Chasing Whales

This post is part of a series chronicling the September 12-15, 2019 research cruise on board the R/V Oceanus, Oregon State University’s largest research vessel. This cruise was funded by Oregon Legislative funds through the Oceangoing Research Vessel Program. Coordination and additional support was provided by Oregon Sea Grant and the Oregon Coast STEM Hub.

Follow the adventures of the students, educators, and researchers who are on board engaging in #STEMatSea.

By Ava Owens

Imagine climbing into a small, six-person boat in the middle of the ocean. The ocean is rolling you with small whitecaps licking the underside of what is deemed the ‘Red Rocket’. This isn’t a rescue, escape or recon mission, but rather a research one.

At around eleven miles off-shore, whale watching on the flying bridge was busy. Humpbacks were being spotted left and right by their fluking and breaching. Marine mammal spotting surveys were happening on the flying bridge, cataloging information such as species, numbers of animals, their distance from the boat and their activities (feeding, breaching, etc.) Something you cannot do from the flying bridge is identify individual animals, so we donned our finest waterproof gear, hardhats, a camera with a telephoto lens, GPS and a notepad to write down sightings. We carried these items over the side of the Oceanus and into the Red Rocket. What we were looking for were identifying features on a whale’s body. The pattern on a humpback whale’s flukes (the underside of their tail) is unique to itself only, just like our fingerprints are unique to each of us. This is the reason for the camera, as researchers wanted to identify and document specific animals base on these patterns.

three people in a red rigid hull inflatable boat
Launching the “Red Rocket”

The Red Rocket, once untied from the Oceanus, took off to follow some whales seen by the spotters on the flying bridge. The humpbacks we were following were about three times the size of our boat, meaning the experience was exhilarating and terrifying all at once. Once we got close enough for that crucial I.D. photo, it was off to find another whale.

Lots of our time spent in the Red Rocket was waiting to spot something. After that first initial whale I.D., the flying bridge had a lull. We used this time not just to search, but to mark the whale sighting on the GPS as well as write notes about the whales behavior, number of whales and what pictures were of that specific whale.

On one of our missions further away from the boat, a pair of humpbacks dove in a feeding behavior. They dive down and stay down for three to four minutes, feeding. We hadn’t gotten a picture of those whales yet, so we stayed in what is called a fluke print. When a whale flukes, it creates this still pattern in the water that disrupts the normal ocean waves. Chances are these two whales would resurface in the same general area, meaning the fluke print is a great place to wait and watch for the pair.

female looking out to sea with binoculars
Looking for whales from the flying bridge

These I.D. photographs are extremely important for whale researchers as they can track individual whales’ migration patterns. These surveys are a great non-invasive way to catalogue individuals as well as estimate a total number of whales seen in one area. One of our researchers aboard has a permit to get closer to marine mammals, as it is illegal to approach any marine mammal without a research permit. Even with that research permit, there are still strict rules to follow to make sure no one disrupts the whales.

My time aboard the R/V Oceanus is my first experience with marine animal related hands-on research. My usual forte is marine education, giving public speeches to bridge the divide between people and the sea. I am so thrilled to be a part of this research cruise and to have more hands-on experience that I can relate to while speaking to the public. Lots of what I am passionate about has to do with microplastics in our ocean, so coming face to face with massive filter feeders that are getting plastic with their meals has given me even more insight on how we need to change our ways for the better.

four females sitting on couches, facing forward
Students relaxing in the ship’s lounge. Left to right: Ashley Brust, Genevieve Coblentz-Strong, Avarie Owens (blog post author), and Abbie Kirby.

Ava Owens is a high school student from Waldport, Oregon. She attends Baker Web Academy and is dual-enrolled at Oregon Coast Community College. Ava is also a youth volunteer at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and is a member of one of two Aquarium teams competing in the “Salmon Bowl”, Oregon’s regional National Ocean Sciences Bowl competition.

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