothesis for other baleen whale species that employ alternative filter feeding techniques, such as gray whales that generally use a form of filter feeding called suction feeding. Gray whales are estimated to have a birth length of ~4.6 m (Agbayani et al., 2020), and the body length of newly weaned calves that we have observed along the Oregon Coast from drone imagery seem to be ~8 – 9 m. Perhaps this is the minimum size of when suction feeding becomes efficient for a gray whale? This is something the GEMM Lab hopes to further explore as we continue to collect foraging data from suction cup tags and behavior and body size measurements from drone imagery.


Agbayani, S., Fortune, S. M., & Trites, A. W. (2020). Growth and development of North Pacific gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus). Journal of Mammalogy101(3), 742-754.

Cade, D.E., Kahane-Rapport, S.R., Gough, W.T., Bierlich, K.C., Linksy, J.M.J., Johnston, D.W., Goldbogen, J.A., Friedlaender, A.S. (2023). Ultra-high feeding rates of Antarctic minke whales imply a lower limit for body size in engulfment filtration feeders. Nature Ecology and Evolution. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-023-01993-2  

Paolo S. Segre, William T. Gough, Edward A. Roualdes, David E. Cade, Max F. Czapanskiy, James Fahlbusch, Shirel R. Kahane-Rapport, William K. Oestreich, Lars Bejder, K. C. Bierlich, Julia A. Burrows, John Calambokidis, Ellen M. Chenoweth, Jacopo di Clemente, John W. Durban, Holly Fearnbach, Frank E. Fish, Ari S. Friedlaender, Peter Hegelund, David W. Johnston, Douglas P. Nowacek, Machiel G. Oudejans, Gwenith S. Penry, Jean Potvin, Malene Simon, Andrew Stanworth, Janice M. Straley, Andrew Szabo, Simone K. A. Videsen, Fleur Visser, Caroline R. Weir, David N. Wiley, Jeremy A. Goldbogen; Scaling of maneuvering performance in baleen whales: larger whales outperform expectations. J Exp Biol 1 March 2022; 225 (5): jeb243224. doi: https://doi.org/10.1242/jeb.243224

How do we study the impact of whale watching?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arranz, P., Glarou, M., & Sprogis, K. R. (2021). Decreased resting and nursing in short-finned pilot whales when exposed to louder petrol engine noise of a hybrid whale-watch vessel. Scientific Reports, 11(1), 21195. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-00487-0

Lemos, L. S., Haxel, J. H., Olsen, A., Burnett, J. D., Smith, A., Chandler, T. E., Nieukirk, S. L., Larson, S. E., Hunt, K. E., & Torres, L. G. (2022). Effects of vessel traffic and ocean noise on gray whale stress hormones. Scientific Reports, 12(1), Article 1. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-14510-5

Senigaglia, V., Christiansen, F., Bejder, L., Gendron, D., Lundquist, D., Noren, D., Schaffar, A., Smith, J., Williams, R., Martinez, E., Stockin, K., & Lusseau, D. (2016). Meta-analyses of whale-watching impact studies: Comparisons of cetacean responses to disturbance. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 542, 251–263. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps11497

Sprogis, K. R., Holman, D., Arranz, P., & Christiansen, F. (2023). Effects of whale-watching activities on southern right whales in Encounter Bay, South Australia. Marine Policy, 150, 105525. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2023.105525

Sprogis, K. R., Videsen, S., & Madsen, P. T. (2020). Vessel noise levels drive behavioural responses of humpback whales with implications for whale-watching. ELife, 9, e56760. https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.56760

Sullivan, F. A., & Torres, L. G. (2018). Assessment of vessel disturbance to gray whales to inform sustainable ecotourism. Journal of Wildlife Management, 82(5), 896–905. https://doi.org/10.1002/jwmg.21462

Keeping it simple: A lesson in model construction

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

Models can be extremely useful tools to describe biological systems and answer ecological questions, but they are often tricky to construct. If I have learned anything in my statistics classes, it is the importance of resisting the urge to throw everything but the kitchen sink into a model. However, this is usually much easier said than done, and model construction takes a lot of practice. The principle of simplicity is currently at the forefront of my thesis work, as I try to embody the famous quote by Albert Einstein:

 “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

As you might remember from my earlier blog, the goal of my thesis is to use biologging data to define different foraging behaviors of Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales, and then calculate the energetic cost of those behaviors. I am defining PCFG foraging behaviors at two scales: (1) dives that represent different behavior states (e.g., travelling vs foraging), and (2) roll events, which are periods during dives where the whale is rolled onto their side, that represent different foraging tactics (e.g., headstanding vs side-swimming).

Initially, I was planning to use a clustering analysis to define these different foraging behaviors at both the dive and roll event scale, as this method has been used to successfully classify different foraging strategies for Galapagos sea lions (Schwarz et al., 2021). In short, this clustering analysis uses summary variables from events of interest to group events based on their similarity. These can be any metric that describes the event such as duration and depth, or body positioning variables like median pitch or roll. The output of the clustering analysis method results in groups of events that can each be used to define a different behavior.

However, while this method works for defining the foraging tactics of PCFG gray whales, my discussions with other scientists have suggested that there is a better method available for defining foraging behavior at the dive scale: Hidden Markov Models (HMMs). HMMs are similar to the clustering method described above in that they use summary variables at discrete time scales to define behavior states, but HMMs take into account the bias inherent to time series data – events that occur closer together in time are more likely to be more similar. This bias of time can confound clustering analyses, making HMMs a better tool for classifying a series of dives into different behavior states.

Like many analytical methods, the HMM framework was first proposed in a terrestrial system where it was used to classify the movement of translocated elk (Morales et al., 2004). The initial framework proposed using the step length, or the spatial distance between the animal’s locations at the start of subsequent time intervals, and the corresponding turning angle, to isolate “encamped” from “exploratory” behaviors in each elk’s movement path (Figure 1, from Morales et al., 2004). “Encamped” behaviors are those with short step lengths and high turning angles that show the individual is moving within a small area, and they can be associated with foraging behavior. On the other hand, “exploratory” behaviors are those with long step lengths and low turning angles that show the individual is moving in a relatively straight path and covering a lot of ground, which is likely associated with travelling behavior.

Figure 1. The difference between “encamped” and “exploratory” behavior states from a simple Hidden Markov Model (HMM) in a translocated elk equipped with a GPS collar (Fig. 1 in Morales et al., 2004). The top rose plots show the turning angles while the bottom histograms show the step lengths as a daily movement rate. The “encamped” state has short step lengths (low daily movement rate) and high turning angles while the “exploratory” state has long step lengths (high daily movement rate) and low turning angle. These behavior states from the HMM can then be interpollated to elk behavior, as the low daily movement and tight turns of the “encamped” behavior state likely indicates foraging while the high daily movement and direct path of the “exploratory” behavior state likely indicates traveling. Thus, it is important to keep the biological relevance of the study system in mind while constructing and interpreting the model.

In the two decades following this initial framework proposed by Morales et al. (2004), the use of HMMs in anlaysis has been greatly expanded. One example of this expansion has been the development of mutlivariate HMMs that include additional data streams to supplement the step length and turning angle classification of “encamped” vs “exploratory” states in order to define more behaviors in movement data. For instance, a multivariate HMM was used to determine the impact of acoustic disturbance on blue whales (DeRuiter et al., 2017). In addition to step length and turning angle, dive duration and maximum depth, the duration of time spent at the surface following the dive, the number of feeding lunges in the dive, and the variability of the compass direction the whale was facing during the dive were all used to classify behavior states of the whales. This not only allowed for more behavior states to be identified (three instead of two as determined in the elk model), but also the differences in behavior states between individual animals included in the study, and the differences in the occurrence of behavior states due to changes in environmental noise.

The mutlivariate HMM used by DeRuiter et al. (2017) is a model I would ideally like to emulate with the biologging data from the PCFG gray whales. However, incorporating more variables invites more questions during the model construction process. For example, how many variables should be incorporated in the HMM? How should these variables be modeled? How many behavior states can be identified when including additional variables? These questions illustrate how easy it is to unnecessarily overcomplicate models and violate the principle of simiplicity toted by Albert Einstein, or to be overwhelmed by the complexity of these analytical tools.

Figure 2. Example of expected output of Hidden Markov Model (HMM) for the PCFG gray whale biologging data (GEMM Lab; National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) permit no. 21678). The figure shows the movement track the whale swam during the deployment of the biologger, with each point representing the start of a dive. The axes show “Easting” and “Northing” rather than map coordinates because this is the relative path the whale took rather than GPS coordinates of the whale’s location. Each color represents a different behavior state—blue has short step lengths and high turning angles (likely foraging), red has intermediate step lengths and turning angles (likely searching), and black has long step lengths and low turning angles (likely transiting). These results will be refined as I construct the multivariate HMM that will be used in my thesis.  

Luckily, I can draw on the support of Gray whale Response to Ambient Noise Informed by Technology and Ecology (GRANITE) project collaborators Dr. Leslie New and Dr. Enrico Pirotta to guide my HMM model construction and assist in interpreting the outputs (Figure 2). With their help, I have been learning the importance of always asking if the change I am making to my model is biologically relevent to the PCFG gray whales, and if it will help give me more insight into the whales’ behavior. Even though using complex tools, such as Hidden Markov Models, has a steep learning curve, I know that this approach is not only placing this data analysis at the cutting edge of the field, but helping me practice fundamental skills, like model construction, that will pay off down the line in my career.



DeRuiter, S. L., Langrock, R., Skirbutas, T., Goldbogen, J. A., Calambokidis, J., Friedlaender, A. S., & Southall, B. L. (2017). A multivariate mixed Hidden Markov Model for blue whale behaviour and responses to sound exposure. Annals of Applied Statistics, 11(1), 362–392. https://doi.org/10.1214/16-AOAS1008

Morales, J. M., Haydon, D. T., Frair, J., Holsinger, K. E., & Fryxell, J. M. (2004). Extracting more out of relocation data: Building movement models as mixtures of random walks. Ecology, 85(9), 2436–2445. https://doi.org/10.1890/03-0269

Schwarz, J. F. L., Mews, S., DeRango, E. J., Langrock, R., Piedrahita, P., Páez-Rosas, D., & Krüger, O. (2021). Individuality counts: A new comprehensive approach to foraging strategies of a tropical marine predator. Oecologia, 195(2), 313–325. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-021-04850-w

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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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