Sonar savvy: using echo sounders to characterize zooplankton swarms

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

I’m Natalie Chazal, the GEMM Lab’s newest PhD student! This past spring I received my MS in Biological and Agricultural Engineering with Dr. Natalie Nelson’s Biosystems Analytics Lab at North Carolina State University. My thesis focused on using shellfish sanitation datasets to look at water quality trends in North Carolina and to forecast water quality for shellfish farmers in Florida. Now, I’m excited to be studying gray whales in the GEMM Lab!

Since the beginning of the Fall term, I’ve jumped into a project that will use our past 8 years of sonar data collected using a Garmin echo sounder during the GRANITE project work with gray whales off the Newport, OR coast. Echo sounder data is commonly used recreationally to detect bottom depth and for finding fish and my goal is to use these data to assess relative prey abundance at gray whale sightings over time and space. 

There are also scientific grade echo sounders that are built to be incredibly precise and very exact in the projection and reception of the sonar pulses. Both types of echosounders can be used to determine the depth of the ocean floor, structures within the water column, and organisms that are swimming within the sonar’s “cone” of acoustic sensing. The precision and stability of the scientific grade equipment allows us to answer questions related to the specific species of organisms, the substrate type at the sea floor, and even animal behavior. However, scientific grade echo sounders can be expensive, overly large for our small research vessel, and require expertise to operate. When it comes to generalists, like gray whales, we can answer questions about relative prey abundances without the use of such exact equipment (Benoit-Bird 2016; Brough 2019). 

While there are many variations of echo sounders that are specific to their purpose, commercially available, single beam echo sounders generally function in the same way (Fig. 1). First, a “ping” or short burst of sound at a specific frequency is produced from a transducer. The ping then travels downward and once it hits an object, some of the sound energy bounces off of the object and some moves into the object. The sound that bounces off of the object is either reflected or scattered. Sound energy that is either reflected or scattered back in the direction of the source is then received by the transducer. We can figure out the depth of the signal using the amount of travel time the ping took (SeaBeam Instruments 2000).

Figure 1. Diagram of how sound is scattered, reflected, and transmitted in marine environments (SeaBeam Instruments, 2000).

The data produced by this process is then displayed in real-time, on the screen on board the boat. Figure 2 is an example of the display that we see while on board RUBY (the GEMM Lab’s rigid-hull inflatable research boat): 

Figure 2. Photo of the echo sounder display on board RUBY. On the left is a map that is used for navigation. On the right is the real time feed where we can see the ocean bottom shown as the bright yellow area with the distinct boundary towards the lower portion of the screen. The more orange layer above that, with the  more “cloudy” structure  is a mysid swarm.

Once off the boat, we can download this echo sounder data and process it in the lab to recreate echograms similar to those seen on the boat. The echograms are shown with the time on the x-axis, depth on the y-axis, and are colored by the intensity of sound that was returned (Fig. 3). Echograms give us a sort of picture of what we see in the water column. When we look at these images as humans, we can infer what these objects are, given that we know what habitat we were in. Below (Fig. 3) are some example classifications of different fish and zooplankton swarms and what they look like in an echogram (Kaltenberg 2010).

Figure 3. Panel of echogram examples, from Kaltenberg 2010, for different fish and zooplankton aggregations that have been classified both visually (like we do in real time on the boat) as well as statistically (which we hope to do with the mysid aggregations). 

For our specific application, we are going to focus on characterizing mysid swarms, which are considered to be the main prey target of PCFG whales in our study area. With the echograms generated by the GRANITE fieldwork, we can gather relative mysid swarm densities, giving us an idea of how much prey is available to foraging gray whales. Because we have 8 years of GRANITE echosounder data, with 2,662 km of tracklines at gray whale sightings, we are going to need an automated process. This demand is where image segmentation can come in! If we treat our echograms like photographs, we can train models to identify mysid swarms within echograms, reducing our echogram processing load. Automating and standardizing the process can also help to reduce error. 

We are planning to utilize U-Nets, which are a method of image segmentation where the image goes through a series of compressions (encoders) and expansions (decoders), which is common when using convolutional neural nets (CNNs) for image segmentation. The encoder is generally a pre-trained classification network (CNNs work very well for this) that is used to classify pixels into a lower resolution category. The decoder then takes the low resolution categorized pixels and reprojects them back into an image to get a segmented mask. What makes U-Nets unique is that they re-introduce the higher resolution encoder information back into the decoder process through skip connections. This process allows for generalizations to be made for the image segmentation without sacrificing fine-scale details (Brautaset 2020; Ordoñez 2022; Slonimer 2023; Vohra 2023).

Figure 4. Diagram of the encoder, decoder architecture for U-Nets used in biomedical image segmentation. Note the skip connections illustrated by the gray lines connecting the higher resolution image information on the left, with the decoder process on the right (Ronneberger 2015)

What we hope to get from this analysis is an output image that provides us only the parts of the echogram that contain mysid swarms. Once the mysid swarms are found within the echograms, we can use both the intensity and the size of the swarm in the echogram as a proxy for the relative abundance of gray whale prey. We plan to quantify these estimates across multiple spatial and temporal scales, to link prey availability to changing environmental conditions and gray whale health and distribution metrics. This application is what will make our study particularly unique! By leveraging the GRANITE project’s extensive datasets, this study will be one of the first studies that quantifies prey variability in the Oregon coastal system and uses those results to directly assess prey availability on the body condition of gray whales. 

However, I have a little while to go before the data will be ready for any analysis. So far, I’ve been reading as much as I can about how sonar works in the marine environment, how sonar data structures work, and how others are using recreational sonar for robust analyses. There have been a few bumps in the road while starting this project (especially with disentangling the data structures produced from our particular GARMIN echosounder), but my new teammates in the GEMM Lab have been incredibly generous with their time and knowledge to help me set up a strong foundation for this project, and beyond. 


  1. Kaltenberg A. (2010) Bio-physical interactions of small pelagic fish schools and zooplankton prey in the California Current System over multiple scales. Oregon State University, Dissertation.
  2. SeaBeam Instruments. (2000) Multibeam Sonar Theory of Operation. L-3 Communications, East Walpole MA.
  3. Benoit-Bird K., Lawson G. (2016) Ecological insights from pelagic habitats acquired using active acoustic techniques. Annual Review of Marine Science.
  4. Brough T., Rayment W., Dawson S. (2019) Using a recreational grade echosounder to quantify the potential prey field of coastal predators. PLoS One.
  5. Brautaset O., Waldeland A., Johnsen E., Malde K., Eikvil L., Salberg A, Handegard N. (2020) Acoustic classification in multifrequency echosounder data using deep convolutional neural networks. ICES Journal of Marine Science 77, 1391–1400.
  6. Ordoñez A., Utseth I., Brautaset O., Korneliussen R., Handegard N. (2022) Evaluation of echosounder data preparation strategies for modern machine learning models. Fisheries Research 254, 106411.
  7. Slonimer A., Dosso S., Albu A., Cote M., Marques T., Rezvanifar A., Ersahin K., Mudge T., Gauthier S., (2023) Classification of Herring, Salmon, and Bubbles in Multifrequency Echograms Using U-Net Neural Networks. IEEE Journal of Oceanic Engineering 48, 1236–1254.
  8. Ronneberger O., Fischer P., Brox T. (2015) U-Net: Convolutional Networks for Biomedical Image Segmentation.

Migrating back east

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

With the changing of the season, gray whales are starting their southbound migration that will end in the lagoons off the Baja California Mexico. The migration of the gray whale is the longest migration of any mammal—the round trip totals ~10,000 miles (Pike, 1962)! 

Map of the migration route taken by gray whales along the west coast of North America. (Image credit: Angle, Asplund, and Ostrander, 2017

Like these gray whales, I am also undertaking my own “migration” as I leave Newport to start my post-Master’s journey. However, my migration will be a little shorter than the gray whale’s journey—only ~3,000 miles—as I head back to the east coast. As I talked about in my previous blog, I have finished my thesis studying the energetics of gray whale foraging behaviors and I attended my commencement ceremony at the University of British Columbia last Wednesday. As my time with the GEMM Lab comes to a close, I want to take some time to reflect on my time in Newport. 

Me in my graduation regalia (right) and my co-supervisor Andrew Trites holding the university mace (left) after my commencement ceremony at the University of British Columbia rose garden. 

Many depictions of scientists show them working in isolation but in my time with the GEMM Lab I got to fully experience the collaborative nature of science. My thesis was a part of the GEMM Lab’s Gray whale Response to Ambient Noise Informed by Technology and Ecology (GRANITE) project and I worked closely with the GRANITE team to help achieve the project’s research goals. The GRANITE team has annual meetings where team members give updates on their contributions to the project and flush out ideas in a series of very busy days. I found these collaborative meetings very helpful to ensure that I was keeping the big picture of the gray whale study system in mind while working with the energetics data I explored for my thesis. The collaborative nature of the GRANITE project provided the opportunity to learn from people that have a different skill set from my own and expose me to many different types of analysis. 

GRANITE team members hard at work thinking about gray whales and their physiological response to noise. 

This summer I also was able to participate in outreach with the partnership of the Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute and the Eugene Exploding Whales (the alternate identity of the Eugene Emeralds) minor league baseball team to promote the Oregon Gray Whale License plates. It was exciting to talk to baseball fans about marine mammals and be able to demonstrate that the Gray Whale License plate sales are truly making a difference for the gray whales off the Oregon coast. In fact, the minimally invasive suction cup tags used in to collect the data I analyzed in my thesis were funded by the OSU Gray Whale License plate fund!

Photo of the GEMM Lab promoting Oregon Gray Whale License plates at the Eugene Exploding Whales baseball game. If you haven’t already, be sure to “Put a whale on your tail!” to help support marine mammal research off the Oregon Coast. 

Outside of the amazing science opportunities, I have thoroughly enjoyed the privilege of exploring Newport and the Oregon coast. I was lucky enough to find lots of agates and enjoyed consistently spotting gray whale blows on my many beach walks. I experienced so many breathtaking views from hikes (God’s thumb was my personal favorite). I got to attend an Oregon State Beavers football game where we crushed Stanford! And most of all, I am so thankful for all the friends I’ve made in my time here. These warm memories, and the knowledge that I can always come back, will help make it a little easier to start my migration away from Newport. 

Me and my friends outside of Reser Stadium for the Oregon State Beavers football game vs Stanford this season. Go Beavs!!!
Me and my friends celebrating after my defense. 

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Pike, G. C. (1962). Migration and feeding of the gray whale (Eschrichtius gibbosus). Journal of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada19(5), 815–838.

A non-invasive approach to pregnancy diagnosis in Gray whales is possible!

Dr. Alejandro A. Fernández Ajó, Postdoctoral Scholar, Marine Mammal Institute – OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna (GEMM) Lab.

In a previous post (link to blog), I discussed the crucial importance of acquiring knowledge on the reproductive parameters of individual animals in wild populations for designing effective strategies in conservation biology. Specifically, the ability to quantify the number of pregnancies within a population offers valuable insights into the health of individual females and the population as a whole [1,2]. This knowledge provides tools to describe important life-history parameters, including the age of sexual maturity, frequency of pregnancy, duration of gestation, timing of reproduction, and population fecundity; all of which are essential components for monitoring trends in reproduction and the overall health of a species [3]. Additionally, I explained some of the challenges inherent in obtaining such information when working with massive wild animals that spend most of their time underwater in vast expanses of the oceans. Yes, I am talking about whales.

As a result of the logistical and methodological challenges that involve the study of large whales, detailed knowledge of the life-history and general reproductive biology of whales is sparse for most species and populations. In fact, much of the available information is derived from whaling records [4], which may be outdated for application in population models [5].

If you are an avid reader of the GEMM Lab blog posts, you might be familiar with the gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus), and with the distinct subgroup of gray whales, known as the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG). PCFG gray whales are characterized by their shorter migration to spend their feeding season in the coastal waters of Northern California, Oregon, and southeastern Alaska [6], relative to the larger Eastern North Pacific gray whale that forage in the Arctic region.

The GEMM Lab has monitored individual gray whales within the PCFG off the Oregon coast since 2016 (check the GRANITE project). Each individual whale presents a unique pigmentation pattern, or unique marks that we can use to identify who is who among the whales who visit the Oregon coast. In this way, we keep a detailed record of re-sightings of known individuals (visit IndividuWhale to learn more), and we have high individual re-sighting rates, resulting in a long-term data series for individual whales which enables us to monitor their health, body condition, and thus further develop and advance our non-invasive study methods.

Drone-based image of a Gray whale defecating. Source: GEMM Lab, NOAA/NSF permit #16111

In our recently manuscript published in the Royal Society Open Science journal, armed with our robust dataset comprising fecal hormone metabolites, drone-based photogrammetry, and individual sightings, we delved into the strengths and weaknesses of various diagnostic tools for non-invasive pregnancy diagnosis. Ultimately, we propose a methodological approach that can help with the challenging and important task of identifying pregnancies in gray whales. In particular, we explored the variability in fecal progesterone metabolites and body morphology relative to observed reproductive status and estimated the pregnancy probability for mature females using statistical models.

In mammals, the progesterone hormone is secreted in the ovaries during the estrous cycle and gestation, making it the predominant hormone responsible for sustaining pregnancy [7]. As the hormones are cleared from the blood into the gut, they are metabolized and eventually excreted in feces; fecal samples represent a cumulative and integrated concentration of hormone metabolites [8;9], which are useful indicators for endocrine assessments of free-swimming whales. Additionally, our previous studies in this population [10] detected differences in body condition (see KC blog for more details about how we measure whales) that suggest that changes in the whale’s body widths could be useful in detecting pregnancies.

Our exploratory analyses show that in individual whales, the levels of fecal progesterone were elevated when pregnant as compared to when the same whale was not pregnant. But when looking at progesterone levels at the population level, these differences were masked with the intrinsic variability of this measurement. In turn, the body morphometrics, in particular the body width at the 50% of the total body length, helped discriminate pregnancies better, and the statistical models that included this width variable, effectively classified pregnant from non-pregnant females with a commendable accuracy. Thus, our morphometric approach showcased its potential as a reliable alternative for pregnancy diagnosis.

Below, a comparison of body widths at 5% increments along total body length (from 20 % to 70 %) in female gray whales of known reproductive status from UAS-based photogrammetry (example photograph shown at top). Pregnant females (PF; in blue), presumed nonpregnant juvenile females (JF; yellow), and lactating females (LF; orange). Fernandez Ajó et al. 2023.

Notably, when we ran the pregnancy prediction models on data from our 2022 season and compared results with observations of whales in 2023, we identified a known whale from our study area “Clouds” accompanied by a calf, indicating that she was pregnant in 2022. Our model predicted Clouds to be pregnant with a 70% probability. This validation lends strong confidence to our approach to diagnosing pregnancy. Conversely, some whales predicted to be pregnant in 2022 were not observed with a calf during the 2023 season. However, the absence of calves accompanying these females is likely due to the relatively high mortality of newborn calves in gray whales due to predation or other causes [11].

Overall, our findings underscore some limitations of fecal progesterone metabolite in accurately identifying pregnant PCFG gray whales. However, while acknowledging the challenges associated with fecal sample collection and hormone analysis, we advocate for ongoing exploration of alternative hormone quantification methods and antibodies. Our study highlights the importance of continued research in refining these techniques. The unique attributes of our study system, including high individual re-sighting rates and non-invasive fecal hormone analysis, position it as a cornerstone for future advancements in understanding gray whale reproductive health. By improving our ability to monitor reproductive metrics in baleen whale populations, we pave the way for more effective conservation strategies, ensuring the resilience of these magnificent creatures in the face of a changing marine ecosystems.



[1] Burgess EA, Lanyon JM, Brown JL, Blyde D, Keeley T. 2012 Diagnosing pregnancy in free-ranging dugongs using fecal progesterone metabolite concentrations and body morphometrics: A population application. Gen Comp Endocrinol 177, 82–92. (doi:10.1016/J.YGCEN.2012.02.008)

[2] Slade NA, Tuljapurkar S, Caswell H. 1998 Structured-Population Models in Marine, Terrestrial, and Freshwater Systems. J Wildl Manage 62. (doi:10.2307/3802363)

[3] Madliger CL, Love OP, Hultine KR, Cooke SJ. 2018 The conservation physiology toolbox: status and opportunities. Conserv Physiol 6, 1–16. (doi:10.1093/conphys/coy029)

[4] Rice DW, Wolman AA. 1971 Life history and ecology of the gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus). Stillwater, Oklahoma: American Society of Mammalogists.

[5] Melicai V, Atkinson S, Calambokidis J, Lang A, Scordino J, Mueter F. 2021 Application of endocrine biomarkers to update information on reproductive physiology in gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus). PLoS One 16. (doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0255368)

[6] Calambokidis J, Darling JD, Deecke V, Gearin P, Gosho M, Megill W, et al. Abundance, range and movements of a feeding aggregation of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) from California to south-eastern Alaska in 1998. J Cetacean Res Manag 2002;4:267–76.

[7] Bronson, F. H. (1989). Mammalian reproductive biology. University of Chicago Press.

[8] Wasser SK, Hunt KE, Brown JL, Cooper K, Crockett CM, Bechert U, Millspaugh JJ, Larson S, Monfort SL (2000) A generalized fecal glucocorticoid assay for use in a diverse array of nondomestic mammalian and avian species. Gen Comp Endocrinol120:260–275.

[9] Hunt, K.E., Rolland, R.M., Kraus, S.D., Wasser, S.K., 2006. Analysis of fecal glucocorticoids in the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). Gen. Comp. Endocrinol. 148, 260–272.

[10] Soledade Lemos L, Burnett JD, Chandler TE, Sumich JL, Torres LG. 2020 Intra‐ and inter‐annual variation in gray whale body condition on a foraging ground. Ecosphere 11. (doi:10.1002/ecs2.3094)

[11] James L. Sumich, James T. Harvey, Juvenile Mortality in Gray Whales (Eschrichtius robustus), Journal of Mammalogy, Volume 67, Issue 1, 25 February 1986, Pages 179–182,

A smaller sized gray whale: recent publication finds PCFG whales are smaller than ENP whales

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

A recent blog post by GEMM Lab’s PhD Candidate Clara Bird gave a recap of our 8th consecutive GRANITEfield season this year. In her blog, Clara highlighted that we saw 71 individual gray whales this season, 61 of which we have seen in previous years and identified as belonging to the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG). With an estimated population size of around 212 individuals, this means that we saw almost 1/3 of the PCFG population this season alone. Since the GEMM Lab first started collecting data on PCFG gray whales in 2016, we have collected drone imagery on over 120 individuals, which is over half the PCFG population. This dataset provides incredible opportunity to get to know these individuals and observe them from year to year as they grow and mature through different life history stages, such as producing a calf. A question our research team has been interested in is what makes a PCFG whale different from an Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whale, which has a population size around 16,000 individuals and feed predominantly in the Arctic during the summer months? For this blog, I will highlight findings from our recent publication in Biology Letters (Bierlich et al., 2023) comparing the morphology (body length, skull, and fluke size) between PCFG and ENP populations. 

Body size and shape reflect how an animal functions in their environment and can provide details on an individual’s current health, reproductive status, and energetic requirements. Understanding how animals grow is a key component for monitoring the health of populations and their vulnerability to climate change and other stressors in their environment.  As such, collecting accurate morphological measurements of individuals is essential to model growth and infer their health. Collecting such morphological measurements of whales is challenging, as you cannot ask a whale to hold still while you prepare the tape measure, but as discussed in a previous blog, drones provide a non-invasive method to collect body size measurements of whales. Photogrammetry is a non-invasive technique used to obtain morphological measurements of animals from photographs. The GEMM Lab uses drone-based photogrammetry to obtain morphological measurements of PCFG gray whales, such as their body length, skull length (as snout-to-blowhole), and fluke span (see Figure 1). 

Figure 1. Morphological measurements obtained via photogrammetry of a Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whale. These measurements were used to compare to individuals from the Eastern North Pacific (ENP) population. 

As mentioned in this previous blog, we use photo-identification to identify unique individual gray whales based on markings on their body. This method is helpful for linking all the data we are collecting (morphology, hormones, behavior, new scarring and skin conditions, etc.) to each individual whale. An individual’s sightings history can also be used to estimate their age, either as a ‘minimum age’ based on the date of first sighting or a ‘known age’ if the individual was seen as a calf. By combining the length measurements from drone-based photogrammetry and age estimates from photo-identification history, we can construct length-at-age growth models to examine how PCFG gray whales grow. While no study has previously examined length-at-age growth models specifically for PCFG gray whales, another study constructed growth curves for ENP gray whales using body length and age estimates obtained from whaling, strandings, and aerial photogrammetry (Agbayani et al., 2020). For our study, we utilized these datasets and compared length-at-age growth, snout-to-blowhole length, and fluke span between PCFG and ENP whales. We used Bayesian statistics to account and incorporate the various levels of uncertainty associated with data collected (i.e., measurements from whaling vs. drone, ‘minimum age’ vs. ‘known age’). 

We found that while both populations grow at similar rates, PCFG gray whales reach smaller adult lengths than ENP. This difference was more extreme for females, where PCFG females were ~1 m (~3 ft) shorter than ENP females and PCFG males were ~0.5 m (1.5 ft) shorter than ENP males (Figure 2, Figure 3). We also found that ENP males and females have slightly larger skulls and flukes than PCFG male and females, respectively. Our results suggest PCFG whales are shaped differently than ENP whales (Figure 3)! These results are also interesting in light of our previous published study that found PCFG whales are skinnier than ENP whales (see this previous blog post). 

Figure 2. Growth curves (von Bertalanffy–Putter) for length-at-age comparing male and female ENP and PCFG gray whales (shading represents 95% highest posterior density intervals). Points represent mean length and median age. Vertical bars represent photogrammetric uncertainty. Dashed horizontal lines represent uncertainty in age estimates.

Figure 3. Schematic highlighting the differences in body size between Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) and Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whales. 

Our results raise some interesting questions regarding why PCFG are smaller: Is this difference in size and shape normal for this population and are they healthy? Or is this difference a sign that they are stressed, unhealthy and/or not getting enough to eat? Larger individuals are typically found at higher latitudes (this pattern is called Bergmann’s Rule), which could explain why ENP whales are larger since they feed in the Arctic. Yet many species, including fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals, have experienced reductions in body size due to changes in habitat and anthropogenic stressors (Gardner et al., 2011). The PCFG range is within closer proximity to major population centers compared to the ENP foraging grounds in the Arctic, which could plausibly cause increased stress levels, leading to decreased growth. 

The smaller morphology of PCFG may also be related to the different foraging tactics they employ on different prey and habitat types than ENP whales. Animal morphology is linked to behavior and habitat (see this blogpost). ENP whales feeding in the Arctic generally forage on benthic amphipods, while PCFG whales switch between benthic, epibenthic and planktonic prey, but mostly target epibenthic mysids. Within the PCFG range, gray whales often forage in rocky kelp beds close to shore in shallow water depths (approx. 10 m) that are on average four times shallower than whales feeding in the Arctic. The prey in the PCFG range is also found to be of equal or higher caloric value than prey in the Arctic range (see this blog), which is interesting since PCFG were found to be skinnier.

It is also unclear when the PCFG formed? ENP and PCFG whales are genetically similar, but photo-identification history reveals that calves born into the PCFG usually return to forage in this PCFG range, suggesting matrilineal site fidelity that contributes to the population structure. PCFG whales were first documented off our Oregon Coast in the 1970s (Figure 4). Though, from examining old whaling records, there may have been PCFG gray whales foraging off the coasts of Northern California to British Columbia since the 1920s.

Figure 4. First reports of summer-resident gray whales along the Oregon coast, likely part of the Pacific Coast Feeding Group. Capital Journal, August 9, 1976, pg. 2.

Altogether, our finding led us to two hypotheses: 1) the PCFG range provides an ecological opportunity for smaller whales to feed on a different prey type in a shallow environment, or 2) the PCFG range is an ecological trap, where individuals gain less energy due to energetically costly feeding behaviors in complex habitat while potentially targeting lower density prey, causing them to be skinnier and have decreased growth. Key questions remain for our research team regarding potential consequences of the smaller sized PCFG whales, such as does the smaller body size equate to reduced resilience to environmental and anthropogenic stressors? Does smaller size effect fecundity and population fitness? Stay tuned as we learn more about this unique and fascinating smaller sized gray whale. 


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

Bierlich, K. C., Kane, A., Hildebrand, L., Bird, C. N., Fernandez Ajo, A., Stewart, J. D., Hewitt, J., Hildebrand, I., Sumich, J., & Torres, L. G. (2023). Downsized: gray whales using an alternative foraging ground have smaller morphology. Biology Letters19(8).

Gardner, J. L., Peters, A., Kearney, M. R., Joseph, L., & Heinsohn, R. (2011). Declining body size: A third universal response to warming? Trends in Ecology and Evolution26(6), 285–291.

The whales keep coming and we keep learning: a wrap up of the eighth GRANITE field season.

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

As you may remember, last year’s field season was a remarkable summer for our team. We were pleasantly surprised to find an increased number of whales in our study area compared to previous years and were even more excited that many of them were old friends. As we started this field season, we were all curious to know if this year would be a repeat. And it’s my pleasure to report that this season was even better!

We started the season with an exciting day (6 known whales! see Lisa’s blog) and the excitement (and whales) just kept coming. This season we saw 71 individual whales across 215 sightings! Of those 71, 44 were whales we saw last year, and 10 were new to our catalog, meaning that we saw 17 whales this season that we had not seen in at least two years! There is something extra special about seeing a whale we have not seen in a while because it means that they are still alive, and the sighting gives us valuable data to continue studying health and survival. Another cool note is that 7 of our 12 new whales from last year came back this year, indicating recruitment to our study region.

Included in that group of 7 whales are the two calves from last year! Again, indicating good recruitment of new whales to our study area. We saw both Lunita and Manta (previously nick-named ‘Roly-poly’) throughout this season and we were always happy to see them back in our area and feeding on their own.

Drone image of Lunita from 2023
Drone image of Manta from 2023

We had an especially remarkable encounter with Lunita at the end of this season when we found this whale surface feeding on porcelain crab larvae (video 1)! This is a behavior that we rarely observe, and we’ve never seen a juvenile whale use this behavior before, inspiring questions around how Lunita knew how to perform this behavior.

Not only did we resight our one-year-old friends, but we found two new calves born to well-known mature females (Clouds and Spotlight). We had previously documented Clouds with a calf (Cheetah) in 2016 so it was exciting to see her with a new calf and to meet Cheetah’s sibling! Cheetah has become one of our regulars so we’re curious to see if this new calf joins the regular crew as well. We’re also hoping that Spotlight’s calf will stick around; and we’re optimistic since we observed it feeding alone later in the season.

Collage of new calves from 2023! Left: Clouds and her calf, Center: Spotlight and her calf, Right: Spotlight’s calf independently foraging

Of course, 71 whales means heaps of data! We spent 226 hours on the water, conducted 132 drone flights (a record!), and collected 61 fecal samples! Those 132 flights were over 64 individual whales, with Casper and Pacman tying for “best whale to fly over” with 10 flights each. We collected 61 fecal samples from 26 individual whales with a three-way tie for “best pooper” between Hummingbird, Scarlett, and Zorro with 6 fecal samples each. And we continued to collect valuable prey and habitat data through 80 GoPro drops and 79 zooplankton net tows.

And if you were about to ask, “but what about tagging?!”, fear not! We continued our suction cup tagging effort with a successful window in July where we were joined by collaborators John Calambokidis from Cascadia Research Collective and Dave Cade from Hopkins Marine Station and deployed four suction-cup tags.

It’s hard to believe all the work we’ve accomplished in the past five months, and I continue to be honored and proud to be on this incredible team. But as this season has come to a close, I have found myself reflecting on something else. Learning. Over the past several years we have learned so much about not only these whales in our study system but about how to conduct field work. And while learning is continuous, this season in particular has felt like an exciting time for both. In the past year our group has published work showing that we can detect pregnancy in gray whales using fecal samples and drone imagery (Fernandez Ajó et al., 2023), that PCFG gray whales are shorter and smaller than ENP whales (Bierlich et al., 2023), and that gray whales are consuming high levels of microplastics (Torres et al., 2023). We also have several manuscripts in review focused on our behavior work from drones and tags. While this information does not directly affect our field work, it does mean that while we’re observing these whales live, we better understand what we’re observing and we can come up with more specific, in-depth questions based on this foundation of knowledge that we’re building. I have enjoyed seeing our questions evolve each year based on our increasing knowledge and I know that our collaborative, inquisitive chats on the boat will only continue inspiring more exciting research.

On top of our gray whale knowledge, we have also learned so much about field work. When I think back to the early days compared to now, there is a stark difference in our knowledge and our confidence. We do a lot on our little boat! And so many steps that we once relied on written lists to remember to do are now just engrained in our minds and bodies. From loading the boat, to setting up at the dock, to the go pro drops, fecal collections, drone operations, photo taking, and photo ID, our team has become quite the well-oiled machine. We were also given the opportunity to reflect on everything we’ve learned over the past years when it was our turn to train our new team member, Nat! Nat is a new PhD student in the GEMM lab who is joining team GRANITE. Teaching her all the ins and outs of our fieldwork really emphasized how much we ourselves have learned.

On a personal note, this was my third season as a drone pilot, and honestly, I was pleasantly surprised by my experience this season. Since I started piloting, I have experienced pretty intense nerves every time I’ve flown the drone. From stress dreams, to mild nausea, and an elevated heart rate, flying the drone was something that I didn’t necessarily look forward to. Don’t get me wrong – it’s incredibly valuable data and a privilege to watch the whales from a bird’s eye view in real time. But the responsibility of collecting good data, while keeping the drone and my team members safe was something that I felt viscerally. And while I gained confidence with every flight, the nerves were still as present as ever and I was starting to accept that I would never be totally comfortable as a pilot. Until this season, when the nerves finally cleared, and piloting became as innate as all the other field work components. While there are still some stressful moments, the nerves don’t come roaring back. I have finally gone through enough stressful situations to not be fazed by new ones. And while I am fully aware that this is just how learning works, I write this reflection as a reminder to myself and anyone going through the process of learning any new skill to push through that fear. Remember there can be a disconnect between the time when you know how to do something well, or well-enough, and the time when you feel comfortable doing it. I am just as proud of myself for persevering as I am of the team for collecting so much incredible data. And as I look ahead to my next scary challenge (finishing my PhD!), this is a feeling that I am trying to hold on to. 

Stay tuned for updates from team GRANITE!

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Bierlich, K. C., Kane, A., Hildebrand, L., Bird, C. N., Fernandez Ajo, A., Stewart, J. D., Hewitt, J., Hildebrand, I., Sumich, J., & Torres, L. G. (2023). Downsized: Gray whales using an alternative foraging ground have smaller morphology. Biology Letters19(8), 20230043.

Fernandez Ajó, A., Pirotta, E., Bierlich, K. C., Hildebrand, L., Bird, C. N., Hunt, K. E., Buck, C. L., New, L., Dillon, D., & Torres, L. G. (2023). Assessment of a non-invasive approach to pregnancy diagnosis in gray whales through drone-based photogrammetry and faecal hormone analysis. Royal Society Open Science10(7), 230452.

Torres, L. G., Brander, S. M., Parker, J. I., Bloom, E. M., Norman, R., Van Brocklin, J. E., Lasdin, K. S., & Hildebrand, L. (2023). Zoop to poop: Assessment of microparticle loads in gray whale zooplankton prey and fecal matter reveal high daily consumption rates. Frontiers in Marine Science10.

Cruising through space and time – a GEMM Lab’s journey in the Northern California Current

By Solène Derville, Postdoc, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Last month I had the privilege to participate in the 2023 September Northern California Current (NCC) cruise onboard the NOAA RV Bell M. Shimada. These cruises are part of a long-term NOAA/NWFSC effort to study the NCC ecosystem and they have been taking place every February, May, and September since 2002. Thanks to a collaboration with NOAA (and more specifically the NCC cruise chief scientist Jennifer Fisher), the GEMM Lab has been able to put marine mammal observers on these cruises since 2018.

As a postdoc working on the OPAL project, I have been the main person in charge of processing and analyzing the cetacean data collected across the 10 (now 11!) cruises that the GEMM lab participated in. These data have played a paramount role in improving our understanding of rorqual whale (e.g., blue, humpback, fin) distribution and habitat use off the coast of Oregon (Derville et al., 2022) and assessing the resulting risk of entanglement in fishing gear that they face while migrating and feeding in our waters (Derville et al., 2023). But while I have been very involved in the data analysis side of things, up to now I had never been able to contribute to data collection for this project. First, I was working remotely at the height of the COVID pandemic and second, because the NCC cruises are onboard a NOAA vessel, they have strict limitations on non-US citizens participation. So, you can imagine how excited I was (as a French citizen) to finally set foot on the famous Bell M. Shimada that I had heard so many stories about!

The NCC cruises illustrate how valuable long-term ecosystem monitoring is. Station after station, miles surveyed after miles surveyed, little by little, we learn about the complex ecological relationships and changing patterns that shape life in the ocean. The data, the experience, and the memories accumulated over the years are a true legacy that I have felt very proud to be part of. Finally, being on this ship, I felt like I was walking in the path of so many of my friends who had held those same binoculars before. Florence Sullivan, who pioneered the GEMM Lab’s NCC cruise observer effort in the harsh winter weather of February 2018. Alexa Kownacki (May 2018, May 2019), whose detailed field notes I read years later with emotion and appreciation as they helped me figure out how the Seebird software used to collect data back then (and abandoned since!). Dawn Barlow (Sep 2018, Sep 2019, Sep 2020, May 2021, May 2022), our master observer who is said to be able to detect a whale’s blow 10 miles away in a 10-foot swell and Beaufort sea state 6, all while sipping an Affogato coffee. Clara Bird (Sep 2020, May 2022), who abandoned her beloved nearshore gray whales (twice!) to sail all the way to the NH-200 station (200 nautical miles from land!). Rachel Kaplan (May 2021, May 2022, Sep 2022), our jack of all trades who concurrently studies krill and whales, and by doing so probably broke the record of numbers of times running up and down between the flying bridge and the echosounder screen room down below. Renee Albertson (Sep 2022), a Marine Mammal Institute research associate who shared observations with Rachel until the cruise was cut short by an engine issue that led them to the docks of Seattle. And finally, Craig Hayslip (May 2023), who swapped his usual observer work on the United States Coast Guard’s helicopters as part of the OPAL project for two weeks onboard the Shimada.

What a team!

From left to right and top to bottom: Florence; Alexa; Dawn; Clara; Renee, Rachel and the rest of the science team including Jennifer Fisher and Anna Bolm; Craig; Rachel; and I!

The 11th NCC cruise with GEMM Lab observers onboard was equal to its predecessors as it provided a perfect combination of camaraderie, natural beauty, Pacific Northwest weather, and unexpected change of plans.  After being delayed by one day, we discovered that a big storm system was coming upon us and would have us retreat to Yaquina Bay in Newport for 4 days! Overall, I spent 5 days surveying for marine mammals from the flying bridge, in conditions that went from a beautiful sunny Friday on September 22nd to an impressive Beaufort sea state 7 on the 29th. This experience was the king of weather in which it became particularly cool to be on a ship as big as the Shimada (63 m, 208 feet long!) that can withstand swell and wind better than any ship I had worked on before.

Overall, I observed 36 groups of cetaceans, including seven different species of dolphins and whales: one sperm whale, a possible Sei whale, several fin whales, blue whales, humpback whales, and pods of Pacific white-sided dolphins, Dall’s porpoises and common dolphins. Among the highlights of this cruise was the observation of several blue whales and humpback whales that seemed to be feeding on the western slope of the Heceta bank. My personal favorite memory was also to observe common dolphins -a species that despite its name is not that common (at least not in the nearshore environment) and that I had never seen before in my life! How magnificent and graceful they were… and how lucky was I to be part of this voyage.

From left to right, top to bottom: a CTD deployment from the Bell M. Shimada; a whale’s dinner? Krill collected with a bongo net during a previous cruise; a very distant yet unmistakable sperm whale dorsal knob; a group of common dolphins; a marine mammal observer’s work tools; a blue whale surfacing at dusk.

More NCC cruise stories…


Derville, S., Barlow, D. R., Hayslip, C. E., & Torres, L. G. (2022). Seasonal, Annual, and Decadal Distribution of Three Rorqual Whale Species Relative to Dynamic Ocean Conditions Off Oregon, USA. Frontiers in Marine Science, 9, 868566.

Derville, S., Buell, T. V, Corbett, K. C., Hayslip, C., & Torres, L. G. (2023). Exposure of whales to entanglement risk in Dungeness crab fishing gear in Oregon, USA, reveals distinctive spatio-temporal and climatic patterns. Biological Conservation, 109989.

Fantastic beasts and how to measure  them! 

Sagar Karki, Master’s student in the Computer Science Department at Oregon State University 

What beasts? Good question! We are talking about gray whales in this article but honestly we can tweak the system discussed in this blog a little and make it usable for other marine animals too.  

Understanding the morphology, such as body area and length, of wild animals and populations can provide important information on animal  behavior and health (check out postdoc Dr. KC Bierlich’s post on this topic). Since 2015, the GEMM Lab has been flying drones over whales to collect aerial imagery to allow for photogrammetric measurements to gain this important morphological data. This photogrammetry data has shed light on multiple important aspects of gray whale morphology, including the facts that the whales feeding off Oregon are skinnier [1] and shorter [2] than the gray whales that feed in the Arctic region.  But, these surprising conclusions overshadow the immense, time-consuming labor that takes place behind the scenes to move from aerial images to accurate measurements.  

To give you a sense of this laborious process, here is a quick run through of the methods: First the 10 to 15 minute videos must be carefully watched to select the perfect frames of a whale (flat and straight at the surface) for measurement. The selected frames from the drone imagery are then imported into MorphoMetriX, which is a custom software developed for photogrammetry measurement [1]. MorphoMetriX is an interactive application that allows an analyst to manually measure the length by clicking points along the centerline of the whale’s body. Based on this line, the whale is divided into a set of sections perpendicular to the centerline, these are used to then measure widths along the body. The analyst then clicks border points at the edge of the whale’s body to delineate the widths following the whale’s body curve. MorphoMetriX then generates a file containing the lengths and widths of the whale in pixels for each measured image. The length and widths of whales are converted from pixels to metric units using a software called CollatriX [4] and this software also calculates metrics of body condition from the length and width measurements. 

While MorphoMetriX [3] and CollatriX [4] are both excellent platforms to facilitate these photogrammetry measurements, each measurement takes time, a keen eye, and attention to detail. Plus, if you mess up one step, such as an incorrect length or width measurement, you have to start from the first step. This process is a bottleneck in the process of obtaining important morphology data on animals. Can we speed this process up and still obtain reliable data? 

What if we can apply automation using computer vision to extract the frames we need and automatically obtain measurements that are as accurate as humans can obtain? Sounds pretty nice, huh? This is where I come into the picture. I am a Master’s student in the Computer Science Department at OSU, so I lack a solid background in marine science, but bring to the table my skills as a computer programmer. For my master’s project, I have been working in the GEMM Lab for the past year to develop automated methods to obtain accurate photogrammetry measurements of whales.  

We are not the first group to attempt to use computers and AI to speed up and improve the identification and detection of whales and dolphins in imagery. Researchers have used deep learning networks to speed up the time-intensive and precise process of photo-identification of  individual whales and dolphins [5], allowing us to more quickly determine animal location, movements and abundance. Millions of satellite images of the earth’s surface are collected daily and scientists are attempting to utilize these images to  benefit marine life by studying patterns of species occurrence, including detection of gray whales in satellite images using deep learning [6]. There has also been success using computer vision to identify whale species and segment out the body area of the whales  from drone imagery [7]. This process involves extracting segmentation masks of the whale’s body followed by length extraction from the mask. All this previous research shows promise for the application of computer vision and AI to assist with animal research and conservation. As discussed earlier, the automation of image extraction and photogrammetric measurement  from drone videos will help researchers collect vital data more quickly so that decisions that impact  the health of whales can be more responsive and effective.For instance,  photogrammetry data extracted from drone images can diagnose pregnancy of the whales [8], thus automation of this information could speed up our ability to understand population trends. 

Computer vision and natural language processing fields are growing exponentially. There are new foundation models like ChatGPT that can do most of the natural language understanding and processing tasks. Foundational models are also emerging for computer vision tasks, such as “the segment anything model” from Meta. Using these foundation models along with other existing research work in computer vision, we have developed and deployed a system that automates the manual and computational tasks of MorphoMetriX and CollatriX systems.  

This system is currently in its testing and monitoring phase, but we are rapidly moving toward a publication to disseminate all the tools developed, so stay tuned for the research paper that will explain in detail the methodologies followed on data processing, model training and test results. The following images give a sneak peak of results. Each image  illustrates a frame from a drone video that was  identified and extracted through automation, followed by another automation process that identified important points along the whale’s body and curvature.  The user interface of the system aims to make the user experience intuitive and easy to follow. The deployment is carefully designed to run on different hardwares, with easy monitoring and update options using the latest open source frameworks. The user has to do just two things. First, select the videos for analysis. The system then generates potential frames for photogrammetric analysis (you don’t need to watch 15 mins of drone footage!). Second, the user selects the frame of choice for photogrammetric analysis and waits for the system to give you measurements. Simple! Our goal is for these softwares to be a massive time-saver while  still providing vital, accurate body measurements  to the researchers in record time. Furthermore, an advantage of this approach is that researchers can follow the methods in our to-be-soon-published research paper to make  a few adjustments enabling the software to measure other marine species, thus expanding the impact of this work to many other life forms.  

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  1. Torres LG, Bird CN, Rodríguez-González F, Christiansen F, Bejder L, Lemos L, Urban R J, Swartz S, Willoughby A, Hewitt J, Bierlich K (2022) Range-Wide Comparison of Gray Whale Body Condition Reveals Contrasting Sub-Population Health Characteristics and Vulnerability to Environmental Change. Front Mar Sci 910.3389/fmars.2022.867258 
  1. Bierlich KC, Kane A, Hildebrand L, Bird CN, Fernandez Ajo A, Stewart JD, Hewitt J, Hildebrand I, Sumich J, Torres LG (2023) Downsized: gray whales using an alternative foraging ground have smaller morphology. Biol Letters 19:20230043 doi:10.1098/rsbl.2023.0043 
  1. Torres et al., (2020). MorphoMetriX: a photogrammetric measurement GUI for morphometric analysis of megafauna. Journal of Open Source Software, 5(45), 1825, 
  1. Bird et al., (2020). CollatriX: A GUI to collate MorphoMetriX outputs. Journal of Open Source Software, 5(51), 2328, 
  1. Patton, P. T., Cheeseman, T., Abe, K., Yamaguchi, T., Reade, W., Southerland, K., Howard, A., Oleson, E. M., Allen, J. B., Ashe, E., Athayde, A., Baird, R. W., Basran, C., Cabrera, E., Calambokidis, J., Cardoso, J., Carroll, E. L., Cesario, A., Cheney, B. J. … Bejder, L. (2023). A deep learning approach to photo–identification demonstrates high performance on two dozen cetacean species. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 00, 1–15. 
  1. Green, K.M., Virdee, M.K., Cubaynes, H.C., Aviles-Rivero, A.I., Fretwell, P.T., Gray, P.C., Johnston, D.W., Schönlieb, C.-B., Torres, L.G. and Jackson, J.A. (2023), Gray whale detection in satellite imagery using deep learning. Remote Sens Ecol Conserv. 
  1. Gray, PC, Bierlich, KC, Mantell, SA, Friedlaender, AS, Goldbogen, JA, Johnston, DW. Drones and convolutional neural networks facilitate automated and accurate cetacean species identification and photogrammetry. Methods Ecol Evol. 2019; 10: 1490–1500. 
  1. Fernandez Ajó A, Pirotta E, Bierlich KC, Hildebrand L, Bird CN, Hunt KE, Buck CL, New L, Dillon D, Torres LG (2023) Assessment of a non-invasive approach to pregnancy diagnosis in gray whales through drone-based photogrammetry and faecal hormone analysis. Royal Society Open Science 10:230452 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lunita”, an example of successful internal recruitment

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

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



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

Title: “Blown away”: measuring the blowholes of whales from drones

By Annie Doron, Undergraduate Intern, Oregon State University, GEMM Laboratory  

Hey up! My name is Annie Doron, and I am an undergraduate Environmental Science student from the University of Sheffield (UK) on my study year abroad. One of my main motivations for undertaking this year abroad was to gain experience working in a marine megafauna lab. Whales in particular have always captivated my interest, and I have been lucky enough to observe  humpback whales in Iceland and The Azores, and even encountered one whilst diving in Australia! For the past 10 months, I have had the unique opportunity to work in the GEMM Lab analyzing Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales off the Oregon Coast (Figure 1). I must admit, it has been simply wonderful! 

Figure 1. Aerial image of a PCFG gray whale off the Oregon Coast. 

How did I end up getting involved with the GEMM Lab? I was first accepted into Scarlett Arbuckle’s research-based class in fall term 2022, which is centered around partnering with a mentor for a research project. Having explored the various fields of research at HMSC, I contacted Leigh Torres with interest in getting involved in the GEMM Lab and to establish a research project suitable for a totally inexperienced, international, undergraduate student. Thankfully, Leigh forwarded my email to KC Bierlich who offered to be my mentor for the class, and the rest is history! I first began analyzing drone imagery to measure length and body condition of  PCFG gray whales, which provided an opportunity to get involved with the lab and gain experience using the photogrammetry software MorphoMetriX (Torres & Bierlich, 2020) (see KC’s blog), which is used to make morphometric measurements of whales. Viewing drone imagery of whales sparked my interest in how they use their blowholes (otherwise called ‘nares’) to replenish their oxygen stores; this led to us establishing a research project for the class where we tested if we could use MorphoMetriX to measure blowholes from drone imagery.

Extending this project into winter and spring terms (via research credits) has enabled me to continue working with Leigh and KC, as well as to collaborate with Clara Bird and Jim Sumich. Thanks to KC, who has patiently guided me through the ins and outs of working on a research project, I now feel more confident handling and manipulating large datasets, analyzing drone footage (i.e., differentiating between behavioral states, recording breathing sequences, detecting when a whale is exhaling vs inhaling, etc.), and speaking in public (although I still get pretty bad stage fright, but I think that is a typical conundrum undergrads face). Whatsmore, applying  R – a programming language used for statistical analysis and data visualization, which I have been trying to wrap my head around for years – to my own dataset has helped me greatly enhance my skills using it. 

So, what exciting things have we been working on this year? Given that we often cannot simply study a whale from inside a laboratory – due to size-related logistical implications – we must use proxies (i.e., a variable that is representative of an immeasurable variable). Since cetaceans must return to the surface to offload carbon dioxide and replenish their oxygen stores, measuring their breath frequency and magnitude is one way to study a whale’s oxygen consumption, in turn offering insight into its energy expenditure (Williams, 1999). Blowholes are one proxy we can use to study breath magnitude. Blowholes can be utilized in this way by measuring inhalation duration (the amount of time a whale is inhaling, which is based on a calculation developed by Jim Sumich) and blowhole area (the total area of a blowhole) to gauge variations in tidal volume (the amount of air flowing in and out of the lungs).

Measuring inhalation duration and blowhole area is important because a larger blowhole area (i.e., one that is more dilated) and a longer inhalation duration is indicative of higher oxygen intake, which can infer stress. For example, in this population, higher stress levels are associated with increased vessel traffic (Lemos et al., 2022), and skinnier whales have higher stress levels compared to chubby, healthy whales (Lemos, Olsen, et al., 2022). Hence, measuring the variation around blowholes could be utilized to predict challenges whales face from climate change and anthropogenic disturbance, including fishing (Scordino et al., 2017) and whale watching industry threats (Sullivan & Torres, 2018) (see Clara’s blog), as well as to inform effective management strategies. Furthermore, measuring the variables inhalation duration and blowhole area could help to identify whether whales are taking larger breaths associated with certain ‘gross behavior states’, otherwise known as ‘primary states’, which include: travel, forage, rest, social (Torres et al., 2018). This could enable us to assess the energetic costs of different foraging tactics (i.e., head standing, side-swimming, and bubble blasting (Torres et al., 2018), as well as consequences of disturbance events, on an individual and population health perspective. 

Inhalation duration has been explored in the past by using captive animals. For example, there have been studies on heart rate and breathing of bottlenose dolphins in human care facilities (Blawas et al., 2021; Fahlman et al., 2015). Recently, Nazario et al. (2022) was able to measure inhalation duration and blowhole area using suction-cup video tags. Her study led us to consider if it was possible to measure the parameters and variation around respiration by measuring blowhole area and inhalation duration of PCFGs from drone imagery. We employed MorphoMetriX to study the length, width, and area of a blowhole (Figure 2). Preliminary analyses verified that the areas of the left and right blowholes are very similar (Figure 3); this finding saved us a lot of time because from thereon we only measured either the left or right side. Interestingly, we see some variation in blowhole area within and across individuals (Figure 4). This variation changes within individuals based on primary state. For example, the whales “Glacier”, “Nimbus”, and “Rat” show very little variation whilst traveling but a large amount whilst foraging. Comparatively, “Dice” shows little variation whilst foraging and large variation whilst traveling. Whilst considering cross-individual comparisons, we can see that “Sole”, “Rat”, “Nimbus”, “Heart”, “Glacier”, “Dice”, and “Coal” each exhibit relatively large amounts of variation, yet “Mahalo”, “Luna”, “Harry”, “Hummingbird” and “Batman” exhibit very little. One potential reason for some individuals displaying higher levels of variation than others could be higher levels of exposure to disturbance events that we were unable to measure or evaluate in this study.

Figure 2. How we measured the length, width, and area of a blowhole using MorphoMetriX.

Figure 3. Data driven evidence that the left and the right blowhole areas are very similar. 

Figure 4. Variation in blowhole area amongst individual PCFG whales. The hollow circles represent the means, and the color represents the primary state the whale is exhibiting, foraging (purple) vs. traveling (blue), which will be further explored in Clara’s PhD.

Now, we are venturing into June and are at a stage where we (KC, Clara, Jim, Leigh, and I) are preparing to publish a manuscript! What a way to finish such a fantastic year! The transition from a 3-month-long pilot study to a much larger data analysis and eventual preparation for a manuscript has been a monumental learning experience. If anybody had told me a year ago that I would be involved in publishing a body of work – especially one that is so meaningful to me – I would simply not have believed them! We hope this established methodology for measuring blowholes will help other researchers carry out blowhole measurements using drone imagery across different populations and species. Further research is required to explore the differences in inhalation duration and blowhole area between different primary states, specifically across different foraging tactics.

It has been a great privilege working with the GEMM Lab these past months, and I was grateful to be included in their monthly lab meetings, during which members gave updates and we discussed recently published papers. Seeing such an enthusiastic, kind, and empathic group of people working together taught me what working in a supportive lab could look and feel like. In spite of relocating from Corvallis to Bend after my first term, I was happy to be able to continue working remotely for the lab for the remainder of my time (even though I was ~200 miles inland). I thoroughly enjoyed living in Corvallis, highlights of which were scuba diving adventures to the Puget Sound and coastal road trips with friends. The appeal to move arose from Bend’s reputation as an adventure hub – with unlimited opportunities for backcountry ski access – as well as its selection of wildlife ecology courses (with a focus on species specific to central Oregon). I moved into ‘Bunk & Brew’ (Bend’s only hostel, which is more like a big house of friends with occasional hostel guests) on January 1st after returning from spending Christmas with friends in my old home in Banff, Canada. I have since been enjoying this wonderful multifaceted lifestyle; working remotely in the GEMM Lab, attending in-person classes, working part-time at the hostel, as well as skiing volcanoes (Mount Hood, Middle and South Sister (Figure 5) or climbing at Smith Rock during my days off. Inevitably, I do miss the beautiful Oregon coast, and I will always be grateful for this ideal opportunity and hope this year marks the start of my marine megafauna career!

Figure 5. What I get up to when I’m not studying blowholes! (This was taken at 5am on the long approach to Middle and North Sister. North Sister is the peak featured in the backdrop).


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As waters warm, what are “anomalous conditions” in the face of climate change?

By Dr. Dawn Barlow, Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the Effects of Climate Change on the World’s Ocean (ECCWO) conference. This meeting brought together experts from around the world for one week in Bergen, Norway, to gather and share the latest information on how oceans are changing, what is at risk, responses that are underway, and strategies for increasing climate resilience, mitigation, and adaptation. I presented our recent findings from the EMERALD project, which examines gray whale and harbor porpoise distribution in the Northern California Current over the past three decades. Beyond sharing my postdoctoral research widely for the first time and receiving valuable feedback, the ECCWO conference was an incredibly fruitful learning experience. Marine mammals can be notoriously difficult to study, and often the latest methodological approaches or conceptual frameworks take some time to make their way into the marine mammal field. At ECCWO, I was part of discussions at the ground floor of how the scientific community can characterize the impacts of climate change on the ecosystems, species, and communities we study.

One particular theme became increasingly apparent to me throughout the conference: as the oceans warm, what are “anomalous conditions”? There was an interesting dichotomy between presentations focusing on “extreme events,” “no-analog conditions,” or “non-stationary responses,” compared with discussions about the overall trend of increasing temperatures due to climate change. Essentially, the question that kept arising was, what is our frame of reference? When measuring change, how do we define the baseline?

Marine heatwaves have emerged as an increasingly prevalent phenomenon in recent years (see previous GEMM Lab blogs about marine heatwaves here and here). The currently accepted and typically applied definition of a marine heatwave is when water temperatures exceed a seasonal threshold (greater than the 90th percentile) for a given length of time (five consecutive days or longer) (Hobday et al. 2016). These marine heatwaves can have substantial ecosystem-wide impacts including changes in water column structure, primary production, species composition, distribution, and health, and fisheries management such as closures and quota changes (Cavole et al. 2016, Oliver et al. 2018). Through some of our own previous research, we documented that blue whales in Aotearoa New Zealand shifted their distribution (Barlow et al. 2020) and reduced their reproductive effort (Barlow et al. 2023) in response to marine heatwaves. Concerningly, recent projections anticipate an increase in the frequency, intensity, and duration of marine heatwaves under global climate change (Frölicher et al. 2018, Oliver et al. 2018).

However, as the oceans continue to warm, what baseline do we use to define anomalous events like marine heatwaves? Members of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Ecosystem Task Force recently put forward a comment article in Nature, proposing revised definitions for marine heatwaves under climate change, so that coastal communities have the clear information they need to adapt (Amaya et al. 2023). The authors posit that while a “fixed baseline” approach, which compares current conditions to an established period in the past and has been commonly used to-date (Hobday et al. 2016), may be useful in scenarios where a species’ physiological limit is concerned (e.g., coral bleaching), this definition does not incorporate the combined effect of overall warming due to climate change. A “shifting baseline” approach to defining marine heatwaves, in contrast, uses a moving window definition for what is considered “normal” conditions. Therefore, this shifting baseline approach would account for long-term warming, while also calculating anomalous conditions relative to the current state of the system.

An overview of two different definitions for marine heatwaves, relative to either fixed or shifting baselines. Reproduced from Amaya et al. 2023.

Why bother with these seemingly nuanced definitions and differences in terminology, such as fixed versus shifting baselines for defining marine heatwave events? The impacts of these events can be extreme, and potentially bear substantial consequences to ecosystems, species, and coastal communities that rely on marine resources. With the fixed baseline definition, we may be headed toward perpetual heatwave conditions (i.e., it’s almost always hotter than it used to be), at which point disentangling the overall warming trends from these short-term extremes becomes nearly impossible. What the shifting baseline definition means in practice, however, is that in the future temperatures would need to be substantially higher than the historical average in order to qualify as a marine heatwave, which could obscure public perception from the concerning reality of warming oceans. Yet, the authors of the Nature comment article claim, “If everything is extremely warm all of the time, then the term ‘extreme’ loses its meaning. The public might become desensitized to the real threat of marine heatwaves, potentially leading to inaction or a lack of preparedness.” Therefore, clear messaging surrounding both long-term warming and short-term anomalous conditions are critically important for adaptation and resource allocation in the face of rapid environmental change.

While the findings presented and discussed at an international climate change conference could be considered quite disheartening, I left the ECCWO conference feeling re-invigorated with hope. Crown Prince Haakon of Norway gave the opening plenary and articulated that “We need wise and concerned scientists in our search for truth”. Later in the week, I was a co-convenor of a session that gathered early-career ocean professionals, where we discussed themes such as how we deal with uncertainty in our own climate change-related ocean research, and importantly, how do we communicate our findings effectively. Throughout the meeting, I had formal and informal discussions about methods and analytical techniques, and also about what connects each of us to the work that we do. Interacting with driven and dedicated researchers across a broad range of disciplines and career stages gave me some renewed hope for a future of ocean science and marine conservation that is constructive, collaborative, and impactful.

Enjoying the ~anomalously~ sunny April weather in Bergen, Norway, during the ECCWO conference.

Now, as I am diving back in to understanding the impacts of environmental conditions on harbor porpoise and gray whale habitat use patterns through the EMERALD project, I am keeping these themes and takeaways from the ECCWO conference in mind. The EMERALD project draws on a dataset that is about as old as I am, which gives me some tangible perspective on how things have things changed in the Northern California Current during my lifetime. We are grappling with what “anomalous” conditions are in this dynamic upwelling system on our doorstep, whether these anomalies are even always bad, and how conditions continue to change in terms of cyclical oscillations, long-term trends, and short-term events. Stay tuned for what we’ll find, as we continue to disentangle these intertwined patterns of change.

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