The five senses of fieldwork

By Leila Lemos, PhD student

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

– photo-identification analysis;

– body and skin condition scoring of individuals;

– photogrammetry analysis;

– analysis of the GoPro videos to characterize prey;

– hormone analysis laboratory training in November at the Seattle Aquarium

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Southern Sunshine Meets Oregon Wind: Interning with the GEMM Lab!

**GUEST POST**written by Cheyenne Coleman of Savannah State University

My first journey to the west coast, was spent on a six hour flight to Portland, Oregon in anticipation of my upcoming summer internship with the Geospatial Ecology and Marine Megafuana lab (GEMM Lab) at the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC). I had never before been to the west coast, but luckily for me I did not have to make this long journey alone; my friend, Kamiliya Daniels, was also doing an internship at HMSC. After a long bus ride to Corvallis, Kamiliya and I, were warmly greeted by one of my GEMM lab members, Amanda Holdman. With her, was honorary GEMM lab member and Amanda’s dog, Boiler, who spent the greater part of the drive to Newport sleeping on my lap while I spent the drive asking Amanda several series of questions,

“Are there bears in these woods?”

“What do the dorms look like? How do I get around town? I hear it’s a small town, is there at least a Walmart?”

But without any answer to my curiosity, all of these questions were left with one reply:

“I’ll let you see for yourself.”

And then just as Amanda proposed, I did exactly that.

My name is Cheyenne and I am from Savannah State University in Georgia interning with LMRCSC (Living Marine Resources Cooperative Science Center) in Newport, Oregon. My expectations of the Oregon coast and the reality was vastly different than what I had pictured. I imagined the entire West Coast would match a California summer; Sunny and hot.

But on the contrary, upon arrival to Newport, I learned, it doesn’t. It is windy and chilly and hardly ever above 70 degrees. Thinking an Oregon summer would match a California summer, in my suitcase I possessed only three small sweaters and an abundant supply of shorts and tank tops. Needless, to say I was quickly off to buy an Oregon Coast sweatshirt that would double as warmth and a souvenir. Upon first entering Newport, I was mostly shocked at how small the town felt, and I noticed every structure was made of wood, and coming from Georgia this was strange to me. In Georgia, everything is made of bricks and cement. The dorms on first glance reminded me of summer camp for adults: slightly dated with bunk bed sleeping arrangements. Yikes!

However, my worries that come along with moving to a new place, were quickly diminished when I was welcomed to the GEMM lab; Florence greeted with a warm cup of tea, I was introduced to everyone who worked at HMSC, and even given my very own desk in the GEMM lab. After a day of transitions, and a much needed good night’s rest, I was introduced to my project on California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus).

If you’ve been following along with all of the latest posts from GEMM lab students, you might think the lives of spatial ecologists revolve around glamorous fieldwork. We’ve got Amanda eavesdropping on porpoises, Florence surveying for foraging gray whales, and Leigh playing hide and seek with seabirds down in Yachats. I, however, am admittedly not spending my summer in the field this year and am learning that there is more to being a scientist than picturesque moments with charismatic study species in beautiful locations.

Prior to entering the GEMM lab, I had limited experience in computing and data analysis and spent my prior summer’s doing fieldwork on invertebrates, usually bagging sediment and collecting water samples. This internship was a new and unique opportunity for me to learn the next step of the scientific process. While I had always wondered, “What happens after data collection?” I was not given the experience to find out.  I quickly learned, that this includes a lot of sorting, categorizing, and modeling, all of which are very time consuming.

By using satellite tracking information of California sea lions collected by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) from 2005 and 2007, I am able to measure movements and habitat use of California sea lions. By analyzing their routes between their initial and final locations, we can study their distributions patterns.

To some people, sitting at a computer doing analysis may not seem as glamorous as working in the field. Some people might question why someone would chose to spend their career in front of a computer screen. But my internship this summer, really showed me the value of having experience working at all stages of the scientific process. Seeing all of my efforts in processing, sorting, and categorizing come together to create an end result really enhanced my love for science. By connecting the questions to the answers, and making contributions to the scientific community, I feel rewarded for my hard work.

My internship has come to an end, and given my initial hesitations, I’ve grown accustomed to Newport and the GEMM lab. I enjoy sitting at my desk running through a wild assortment of data and hearing the wonderful ding of the teapot. In the last days of my internship, I was able to escape my computer screen to assist Florence in data collection on beautiful gray whale surveys. Last Thursday, a lab meeting was held and my lab mates and I were able to update each other on our research. We shared ideas on how to enhance everyone’s project, and who might be able to answer questions we were struggling with in our own data sets. As my internship comes to a close, I have gained more knowledge and real life skill then I would ever hope to gain just through courses at Savannah State. I learned new software programs like R Statistical Package and sharpened my own skills in ArcGIS. I gained the experience of collaborating with a lab, and understanding how powerful working with your peers and colleagues can be. Gaining this much experience has, without a doubt, given me an edge in the competitive field I will enter after graduation. I have made connections, hopefully life long, with the nicest people; I know that in the future, which ever path I may choose, I’ll always be a part of the GEMM lab.