Rock-solid GRANITE: Scaling the disturbance response of individual whales up to population level impacts

Since early May, much of the GEMM Lab has been consumed by the GRANITE project, which stands for Gray whale Response to Ambient Noise Informed by Technology and Ecology. Two weeks ago, PhD student Clara Bird discussed our field work preparations, and since May 20th we have conducted five successful days of field work (and one unsuccessful day due to fog). If you are now expecting a blog about the data we have collected so far and whales we encountered, I am sorry to disappoint you. Rather, I want to take a big step back and provide the context of the GRANITE project as a whole, explain why this project and data collection is so important, and discuss what it is that we hope to achieve with our ever-growing, multidisciplinary dataset and team.

We use the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) of gray whales that forage off the Oregon coast as our study system to better understand the ecological and physiological response of baleen whales to multiple stressors. Our field methodology includes replicate physiological and ecological sampling of this accessible baleen whale population with synoptic measurement of multiple types of stressors. We collect fecal samples for hormone analysis, conduct drone overflights of whales to collect body condition and behavioral data, record the ambient soundscape through deployment of two hydrophones, and conduct whale photo-identification to link all data streams to each individual whale of known sex, estimated age, and reproductive status. We resample these data from multiple individuals within and between summer foraging seasons, while exposed to different potential stressors occurring at different intensities and temporal periods and durations. The hydrophones are strategically placed with one in a heavily boat-trafficked (and therefore noisy) area close to the Port of Newport, while the second is located in a relatively calm (and therefore quieter) spot near the Otter Rock Marine Reserve (Fig. 1). These hydrophones provide us with information about both natural (e.g. killer whales, wind, waves) and anthropogenic (e.g. boat traffic, seismic survey, marine construction associated with PacWave wave energy facility development) noise that may affect gray whales. During sightings with whales, we also drop GoPro cameras and sample for prey to better understand the habitats where whales forage and what they might be consuming.

Figure 1. Map of GRANITE study area from Seal Rock to Lincoln City with gray whale sightings (yellow circles) and and fecal samples collected (red triangles) from the 2020 field season. Green stars represent the two hydrophone locations. Source: L. Torres.

GEMM Lab PI Dr. Leigh Torres initiated this research project in 2015 and established partnerships with acoustician Dr. Joe Haxel and (then) PhD student Dr. Leila Lemos. Since then, the team working on this project has grown considerably to provide expertise in the various disciplines that the project integrates. Leigh is currently joined at the GRANITE helm by 4 co-PIs: Dr. Haxel, endocrinologist Dr. Kathleen Hunt, biological statistician Dr. Leslie New, and physiologist Dr. Loren Buck. Drs. Alejandro Fernandez Ajo, KC Bierlich and Enrico Pirotta are postdoctoral scholars who are working on the endocrinology, photogrammetry, and biostatistical modelling components, respectively. Finally, Clara and myself are partially funded through this project for our PhD research, with Clara focusing on the links between behavior, body condition, individualization, and habitat, while I am tackling questions about the recruitment and site fidelity of the PCFG (more about these topics below). 

Faculty Research Assistant Todd Chandler supervises PhD student Clara Bird during her maiden drone flight over a whale. Source: L. Torres.

The ultimate goal of this project is to use the PCFG as a case study to quantify baleen whale physiological response to different stressors and model the subsequent impacts on the population by implementing our long-term, replicate dataset into a framework called Population consequences of disturbance (PCoD; Fig. 2). PCoD is built upon the underlying concept that changes in behavior and/or physiology caused by disturbance (i.e. noise) affect the fitness of individuals by impacting their health and vital rates, such as survival, reproductive success, and growth rate (Pirotta et al. 2018). These impacts at the individual level may (or may not) affect the population as a whole, depending on what proportion of individuals in the population are affected by the disturbance and the intensity of the disturbance effect on each individual. The PCoD framework requires quantification of four stages: a) the physiological and/or behavioral changes that occur as a result of exposure to a stressor (i.e. noise), b) the acute effects of these physiological and/or behavioral responses on individual vital rates, and their chronic effects via individual health, c) the way in which changes in health may affect the vital rates of individuals, and d) how changes in individual vital rates may affect population dynamics (Fig. 2; Pirotta et al. 2018). While four stages may not sound like a lot, the amount and longevity of data needed to quantify each stage is immense. 

Figure 2. Conceptual framework of the population consequences of disturbance (PCoD). Letters (A-D) represent the four stages that require quantification in order for PCoD to be implemented. Each colored box represents external (ecological drivers, stressors) and internal (physiology, health, vital rates, behavior) factors that can change over time that are measured for each individual whale (dashed grey boundary line). The effects are then integrated across all individuals in the population to project their effects on the population’s dynamics. Figure and caption adapted from Pirotta et al. 2018.

The ability to detect a change in behavior or physiology often requires an understanding of what is “normal” for an individual, which we commonly refer to as a baseline. The best way to establish a baseline is to collect comprehensive data over a long time period. With our data collection efforts since 2015 of fecal samples, drone flights and photo identification, we have established useful baselines of behavioral and physiological data for PCFG gray whales. These baselines are particularly impressive since it is typically difficult to collect repeated measurements of hormones and body condition from the same individual baleen whale across multiple years. These repeated measurements are important because, like all mammals, hormones and body condition vary across life history phases (i.e., with pregnancy, injury, or age class) and across time (i.e., good or bad foraging conditions). To achieve these repeated measurements, GRANITE exploits the high degree of intra- and inter-annual site fidelity of the PCFG, their accessibility for study due to their affinity for nearshore habitat use, and the long-term sighting history of many whales that provides sex and approximate age information. Our work to-date has already established a few important baselines. We now know that the body condition of PCFG gray whales increases throughout a foraging season and can fluctuate considerably between years (Soledade Lemos et al. 2020). Furthermore, there are significant differences in body condition by reproductive state, with calves and pregnant females displaying higher body conditions (Soledade Lemos et al. 2020). Our dataset has also allowed us to validate and quantify fecal steroid and thyroid hormone metabolite concentrations, providing us with putative thresholds to identify a stressed vs. not stressed whale based on its hormone levels (Lemos et al. 2020).

PhD student Lisa Hildebrand and GRANITE co-PI Dr. Kathleen Hunt collecting a fecal sample. Source: L. Torres.

We continue to collect data to improve our understanding of baseline PCFG physiology and behavior, and to detect changes in their behavior and physiology due to disturbance events. All these data will be incorporated into a PCoD framework to scale from individual to population level understanding of impacts. However, more data is not the only thing we need to quantify each of the PCoD stages. The implementation of the PCoD framework also depends on understanding several aspects of the PCFG’s population dynamics. Specifically, we need to know whether recruitment to the PCFG population occurs internally (calves born from “PCFG mothers” return to the PCFG) or externally (immigrants from the larger Eastern North Pacific gray whale population joining the PCFG as adults). The degree of internal or external recruitment to the PCFG population should be included in the PCoD model as a parameter, as it will influence how much individual level disturbance effects impact the overall health and viability of the population. Furthermore, knowing residency times and home ranges of whales within the PCFG is essential to understand exposure durations to disturbance events. 

To assess both recruitment and residency patterns of the PCFG, I am undertaking a large photo-identification effort, which includes compiling sightings and photo data across many years, regions, and collaborators. Through this effort we aim to identify calves and their return rate to the population, the rate of new adult recruits to the population, and the spatial residency of individuals in our study system. Although photo-id is a basic, commonplace method in marine mammal science, its role is critical to tracking individuals over time to understand population dynamics (in a non-invasive manner, no less). A large portion of my PhD research will focus on the tedious yet rewarding task of photo-id data management and matching in order to address these pressing knowledge gaps on PCFG population dynamics needed to implement the PCoD model that is an ultimate goal of GRANITE. I am just beginning this journey and have already pinpointed many analytical and logistical hurdles that I need to overcome. I do not anticipate an easy path to addressing these questions, but I am extremely eager to dig into the data, reveal the patterns, and integrate the findings into our rock-solid GRANITE project.  

Funding for the GRANITE project comes from the Office of Naval Research, the Department of Energy, Oregon Sea Grant, the NOAA/NMFS Ocean Acoustics Program, and the OSU Marine Mammal Institute.


Lemos, L.S., Olsen, A., Smith, A., Chandler, T.E., Larson, S., Hunt, K., and L.G. Torres. 2020. Assessment of fecal steroid and thyroid hormone metabolites in eastern North Pacific gray whales. Conservation Physiology 8:coaa110.

Pirotta, E., Booth, C.G., Costa, D.P., Fleishman, E., Kraus, S.D., Lusseau, D., Moretti, D., New, L.F., Schick, R.S., Schwarz, L.K., Simmons, S.E., Thomas, L., Tyack, P.L., Weise, M.J., Wells, R.S., and J. Harwood. 2018. Understanding the population consequences of disturbance. Ecology and Evolution 8(19):9934-9946.

Soledade Lemos, L., Burnett, J.D., Chandler, T.E., Sumich, J.L., and L.G. Torres. 2020. Intra- and inter-annual variation in gray whale body condition on a foraging ground. Ecosphere 11(4):e03094.

The learning curve never stops as the GRANITE project begins its seventh field season

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

When I thought about what doing fieldwork would be like, before having done it myself, I imagined that it would be a challenging, but rewarding and fun experience (which it is). However, I underestimated both ends of the spectrum. I simultaneously did not expect just how hard it would be and could not imagine the thrill of working so close to whales in a beautiful place. One part that I really did not consider was the pre-season phase. Before we actually get out on the boats, we spend months preparing for the work. This prep work involves buying gear, revising and developing protocols, hiring new people, equipment maintenance and testing, and training new skills. Regardless of how many successful seasons came before a project, there are always new tasks and challenges in the preparation phase.

For example, as the GEMM Lab GRANITE project team geared up for its seventh field season, we had a few new components to prepare for. Just to remind you, the GRANITE (Gray whale Response to Ambient Noise Informed by Technology and Ecology) project’s field season typically takes place from June to mid-October of each year. Throughout this time period the field team goes out on a small RHIB (rigid hull inflatable boat), whenever the weather is good enough, to collect photo-ID data, fecal samples, and drone imagery of the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales foraging near Newport, OR, USA. We use the data to assess the health, ecology and population dynamics of these whales, with our ultimate goal being to understand the effect of ambient noise on the population. As previous blogs have described, a typical field day involves long hours on the water looking for whales and collecting data. This year, one of our exciting new updates is that we are going out on two boats for the first part of the field season and starting our season 10 days early (our first day was May 20th). These updates are happening because a National Science Foundation funded seismic survey is being conducted within our study area starting in June. The aim of this survey is to assess geophysical structures but provides us with an opportunity to assess the effect of seismic noise on our study group by collecting data before, during, and after the survey. So, we started our season early in order to capture the “before seismic survey” data and we are using a two-boat approach to maximize our data collection ability.

While this is a cool opportunistic project, implementing the two-boat approach came with a new set of challenges. We had to find a second boat to use, buy a new set of gear for the second boat, figure out the best way to set up our gear on a boat we had not used before, and update our data processing protocols to include data collected from two boats on the same day. Using two boats also means that everyone on the core field team works every day. This core team includes Leigh (lab director/fearless leader), Todd (research assistant), Lisa (PhD student), Ale (new post-doc), and me (Clara, PhD student). Leigh and Todd are our experts in boat driving and working with whales, Todd is our experienced drone pilot, I am our newly certified drone pilot, and Lisa, Ale, and myself are boat drivers. Something I am particularly excited about this season is that Lisa, Ale, and I all have at least one field season under our belts, which means that we get to become more involved in the process. We are learning how to trailer and drive the boats, fly the drones, and handling more of the post-field work data processing. We are becoming more involved in every step of a field day from start to finish, and while it means taking on more responsibility, it feels really exciting. Throughout most of graduate school, we grow as researchers as we develop our analytical and writing skills. But it’s just as valuable to build our skillset for field work. The ocean conditions were not ideal on the first day of the field season, so we spent our first day practicing our field skills.

For our “dry run” of a field day, we went through the process of a typical day, which mostly involved a lot of learning from Leigh and Todd. Lisa practiced her trailering and launching of the boat (figure 1), Ale and Lisa practiced driving the boat, and I practiced flying the drone (figure 2). Even though we never left the bay or saw any whales, I thoroughly enjoyed our dry run. It was useful to run through our routine, without rushing, to get all the kinks out, and it also felt wonderful to be learning in a supportive environment. Practicing new skills is stressful to say the least, especially when there is expensive equipment involved, and no one wants to mess up when they’re being watched. But our group was full of support and appreciation for the challenges of learning. We cheered for successful boat launchings and dockings, and drone landings. I left that day feeling good about practicing and improving my drone piloting skills, full of gratitude for our team and excited for the season ahead.

Figure 1. Lisa (driving the truck) launching the boat.
Figure 2. Clara (seated, wearing a black jacket) landing the drone in Ale’s hands.

All the diligent prep work paid off on Saturday with a great first day (figure 3). We conducted five GoPro drops (figure 4), collected seven fecal samples from four different whales (figure 5), and flew four drone flights over three individuals including our star from last season, Sole. Combined, we collected two trifectas (photo-ID images, fecal samples, and drone footage)! Our goal is to get as many trifectas as possible because we use them to study the relationship between the drone data (body condition and behavior) and the fecal sample data (hormones). We were all exhausted after 10 hours on the water, but we were all very excited to kick-start our field season with a great day.

Figure 3. Lisa on the bow pulpit during our first sighting of the day.
Figure 4. Lisa doing a GoPro drop, she’s lowering the GoPro into the water using the line in her hands.
Figure 5. Clara and Ale collecting a fecal sample.

On Sunday, just one boat went out to collect more data from Sole after a rainy morning and I successfully flew over her from launching to landing! We have a long season ahead, but I am excited to learn and see what data we collect. Stay tuned for more updates from team GRANITE as our season progresses!

Love thy mother: maternal care in cetaceans

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

Last week marked the one year anniversary of the pandemic reality we have all been living. It has been an extremely challenging year, with everyone experiencing different kinds of difficulties and hurdles. One challenge that likely unites the majority of us is having to forego seeing our loved ones. For me personally, this is the longest time I have not seen my family (445 days and counting) and I know I am not alone in this situation. My homesickness started a train of thought about cetacean parental care and inspired me to write a blog about this topic. As you can see from the title, this post focuses on maternal care, rather than parental care. This bias isn’t due to my lack of research on this topic or active exclusion, but rather because there are currently no known cetacean species where paternal participation in offspring production and development extends beyond copulation (Rendell et al. 2019). Thus, this blog is all about the role of mothers in the lives of cetacean calves.

Like humans, cetacean mothers invest a lot of energy into their offspring. Most species have a gestation period of 10 or more months (Oftedal 1997). For baleen whale females in particular, pregnancy is not an easy feat given that they only feed during summer feeding seasons. They must therefore acquire all of the energy they will need for two migrations, birth, and (almost) complete lactation, before they will have access to food on feeding grounds again. For pregnant gray whales, a mere 4% loss in average energy intake on the foraging grounds will prevent her from successfully producing and/or weaning a calf (Villegas-Amtmann et al. 2015), demonstrating how crucial the foraging season is for a pregnant baleen whale. Once a calf is born, lactation ensues, ranging in length between approximately 6-8 months for most baleen whale species to upwards of one or two years in odontocetes (Oftedal 1997). The very short lactation period in baleen whales is offset by the large volume (for blue whales, up to 220 kg per day) and high fat percentage (30-50%) of milk that mothers provide for their calves (Oftedal 1997). In contrast, odontocetes (or toothed whales) have a more prolonged period of lactation with less fatty milk (10-30%). This discrepancy in lactation period lengths is in part because odontocete species do not undertake long migrations, which allows females to feed year-round and therefore allocate energy to nursing young for a longer time. 

Blue whale calf nursing in New Zealand in 2016. Footage captured via unmanned aerial system (UAS; drone) piloted by Todd Chandler for GEMM Lab’s OBSIDIAN project. Source: GEMM Lab.

Aside from the energetically costly task of lactation, cetacean mothers must also assist their calves as they learn to swim. Echelon swimming is a common position of mother-calf pairs whereby the calf is in very close proximity to its mother’s mid-lateral flank and provides calves with hydrodynamic benefits. Studies in bottlenose dolphins have shown that swimming in echelon results in a 24% reduction in mean maximum swim speeds and a 13% decrease in distance per stroke (Noren 2008) for mothers, while concurrently increasing average swim speeds and distance per stroke of calves by 28% and 19%, respectively (Noren et al. 2007). While these studies have only been conducted in odontocete species, echelon swimming is also observed in baleen whales (Smultea et al. 2017), indicating that baleen whale females may experience the same reductions in swimming efficiency. Furthermore, mothers will forgo sleep in the first days after birth (killer whales & bottlenose dolphins; Lyamin et al. 2005) and/or shorten their dive foraging times to accommodate calf diving ability (bottlenose dolphins [Miketa et al. 2018] & belugas [Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2001]). Females must endure these losses in foraging opportunities and decreased swimming efficiency when they are at their most nutritionally stressed to ensure the well-being and success of their offspring.

It is at the time of weaning (when a calf becomes independent), that we start to see differences in the maternal role between baleen and toothed whale mothers. Odontocetes have much stronger sociality than baleen whales causing offspring to stay with their mothers for much longer periods. Among the largest toothed whales, such as killer and sperm whales, offspring stay with their mothers in stable matrilineal units for often a lifetime. Among the smaller toothed whales, such as bottlenose dolphins, maternal kin maintain strong bonds in dynamic fission-fusion societies. In contrast, post-weaning maternal care in baleen whales is limited, with the mother-calf pair typically separating soon after the calf is weaned (Rendell et al. 2019). 

Conceptual diagram depicting where baleen (Mysticeti) and toothed (Odontoceti) whales fall on the continuum of low to high social structure and matrilineal kinship structure. The networks at the top depict long-term datasets of photo-identified individuals (red nodes = females, blue nodes = males, yellow nodes = calves) with thickness of connecting lines representing strength of association between individuals. Figure and caption [adapted] from Rendell et al. 2019.

The long-term impact of social bonds in odontocetes is evident through examples of vertically transmitted behaviors (from mother to calf) in a number of species. For example, the use of three unique foraging tactics (sponge carrying, rooster-tail foraging, and mill foraging) by bottlenose dolphin calves in Shark Bay, Australia, was only significantly explained by maternal use of these tactics (Sargeant & Mann 2009). In Brazil, individuals of four bottlenose dolphin populations along the coast cooperatively forage with artisanal fishermen, which involves specialized and coordinated behaviors from both species. This cooperative foraging tactic among dolphins is primarily maintained across generations via social learning from mothers to calves (Simões-Lopeset al. 2016). The risky tactic of intentional stranding by killer whales on beaches to capture elephant seal pups requires a high degree of skill and high parental investment to reduce the associated risk of stranding (Guinet & Bouvier 1995). 

Evidence for vertical transmission of specialized foraging tactics in baleen whales currently does not exist. Bubble-net feeding is a specialized tactic employed by humpback whales in three oceanic regions where multiple individuals work together to herd and trap prey (Wiley et al. 2011). However, it remains unknown whether this behavior is vertically transmitted. Simultaneous video tags from a mother-calf humpback whale pair in the Western Antarctic Peninsula documented synchrony in dives, with the calf’s track lagging behind the mother’s by 4.5 seconds, suggesting that the calf was following its mother (Tyson et al. 2012). Synchronous diving likely allows calves to observe their mothers and practice their diving, and could offer a pathway for them to mimic foraging behaviors and tactics displayed by mothers. 

While there currently may not be evidence for vertical transmission of specialized foraging tactics among the baleen whales, there is documentation of matrilineal fidelity to both foraging (Weinrich 1998, Barendse et al. 2013, Burnham & Duffus 2020) and breeding grounds (Carroll et al. 2015). Matrilineal site fidelity to foraging grounds is not exclusive to baleen whales and has also been documented in a number of odontocete species (Palsbøll et al. 1997, Turgeon et al. 2012). 

In the GEMM Lab, we are interested in exploring the potential long-term bonds, role and impact of Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whale mothers on their calves. GEMM Lab PhD student Clara Bird is digging into whether specialized foraging tactics, such as bubble blasts and headstands, are passed down from mothers to calves. I hope to assess whether using the PCFG range as a foraging ground (rather than the Arctic region) is a vertically transmitted behavior or whether environmental factors may play a larger role in the recruitment and dynamics of the PCFG. It will take us a while to get to the bottom of these questions, so in the meantime hug your loved ones if it’s safe to do so or, if you’re in my boat, continue to talk to them virtually until it is safe to be reunited.


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Burnham, R. E., and D. A. Duffus. 2020. Maternal behaviors of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) on a summer foraging site. Marine Mammal Science 36:1212-1230.

Carroll, E. L., Baker, C. S., Watson, M., Alderman, R., Bannister, J., Gaggiotti, O. E., Gröcke, D. R., Patenaude, N., and R. Harcourt. 2015. Cultural traditions across a migratory network shape the genetic structure of southern right whales around Australia and New Zealand. Scientific Reports 5:16182.

Guinet, C., and J. Bouvier. 1995. Development of intentional stranding hunting techniques in killer whale (Orcinus orca) calves at Crozet Archipelago. Canadian Journal of Zoology 73:27-33.

Heide-Jørgensen, M. P., Hammeken, N., Dietz, R., Orr, J., and P. R. Richard. 2001. Surfacing times and dive rates for narwhals and belugas. Arctic 54:207-355.

Lyamin, O., Pryaslova, J., Lance, V., and J. Siegel. 2005. Continuous activity in cetaceans after birth. Nature 435:1177.

Miketa, M. L., Patterson, E. M., Krzyszczyk, E., Foroughirad, V., and J. Mann. 2018. Calf age and sex affect maternal diving behavior in Shark Bay bottlenose dolphins. Animal Behavior 137:107-117.

Noren, S. R. 2008. Infant carrying behavior in dolphins: costly parental care in an aquatic environment. Functional Ecology 22:284-288.

Noren, S. R., Biedenbach, F., Redfern, J. V., and E. F. Edwards. 2007. Hitching a ride: the formation locomotion strategy of dolphin calves. Functional Ecology 22:278-283.

Oftedal, O. T. Lactation in whales and dolphins: evidence of divergence between baleen- and toothed-species. Journal of Mammary Gland Biology and Neoplasia 2:205-230.

Palsbøll, P. J., Heide-Jørgensen, M. P., and R. Dietz. 1996. Population structure and seasonal movements of narwhals, Monodon monoceros, determined from mtDNA analysis. Heredity 78:284-292.

Rendell, L., Cantor, M., Gero, S., Whitehead, H., and J. Mann. 2019. Causes and consequences of female centrality in cetacean societies. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 374:20180066.

Sargeant, B. L., and J. Mann. 2009. Developmental evidence for foraging traditions in wild bottlenose dolphins. Animal Behavior 78:715-721.

Simões-Lopes, P. C., Daura-Jorge, F. G., and M. Cantor. 2016. Clues of cultural transmission in cooperative foraging between artisanal fishermen and bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus (Cetacea: Delphinidae). Zoologia (Curitiba) 33:e20160107.

Smultea, M. A., Fertl, D., Bacon, C. E., Moore, M. R., James, V. R., and B. Würsig. 2017. Cetacean mother-calf behavior observed from a small aircraft off Southern California. Animal Behavior and Cognition 4:1-23.

Turgeon, J., Duchesne, P., Colbeck, G. J., Postma, L. D., and M. O. Hammill. 2011. Spatiotemporal segregation among summer stocks of beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) despite nuclear gene flow: implication for the endangered belugas in eastern Hudson Bay (Canada). Conservation Genetics 13:419-433.

Tyson, R. B., Friedlaender, A. S., Ware, C., Stimpert, A. K., and D. P. Nowacek. 2012. Synchronous mother and calf foraging behaviour in humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae: insights from multi-sensor suction cup tags. Marine Ecology Progress Series 457:209-220.

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Putting Physiological Tools to Work for Whale Conservation

By Alejandro Fernandez Ajo, PhD student at the Department of Biology, Northern Arizona University, Visiting scientist in the GEMM Lab working on the gray whale physiology and ecology project  

About four years ago, I was in Patagonia, Argentina deciding where to focus my research and contribute to whale conservation efforts. At the same time, I was doing fieldwork with the Whale Conservation Institute of Argentina at the “Whale Camp” in Península Valdés. I read tons of papers and talked with my colleagues about different opportunities and gaps in knowledge that I could tackle during my Ph.D. program. One of the questions that caught my attention was about the unknown cause (or causes) for the recurrent high calf mortalities that the Southern Right Whale (SRW) population that breeds at Peninsula Valdés experienced during the 2000s (Rowntree et al. 2013). Still, at that time, I was unsure how to tackle this research question.

Golfo San José, Península Valdés – Argentina. Collecting SRW behavioral data from the cliff’s vantage point. Source: A. Fernandez Ajo.

Between 2003 and 2013, at least 672 SRWs died, of which 91% were calves (Sironi et al. 2014). These mortalities represented an average total whale death per year of 80 individuals in the 2007-2013 period, which vastly exceeded the 8.2 average deaths per year of previous years by a ten-fold increase (i.e., 1993-2002) (Rowntree et al. 2013). In fact, this calf mortality rate was the highest ever documented for any population of large whales. During this period, from 2006 to 2009, I was the Coordinator of the Fauna Area in the Patagonian Coastal Zone Management Plan, and I collaborated with the Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program (AKA: The Stranding Program) that conducted field necropsies on stranded whales along the coasts of the Península and collected many different samples including whale baleen.

Southern Right Whale, found stranded in Patagonia Argentina. Source: Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas.

In this process, I learned about the emerging field of Conservation Physiology and the challenges of utilizing traditional approaches to studying physiology in large whales. Basically, the problem is that there is no possible way to obtain blood samples (the gold standard sample type for physiology) from free-swimming whales; whales are just too large! Fortunately, there are currently several alternative approaches for gathering physiological information on large whales using a variety of non-lethal and minimally invasive (or non-invasive) sample matrices, along with utilizing valuable samples recovered at necropsy (Hunt et al. 2013). That is how I learned about Dr. Kathleen Hunt’s novel research studying hormones from whale baleen (Hunt et al., 2018, 2017, 2014). Thus, I contacted Dr. Hunt and started a collaboration to apply these novel methods to understand the case of calf mortalities of the SRW calves in Patagonia utilizing the baleen samples that we recovered with the Stranding program at Península Valdés (see my previous blog post).

What is conservation physiology?

Conservation physiology is a multidisciplinary field of science that utilizes physiological concepts and tools to understand underlying mechanisms of disturbances to solve conservation problems. Conservation physiology approaches can provide sensitive biomarkers of environmental change and allow for targeted conservation strategies. The most common Conservation Physiology applications are monitoring environmental stressors, understanding disease dynamics and reproductive biology, and ultimately reducing human-wildlife conflict, among other applications.

I am now completing the last semester of my Ph.D. program. I have learned much about the amazing field of Conservation Physiology and how much more we need to know to achieve our conservation goals. I am still learning, yet I feel that through my research I have contributed to understanding how different stressors impact the health and wellbeing of whales, and about aspects of their biology that have long been obscured or unknown for these giants. One contribution I am proud of is our recent publication of, “A tale of two whales: putting physiological tools to work for North Atlantic and southern right whales,” which was published in January 2021 as a book chapter in “Conservation Physiology: Applications for Wildlife Conservation and Management” published by Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.

This book outlines the significant avenues and advances that conservation physiology contributes to the monitoring, management, and restoration of wild animal populations. The book also defines opportunities for further growth in the field and identifies critical areas for future investigation. The text and the contributed chapters illustrate several examples of the different approaches that the conservation physiology toolbox can tackle. In our chapter, “A tale of two whales,” we discuss developments in conservation physiology research of large whales, with the focus on the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) and southern right whale (Eubalaena australis), two closely related species that differ vastly in population status and conservation pressures. We review the advances in Conservation Physiology that help overcome the challenges of studying large whales via a suite of creative approaches, including photo-identification, visual health assessment, remote methods of assessing body condition, and endocrine research using non-plasma sample types such as feces, respiratory vapor, and baleen. These efforts have illuminated conservation-relevant physiological questions for both species, such as discrimination of acute from chronic stress, identification of likely causes of mortality, and monitoring causes and consequences of body condition and reproduction changes.

Book Overview:

This book provides an overview of the different applications of Conservation Physiology, outlining the significant avenues and advances by which conservation physiology contributes to the monitoring, management, and restoration of wild animal populations. By using a series of global case studies, contributors illustrate how approaches from the conservation physiology toolbox can tackle a diverse range of conservation issues, including monitoring environmental stress, predicting the impact of climate change, understanding disease dynamics, and improving captive breeding, and reducing human-wildlife conflict. The variety of taxa, biological scales, and ecosystems is highlighted to illustrate the far-reaching nature of the discipline and allow readers to appreciate the purpose, value, applicability, and status of the field of conservation physiology. This book is an accessible supplementary textbook suitable for graduate students, researchers, and practitioners in conservation science, ecophysiology, evolutionary and comparative physiology, natural resources management, ecosystem health, veterinary medicine, animal physiology, and ecology.


Hunt KE, Fernández Ajó A, Lowe C, Burgess EA, Buck CL. 2021. A tale of two whales: putting physiological tools to work for North Atlantic and southern right whales. In: “Conservation Physiology: Integrating Physiology Into Animal Conservation And Management”, ch. 12. Eds. Madliger CL, Franklin CE, Love OP, Cooke SJ. Oxford University press: Oxford, UK.

Sironi, M., Rowntree, V., Di Martino, M. D., Beltramino, L., Rago, V., Franco, M., and Uhart, M. (2014). Updated information for 2012-2013 on southern right whale mortalities at Península Valdés, Argentina. SC/65b/BRG/06 report presented to the International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee, Portugal. <>.

Rowntree, V.J., Uhart, M.M., Sironi, M., Chirife, A., Di Martino, M., La Sala, L., Musmeci, L., Mohamed, N., Andrejuk, J., McAloose, D., Sala, J., Carribero, A., Rally, H., Franco, M., Adler, F., Brownell, R. Jr, Seger, J., Rowles, T., 2013. Unexplained recurring high mortality of southern right whale Eubalaena australis calves at Península Valdés, Argentina. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 493, 275-289. DOI: 10.3354/meps10506

Hunt KE, Moore MJ, Rolland RM, Kellar NM, Hall AJ, Kershaw J, Raverty SA, Davis CE, Yeates LC, Fauquier DA, et al., 2013. Overcoming the challenges of studying conservation physiology in large whales: a review of available methods. Conserv Physiol 1: cot006–cot006.

Hunt, K.E., Stimmelmayr, R., George, C., Hanns, C., Suydam, R., Brower, H., Rolland, R.M., 2014. Baleen hormones: a novel tool for retrospective assessment of stress and reproduction in bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus). Conserv. Physiol. 2, cou030.

Hunt, K.E., Lysiak, N.S., Moore, M.J., Rolland, R.M., 2016. Longitudinal progesterone profiles in baleen from female North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) match known calving history. Conserv. Physiol. 4, cow014.

Hunt, K.E., Lysiak, N.S., Robbins, J., Moore, M.J., Seton, R.E., Torres, L., Buck, C.L., 2017. Multiple steroid and thyroid hormones detected in baleen from eight whale species. Conserv. Physiol. 5.

Hunt, K.E., Lysiak, N.S.J., Matthews, C.J.D., Lowe, C., Fernández Ajó, A., Dillon, D., Willing, C., Heide-Jørgensen, M.P., Ferguson, S.H., Moore, M.J., Buck, C.L., 2018. Multi-year patterns in testosterone, cortisol and corticosterone in baleen from adult males of three whale species. Conserv. Physiol. 6, coy049.

Summaries, highlights, and musings – our 2020 gray whale field seasons at a glance

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

Fall has arrived in the Pacific Northwest. For humans, it means packing away the shorts and sandals, and getting the boots, raincoats and firewood ready. For gray whales, it means gulping down the last meal of zooplankton they will eat for several months and commencing the journey to warmer waters and sunnier skies in Mexico where they will spend the winter fasting, calving, and nursing. While the GEMM Lab may still squeeze in a day or two of field work this week, we are slowly wrapping up the 2020 field season as conditions get rougher and our beloved gray whales gradually depart our waters. This year marked the 6th year of data collection for both of our gray whale projects: the Newport project that investigates the impacts of multiple stressors on gray whale ecology and health, and the Port Orford project that explores fine-scale foraging ecology of gray whales and their zooplankton prey. Since it will be several months before the GEMM Lab heads back out onto the water again, I thought I would summarize our two field seasons, share some highlights, and muse about the drivers of our observations this summer.


Our RHIB Ruby zipped around the central and southern Oregon coast on 33 different days. The summer started slow, with several days of field work where we encountered no whales despite surveying our entire study region. Our encounters picked up towards the end of June and by the end of the summer we totaled 107 sightings, encountering 46 unique individuals, 36 of which were resightings of known individuals we have identified in previous years. Our Newport star of the summer was Solé, a female gray whale we have seen every year since 2015, and we also saw many of our other regulars including Casper, Rafael, Spray, Bit, and Heart. None of these whales shone as bright as Solé though. We flew the drone over her 8 times and collected 7 fecal samples (one of which was the biggest whale fecal sample I have ever seen!). In total, we collected 30 fecal samples and flew the drone 88 times. These data will allow us to continue measuring body condition and hormone levels of Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales that use the Oregon coast.

Our tandem research kayak Robustus may not be as zippy as Ruby (it is powered by human muscle rather than a powerful outboard engine after all), but it certainly continues to be a trusty vessel for the Port Orford team. The Port Orford research team, named the Theyodelers this year, collected 181 zooplankton samples and conducted 180 GoPro drops during the month of August from Robustus. Despite the many samples collected, the size of our prey samples remained relatively small throughout the whole season compared to previous years. The cliff team surveyed for a total of 117 hours, of which 15 were spent tracking whales with the theodolite and resulted in 40 different tracklines of whale movements. The whale situation in Port Orford was similar to the pattern of whale sightings in Newport, with low whale sightings at the start of the field season. Luckily, by the start of August (which marked the start of data collection for the Theyodelers), the number of whales using the Port Orford area, especially the two study sites, Mill Rocks & Tichenor Cove, had increased. Of the whales that came close enough to shore for us to identify using photo-id, we tracked 5 unique individuals, 3 of which we also saw in Newport this year. The Port Orford star of the summer was Smudge, with his tracklines making up a quarter of all of our tracklines collected. Smudge is also the whale we sighted most often last year in Port Orford. 


Many of you may be familiar with the whale Scarlett (formally known as Scarback). Scarlett is a female, at least 24 years old (she was first documented  in the PCFG range in 1996), who is well-known (and easily identified) by the large concave injury on her back that is covered in whale lice, or cyamids. No one knows for certain how Scarlett sustained this injury (though there are stories), however what we do know is that it has not prevented this female from reproducing and successfully raising several calves over her lifetime. The GEMM Lab last saw Scarlett with a calf (which we named Brown) in 2016. Since Scarlett is such a famous whale with a unique history, it shouldn’t be a surprise that one of our highlights this summer is the fact that Scarlett showed up with a new calf! In keeping with a “shades of red” theme, Leigh came up with the name Rose for the new calf. In July, the mom-calf pair put on quite a cute performance, with Rose rising up on Scarlett’s back, giving the team a glimpse of its face. The Scarlett-Rose highlight doesn’t end there though. Just last week, we had a very brief encounter in choppy, swelly waters with a small whale. The whale surfaced just twice allowing us to capture photo-id images, and as we were looking around to see where it would come up a third time, it suddenly breached approximately 20 m from the boat. Lo-and-behold, after comparing our photos of the whale to our catalogue, we realized that this elusive, breaching whale was Rose! I am excited to see whether Rose will return to the Oregon coast next summer and become a PCFG regular just like her mom.

The highlight of the field season in Port Orford is the trial, failures and small successes of a new element to the project. There is still a lot that we do not know and understand about PCFG gray whales. One such thing is the way in which gray whales maneuver their large bodies in shallow rocky habitats, often riddled with kelp, and how exactly they capture their zooplankton prey in these environments. Using drones has certainly helped bring some light into this darkness and has led to the documentation of many novel foraging behaviors (Torres et al. 2018). However, the view from above is unable to provide the fine-scale interactions between whales, kelp, reefs, and zooplankton. Instead, we must somehow find a way to watch the whales underwater. Enter CamDo. CamDo is a technology company that designs specialty products to allow for GoPro cameras to be used for time-lapsed recordings over long periods of time in harsh environmental conditions. One of their products is a housing specifically designed for long-term filming underwater – exactly what we need! The journey was not as easy as simply purchasing the housing. We also needed to build a lander for the housing to sit on (thankfully our very own Todd Chandler designed and built something for us), and coordinate with divers and a vessel to deploy and retrieve the set-up, as well as undertake weekly battery and SD cards swaps (thankfully Dave Lacey of South Coast Tours and a very generous group of divers* donated their time and resources to make this happen). We unfortunately had some technological difficulties and bad visibility for the first 4 weeks (precisely why this CamDo effort was a pilot season this year), however we had some small success in the last 2 weeks of deployment that give us hope for the future. The camera recorded a lot of things: thick layers of mysids, countless rockfish and lingcod, several swimming and foraging murres, a handful of harbor seals, and two encounters of the species we were hoping to film – gray whales! While the footage is not the ‘money shot’ we are hoping to film (aka, a headstanding gray whale eating zooplankton right in front of the camera), the fact that we captured gray whales in the first place has showed us that this set-up is a promising investment of time, money and effort that will hopefully deliver next year.


You may have picked up on the fact that we had slow starts to our field seasons in both Newport and Port Orford. Furthermore, while the number of whale sightings did increase in both locations throughout the field seasons, the number of sightings and whales per day were lower than they have been in previous years. For example, in 2018, we identified 15 different individuals in the month of August in Port Orford (compared to just 5 this year). In 2019, 63 unique whales were seen in Newport (compared to 46 this year). Interestingly, we had a greater diversity of encountered individuals at the start and end of the season in Newport, with a relatively small number of different individuals in July and August. While I cannot provide a definitive reason (or reasons) as to why patterns were observed (we will need to analyze several years of our data to try and understand why), I have some hypotheses I wish to share with you.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, this summer the coastal upwelling along the Oregon coast was delayed (Figure 1). Typically, peak upwelling occurs during the month of June or shortly thereafter, bringing nutrient-rich, deep waters to the surface and, when mixed with sunlight, a lot of productivity. This productivity sets off a chain of reactions — the input of nutrients leads to increased phytoplankton production, which in turn leads to increased zooplankton production, resulting in growth and development of larger organisms that consume zooplankton, such as rockfish and gray whales. If the timing of upwelling is delayed, then so too is this chain of reactions. As you can see from Figure 1, the red lines show that the peak upwelling this year occurred far later in the summer than any year in the last 10 years, with the exception of 2012. Gray whales may have cued into this delay and therefore also delayed their arrival to the PCFG feeding grounds, hence causing us to have low sighting rates at the start of our season. However, this is mostly speculative as we still do not understand the functional mechanisms by which cetaceans, such as gray whales, detect prey across different scales, and to what extent oceanographic conditions like upwelling may play a role in prey availability (Torres 2017). 

Figure 1. 10 year time series of the Coastal Upwelling Transport Index (CUTI). CUTI represents the amount of upwelling (positive numbers) or downwelling (negative numbers). The light-colored lines represent the CUTI at that point in time while the dark, bold line represents the long-term average. The vertical red lines represent the point of peak upwelling in that summer and the horizontal green line shows the peak level of upwelling in 2020 relative to all previous years.

Furthermore, the green line in Figure 1 shows that even after peak upwelling was reached this year, upwelling conditions were lower than all the other peaks in the previous 10 years. We know that weak upwelling is correlated to poor body condition of PCFG gray whales in subsequent years (Soledade Lemos et al. 2020). Upon arriving to the Oregon coast feeding grounds, gray whales may have noticed that it was shaping up to be a poor prey year (we certainly noticed it in Port Orford in the emptiness of our zooplankton net). Faced with this low resource availability, individuals had to make important decisions – risk staying in a currently prey-poor environment or continue the journey onward, searching for better prey conditions elsewhere. This conundrum is known as the marginal value theorem, whereby an individual must decide whether it should abandon the patch it is currently foraging on and move on to search for a new patch without knowing how far away the next patch may be or its value relative to the current patch (Charnov 1976). If we think of the Oregon coast as the ‘current patch’, then we can see how the marginal value theorem translates to the situation gray whales may have found themselves in at the start of the summer. 

Yet, an individual gray whale does not make these decisions in a vacuum. Instead, all gray whales in the same area are faced with the same conundrum. Seminal work by Pianka (1974) showed that when resources, such as food, are abundant, then competition between predators is low because there is enough food to go around. However, when resources dwindle, competition increases and the niches of predators begin to overlap more and more. With Charnov and Pianka’s theories in mind, we can see two groups of gray whales emerge from our 2020 field work observations: those that stayed in the ‘current patch’ (Oregon) and those that decided to seek out a new patch in hopes that it would be a better one. Solé certainly belongs in the first group. We saw her consistently throughout the whole summer. In fact, she was oftentimes so predictable that we would find her foraging on the same reef complex every time we went out to survey. Smudge may also belong in this group, however it is hard to say definitively since we only survey in Port Orford in late July and August. In contrast, I would place whales such as Spray and Heart in the second group since we saw them early in the summer and then not again until mid-to-late September. Where did they go in the interim? Did they go somewhere else in the PCFG range? Or did they venture all the way up to Alaska to the primary Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whale feeding grounds? Did their choice to search for food elsewhere pay off?  

As I said earlier, these are all just musings for now, but the GEMM Lab is already hard at work trying to answer these questions. Stay tuned to see what we find!

* Thanks to all the divers who assisted with the pilot CamDo season: Aaron Galloway, Ross Whippo, Svetlana Maslakova, Taylor Eaton, Cori Kane, Austin Williams, Justin Smith


Charnov, E.L. 1976. Optimal Foraging, the Marginal Value Theorem. Theoretical Population Biology 9(2):129-136.

Pianka, E.R. 1974. Niche Overlap and Diffuse Competition. PNAS 71(5):2141-2145.

Soledade Lemos, L., Burnett, J.D., Chandler, T.E., Sumich, J.L., and L.G. Torres. 2020. Intra- and inter-annual variation in gray whale body condition on a foraging ground. Ecosphere 11(4):e03094.

Torres, L.G. 2017. A sense of scale: Foraging cetaceans’ use of scale-dependent multimodal sensory systems. Marine Mammal Science 33(4):1170-1193.

Torres, L.G., Nieukirk, S.L., Lemos, L., and T.E. Chandler. 2018. Drone Up! Quantifying Whale Behavior From a New Perspective Improves Observational Capacity. Frontiers in Marine Science:

Do gray whales count calories?

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

When humans count calories it is typically to regulate and limit calorie intake. What I am wondering about is whether gray whales are aware of caloric differences in the prey that is available to them and whether they make foraging decisions based on those differences. In last week’s post, Dawn discussed what makes a good meal for a hungry blue whale. She discussed that total prey biomass of a patch, as well as how densely aggregated that patch is, are the important factors when a blue whale is picking its next meal. If these factors are important for blue whales, is it same for gray whales? Why even consider the caloric value of their prey?

Gray and blue whales are different in many ways; one way is that blue whales are krill specialists whereas gray whales are more flexible foragers. The Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) of gray whales in particular are known to pursue a more varied menu. Previous studies along the PCFG range have documented gray whales feeding on mysid shrimp (Darling et al. 1998; Newell 2009), amphipods (Oliver et al. 1984Darling et al. 1998), cumacean shrimp (Jenkinson 2001; Moore et al. 2007; Gosho et al. 2011), and porcelain crab larvae (Dunham and Duffus 2002), to name a few. Based on our observations in the field and from our drone footage, we have observed gray whales feeding on reefs (likely on mysid shrimp), benthically (likely on burrowing amphipods), and at the surface on crab larvae (Fig. 1). Therefore, while both blue and PCFG whales must make decisions about prey patch quality based on biomass and density of the prey, gray whales have an extra decision to make based on prey type since their prey menu items occupy different habitats that require different feeding tactics and amount of energy to acquire them. In light of these reasons, I hypothesize that prey caloric value factors into their decision of prey patch selection. 

Figure 1. Gray whales use several feeding tactics to obtain a variety of coastal Oregon zooplankton prey including jaw snapping (0:12 of video), drooling mud (0:21), and head standing (0:32), to name a few.

This prey selection process is crucial since PCFG gray whales only have about 6 months to consume all the food they need to migrate and reproduce (even less for the Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whales since their journey to their Arctic feeding grounds is much longer). You may be asking, well if feeding is so important to gray whales, then why not eat everything they come across? Surely, if they ate every prey item they swam by, then they would be fine. The reason it isn’t quite this simple is because there are energetic costs to travel to, search for, and consume food. If an individual whale simply eats what is closest (a small, poor-quality prey patch) and uses up more energy than it gains, it may be missing out on a much more beneficial and rewarding prey patch that is a little further away (that patch may disperse or another whale may eat it by the time this whale gets there). Scientists have pondered this decision-making process in predators for a long time. These ponderances are best summed up by two central theories: the optimal foraging theory (MacArthur & Pianka 1966) and the marginal value theorem (Charnov 1976). If you are a frequent reader of the blog, you have probably heard these terms once or twice before as a lot of the questions we ask in the GEMM Lab can be traced back to these concepts.

Optimal foraging theory (OFT) states that a predator should pick the most beneficial resource for the lowest cost, thereby maximizing the net energy gained. So, a gray whale should pick a prey patch where it knows that it will gain more energy from consuming the prey in the patch than it will lose energy in the process of searching for and feeding on it. Marginal value theorem elaborates on this OFT concept by adding that the predator also needs to consider the cost of giving up a prey patch to search for a new one, which may or may not end up being more profitable or which may take a very long time to find (and therefore cost more energy). 

The second chapter of my thesis will investigate whether individual gray whales have foraging preferences by relating feeding location to prey quality (community composition) and quantity (relative density). However, in order to do that, I first must know about the quality of the individual prey species, which is why my first chapter explores the caloric content of common coastal zooplankton species in Oregon that may serve as gray whale prey. The lab work and analysis for that chapter are completed and I am in the process of writing it up for publication. Preliminary results (Fig. 2) show variation in caloric content between species (represented by different colors) and reproductive stages (represented by different shapes), with a potential increasing trend throughout the summer. These results suggest that some species and reproductive stages may be less profitable than others based solely on caloric content. 

Figure 2. Mean caloric content (J/mg) of coastal Oregon zooplankton (error bars represent standard deviation) from May-October in 2017-2018. Colors represent species and shapes represent reproductive stage.

Now that we have established that there may be bigger benefits to feeding on some species over others, we have to consider the availability of these zooplankton species to PCFG whales. Availability can be thought of in two ways: 1) is the prey species present and at high enough densities to make searching and foraging profitable, and 2) is the prey species in a habitat or depth that is accessible to the whale at a reasonable energetic cost? Some prey species, such as crab larvae, are not available at all times of the summer. Their reproductive cycles are pulsed (Roegner et al. 2007) and therefore these prey species are less available than species, such as mysid shrimp, that have more continuous reproduction (Mauchline 1980). Mysid shrimp appear to seek refuge on reefs in rock crevices and among kelp, whereas amphipods often burrow in soft sediment. Both of these habitat types present different challenges and energetic costs to a foraging gray whale; it may take more time and energy to dislodge mysids from a reef, but the payout will be bigger in terms of caloric gain than if the whale decides to sift through soft sediment on the seafloor to feed on amphipods. This benthic feeding tactic may potentially be a less costly foraging tactic for PCFG whales, but the reward is a less profitable prey item.  

My first chapter will extend our findings on the caloric content of Oregon coastal zooplankton to facilitate a comparison to the caloric values of the main ampeliscid amphipod prey of ENP gray whales feeding in the Arctic. Through this comparison I hope to assess the trade-offs of being a PCFG whale rather than an ENP whale that completes the full migration cycle to the primary summer feeding grounds in the Arctic. 


Charnov, E. L. 1976. Optimal foraging: the marginal value theorem. Theoretical Population Biology 9:129-136.

Darling, J. D., Keogh, K. E. and T. E. Steeves. 1998. Gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) habitat utilization and prey species off Vancouver Island, B.C. Marine Mammal Science 14(4):692-720.

Dunham, J. S. and D. A. Duffus. 2002. Diet of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) in Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia, Canada. Marine Mammal Science 18(2):419-437.

Gosho, M., Gearin, P. J., Jenkinson, R. S., Laake, J. L., Mazzuca, L., Kubiak, D., Calambokidis, J. C., Megill, W. M., Gisborne, B., Goley, D., Tombach, C., Darling, J. D. and V. Deecke. 2011. SC/M11/AWMP2 submitted to International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee.

Jenkinson, R. S. 2001. Gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) prey availability and feeding ecology in Northern California, 1999-2000. Master’s thesis, Humboldt State University.

MacArthur, R. H., and E. R. Pianka. 1966. On optimal use of a patchy environment. American Naturalist 100:603-609.

Mauchline, J. 1980. The larvae and reproduction in Blaxter, J. H. S., Russell, F. S., and M. Yonge, eds. Advances in Marine Biology vol. 18. Academic Press, London.

Moore, S. E., Wynne, K. M., Kinney, J. C., and C. M. Grebmeier. 2007. Gray whale occurrence and forage southeast of Kodiak Island, Alaska. Marine Mammal Science 23(2)419-428.

Newell, C. L. 2009. Ecological interrelationships between summer resident gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) and their prey, mysid shrimp (Holmesimysis sculpta and Neomysis rayii) along the central Oregon coast. Master’s thesis, Oregon State University.

Oliver, J. S., Slattery, P. N., Silberstein, M. A., and E. F. O’Connor. 1984. Gray whale feeding on dense ampeliscid amphipod communities near Bamfield, British Columbia. Canadian Journal of Zoology 62:41-49.

Roegner, G. C., Armstrong, D. A., and A. L. Shanks. 2007. Wind and tidal influences on larval crab recruitment to an Oregon estuary. Marine Ecology Progress Series 351:177-188.

What is a scientist?

By Noah Dolinajec, MSc student, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, GEMM Lab summer intern

There is something special about the Oregon Coast. It’s like nowhere else in the world. When Lisa told me that gray whales are understudied on our coastline, I secretly and selfishly thought to myself, “I hope it stays that way”. Then I would have a chance to be a pioneer one day too, studying something along this rugged coast full of life, death and everything in between, that no one has answered before. Of course, I only feel this way half of the time.

Yet, the more time I spend in Port Orford, the more I realize that our coastline truly is one of those last frontiers. A place where fundamental questions have yet to be explored, where the passing of seasons brings with it a violent change in conditions. From sunny summer days on the Port Orford beaches taking in the soft glistening of sunlight illuminating Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve, to cold, dark and stormy months with no end in sight and nothing but the sound of wind curving around the bends of your home and rain puttering against the windows.

Noah reading a book on the cliff site with a view of Mill Rocks in the background. Source: N. Dolinajec.

But no matter the season, no matter the conditions, the Oregon Coast harnesses something truly special, truly extraordinary. A cyclical diversity of life.

Since I was a kid, the Oregon Coast has inspired me. Not always to think about wildlife, in fact, mostly in other ways. To contemplate more primal philosophical questions. At 28 years old, it’s been a longer road than expected to get to this point, working with these amazing people, in this amazing place, on this amazing project. And the more time that passes, the more failures, missteps and dysfunctional experiences I absorb, the more that I learn about what really needs to change. In the world of course, but, mostly in science.

In the past few years, as I eek closer to 30, and I begin to look back on some of the adventures I have taken in my life, I take heavy note of where I am now, sitting on a kayak in Mill Rocks sampling for gray whale prey abundance and distribution, or atop the cliff, gazing out into the open ocean waiting patiently and graciously (at least trying to be) for a small poof of water spray from the beating surface of the sea. That little poof? It may not seem like much but it’s a sign of life. Of an age-old journey, one we know very little about. And here I am, a part of it, albeit a small one, but nevertheless, forever a part of that great journey.

And without losing sight of my job, sampling for zooplankton or tracking the whales as they move across the open water, I’ve found myself thinking about the depth of being involved in such an ancient process, and considering a very important question. One that doesn’t spend nearly enough time in the day-to-day conversation of an academic…

What exactly is a scientist? And how does one become a scientist?

The academic path to the sciences is exclusionary, beyond any reasonable level. It discriminates on gender, race, experience and age. Making the sciences, which are meant as a tool to better the world and make useful contributions to society and the future, feel inaccessible for so many people full of potential but without the right boxes ticked on a form.

How many beautiful ideas have been left to decay because of the ego that science has built for itself?

A sign that sits in the front window of the OSU Port Orford Field Station. Source: N. Dolinajec.

Don’t get me wrong, I love science, it has given me joy that other things in life cannot. It has shown me both the complexity of the world and the simplicity of how we view it. And I believe that science can still be the future. But in order for science to command our future, to guide us in the right direction, it cannot be a hierarchy of antiquated procedures any longer. We must open our arms, our minds and our resources to take chances on students, far and wide, that may lack traditional training but instead have other skills or experiences to offer science. Science needs an overhaul. Science needs diversity.

After all, change of perspective can be a profound driver of scientific results, can it not?

Here in Port Orford, in this bizarre year of 2020, we have the beginning, the makings if-you-will, of that very diversity that I am speaking of. The four of us, ‘The Theyodelers’ as we righteously call ourselves, each come from such drastically different places in life only to meet under the same roof for 6 weeks and miraculously not only survive together, but thrive together.

‘The Theyodelers’ after the 2020 (virtual) Port Orford Community Presentation, from left to right: Dr. Leigh Torres, Lisa Hildebrand, Liz Kelly, Mattea Holt Colberg, Noah Dolinajec, Tom Calvanese, Tom McCambridge (front). Source: L. Hildebrand.

And that, that essence of positivity that we have been able to build around one another this season, is exactly what I mean when I say that science needs an overhaul.

We do not all find our way to this moment, doing science in such an inspiring place, in the same way. Some of us are born with the innate ability to see the world through objective eyes, the kind of mind that makes great science happen from an early age. And others find our way to science after being enlightened by trials and travails, failures and mistakes, missed opportunities and missteps.

No matter the journey, we all ended up here. Watching these great gray giants on their journeys.

And it all comes full circle doesn’t it?

Each of our journeys, human or whale, can lead to the very same point despite beginning at very different places. And in that diversity of experience, of life, of age, of color, is where we find our brightest moments, our grandest ideas and our future, driven by science.

New experiences, new emotions, new skills

By Elizabeth Kelly, Pacific High School senior, GEMM Lab summer intern

Figure 1. Liz on the cliff. Source: E. Kelly.

The gray whale foraging ecology project with OSU’s GEMM Lab has been nothing short of a dream come true. Going into this internship, I was just a high schooler who had taken zoology my previous school year. With my lack of a formal education in marine biology, let alone gray whales, I was a little daunted at the thought of going to a university field station with college students and actual biologists. When I applied for this internship, I didn’t think I was even going to be accepted for the internship, but I applied with high hopes and a lot of excitement. When I was officially accepted, I wanted to start immediately. 

Despite my concerns of the steep learning curves I knew I would have to overcome, I was ready to jump right into the internship. The other interns live at the field station since they do not live locally, but I drive to the field station every morning because I live about 20 minutes away. However, this situation has never made me feel like an outsider. I spend a lot of my time at the field station and it would be hard to not get comfortable there immediately. I don’t feel sad that somebody is cooking some sort of delicious meal every night because even though I don’t live at the station, I sometimes stay for dinners. When I’m there for whatever reason, whether it be while working or eating and hanging out after a day of working or during breaks, I never feel out of my depth socially or even academically even though I am clearly younger and less experienced. The environment and team here, which is made up of scholarly individuals with lots of personality and character, is never judgemental or patronizing; rather it is inviting and the graduate student intern, Noah, and my team leader, Lisa, give off a feeling of mentorship. This has made my internship fun and given me far more of an interest and intent towards pursuing Wildlife Sciences after high school. 

Figure 2. A photo taken by Liz today on the cliff as a whale traveled from Tichenor Cove to Mill Rocks. Source: GEMM Lab.

While there have been tedious parts of the internship with a steep learning curve, including asking many questions about whales, and learning to use different programs, tools and methods, it all pays off and comes in handy when the whole focus of the work comes through town – the famous gray whales. During this field season we have been having low whale sightings for the first 4 weeks (but our sightings are slowly picking up over the last couple days), so the waiting for the grand appearance of a whale can feel eternal. Though, when the red curtains reveal a blow out in the distance headed our way, the feeling of boredom when staring at the ocean is completely forgotten. Suddenly, everyone jumps to action – the theodolite’s position needs to be adjusted as we try to pinpoint where the whale will surface next after its dive. 

Figure 3. A zoomed-in photo from the kayak of a gray whale headstanding (a feeding behavior) in Tichenor Cove. Source: E. Kelly.

Recently we have been collecting larger samples of zooplankton when sampling from our research kayak, and the whales have been coming in larger numbers too. Every time I see a whale while I am out on the kayak I am crippled with excitement and adrenaline. There is absolutely nothing like seeing these majestic mammals out and about in their day-to-day lives. I love when I get to see them forage, blow, shark, and even do headstands in the water. When we see them forage in a spot that is not one of our regular zooplankton sampling stations we do some adaptive sampling (sampling at spots where we see whales actively feeding), and so far the whales haven’t lied to me about where the zooplankton is. I’m very curious as to how the whales know where the higher concentrations of zooplankton are, even in low visibility (we have had plenty of that this year too). Nevertheless, they know and aren’t shy about getting what they want. 

The only downfall of this internship is that it ends soon. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with my team and at the field station. This in-the-field experience is one of a kind. Even though I didn’t think I was going to receive this internship, I really wanted it and now that I have had it and am finishing up with it, I am so grateful for the knowledge and experiences I have gained from it and look forward to the opportunities it will further grant me.

Questions that drive my research curiosity

By Mattea Holt Colberg, GEMM Lab summer intern, OSU junior

Science is about asking new questions in order to make new discoveries. Starting every investigation with a question, sparked by an observation, is enshrined in the scientific method and pursued by researchers everywhere. Asking questions goes beyond scientific research though; it is the best way to learn new things in any setting.

When I first arrived in Port Orford, I did not know much about gray whales. The extent of my knowledge was that they are large baleen whales that migrate every year and feed on plankton. I did, however, know quite a bit about killer whales. I have been interested in killer whales since I was 5 years old, so I have spent years reading about, watching, and listening to them (my current favorite book about them is Of Orcas and Men, by David Neiwert and I highly recommend it!). I have also had opportunities to research them in the Salish Sea, both on a sailing trip and through the dual-enrollment program Ocean Research College Academy, where I explored how killer whales respond to ambient underwater noise for a small independent project. Knowing more about killer whales than other species has caused killer whales to be the lens through which I approach learning and asking questions about other whales. 

At first, I was not sure how to apply what I know about killer whales specifically to research on gray whales, since killer whales are toothed whales, while gray whales are baleen whales. There are several differences between toothed whales and baleen whales; toothed whales tend to be more social, occurring in pods or groups, eat larger prey like fish, squid, and seals, and they echolocate. In comparison, baleen whales are less social, eat mostly tiny zooplankton prey, and do not echolocate. Because of these differences, I wanted to learn more about gray whales, so I started asking Lisa questions. Killer whales only sleep with half of their brain at a time, so I asked if gray whales do the same. They do. Killer whales typically travel in stable, long-term matriarchal groups, and I recently learned that gray whales frequently travel alone (though not exclusively). This new knowledge to me led me to ask if gray whales vocalize while traveling. They typically do not. Through asking these questions, and others, I have begun to learn more about gray whales. 

Figure 2. Mattea on the tandem research kayak taking a break in between prey sampling. Source: L. Hildebrand.

I am still learning about marine mammal research, and from what I have experienced so far, marine mammal acoustics intrigues me the most. As a child, I developed a general interest in whale vocalizations after hearing recordings of them in museums and aquariums. Then, two years ago, I heard orcas vocalizing in the wild, and I decided I wanted to learn more about their vocalizations as a long-term career goal. 

To pursue a career studying marine mammal acoustics, I will need scientific and communication skills that this internship is helping me develop. Sitting on the cliff for hours at a time, sometimes with gray whales swimming in our view-scape and sometimes without, is teaching me the patience and attention needed to review hours of sound recordings with or without vocalizations. Identifying and counting zooplankton most days is teaching me the importance of processing data regularly, so it does not build up or get too confusing, as well as attention to detail and keeping focused. Collecting data from a kayak is teaching me how to assess ocean conditions, keep track of gear, and stay calm when things go wrong. I am also practicing the skill of taking and identifying whale photos, which can be applied to many whale research topics I hope to pursue. Through writing this blog post and discussing the project with Lisa and my fellow interns, I am improving my science communication skills. 

Figure 3. Mattea manning the theodolite watching and waiting for a gray whale to show up in our study area. Source: L. Hildebrand.

As an undergraduate student, it can sometimes be difficult to find opportunities to research marine mammals, so I am very grateful for and excited about this internship, both because of the skills it is helping me build and the field work experiences that I enjoy participating in. Another aspect of research this internship is helping me learn about is to ask engaging questions. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, asking questions is a key element of conducting research. By asking questions about gray whales based on both prior knowledge and new observations, I am practicing this skill, as well as thinking of topics I am curious about and might want to explore in the future. While watching for whales, I have thought of questions such as: How is whale behavior affected by surface conditions? Do gray whales prefer feeding at certain times of the day? Questions like these help me learn about whales, and they keep me excited about research. Thanks to this internship, I can continue working towards my dreams of pursuing similar questions about whales as a career.

Introducing the Theyodelers – the Port Orford Gray Whale Foraging Ecology Team of 2020

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

Yodel-Ay-Ee-Ooooo! Hello from the Theyodelers, this year’s Port Orford gray whale foraging ecology field team. In case you were wondering, no, we aren’t hobby yodelers and we don’t plan on becoming them. The team name this year actually has to be attributed to a parent of one of my interns. Shout out to Scott Holt who during the first week of the field season asked his daughter Mattea (our OSU undergraduate intern) whether using a theodolite (the instrument we use to track gray whales from our cliff site) is anything like yodeling. The name was an immediate hit with the team and so the team name discussion was closed fairly early on in the season. Now that I have explained our slightly unconventional team name, let me tell you a little about this year’s team and what has been going on down here on the Oregon south coast so far.

As you can tell from the byline, I (Lisa) am back as the project’s team lead in this, the 6th year of the Port Orford gray whale research and internship project. Going into this year’s field season with two years of experience under my belt has made me feel more confident and comfortable with diving straight back into our fine-scale research with a new team of interns. Yet, I am beginning to realize that no matter how much experience I have, there will always be unforeseeable curve balls thrown at me that I can’t anticipate no matter how prepared or experienced I am. However, my knowledge and experience now certainly inform how I tackle these curve balls and hopefully allow my problem-solving to be better and quicker. I am so thrilled that Leigh and I were able to get the field season approved here in Port Orford despite the ongoing pandemic. There were many steps we had to take and protocols to write and get approved, but it was worth the work. It certainly is strange living in a place that is meant to be your home for six weeks but having to wear a face covering everywhere except your own bedroom. However, mask wearing, frequent hand washing, and disinfecting is a very small price to pay to avoid having a lapse in our gray whale data collected here in Port Orford (and minimize transmission). Doing field research amidst COVID has certainly been a big curve ball this year but, so far, I have been able to handle these added challenges pretty well, especially with a lot of help from my team. Speaking of which, time to introduce the other Theyodelers…

Figure 1. Noah watching and waiting for whales on the cliff. When we are outside in the wind and are able to maintain a minimum 6-ft distance, we are able to remove our face coverings. Source: T. McCambridge.

First up, we have Noah Dolinajec. Noah is a fellow graduate student who is currently doing a Master’s in Marine & Lacustrine Science and Management at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Brussels, Belgium. While he is attending graduate school in Belgium, Noah is not actually from this European country. In fact, he is a Portlandian! As an Oregonian with a passion for the marine environment, Noah is no stranger to the Oregon coast and has spent quite some time exploring it in the past. Some other things about Noah: before going to college he played semi-professional ice hockey, he is a bit of a birder, and he likes to cook (he and I have been tag-teaming the team cooking this year). 

Figure 2. Mattea outside the field station holding local fisher-pup Jim. Source: L. Hildebrand.

Next, we have Mattea Holt Colberg. As I mentioned before, Mattea is the team’s OSU undergraduate intern this year. By participating in a running-start program at her high school where she took two years of college classes, Mattea entered OSU as a junior at just 18 years old! However, she has decided to somewhat extend her undergraduate career at OSU by completing a dual major in Biology and Music. She plays the piano and the violin (which she brought to Port Orford, but we have yet to be serenaded by her). Mattea has previously conducted field research on killer whales in the Salish Sea and I can tell that she is hoping for killer whales to show up in Port Orford (while not entirely ludicrous, the chance of this happening is probably very, very slim). 

Figure 3. Liz in the bow of the kayak in Tichenor Cove. Source: L. Hildebrand.

Last but certainly not least, is Liz Kelly, our Pacific High School intern from Port Orford. Liz has lived in several different states across the country (I’m talking Kentucky to Florida) and so I am really excited that she currently lives here in Oregon because she has been an absolute joy to have on the team so far. Liz brings a lot of energy and humor to the team, which we have certainly needed whenever those curve balls come flying. Besides her positivity, Liz brings a lot of determination and perseverance and seeing her work through tough situations here already has made me very proud. I really hope this internship provides Liz with the life, STEM, and communication skills she needs to help her succeed in pursuing her goals of doing wildlife research after college. As you may have read in my last blog, our previous high school interns have had successes in being admitted to various colleges to follow their goals, and I feel confident that Liz will be no different. When she is not here at the field station, she can probably be found taking care of and riding one of her four horses (Millie, Maricja, Miera, and Jeanie). 

Now that I have introduced the 2020 field team, here is a short play-by-play of what we have been seeing, or perhaps more aptly, not seeing. Our whale sighting numbers have been pretty low so far and when we do see them, they seem to be foraging a little further away from our study site than I am used to seeing in past years. However, this shift in behavior is not entirely surprising to me since our zooplankton net has been coming up pretty empty at our sampling stations. While there are mysids and amphipods scattered here and there, their numbers are in the low 10s when we do our zooplankton ID lab work in the afternoons. These low counts are also reflected by the low densities I am anecdotally seeing on our GoPro drops (Fig 4).

While I am not entirely certain why we are seeing this low prey abundance, I do have some hypotheses. The most likely reason is that this year we experienced some delayed upwelling on our coast. Dawn wrote a great blog about upwelling and wind a few weeks ago and I suggest checking it out to better understand what upwelling is and how it can affect whales (and the whole ecosystem). Typically, we see our peak upwelling occur here in Oregon in May-June. However, if you look at Figure 5 you will see that both the indices remained low at that time this year, whereas in previous years, they were already increasing by May/June.

Figure 5. 10 year time series of the Coastal Upwelling Transport Index (CUTI; top plot) and Biologically Effective Upwelling Transport Index (BEUTI; bottom plot) at 44ºN. CUTI represents the amount of upwelling (positive numbers) or downwelling (negative numbers) while BEUTI estimates the amount of nitrate (i.e. nutrients) upwelled (positive numbers) and downwelled (negative numbers). The light-colored lines represent the CUTI and BEUTI at that point in time while the dark, bold lines represent the long-term average.

A delayed upwelling means that there was likely less nutrients in the water to support little critters like zooplankton to start reproducing and increasing their abundances. Simply put, it means our coastal waters appear to be less productive than they usually are at this time of the year. If there is not much prey around (as we have been finding in our two study sites – Mill Rocks and Tichenor Cove), then it makes sense to me why gray whales are not hanging around since there is not much to feed on. Fortunately, the tail of the trend line in Figure 5 is angling upward, which means that the upwelling finally started in June so hopefully the nutrients, zooplankton and whales will follow soon too. In fact, since I wrote the draft of this blog at the end of last week, we have actually seen an increase in the numbers of mysids in our zooplankton net and on our GoPro videos.

We are almost halfway done with the field season already and I cannot believe how quickly it goes by! During the first two weeks we were busy getting familiar with all of our gear and completing First Aid/CPR and kayak paddle & rescue courses. This week the team started the real data collection. We have had some hiccups (we lost our GoPro stick and our backup GoPro stick, but thankfully have already recovered one of them) but overall, we are off to a pretty good start. Now we just need the upwelling to really kick in, for there to be thick layers of mysids, and for the whales to come in close. Over the next three weeks, you will be hearing from Noah, Mattea and Liz as they share their experiences and viewpoints with all of you!