Hello from Palmer Station, Antarctica! I’ve spent the last five months here in a kind of parallel universe to that of my normal life in Oregon. It’s spring here at the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP), and since May I’ve been part of a team studying Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) – a big change from the Oregon species I typically study, and one that has already taught me so much.
I am here as part of a project titled “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The effect of autumn diet on winter physiology and condition of juvenile Antarctic krill”. Through at-sea fieldwork and experiments in the lab, we have spent this field season investigating how climate-driven changes in diet impact juvenile and adult krill health during the long polar night. Winter is a crucial time for krill survival and recruitment, and an understudied season in this remote corner of the world.
Within this field season, we have been part of two great research cruises along the WAP, and spent the rest of the time at Palmer Station, running long-term experiments to learn how diet influences krill winter growth and development. The time has passed incredibly fast, and it’s hard to believe that we’ll be heading home in just a couple weeks.
There have been so many wonderful parts to our time here. While at sea, I was constantly aware that each new bay and fjord we sampled was one of the most beautiful places I would ever have the privilege to visit. I was also surprised and thrilled by the number of whales we saw – I recorded over one hundred sightings, including humpbacks, minke, and killer whales. As consumed as I was by looking for whales during the few hours of daylight, it was also rewarding to broaden my marine mammal focus and learn about another krill predator, the crabeater seal, from a great team researching their ecology and physiology.
In between our other work, I have been processing active acoustic (echosounder) data collected during a winter 2022 cruise that visited many of the same regions of the WAP. Antarctic krill have been much more thoroughly studied than the main krill species that occur off the coast of Oregon, Euphausia pacifica and Thysanoessa spinifera, and it has been amazing to draw upon this large body of literature.
Working with a new flavor of echosounder data has presented me with puzzles that are teaching me to navigate different modes of data collection and their analytical implications, such as for the cruise track data above. I’ll never take data collected along a standardized grid for granted again!
I’ve also learned new techniques that I am excited to apply to my research in the Northern California Current (NCC) region. For example, there are two primary different ways of detecting krill swarms in echosounder data: by comparing the results of two different acoustic frequencies, and by training a computer algorithm to recognize swarms based on their dimensions and other characteristics. After trying a few different approaches with the Antarctic data this season, I developed a way to combine these techniques. In the resulting dataset, two different methods have confirmed that a given area represents krill, which gives me a lot of confidence in it. I’m looking forward to applying this technique to my NCC data, and using it to assess some of my next research questions.
Throughout it all, the highlight of this season has been being part of an amazing field team. I’m here with Kim Bernard (as a co-advised student, I refer to Kim as my “krill advisor” and Leigh as my “whale advisor”), and undergraduate Abby Tomita, who just started her senior year at OSU remotely from Palmer. From nights full of net tows to busy days in the lab, we’ve become a well-oiled machine, and laughed a lot along the way. Working with the two of them makes me sure that we’ll be able to best any difficulties that come up.
Now, our next challenge is wrapping up our last labwork, packing up equipment and samples, and getting ready to say goodbye. Leaving this wild, remote place is always heartbreaking – you never really know if you’ll be back. But there’s a lot to look forward to as we journey north, too: I can’t wait to hug my family and friends, eat a salad, and drive out to Newport to see the GEMM Lab. I’m excited to head back to the world with everything I’ve learned here, and to keep working.
By Abby Tomita, undergraduate student, OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, research intern in the GEMM and Krill Seeker Labs
This February, during the winter term of my third year at Oregon State, I was presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. After spending the last year studying the zooplankton krill as part of Project OPAL, I was invited to spend the austral winter season doing research on Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) under supervision of experts Dr. Kim Bernard and PhD student Rachel Kaplan. Additionally, we were lucky enough to participate in two research cruises along the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP).
Unsurprisingly, it is no easy feat getting to the bottom of the world. After an incredibly thorough physical qualification process and two days of air travel from Portland, Oregon, we reached the lovely city of Punta Arenas, Chile. It was such a relief to arrive – but we were only halfway there. The next portion of our trip was the one that I was most anxious about, especially as someone who is prone to seasickness: crossing the Drake Passage. This stretch of the ocean, from the southernmost tip of South America to the Antarctic Peninsula, is notoriously treacherous as water in this area circulates the globe completely unobstructed by land masses. I soon learned the value of scopolamine patches and nausea bracelets, which helped me immensely through this five day journey. From Punta Arenas, we boarded the RV Laurence M. Gould, along with a seal research team from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. They were headed down south to look for crabeater seals to better understand not only their physiology, but also their role in the trophic ecology of the WAP.
The Passage was rough, but not as terrible as I expected. The hype around it made me think I’d be faced with something as menacing as the giant wave from The Perfect Storm, and while the rocking and rolling of the ship was far from pleasant, my nausea aids, as well as the amazing people and vast selection of movies on board made it manageable. Despite being extremely nervous for the Passage, I was also very excited to celebrate my twenty-first birthday during it. It was a memorable, although untraditional birthday experience that was made all the more special by my friends on the ship who took the time to celebrate the day as best as we could.
The morning that we reached the Bransfield Strait was something truly unforgettable. Up until that point, I knew our destination was Antarctica, but I couldn’t really wrap my head around it because it was such a distant place and concept to me. I remember walking out onto the starboard side of the second level deck and seeing huge mountains out in the distance. For some reason, I had never considered how massively tall the mountains of the peninsula are, and just the fact that there were mountains down here at all. I joined the others at the bow, where we stood for hours in awe at the first land we had seen in days. Though many of the other scientists and crew members on board had been to this icy continent before, this was my first time, and I was in a state of disbelief. We’d finally made it and it sunk into me that I was in Antarctica, and that I would be here for the next five and half months.
After a day of hiding from strong winds in the Neumayer Channel, we were able to dock at Palmer Station (the smallest of the three US research bases in Antarctica) for our first port call, and seeing Palmer for the first time was just as exciting as seeing the continent. It looked so small at first, especially with the glacier and mountains looming behind it. Once the ship was tied up, orientation began. The station manager came onto the ship to give us an overview of what we could expect on station and the general Palmer etiquette. Next, we were given a tour of the facilities, from the lab spaces and aquarium room, up through the galley/dining area, past the hot tub and sauna, and into the lounge and bar in the GWR (Garage, Warehouse, and Recreation) building. I was surprised at how cozy the station was on the inside. In pictures, the buildings’ exteriors looked similar to the outside of a metal shipping container, but the inside was welcoming and warm. Those of us staying on station then sat through several hours of a more detailed orientation that somehow wore us out despite sitting in comfy recliner sofas the whole time. After sleeping on the rocking ship for about a week, I had some of the best sleep of my life that first night at Palmer Station.
Our first research cruise started a few days after arriving at Palmer, and just like that, we were off to explore the Southern Ocean. This leg of the trip took us south, down to Marguerite Bay and the region of Alexander Island, for ten days. The views were just spectacular everywhere we went, and it was so humbling to step out onto the deck to see gigantic mountains all around the ship. By day, us “krillers”, as our team is known, camped out on the bridge of the ship with the seal team, where we looked for sea ice floes with lounging crabeater seals. By night we conducted CTD casts, filtered water for chlorophyll, and deployed nets to catch our favorite tiny crustacean critters, along with any other zooplankton in our track. Unfortunately for both our group and the seal team, many areas that we visited were not frequented by krill or crabeater seals, though the seal team did successfully study and tag one seal over the course of the first cruise.
One of the highlights of this leg of the cruise was our Crossing Ceremony, as we’d crossed the Antarctic Circle (approximately 66.5ºS) shortly after leaving Palmer station. Myself and six others were crossing for the first time, so to earn our “Red Noses”, we had to pay tribute to King Neptune and his court. It would not be a Crossing Ceremony without at least some light pranking, so when they brought us out individually to the main deck, I knew something was coming our way.
The ten days flew by, and when we arrived back on station, we had less than a week to prepare for our next excursion on the LMG, which would be fifteen days. The time back at Palmer went quickly as we organized our lab space and entered data from the first cruise. The ship came back once more and we were off, this time heading north along the Peninsula to the Gerlache Strait. The sights were as breathtaking as ever, and I was excited to be back with my friends from the ship.
Our first day of transit was through the Lemaire Channel, one of the most stunning areas that we passed through (check out the photo gallery at the end of this post!). We spent the majority of the day on the bow and the deck of the bridge taking in the beautiful towering mountains on either side of the narrow channel and watching for penguins and humpbacks, of which there were many. This voyage segued into an extremely productive night of science for us where we caught thousands of krill that we were able to keep live in tanks on the ship, in preparation for later use for our experiments on station. Our first productive night of science was auspicious for the rest of the cruise as we caught and processed thousands more krill, and the seal team had a much more fruitful experience finding crabeater seals (they found/worked on 8 seals and named them all after fruits!). The highlight of this second cruise for me was getting to accompany the seal team onto an ice floe in the Lemaire Channel to assist them in their work on the crabeater, a female juvenile who they named Mango!
Returning to Palmer for the final time on the LMG was just as exciting as arriving the first time, especially with the knowledge that we’d have one last night of celebration with our friends from the ship at the Cross Town Dinner – a night to celebrate the solstice with both the Palmer crew and LMG crew. Although the dinner and subsequent party were a blast, I felt a lingering sadness knowing that the majority of the people I spent almost two months with would be heading north, back to their respective homes while Kim, Rachel, and I stayed at Palmer for the next few months. The next day, after saying our goodbyes, the three of us stood on the Palmer pier with tears streaming down our faces, waving frantically at the ship to our friends on the deck. In spite of my sadness, I knew that the coming months would be a thrilling series of new experiences in one of the most magical and special places that I have ever had the pleasure of being in.
Krill, a shrimplike crustacean found across our oceans, embodies the term “small but mighty”. Though individuals tend to be small, sometimes weighing in at less than a gram, the numerous species of krill have a global distribution and are estimated to collectively outweigh the entire human population. Much of my graduate research focuses on relationships between foraging whales and krill (Euphausia pacifica and Thysanoessa spinifera) in the Northern California Current (NCC) region. This work hinges on themes that are universal across environments: just as krill are ubiquitous across the global ocean, questions of prey quality, distribution, and ecological relationships with predators are universal.
Next week, I’m headed south to consider these questions in a very different foraging environment: the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP). One benefit of being a co-advised student is the incredible opportunity to be exposed to diverse projects and types of research. My graduate co-advisor, Kim Bernard, has studied krill in the WAP region for over a decade, and she is currently leading research into the implications of the shifting polar food web for Antarctic krill (Euphasia superba). Through a series of laboratory experiments and fieldwork, the project, titled “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The effect of autumn diet on winter physiology and condition of juvenile Antarctic krill”, investigates the impact of climate-driven changes in diet on the health of juvenile krill in autumn and winter, a key time for their survival and recruitment. Winter is a poorly studied season in Antarctica, and this project has already shed light on the physiology, respiration, and growth potential of juvenile krill (Bernard et al., 2022).
Just as in the NCC region, krill are an essential link in Southern Ocean food webs, where they transfer energy from their microscopic prey to the higher trophic levels that eat them, including several species of fish, seals, penguins, and whales (Bernard & Steinberg, 2013; Cavan et al., 2019; Ducklow et al., 2013). These predators depend upon this high-quality prey to fuel their seasonal migrations and to build the energy reserves they need to survive the frigid Antarctic winter (Cade et al., 2022; Schaafsma et al., 2018). But, the quality of krill depends upon the food that it can consume itself, and climate change may alter their diet.
There’s a lot to love about krill, but my fascination with them is directly tied to their value as a food source for predators. I want to know how the caloric content of individuals and the aggregations they form changes spatially along the WAP, and how this might shift under climate-forced food web changes. This work will clarify the climate-driven variability in the quality of krill as prey, and the implications this might have for top predators in the region.
In order to investigate these questions, I’ll be spending the next six months based out of Palmer Station, the smallest of the United States’ research bases in Antarctica, along with Kim and our undergraduate intern Abby. During this upcoming field season, we’ll spend about a month at sea collecting krill samples and active acoustic data using an echosounder, and the rest of the time conducting experiments and sampling in the nearshore. Over the last year, Abby has worked with me to quantify krill caloric content in the NCC, as well as processing samples collected in Antarctica last year. I’m so impressed by everything she’s accomplished, and excited to see her take in this environment, learn a fresh set of experimental and field sampling approaches, and be inspired to ask new questions.
For me, heading south will be a bit like coming home. After graduating from college, I spent about nine months living at Palmer Station and working on the microbial ecology component of the long-term ecological research station there. The experience of being immersed in the WAP environment was foundational to my curiosity about ocean ecology and the impacts of climate change. It is also where I met Kim! All in all, this environment fueled my desire to study krill with Kim and spatial ecology with Leigh, and set me on the course I’m on today.
It also feels meaningful to return here again at this point in my educational journey. With new knowledge and questions I have formed while working in the NCC, I am now excited to apply this knowledge and consider similar questions in the WAP. Abby and I will write blogs through the season and post them here, so stay tuned for news from down south!
Bernard, K. S., & Steinberg, D. K. (2013). Krill biomass and aggregation structure in relation to tidal cycle in a penguin foraging region off the Western Antarctic Peninsula. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 70(4), 834–849. https://doi.org/10.1093/icesjms/fst088
Bernard, K. S., Steinke, K. B., & Fontana, J. M. (2022). Winter condition, physiology, and growth potential of juvenile Antarctic krill. Frontiers in Marine Science, 9, 990853. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2022.990853
Cade, D. E., Kahane-Rapport, S. R., Wallis, B., Goldbogen, J. A., & Friedlaender, A. S. (2022). Evidence for Size-Selective Predation by Antarctic Humpback Whales. Frontiers in Marine Science, 9, 747788. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2022.747788
Cavan, E. L., Belcher, A., Atkinson, A., Hill, S. L., Kawaguchi, S., McCormack, S., Meyer, B., Nicol, S., Ratnarajah, L., Schmidt, K., Steinberg, D. K., Tarling, G. A., & Boyd, P. W. (2019). The importance of Antarctic krill in biogeochemical cycles. Nat Commun, 10(1), 4742. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-12668-7
Ducklow, H., Fraser, W., Meredith, M., Stammerjohn, S., Doney, S., Martinson, D., Sailley, S., Schofield, O., Steinberg, D., Venables, H., & Amsler, C. (2013). West Antarctic Peninsula: An Ice-Dependent Coastal Marine Ecosystem in Transition. Oceanography, 26(3), 190–203. https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2013.62
Schaafsma, F. L., Cherel, Y., Flores, H., van Franeker, J. A., Lea, M.-A., Raymond, B., & van de Putte, A. P. (2018). Review: The energetic value of zooplankton and nekton species of the Southern Ocean. Marine Biology, 165(8), 129. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00227-018-3386-z
Dr. KC Bierlich, Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna (GEMM) Lab
Baleen whales are known for their gigantism and encompass a wide range in body sizes extending from blue whales that are the largest animals to live on earth (max length ~30 m) to minke whales (max length ~10 m) that are the smallest of baleen whales (Fig. 1). While all baleen whales are filter feeders, a group called the rorquals use a feeding strategy known as lunge feeding (or intermittent engulfment filtration), which involves engulfing large volumes of prey-laden water at high speeds and then filtering the water out of their mouth using their baleen as a “sieve”. There is positive allometry associated with this feeding technique and body size, meaning that as whales are larger, this feeding strategy becomes more efficient due to increased engulfment of water volume per each lunge feeding event. In other words, a bigger body size equates to a much larger mouthful of food. For example, a minke whale (body length ~7-10 m) will engulf water volume equivalent to ~42% of its body mass, while a blue whale (~21-24 m) engulfs ~135%. Thus, filter feeding enables gigantism through efficient exploitation of large, dense patches of prey. An interesting question then arises: what is the minimum body size at which filter feeding is still efficient? Or in other words, why are the smallest of the baleen whales, minke whales, not smaller? For this blog, I will highlight a study published today in Nature Ecology and Evolution titled “Minke whale feeding rate limitations suggest constraints on the minimum body size for engulfment filtration feeding” led by friend and collaborator of the GEMM Lab Dr. Dave Cade and included myself and other collaborators as co-authors from Stanford University, UC Santa Cruz, Cascadia Research Collective, Duke University, and University of Queensland.
The largest animals of today are marine filter feeders, such as whale sharks, manta rays, and baleen whales, which all share parallel evolutionary histories in which their large body sizes and filter-feeding morphologies are derived from smaller-bodied ancestors that targeted single prey items. Changes in ocean productivity increased the concentrations of smaller prey in the oceans around 5 million years ago, enabling filter feeding as an efficient feeding strategy through capture of abundant aggregations of prey by filtering large volumes of water. It is interesting to note, that within these filter feeding lineages of animals, there are groups of animals that are single-prey foragers with smaller body sizes. For example, the whale shark is the only filter feeder amongst the carpet sharks and the manta ray is much larger than other rays that feed on single prey items. Amongst cetaceans, the smallest single-prey foragers, dolphins (~2-3 m) and porpoises (~1.4-1.9 m), are much smaller than the smallest of the filter feeding cetaceans, minke whales (~7-10 m). These common differences in body sizes and feeding strategies within lineages suggest that there may be minimum body size requirements for this filter feeding strategy to be efficient.
To investigate the limits on minimum body size for filter feeding, our study explored the foraging behavior of Antarctic minke whales, the smallest of the rorqual baleen whales, along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Our team tagged a total of 23 individuals using non-invasive suction cup tags, like the ones we use for our tagging component in the GEMM Lab’s GRANITE project (see this blog for more details). One of my roles on the project was to obtain aerial imagery of the minke whales using drones to obtain body length measurements (sound familiar?) (Figs. 2-4). Flying drones in Antarctica over minke whales was an amazing experience. The minke whales were often found deep within the bays amongst ice floes and brash ice where they can be very tricky to spot, as they’ll often surface and then quickly disappear, hence their nickname “sneaky minkes”. They also appear “playful” and “athletic” as they are incredibly quick and maneuverable, doing barrel rolls and quick bank turns while they swim. Check out my past blog to read more on accounts of flying over these amazing whales.
In total, our team collected 437 hours of tag data consisting of day- and night-time foraging behaviors. While the proportion of time spent foraging and the number of lunges per dive (~3-4) was similar between day- and night-time foraging, daytime foraging was much deeper (~72 m) compared to nighttime foraging (~28 m) due to vertical migration of Antarctic krill, their main food source. Overall, nighttime foraging was much more intense than daytime foraging, with an average of 165 lunges per hour during the night compared to 53 lunges per hour during the day. These shallower nighttime dives enabled quicker surface sequences for replenishing oxygen reserves to then return to foraging, whereas the deeper dives during the day required longer surface recovery times before beginning another foraging dive. Thus, nighttime dives are a more efficient and critical component of minke whale foraging.
When it comes to body size, there was no relationship between dive depth and dive duration with body length, except for daytime deep dives, where longer minke whales dove for longer periods than smaller whales. These longer dive times also require longer surface times to replenish oxygen reserves. Longer minke whales can gulp larger amounts of food and thus need longer filtration times to process water from each engulfment. For example, a 9 m minke whale will take 50% longer to filter water through its baleen compared to a 5 m minke whale. In turn, smaller minke whales would need to feed more frequently than larger minke whales in order to maintain efficient foraging. This decreasing efficiency with smaller body size shines light on a broader trend for filter feeders that we refer to in our study as the minimum-size constraint (MSC) hypothesis: “while the maximum size of a filter-feeding body plan will be restricted by physical properties, the minimum size is restricted by the energetic efficiency of filter feeding and the time required to extract sufficient particles from the water” (Cade et al. 2023). When we examined the scaling of maximum feeding rates of minke whales, we found evidence of a minimum size constraint on efficiency at lengths around 5 m. Interestingly, the weaning length of minke whales is reported to be 4.5 – 5.5 m. Before weaning, newborn/yearling minke whales that are smaller than 4.5 – 5.5 m have a different foraging strategy where they are dependent on maternal milk. Thus, it is likely that the body size at weaning is influenced by the minimum size at which this specialized foraging technique of lunge feeding becomes efficient.
This study helps inform the evolutionary pathway for filter feeding whales and suggests that efficient filter feeding and gigantism likely co-evolved within the last 5 million years when ocean conditions changed to support larger prey patches suitable for lunge feeding. It is interesting to think about the MSC hypothesis for other baleen whale species that employ alternative filter feeding techniques, such as gray whales that generally use a form of filter feeding called suction feeding. Gray whales are estimated to have a birth length of ~4.6 m (Agbayani et al., 2020), and the body length of newly weaned calves that we have observed along the Oregon Coast from drone imagery seem to be ~8 – 9 m. Perhaps this is the minimum size of when suction feeding becomes efficient for a gray whale? This is something the GEMM Lab hopes to further explore as we continue to collect foraging data from suction cup tags and behavior and body size measurements from drone imagery.
Agbayani, S., Fortune, S. M., & Trites, A. W. (2020). Growth and development of North Pacific gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus). Journal of Mammalogy, 101(3), 742-754.
Cade, D.E., Kahane-Rapport, S.R., Gough, W.T., Bierlich, K.C., Linksy, J.M.J., Johnston, D.W., Goldbogen, J.A., Friedlaender, A.S. (2023). Ultra-high feeding rates of Antarctic minke whales imply a lower limit for body size in engulfment filtration feeders. Nature Ecology and Evolution. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-023-01993-2
Paolo S. Segre, William T. Gough, Edward A. Roualdes, David E. Cade, Max F. Czapanskiy, James Fahlbusch, Shirel R. Kahane-Rapport, William K. Oestreich, Lars Bejder, K. C. Bierlich, Julia A. Burrows, John Calambokidis, Ellen M. Chenoweth, Jacopo di Clemente, John W. Durban, Holly Fearnbach, Frank E. Fish, Ari S. Friedlaender, Peter Hegelund, David W. Johnston, Douglas P. Nowacek, Machiel G. Oudejans, Gwenith S. Penry, Jean Potvin, Malene Simon, Andrew Stanworth, Janice M. Straley, Andrew Szabo, Simone K. A. Videsen, Fleur Visser, Caroline R. Weir, David N. Wiley, Jeremy A. Goldbogen; Scaling of maneuvering performance in baleen whales: larger whales outperform expectations. J Exp Biol 1 March 2022; 225 (5): jeb243224. doi: https://doi.org/10.1242/jeb.243224
Dr. KC Bierlich, Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna (GEMM) Lab
Traveling across oceans takes a lot of energy. Most baleen whales use stored energy acquired on their summer foraging grounds to support the costs of migration to and reproduction on their winter breeding grounds. Since little, if any, feeding takes place during the migration and winter season, it is essential that baleen whales obtain enough food to increase their fat reserves to support reproduction. As such, baleen whales are voracious feeders, and they typically depart the foraging grounds much fatter than when they had arrived.
So, how fat do baleen whales typically get by the end of the foraging season, and how does this differ across reproductive classes, such as a juvenile female vs. a pregnant female? Understanding these questions is key for identifying what a typical “healthy” whale looks like, information which can then help scientists and managers monitor potential impacts from environmental and anthropogenic stressors. In this blog, I will discuss a recent publication in Frontiers in Marine Science (https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2022.1036860) that is from my PhD dissertation with the Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing (MaRRS) Lab, and also includes GEMM lab members Allison Dawn and Clara Bird. In this study, we analyzed how humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) along the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) increase their fat reserves throughout the austral summer foraging season (Bierlich et al., 2022). This work also helps provide insight to the GEMM Lab’s GRANITE project (Gray whale Response to Ambient Noise Informed by Technology and Ecology), where we are interested in how Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales increase their energy reserves in response to environmental variability and increasing human activities.
Eastern South Pacific humpback whales, identified as Stock G by the International Whaling Commission, travel over 16,000 km between summer foraging grounds along the WAP and winter breeding grounds between Ecuador and Costa Rica (Fig. 1). Like most baleen whales, Stock G humpback whales were heavily exploited by 20th century commercial whaling. Recent evidence suggests that this population is recovering, with an estimated increase in population size of ~7,000 individuals in 2000 to ~19,107 in 2020 (Johannessen et al., 2022).
However, there are long-term concerns for this population. The WAP is one of the fastest warming regions on the planet, and regional populations of krill, an important food source for humpback whales, have declined steeply over the past half-century. Additionally, the WAP has seen a rapid expansion of human activities, such as tourism and krill fishing. Specifically, the WAP has experienced an increase in tourism from a total of 6,700 visitors from 59 voyages in 1990 to 73,000 visitors from 408 voyages in 2020, which may be causing increased stress levels amongst Stock G (Pallin et al., 2022). Furthermore, the krill fishery has increased harvest activities in key foraging areas for humpback whales (Reisinger et al., 2022). Understanding how humpback whales increase their energy reserves over the course of the foraging season can help researchers establish a baseline to monitor future impacts from climate change and human activities. This work also provides an opportunity for comparisons to other baleen whale populations that are also exposed to multiple stressors, such as the PCFG gray whales off the Newport Coast who are constantly exposed to vessel traffic and at risk of entanglement from fishing gear.
To understand how humpback whales increase their energy reserves throughout the foraging season, we collected drone imagery of whales along the WAP between November and June, 2017-2019 (Fig. 2). We used these images to measure the length and width of the whale to estimate body condition, which represents an animal’s relative energy reserve and can reflect foraging success (see previous blog). We collected drone imagery from a combination of research stations (Palmer Station), research vessels (Laurence M. Gould), and tour ships (One Ocean Expeditions). We used several different drones types and accounted for measurement uncertainty associated with the camera, focal length lens, altitude, and altimeter (barometer/LiDAR) from each drone (see previous blog and Bierlich et al., 2021a, 2021b). We also took biopsy samples to identify the sex of each individual and to determine if females were pregnant or not.
Our final dataset included body condition measurements for 228 total individuals. We found that body condition increased linearly between November and June for each reproductive class, which included calves, juvenile females, juvenile whales of unknown sex, lactating females, mature whales of unknown sex, and non-pregnant females (Fig. 3). This was an interesting finding because a recent publication analyzing tagged whales from the same population found that humpback whales have high foraging rates in early season that then significantly decrease by February and March (Nichols et al., 2022). So, despite these reduced foraging rates throughout the season, humpback whales continue to gain substantial mass into the late season. This continued increase in body condition implies a change in krill abundance and/or quality into the late season, which may compensate for the lower feeding rates. For example, krill density and biomass increases by over an order of magnitude across the season (Reiss et al., 2017) and their lipid content increases by ~4x (Hagen et al., 1996). Thus, humpback whales likely compensate for their lower feeding rates by feeding on denser and higher quality krill, ultimately increasing their efficiency in energy deposition.
We found that body condition increase varied amongst reproductive classes. For example, lactating females had the poorest measures of body condition across the season, reflecting the high energetic demands of nursing their calves (Fig. 3). Conversely, non-pregnant females had the highest body condition at the start of the season compared to all the other classes, likely reflecting the energy saved and recovered by skipping breeding that year. Calves, juvenile whales, and mature whales all reached similar levels of body condition by the end of the season, though mature whales will likely invest most of their energy stores toward reproduction, whereas calves and juveniles likely invest toward growth. We also found a positive relationship between the total length of lactating females and their calves, suggesting that bigger moms have bigger calves (Fig. 4). A similar trend has also been observed in other baleen whale species including southern and North Atlantic right whales (Christiansen et al., 2018; Stewart et al., 2022).
The results from the humpback study provide insight for my current work exploring how PCFG gray whales increase their energy reserves in relation to environmental variability and increasing human activities. Over the past seven years, the GEMM Lab has been collecting drone images of PCFG gray whales off the coast of Oregon to measure their body condition (see this GRANITE Project blog). Many of the individuals we encounter are seen across years and throughout the foraging season, providing an opportunity to evaluate how an individual’s body condition is influenced by environmental variation, stress levels, maturity, and reproduction. For example, we had nine total body condition measurements of a female PCFG whale named “Sole”, who had a curvilinear increase in body condition throughout the summer foraging season – a rapid increase in early season that slowed as the season progressed (Fig. 5). This raises many questions for us: is this how most PCFG whales typically increase their body condition during the summer? Is this increase different for pregnant or lactating females? How is this increase impacted by environmental variability or anthropogenic stressors? Repeated measurements of individuals, in addition to Sole, in different reproductive classes across different years will help us determine what body condition is considered a healthy range for gray whales. This is particularly important for monitoring any potential health consequences from anthropogenic stressors, such as vessel noise and traffic (see recent blog by GEMM Lab alum Leila Lemos). We are currently analyzing body condition measurements between 2016 – 2022, so stay tuned for upcoming results!
Bierlich, K. C., Hewitt, J., Bird, C. N., Schick, R. S., Friedlaender, A., Torres, L. G., et al. (2021a). Comparing Uncertainty Associated With 1-, 2-, and 3D Aerial Photogrammetry-Based Body Condition Measurements of Baleen Whales. Front. Mar. Sci. 8, 1–16. doi:10.3389/fmars.2021.749943.
Bierlich, K. C., Hewitt, J., Schick, R. S., Pallin, L., Dale, J., Friedlaender, A. S., et al. (2022). Seasonal gain in body condition of foraging humpback whales along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Front. Mar. Sci. 9, 1–16. doi:10.3389/fmars.2022.1036860.
Bierlich, K., Schick, R., Hewitt, J., Dale, J., Goldbogen, J., Friedlaender, A., et al. (2021b). Bayesian approach for predicting photogrammetric uncertainty in morphometric measurements derived from drones. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 673, 193–210. doi:10.3354/meps13814.
Christiansen, F., Vivier, F., Charlton, C., Ward, R., Amerson, A., Burnell, S., et al. (2018). Maternal body size and condition determine calf growth rates in southern right whales. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 592, 267–281.
Hagen, W., Van Vleet, E. S., and Kattner, G. (1996). Seasonal lipid storage as overwintering strategy of Antarctic krill. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 134, 85–89. doi:10.3354/meps134085.
Johannessen, J. E. D., Biuw, M., Lindstrøm, U., Ollus, V. M. S., Martín López, L. M., Gkikopoulou, K. C., et al. (2022). Intra-season variations in distribution and abundance of humpback whales in the West Antarctic Peninsula using cruise vessels as opportunistic platforms. Ecol. Evol. 12, 1–13. doi:10.1002/ece3.8571.
Nichols, R., Cade, D. E., Kahane-Rapport, S., Goldbogen, J., Simpert, A., Nowacek, D., et al. (2022). Intra-seasonal variation in feeding rates and diel foraging behavior in a seasonally fasting mammal, the humpback whale. Open Sci. 9, 211674.
Pallin, L. J., Botero-Acosta, N., Steel, D., Baker, C. S., Casey, C., Costa, D. P., et al. (2022). Variation in blubber cortisol levels in a recovering humpback whale population inhabiting a rapidly changing environment. Sci. Rep. 12, 1–13. doi:10.1038/s41598-022-24704-6.
Reisinger, R., Trathan, P. N., Johnson, C. M., Joyce, T. W., Durban, J. W., Pitman, R. L., et al. (2022). Spatiotemporal overlap of baleen whales and krill fisheries in the Antarctic Peninsula region. Front. Mar. Sci. doi:doi: 10.3389/fmars.2022.914726.
Reiss, C. S., Cossio, A., Santora, J. A., Dietrich, K. S., Murray, A., Greg Mitchell, B., et al. (2017). Overwinter habitat selection by Antarctic krill under varying sea-ice conditions: Implications for top predators and fishery management. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 568, 1–16. doi:10.3354/meps12099.
Stewart, J. D., Durban, J. W., Europe, H., Fearnbach, H., Hamilton, P. K., Knowlton, A. R., et al. (2022). Larger females have more calves : influence of maternal body length on fecundity in North Atlantic right whales. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 689, 179–189. doi:10.3354/meps14040.
With the GRANITE field season officially over, we are now processing all of the data we collected this summer. For me, I am starting to go through all the drone videos to take snapshots of each whale to measure their body condition. As I go through these videos, I am reflecting on the different experiences I am fortunate enough to have with flying different drones, in different environments, over different species of baleen whales: blue, humpback, Antarctic minke, and now gray whales. Each of these species have a different morphological design and body shape (Woodward et al., 2006), which leads to different behaviors that are noticeable from the drone. Drones create immense opportunity to learn how whales thrive in their natural environments [see previous blog for a quick history], and below are some of my memories from above.
I first learned how drones could be used to study the morphology and behavior of large marine mammals during my master’s degree at Duke University, and was inspired by the early works of John Durban (Durban et al., 2015, 2016) Fredrick Christiansen (Christiansen et al., 2016) and Leigh Torres (Torres et al., 2018). I immediately recognized the value and utility of this technology as a new tool to better monitor the health of marine mammals. This revelation led me to pursue a PhD with the Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing (MaRRS) Lab led by Dr. Dave Johnston where I helped further develop tools and methods for collecting drone-based imagery on a range of species in different habitats.
When flying drones over whales, there are a lot of moving parts; you’re on a boat that is moving, flying something that is moving, following something that is moving. These moving elements are a lot to think about, so I trained hard, so I did not have to think about each step and flying felt intuitive and natural. I did not grow up playing video games, so reaching this level of comfort with the controls took a lot of practice. I practiced for hours over the course of months before my first field excursion and received some excellent mentorship and training from Julian Dale, the lead engineer in the MaRRS Lab. Working with Julian and the many hours of training helped me establish a solid foundation in my piloting skills and feel confident working in various environments on different species.
Blue whales offshore of Monterey, California.
In 2017 and 2018 I was involved in collaborative project with the MaRRS Lab and Goldbogen Lab at Stanford University, where we tagged and flew drones over blue whales offshore of Monterey, California. We traveled about an hour offshore and reliably found groups of blue whales actively feeding. Working offshore typically brought a large swell, which can often make landing the drone back into your field partner’s hands tricky as everything is bobbing up and down with the oscillations of the swell. Fortunately, we worked from a larger research vessel (~56 ft) and quickly learned that landing the drone in the stern helped dampen the effects of bobbing up and down. The blue whales we encountered often dove to a depth of around 200 m for about 20-minute intervals, then come to the surface for only a few minutes. This short surface period provided only a brief window to locate the whale once it surfaced and quickly fly over it to collect the imagery needed before it repeated its dive cycle. We learned to be patient and get a sense of the animal’s dive cycle before launch in order to time our flights so the drone would be in the air a couple of minutes before the whale surfaced.
Once over the whales, the streamlined body of the blue whales was noticeable, with their small, high aspect ratio flippers and fluke that make them so well adapted for fast swimming in the open ocean (Fig. 1) (Woodward et al., 2006). I also noticed that because these whales are so large (often 21 – 24 m), I often flew at higher altitudes to be able fit them within the field of view of the camera. It was also always shocking to see how small the tagging boat (~8 m) looked when next to Earth’s largest creatures.
Antarctic minke whales and humpback whales along the Western Antarctic PeninsulaA lot of the data included in my dissertation came from work along the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP), which had a huge range of weather conditions, from warm and sunny days to cold and snowy/foggy/rainy/windy/icy days. A big focus was often trying to keep my hands warm, as it was often easier to fly without gloves in order to better feel the controls. One of the coldest days I remember was late in the season in mid-June (almost winter!) in Wilhemina Bay where ice completely covered the bay in just a couple hours, pushing the whales out into the Gerlache Strait; I suspect this was the last ice-free day of the season. Surprisingly though, the WAP also brought some of the best conditions I have ever flown in. Humpback and Antarctic minke whales are often found deep within the bays along the peninsula, which provided protection from the wind. So, there were times where it would be blowing 40 mph in the Gerlache Strait, but calm and still in the bays, such as Andvord Bay, which allowed for some incredible conditions for flying. Working from small zodiacs (~7 m) allowed us more maneuverability for navigating around or through the ice deep in the bays (Fig. 2)
Flying over Antarctic minke whale was always rewarding, as they are very sneaky and can quickly disappear under ice flows or in the deep, dark water. Flying over them often felt like a high-speed chase, as their small streamlined bodies makes them incredibly quick and maneuverable, doing barrel rolls, quick banked turns, and swimming under and around ice flows (Fig. 3). There would often be a group between 3-7 individuals and it felt like they were playing tag with each other – or perhaps with me!
Humpbacks displayed a wide range of behaviors along the WAP. Early in the season they continuously fed throughout the entire day, often bubble net feeding in groups typically of 2-5 animals (Fig. 4). For as large as they are, it was truly amazing to see how they use their pectoral fins to perform quick accelerations and high-speed maneuvering for tight synchronized turns to form bubble nets, which corral and trap their krill, their main food source (Fig. 4) (Woodward et al., 2006). Later in the season, humpbacks switched to more resting behavior in the day and mostly fed at night, taking advantage of the diel vertical migration of krill. This behavior meant we often found humpbacks snoozing at the surface after a short dive, as if they were in a food coma. They also seemed to be more curious and playful with each other and with us later in the season (Fig. 5).
We also encountered a lot of mom and calf pairs along the WAP. Moms were noticeably skinny compared to their plump calf in the beginning of the season due to the high energetic cost of lactation (Fig. 6). It is important for moms to regain this lost energy throughout the feeding season and begin to wean their calves. I often saw moms refusing to give milk to their nudging calf and instead led teaching lessons for feeding on their own.
Gray whales off Newport, Oregon
All of these past experiences helped me quickly get up to speed and jump into action with the GRANITE field team when I officially joined the GEMM Lab this year in June. I had never flown a DJI Inspire quadcopter before (the drone used by the GEMM Lab), but with my foundation piloting different drones, some excellent guidance from Todd and Clara, and several hours of practice to get comfortable with the new setup, I was flying over my first gray whale by day three of the job.
The Oregon coast brings all sorts of weather, and some days I strangely found myself wearing a similar number of layers as I did in Antarctica. Fog, wind, and swell could all change within the hour, so I learned to make the most of weather breaks when they came. I was most surprised by how noticeably different gray whales behave compared to the blue, Antarctic minke, and humpback whales I had grown familiar with watching from above. For one, it is absolutely incredible to see how these huge whales use their low-aspect ratio flippers and flukes (Woodward et al., 2006) to perform low-speed, highly dynamic maneuvers to swim in very shallow water (5-10 m) so close to shore (<1m sometimes!) and through kelp forest or surf zones close to the beach. They have amazing proprioception, or the body’s ability to sense its movement, action, and position, as gray whales often use their pectoral fins and fluke to stay in a head standing position (see Clara Bird’s blog) to feed in the bottom sediment layer, all while staying in the same position and resisting the surge of waves that could smash them against the rocks (Video 1) . It is also remarkable how the GEMM Lab knows each individual whale based on natural skin marks, and I started to get a better sense of each whale’s behavior, including where certain individuals typically like to feed, or what their dive cycle might be depending on their feeding behavior.
I feel very fortunate to be a part of the GRANITE field team and to contribute to data collection efforts. I look forward to the data analysis phase to see what we learn about how the morphology and behavior of these gray whales to help them thrive in their environment.
Christiansen, F., Dujon, A. M., Sprogis, K. R., Arnould, J. P. Y., and Bejder, L. (2016).Noninvasive unmanned aerial vehicle provides estimates of the energetic cost of reproduction in humpback whales. Ecosphere 7, e01468–18.
Durban, J. W., Fearnbach, H., Barrett-Lennard, L. G., Perryman, W. L., & Leroi, D. J. (2015). Photogrammetry of killer whales using a small hexacopter launched at sea. Journal of Unmanned Vehicle Systems, 3(3), 131-135.
Durban, J. W., Moore, M. J., Chiang, G., Hickmott, L. S., Bocconcelli, A., Howes, G., et al.(2016). Photogrammetry of blue whales with an unmanned hexacopter. Mar. Mammal Sci. 32, 1510–1515.
Torres, L. G., Nieukirk, S. L., Lemos, L., & Chandler, T. E. (2018). Drone up! Quantifying whale behavior from a new perspective improves observational capacity. Frontiers in Marine Science, 5, 319.
Woodward, B. L., Winn, J. P., and Fish, F. E. (2006). Morphological specializations of baleen whales associated with hydrodynamic performance and ecological niche. J. Morphol. 267, 1284–1294.
Erin Pickett, MS Student, Fisheries and Wildlife Department, OSU
This time last week, I was on a research vessel crossing the Drake Passage. The Drake extends from the tip of the Western Antarctic Peninsula to South America’s Cape Horn, and was part of the route I was taking home from Antarctica. Over the past three months I have been working on a long-term ecological research (LTER) project based out of Palmer Station, a U.S. based research facility located on Anvers Island.
While in Antarctica, I was working on the cetacean component of the Palmer LTER project, which I’ve described in previous blog posts. In lieu of writing more about what it is like to work and live on the Antarctic Peninsula, I thought I’d share some photos with you. Working on the water everyday while searching for whales provided me with many opportunities to photograph the local wildlife. I hope you’ll enjoy a few of my favorite shots.