August 18, 2003
Grey Whale Research off the Coast of British Columbia
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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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Susan Smith, Managing Editor
Grey Whale Research off the Coast of British Columbia
by Susan Smith
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?
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?
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?
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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-- Susan Smith, GISCafe.com Managing Editor.