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Oregon Coast Scientist Uses New Tech - and Poop - to Study Whales

Published 10/08/2016 at 6:51 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

aerial shot from Torres' whale research

(Newport, Oregon) – One scientist based out of the Oregon coast is approaching whale research from a new angle: from above and from behind. (Above: aerial shot from Torres' whale research).

Leigh Torres, a marine ecologist researcher out of Newport's Hatfield Marine Science Center, is not only using drones and hdyrophones to follow gray whales off the Oregon coast but she's chasing them close behind in order to capture their poop for biological testing. It's also here where other new technologies are involved, with a variety of cutting-edge biotech machines used to analyze these samples.

All this is part of an expansive project to look at the stress levels of whales due to ocean noise – both natural and manmade. Torres and her crew are trying to determine the physiological effects of such stressors on the whales, analyzing hormone levels, genetics and the overall health of the whale – all from a tiny take of whale feces.

“We’re just looking for a few grams of material and to be honest, it doesn’t even smell that bad,” Torres said. “Now, collecting a DNA sample from a whale’s blow-hole - that’s a bad job. Their breath is horrendous.”

How the samples are retrieved smacks of a scene out of Moby Dick, but with a decidedly high-tech, almost sci-fi slant. Torres, in a small inflatable boat, follows them from behind with a drone flying over the whale. The drone gives investigators incredibly detailed views and informative new angles of the whales' general behavior, and it's used to detect when the whale defecates.

Then, Torres and her crew have about 20 to 30 seconds to swoop in and grab the material, using a fine mesh net.

Back in the lab, the samplings of fecal matter provide an amazing amount of information, including the whale's sex, if it's pregnant, what kind of food it's been eating and even a good array of data on the prey itself.

The study is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ocean Acoustics Program, working in concert with Oregon State University, Oregon Sea Grant and the Hatfield in Newport. Scientists are looking at how whales are effected by their exposure to the sounds of small and medium-sized boat traffic. But since this group of gray whales lives fairly close to the shores of the central Oregon coast, they're also exposed to many kinds of natural noises like wind and breaking surf.

Given that whales live and die by detecting sound, this is important research.

“Many marine mammals are guided by acoustics and use sound to locate food, to navigate, to communicate with one another and to find a mate,” said Torres.

Also used in the research are drifting hydrophones to record both human and natural sounds, and underwater Go-Pro cameras to observe what are they are feeding upon. Here, they're able to learn more about how the whales are eating and finding their dinners, as well as the columns fish in the area.

Torres and her crew have discovered some amazing new insights into the whales by looking at them through the high-tech cameras.

“We are seeing things through the drone cameras that we have never seen before,” Torres said. “Because of the overhead views, we now know that whales are much more agile in their feeding. We call them ‘bendy’ whales because they make such quick, sharp turns when feeding. These movements just can’t be seen from the deck of a ship.” Oregon Coast Lodgings for this - Where to eat - Maps and Virtual Tours. See more Oregon Coast Science and updates on Oregon Coast Whales.

 

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