By Julia Stepanuk, PhD student

I spent this past week with the Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna (GEMM) Lab at Oregon State University learning their protocol for drone flights and gaining experience flying over whales. I saw my first gray whales just off the coast of Newport, Oregon and assisted with the GEMM Lab’s summer field research. We luckily had 4 days of great weather in a row, so I got tons of experience conducting research that integrates drone flights that I can bring home to our lab. It was really exciting to observe and learn from the well-oiled machine that is the GEMM Lab. Information about their gray whale project can be found here and here, but I want to focus on how my experiences here in Newport can translate to my research interests off the coast of Long Island.

Gray whale off the Newport, Oregon coast. Photo by Julia Stepanuk, under NMFS/NOAA permit # 16111

My research focuses on the whales around New York, specifically humpback whales. Humpback whales are very well studied in many parts of the world, especially in the Northwest Atlantic. The initial photo-identification studies were conducted in the Gulf of Maine in the 1970s (Katona et al., 1979), and the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue is still going strong with over 8,000 individual whales catalogued! Recently though, many people have reported humpback whales in a new area: the waters around New York and Long Island. Yet, we don’t understand how these whales fit in with the rest of the humpback population in the North Atlantic. We do know that they feed along the shores of New York City and Long Island, and they are primarily consuming menhaden (also known as bunker or pogy), a forage fish that is vital to both our economic and environmental systems in the Northeast U.S. (see: Six reasons why menhaden is the greatest fish we ever fished).

Opportunistic humpback whale sightings, NYS GIS Data

Menhaden, https://maineguides.com/maine-saltwater-fish-species/atlantic-menhaden/

The habitat use and behavior of humpbacks in this part of the world is important for two reasons: 1) this population of humpback whales has recovered from the detrimental population-level impacts of industrial whaling in the 18th and 19th centuries, and thus was recently delistedfrom the endangered species list; and 2) humpback whales in the Northwest Atlantic are at-risk from ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement, so much so that NOAA declared an unusual mortality event for 2016-2018. In fact, 4 humpback whales washed up dead on the shore of Long Island in the last 30 days! These facts lead to my motivation for my PhD studies: where are humpback whales in the vicinity of New York City and how do they use the environment around Long Island? I specifically want to investigate the trophic relationship between humpback whales and menhaden.

Humpback whale feeding off the Rockaways, Long Island; Artie Raslich

There are a number of studies where researchers have used photogrammetry from drones to document the body condition of marine mammal species (Burnett et al., in press; Christiansen et al., 2016; Christiansen et al., 2018; Dawson et al., 2017; Perryman and Lynn., 2002), which I plan to extend to the humpback whales around Long Island. I will conduct photogrammetry of the humpback whales off Long Island and will document the individual whales, their behaviors, and their prey sources. Because scientists are now documenting and monitoring body condition of humpback whales in many parts of the world, we can compare the overall health and body condition of humpbacks in New York to those in other habitats. Further, by documenting the schools of menhaden they are consuming, we can better assess the trophic relationship between humpbacks and menhaden in a foraging habitat adjacent to one of the largest cities on the planet.

Drone imagery off Long Island from a recreational drone pilot in 2017. Top: two humpback whales next to a dense school of menhaden. Middle: two humpback whales with pectoral fins clearly visible. Bottom: humpback whales lunge feeding from above; http://fireislandandbeyond.com/video-pair-of-humpback-whales-between-old-inlet-and-davis-park-fire-island-ny/2/

I am so grateful to the GEMM Lab for sharing information and skills with me over the past week and am excited to bring my new skillset back to our lab at Stony Brook! Aside from drone skills, I learned that gray whales are very flexible, and their mottled skin is absolutely beautiful! I also learned that my peanut butter and jelly sandwich making skills are passable (you have to find a way to keep the jelly from leaking through the bread on a hot day on a boat!) and I learned how to collect fecal samples from whales (put a net in the water, and scoop up the pieces of whale poo). I am also now hooked on the FIFA World Cup matches and will be losing lots of sleep in the next few weeks while I diligently follow my new favorite teams. Thank you again to the GEMM lab for being so supportive and welcoming! For an influx of west coast (and New Zealand!) megafauna research, follow the GEMM Lab Blog!

 

References

Burnett, J.D., Lemos, L., Barlow, D.R., Wing, M.G., Chandler, T.E. & Torres, L.G. (in press) Estimating morphometric attributes of baleen whales with photogrammetry from small UAS: A case study with blue and gray whales. Marine Mammal Science.

Christiansen, F., Dujon, A.M., Sprogis, K.R., Arnould, J.P.Y., Bejder, L., 2016. Noninvasive unmanned aerial vehicle provides estimates of the energetic cost of reproduction in humpback whales. Ecosphere 7

Christiansen, F., Vivier, F., Charlton, C., Ward, R., Amerson, A., Burnell, S., Bejder, L., 2018. Maternal body size and condition determine calf growth rates in southern right whales. Marine Ecology Progress Series 592, 267–281.

Dawson, S.M., Bowman, M.H., Leunissen, E., Sirguey, P., 2017. Inexpensive Aerial Photogrammetry for Studies of Whales and Large Marine Animals. Front. Mar. Sci. 4.

Katona, S., B. Baxter, 0. Brazier, S. Kraus, J. Perkins AND H. Whitehead. 1979. Identification of humpback whales by fluke photographs. Pages 33-44 in H.E. Winn and B.L. Olla, eds. Behavior of marine animals. Current perspectives in research. Vol. 3: Cetaceans. Plenum Press. New York.

Perryman WL, Lynn MS. 2002. Evaluation of nutritive condition and reproductive status of migrating gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) based on analysis of photogrammetric data. J. Cetacean Res. Manage. 4(2):155-164.

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