Grey Whale Research off the Coast of British Columbia

Message from the Editor

Welcome to GISWeekly! This week we feature an interview with marine biologist Michelle Kinzel, who researches the feeding ecology of grey whales. These huge animals are driven by their need to consume vast quantities of tiny mysid shrimp to store enough energy for their migration south for the winter. The amount and type of prey available in a location determines residency and occupancy for the whales.

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Industry News
Grey Whale Research off the Coast of British Columbia
by Susan Smith

Marine biologist Michelle Kinzel does research on the feeding ecology of grey whales, specifically looking at behaviors -- home range analysis. As a graduate student she found the Coastal Ecosystems Research Foundation, a registered Canadian charitable organization, on the Internet, and was hired on as a wilderness leader and to work with the team on grey whale research. Coastal Ecosystems Research Foundation has been doing grey whale research since 1995 and invites the general public to assist as "paying volunteers" in research on the feeding behavior, movements, and abundance of grey whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, killer whales and humpback whales, off the Central Coast of British Columbia, Canada.

The grey whale is quite a remarkable creature with a lifespan of 60 to 80 years. About 12 metres long, adults average 30,000 kg and eat tiny prey. The whale scoops up great mouthfuls of seawater, forcing it through the baleen, a set of fringed keratin plates hanging in the whale's mouth. The baleen filters out the mysids, amphipods, and other small crustaceans, which the whale consumes.

How did you get introduced to GIS?
For several years, I was not involved in GIS, and focused my research on behavioral observation. For the grey whale research we had a Photo ID Catalog and we were just collecting the data. My introduction to GIS was actually through another non profit, the Oceanic Resource Foundation. The director of that organization, Greg Carter, received a grant from ESRI and The Society for Conservation GIS (SCGIS) which included several software packages and computer training. He introduced me to ArcView and I started to learn it on my own in conjunction with a sea turtle satellite telemetry project. We attached transmitters to green sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico and we analyzed our Argos satellite data using the GIS. So I learned the skills for GIS with sea turtles, and then I applied it to my grey whale work.

Are you still using ArcView for the whale research?
Yes, ArcView 3.2 and an extension called Animal Movement. The Animal Movement extension was actually written by Phillip Hooge Email Contact in Alaska, at the Biological Science Office Glacier Based Field Station. It's a free download program that uses several GIS tools to analyze animal movement and habitat usage.

How was the location for the whale research determined?
Coastal Ecosystems Research foundation found that location. I was very fortunate to find them on the Internet and I started conversing with them and asked them if I could do research with their company. And they were more than happy and asked me to come. We started a relationship from that summer on in 1996. I was fortunate that they had already done the groundwork, they had already established the campsites, and I was able to come onboard and work with the crew and other researchers.

What were you initially looking for when you embarked on the whale research?
Our main area of focus was behavior. We were categorizing the behaviors of the whales and building a photo ID catalog and so basically we were just taking pictures of the whales to determine residency and occupancy so we wanted to know if the animals were coming back every year and we wanted to know what kind of occupancy patterns they were exhibiting.

Did you have the whales tagged to know which was which?
The photo ID catalog allows you to identify the whales because all of the whales have a natural pattern mark on them that is as unique as a fingerprint. Some of them have a scars or nicks or notches out of the edges of their tail flukes and grey whales have barnacles that live on them. When the barnacles are removed or when they fall off every year they leave a scar behind, so they leave white markings and scars. Sometimes they've run into rocks or things underwater; some of them actually look like they've been hit by propellers, very very few, but we call those 'ship strikes'. The photo ID catalog allows us to identify individual animals and we have 74 whales identified. They're numbered G1 through G74. Ideally what you like to get is a picture of the underside of the fluke and the right and left side of the animal. And that is a great non-invasive way to be able to identify the animals without having to put tags on them. It worked better for us because we didn't want to be too close to the animal and we didn't want to do anything that was going to alter its behavior. And with tagging -- the animals can have a response to the boat, to the presence of humans, they can have a response to the actual tag itself.

Are they an endangered species?
They were removed from the endangered species list in 1993. Their population has been increasing ever since, and they are now considered to be fully recovered.

What are the most significant developments you've seen in the research so far?
We saw a shift in the number of whales occupying the area in the El Niqo years, and we think what happened is that the mysid shrimp were not as available. Most grey whales are known as mud skimmers and they actually feed on the bottom -- they turn on their sides, swim through the mud, eat the crustaceans that live in the mud. But the animals in our study area are actually feeding in the water column. So they're employing an opportunistic mode of feeding and they are eating primarily mysid shrimp. In the El Niqo year, 1998, we actually saw a decreased number of whales in our study area. We think what was happening was the amount of prey dropped dramatically for two reasons: 1) the cold current and the upwelling were absent because of the El Niqo shifts and the water is actually warmer. The mysids are able to live in the water but they're not able to complete their breeding and lifecycles so you have a reduced population, they're not heat intolerant to the water but it does interfere with their lifecycle so you have less breeding. 2) There was also a shift in the pilcher, which are a small schooling sardine that were brought up with the El Niqo current, hadn't been in that area in 30 years. During the El Niqo year, all these pilchers also eat the mysid shrimp, so we think the pilcher were outcompeting the whales for food.

The whales fast for half of the year. When they are on the migration route they don't take in enough energy to meet metabolic requirements, therefore whales need to store a large amount of energy reserves before they begin the annual southbound migration down to Mexico. Whales select feeding grounds in part based on the amount of prey, not only to meet metabolic needs but also to store up to 50% of their body weight in fat. If they don't have enough prey they will move onto another feeding area. That's what happened in the El Niqo year. There just wasn't enough food to support the whales so they went to another area.

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