Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Cetacean Watch with Spotter Pro App and ORCAS!

Whilst we focus on researching the breeding elephant seals during the winter season, there are many other aspects to our daily data collection. One of which is looking for whales and dolphins from the lighthouse. We try to carry out at least two cetacean surveys a day, although this depends on weather conditions, especially sea state, and visibility. These surveys include an hour of effort, covering 360 degrees around the island. 

Two grey whales passing by the island. This is the most frequently sighted species during the winter season as they undertake a southerly migration to calve and breed near Baja, and then turn around to start the slow journey back to feeding grounds in Alaska.

We use wide-angle binoculars with a built in compass and reticule to calculate the location of animals, a high powered scope and a trained eye to sight and confirm the identification of species. In addition to these optics, we use technology to our advantage for data recording. In place of pen and paper which are likely to blow away in some conditions, we have adopted the use of an iPad application to store sightings. Spotter Pro by Conserve IO allows us to note the species, number of individuals including if calves are present, the behaviour, and any additional information relevant to the sighting. 

A screenshot taken from Spotter Pro showing a Gray whale sighted near the Farallones, and a Humpback closer to the coast.

The data that is uploaded from our sightings is coupled with those of other researchers and of the general public, integrating standardized research and “citizen science”. The app can then alert ships in the area with the app to the cetaceans’ presence, allowing boat users to be extra vigilant to avoid ship strikes. The app is available on apple platforms:

The collected data can also be used to investigate seasonal and annual variations in occurrence of species, testing it against environmental covariates such as water temperature and tidal cycles. As mentioned in the last blog, some species are struggling to find food due to warmer waters associated with El Nino events, and anecdotally we have seen a difference in cetacean presence, with no blue whales being seen this season, compared to multiple sightings last year. It will be interesting to find out how this event affects species distribution throughout the year.
During a recent cetacean survey, we observed a feeding flock of several hundred gulls following approximately 400 Californian sea lions who were porpoising towards the island, fast! A huge fin cut through the water amongst the chaos, and we saw the unmistakeable eye patch of an orca.

The large male Orca in the group of four.

The sea conditions were perfect, so we were able to put our SAFE boat in the water at East Landing, which has recently returned to an operational state with a replacement generator. We followed the pod of four animals at a respectful and legal distance for around an hour, first going south, and then looping back towards the island until the pod moved off to the west. There was a large male, a female, and 2 smaller individuals which we think to be a juvenile and a calf. 

The adult female or juvenile animal and possibly a calf following behind.

 This was by far the best animal-related experience of my life thus far, and the whole team hasn’t stopped smiling since. We are very lucky to live in such an amazing environment where such things can happen, going from looking for birds and logging whale sightings to keeping pace with Orca on the water. The winter season ends in a week, and it has been an amazing experience which I’m sure we will never forget.

Shot of one individual passing by the island.

Written by 2015 Point Blue Conservation Science winter research assistant James Robbins.


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