We need all the “Kelp” we can get!

Hello from Hatfield Marine Science Center! This is Justin bringing you the latest and greatest in Gray Whale news. But first, let me fill you folks in with some info about me.  I am an undergraduate student, transitioning into my senior year, with Oregon State University’s Fisheries and Wildlife Department. In addition to my major, I am also minoring in statistics; crazy right? I have hopes and dreams of working in Marine Ecology, and I believe working on this Gray Whale project is a fine start! Which means, this summer, I have had the fortunate opportunity to work alongside the lovely Florence van Tulder, the mastermind behind the project, as well as Cricket and Sarah, the other two charismatic interns.

Our team name is derived from the scientific name of the gray whale: E. robustus, and the colorful "buff" scarves you can see us wearing on most days.
Our team name is derived from the scientific name of the gray whale: E. robustus, and the colorful “buff” scarves you can see us wearing on most days. (Left to right: Sarah, Florence, Cricket, Justin)

As we were wrapping up our two week stint in Port Orford, We observed the Gray Whales exhibiting some interesting behavior; they seemed to move from kelp patch to kelp patch, almost as if they were searching for something. What could be hiding under the luscious stands of Nereocystis luetkeana, otherwise known as bull kelp? Well, with the presence of defecation ( whale droppings) left behind from diving whales near many of the floating kelp patches, one culprit came to mind- mysid shrimp. Mysid shrimp are believed to be a primary prey source of the Gray whales.

Calmly approaching the kelp, this whale takes his time to observe his surroundings
Calmly approaching the kelp, this whale takes his time to observe his surroundings

Naturally, my curiosity got the best me and I ended up spending hours on end conducting literature searches and looking for bathymetry maps, thanks to Florence. All joking aside, I asked Florence if we could use our fancy Theodolite to assess or roughly map the distribution of the kelp patches. We would create polygonal shapes of the kelp on a map and observe how the whales move with respect to the kelp. The idea being, to get a better of picture of the relationship between the whales and the kelp, if any relationship exists at all. It is still a work in progress, due to our survey sites getting all kinds of “fogged” up. When the kinks are worked out and we have some useful visual data, we will post an awesome photo.

A quick breather before heading down into the depths near the kelp. (it's even heart shaped!)
A quick breather before heading down into the depths near the kelp. (it’s even heart shaped!)
This large  white tailed beauty bounced between kelp patches  like a pinball!
This large white tailed beauty bounced between kelp patches like a pinball!

Port Orford didn’t just bring us sweet whales, it brought the heat! Temperatures were up to almost the nineties the last week in July! We beat the heat with plenty of hydration and sun block and the predicable wind patterns became a savior on those sweltering days giving us temporary relief.  The heat seemed to tease out other critters as well. We saw a variety of birds, from turkey vultures, Peregrine Falcons, Ospreys, Bald Eagles, and even Egrets!  In the water we saw baby Harbor seals, and some bonus River Otters.

This is our "tripod" of river otters!
This is our “tripod” of river otters!

In more recent news, August 8th marked our first full month of surveying between our two whale hotspots. However, the term “hotspot” doesn’t always seem to be fitting. This past week has been a tough one for the team and I up in Boiler Bay due to less than optimal weather conditions and our survey site has been exposed to an abnormal cycle of fog. Our friendly “neighborhood” grays have been a bit sparse, and yet, we have had Humpback Whales grace us with their presence and these whales have been spotted during several survey days this week! ( In the tradition of opportunistic data, we even tracked one of them.)

The track-line for whale 118 - a humpback who has been hanging out near Boiler Bay all week.
The track-line for whale 118 – a humpback who has been hanging out near Boiler Bay all week.

This summer has been very fun because not only do we get to watch whales every day, but when we are in Boiler Bay, we have the opportunity to meet fascinating people from all over the world! The positive support for the project coming from the community is quite a nice touch to our days in the field. If you are ever in the neighborhood, stop by and say hello, maybe share a whale’s tale or two!

 

Gray whales do not "fluke" very often, so its always a treat when we get a picture of one!
Gray whales do not “fluke” very often, so its always a treat when we get a picture of one!

Gray Whale Goofs

Hello there!  Florence here, signing in from Newport.  We had a fantastic trip south to Port Orford, and tracked another 53 whales bringing our season total up to 117 so far! This morning, we were back out at Boiler Bay and spent 5 hours staring at empty water – in keeping with the theme of this post, field work does not always go as planned.

Our two study areas couldn’t be more different.  At the Boiler Bay State Wayside, we are approximately 18 meters off the water.  In Port Orford, we are perched on the side of a 63 meter tall cliff. This extra height greatly increases our range and accuracy as well as changing the angle of our photography and the type of photo analysis we can do.  We’re quite excited to have a top down view of our whales, because the photos we are capturing will allow us to use certain photogrammetry techniques to measure the length and girth of the individuals.  With luck, when we compare the photos from the beginning of the season (now) to the end of our study (September) we may be able to see a change in the height of the post-cranial fat deposit, which would indicate a successful foraging season.  Gray whales do not eat from the beginning of their southward migration, through the breeding and calving season, until they reach productive foraging grounds at the end of their northward migration.  This means that all their sustenance for 6+ months is derived from their summer foraging success.  Did you know that they even generate their own water through an oxidation reaction which creates ‘metabolic water’ from their blubber stores?  So it will be rather fantastic if we manage to measure the change in whale body condition over the course of the summer – particularly if we are able to spot any mother-calf pairs who will have had an especially grueling journey north.

A foraging behavior where the whale turns on its side in shallow water. The triangle of the fluke resembles a shark fin
Sharking: A foraging behavior where the whale turns on its side in shallow water. The triangle of the fluke resembles a shark fin

So, while our photo database is advancing nicely, technical difficulties are to be expected when you’re in the field, and sometimes, troubleshooting takes longer than you would like it to.  This evening, let me introduce you to the elusive species known as ‘the Chinese land whale.’  It is a very rare breed which spontaneously generates itself from misaligned computer files.

When the theodolite beeps as we ‘mark’ a whale, a pair of horizontal and vertical angles are getting sent from the machine to a program called ‘Pythagoras’ on the laptop. Given our starting coordinates and a few other variables, the program auto-calculates for us the latitude and longitude of that whale.  While we hoped it would be a simple matter to upload these coordinates to Google Earth to visualize the tracklines, it turns out that Pythagoras stores the East/West hemisphere information in a separate column, so if we just plot the raw numbers, our whale tracks end up in the middle of a field in rural China! Hence, the rare ‘Chinese land whale’.  Now that we know the trick, it is not so difficult to fix, but we were quite surprised the first time it happened!

If you dont have your hemisphere correctly labeled, you end up in China instead of Oregon.
If you don’t have your hemisphere correctly labeled, you end up in China instead of Oregon.

Of course, that is not the only thing that has gone wrong with visualizing the tracklines.  When we first got to Graveyard Point survey site, it turns out that we had set our azimuth (our reference angle) the wrong direction from true north, so all our whales seemed to be foraging near the fish and chips restaurant in the middle of town.

If the azimuth is incorrectly referenced, you might end up on land instead of in the water.
If the azimuth is incorrectly referenced, you might end up on land instead of in the water.

After discovering that in order to rotate something 180degrees, you simply need to alter the azimuth angle by 90degrees, (we’re still not sure why this is working), the whales left the fish and chips to us and returned to the harbor.  Anyways, now that we’ve figured out these glitches, we can focus on identifying individual whales, and figuring out which track-lines might be repeat visitors.

Once all the kinks got worked out - the real trackline!  Dont worry, whale 60 did not go through the jetty, thats an artifact of the program wanting to draw straight lines from point a to b.  more likely we simply missed a surface as it transited around the point of the jetty.
Once all the kinks got worked out – the real trackline! Dont worry, whale 60 did not go through the jetty, thats an artifact of the program wanting to draw straight lines from point a to b. more likely we simply missed a surface as it transited around the point of the jetty.

In other outreach news, the OSU media department came out to the field and interviewed us a few weeks ago (on a day that the theodolite and computer were refusing to talk to each other due to a faulty connector cable – which is always delightful when one is trying to showcase research in progress). The resulting article has been posted should you wish to take a look:

http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/archives/2015/aug/researchers-studying-oregon%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%9Cresident-population%E2%80%9D-gray-whales

More shallow sharking behavior
More shallow sharking behavior
Well known for having the shortest, toughest baleen of any of the great whales, here you can see the plates in its mouth!
Well known for having the shortest, toughest baleen of any of the great whales, here you can see the plates in its mouth!

Until next time,

Team Ro”buff”stus

Familiar Flukes and Faces

Greetings fellow marine enthusiasts! My name is Cricket, and I am one of the interns working on Florence’s Gray Whale project! I’m preparing to graduate from Oregon State University in a couple of months with a Bachelors of Science in Biology with the marine option. Before I graduate, I wanted to get some extra experience in the field this summer, which is how I ended up here with Florence, Justin, and Sarah, having surprisingly crazy whale adventures along the Oregon coast!

Panorama of Graveyard Point
Panorama of Graveyard Point

Today marks the end of our first week in Port Orford. We weren’t sure what we were going to get when we switched sites, though of course we had a few fears: No whales, low visibility, bad weather, etc. Depoe Bay had been good to us so far, and we were slightly worried about the transition. In actuality, Port Orford has been amazing!

Our sampling set-up on Graveyard point - above the port of Port Orford
Our sampling set-up on Graveyard point – above the port of Port Orford

Day one was foggy, and we only visited the site briefly to figure out a good location for the theodolite. One of our sites is located on a terrifyingly high cliff, but the view is stellar. We were only there for about an hour and we saw two whales, one of which came up into the cove just beneath us. In fact, one of our concerns with this site is that the whales actually get too close to view through the theodolite. What an unexpected problem to have!

Titchener Cove, Port Orford. Credit: Cricket Carine
Whale 63 Titchener Cove, Port Orford. Credit: Cricket Carine

From our vantage point, we can get some incredible photos of these whales. Photo identification is a breeze if the whale decides to come into the cove closest to us. We can watch them under the water, as opposed to in Depoe Bay where we could only really observe them when they surface.

Whale 59 Surfaces in Titchener Cove, Port Orford credit: Cricket Carine
Whale 59 Surfaces in Titchener Cove, Port Orford credit: Cricket Carine

We all get particularly excited when we see the same whale more than once. In Depoe Bay, we had at least four different whales appear on multiple days. We can verify this using the photos we manage to get of the whales, and comparing them between days.

For example, in Port Orford, we spotted a whale on the 20th with a particularly large white spot on the fluke. This spot made the whale easily identifiable, so we were able to get a good focal follow (because we could track this whale amongst other whales with confidence that we were tracking the same one the entire time), which in turn allowed us to create a track line of this whale’s dive patterns. This whale happened to be whale sixty (the 60th whale we’ve seen since the start of our data collection).

While this is a trackline of whale 82, photo ID confirms that 82,60, and 78 are all the same whale!
While this is a track-line of whale 82, photo ID confirms that 82, 60, and 78 are all the same whale! (The beginning of the track is labeled with the whale ID)

Then, days later, we spotted another whale. This was whale 78, and after a few surfaces, we realized this whale had the same white spot! We hesitantly referred to this whale as “sixty” but couldn’t be sure until we compared photos from the days before. And sure enough, it was!

Seen on July 24
Whale 82, Seen on July 24
Seen on July 20.
Whale 60, Seen on July 20.

I am particularly enthusiastic about our whale resights, and actively enjoy going through the photos and comparing each one to previous whales to try and identify individuals. It’s tedious, but rewarding when we can begin to learn individuals and identify them in the field. As a sort of rough guide to help us when scrounging through photo ID, I’ve put some of our good comparative photos into a google doc to use as reference. Here’s an example of some of the repeat whales we’ve seen:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1KSB67m1julnk2KmH70b9u91OqDqCT4zicuqPHI7ojms/edit

Tomorrow will be day two at our second Port Orford site. Today was day one, and we managed to spot two whales, which is definitely promising. We hope we have as much luck finding and tracking whales there as we did on our cliffside!

Panorama from Humbug State Park survey site
Panorama from Humbug State Park survey site
Surveying our new Humbug site this morning
Surveying our new Humbug site this morning

 

Have a nice Gray!
Cricket

A Week-Full of Whales

Hello and greetings from the sort of sunny Oregon Coast! Sarah reporting in to offer an update on Florence’s Gray Whale study now that we’re about ten days into sampling. If you’re new to our blog you can read up on the preliminary field season right here.

This little gray was incredibly frustrating to follow due to its irregular surfacing and tiny spouts that were hard to see. We affectionately named it Ninja.
This little savior came through on the day all our technology failed and cheered us up with his rainbow spouts.  Thankfully, he’s a repeat visitor and though we may have missed him on the 14th, we were able to get a good focal follow on him today.

Before I get to the project though, let me introduce myself a bit further. As I said, my name’s Sarah – one of the three interns on our whale surveying team. I got my Bachelor of Science in Oceanography at the University of Washington a few years back and have since worked as a lab tech at UW’s Friday Harbor Labs and as an Americorps volunteer serving as a teacher’s aide. Eventually I plan to become a science teacher, but thought a little more field work this summer would be a nice break after two years of service.

Cricket and Justin pondering the challenges of whale watching.
Cricket and Justin pondering the challenges of whale watching.

Thus, I moved to Newport last week just in time to catch the first day of our main surveying season. And what a season it’s been. We’ve tracked 48 whales since I’ve arrived, averaging about six a day. Of course, those aren’t all 48 different whales. If we lose sight of a whale for longer than 20 minutes, we assume it has left our study area and pronounce it lost, and unless we can identify the next sighting as the same whale based on markings (which we’re getting pretty good at), we give it a new number to keep track. We also give whales we’ve already seen new numbers when we see them on a different day.

Table for two: these whales caused some confusion among the team as they began to forage together before we could tell the difference between the two.
Table for two: these whales caused some confusion among the team as they began to forage together before we could tell the difference between the two.

You might be wondering how we can tell gray whales apart when they’re mostly, well, gray and underwater. And the short answer is we have a pretty difficult time doing so at first sight. Gray whales aren’t like orcas, whose saddle patch just behind the dorsal fin serves as a fingerprint, nor are they humpbacks, whose patterned flukes are cataloged for easy matching. Gray whales have more of a dorsal hump than a fin, followed by five or six ridges we call knuckles. They aren’t famous for showing their flukes above water either, so unless you get several views of a particular whale’s sides, dorsal, and, if you’re lucky, fluke, it’s hard to have a positive ID for the whale. The good news is, that part of our sampling equipment is a camera with a massive zoom lens, so we can take photos of most of the whales we track with the theodolite (see the previous post to learn about theodolites). From those photos (at least 400 a day) we can look at scars from barnacles and killer whales, pigmentation spots that are part of the whales’ coloring, and parasites like barnacles and amphipods to recognize whales we’ve seen before. Eventually we’ll send all the photos we take to the Cascadia Research Group in Olympia, Washington, that keeps a database of all identified gray whales.

Sitting on a clifftop photographing whales might sound more like a vacation than science, so here's some (very peliminary) data of one whale. This is Mitosis on three different days. The first day is red, second is yellow, and the third is green.
Sitting on a clifftop photographing whales might sound more like a vacation than science, so here’s some (very peliminary) data of one whale. This is Mitosis on three different days. The first day is red, second is yellow, and the third is green.

Anyways, thanks for keeping with me to the bottom of the page. It’s been a fun first week-or-so and I’m excited to be heading to our second study site in Port Orford tomorrow after surveying. We’ll be there for 15 days, so next time you hear from us, we’ll be a bit further down the coast.

Yes, we named a whale after cell replication, because look at those overlapping spots!
Yes, we named a whale after cell replication, because look at those overlapping spots!

Best Fishes!

 

Sarah

Depoe Bay STEAM fair at Kids Zone

Hello All!

As promised, this weekend, the GEMM lab attended the first ever S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics)  Fair  organized by the friendly folks at the Depoe Bay Kids Zone.  We had a table and a half available for us to showcase some bio-artifacts  such as: harbor seal, northern fur seal, and river otter pelts, skulls from a male California sea lion, a Dahl’s porpoise, and a beaked whale, and a humerus bone from a sea lion as well as several species of whale baleen and teeth – Did you know that you can count growth rings on whale teeth just like tree rings to get an idea of how old they are?

IMG_2694
Our booth, and fearless leader Dr. Torres explaining blubber gloves to guests.

We also had a small hands-on experiment showcasing how whales (and seals) stay warm in the frigid ocean waters. Want to try at home? Here are some directions! You’ll need some (at least 1/4 gallon) zip-lock bags, a container of crisco, a bucket of ice water, a towel and some curiosity.  Fill a ziplock bag about ~1/3 way with crisco. Now turn another bag inside out, squish it into the other bag and zip the two bags together so that you have a continuous layer of crisco sealed between the two bags – no more mess for your hands! Make sure when you place your hand inside this crisco-d bag that the layer of crisco is evenly distributed on all sides -voila! blubber glove!  The crisco is intended to simulate the effect that a nice thick layer of blubber has on cetacean (whale) and pinniped (seals & sea lions) heat retention in water.  Stick one hand in the “blubber glove”, and place it in the icy water.  Simultaneously, place your un-protected hand in the ice water.

IMG_2695
into the icy cold!

How long can you keep your hands in the water?  Can you keep one hand in longer than the other? Which one? Why? Can you think of any technology that humans use to mimic this effect? (Hint: think clothing for surfers and divers)

One of our lab members is studying harbor porpoises by using acoustics (sound), so she brought her laptop and some headphones so that interested folks could listen to all the weird sounds in the ocean and all the crazy cool calls that whales and porpoises and seals make to communicate with each other.

IMG_20150221_104333
Amanda helps a pair of students identify sounds in the ocean.

 

One of the difficult things about studying marine mammals is that we can only truly see them when they come to the water’s surface to breathe, so we invited people to learn how to spot whale blows, fins, and flukes (pictures that we had scattered around the hall) and start to get creative about how one can spot these elusive animals.

IMG_20150221_103340
Florence and Solene explaining comparative anatomy.

 

All together, it was a lovely, well organized event – among others, we were joined by the OSU Fish and Wildlife club, the Coast Guard, local artists, and many of the students had their own booths showcasing home wind-energy, chemistry and physics experiments that all could try.  We had a lot of fun and will most likely be back in future years! Until next time, Fair winds everyone!