The search begins…

This post was originally published September 2, 2021. Posts have been manually reordered for more logical storytelling. To go to the next post in the sequence, click “Previous Post” at bottom.

Just a few short decades ago, in the mid-1970s, the number of recognized species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises worldwide was 76. Today, there are 93. Some are so poorly known that they have never been identified alive in the wild (they are known only from stranded specimens). All of these belong to a single genus of beaked whale: Mesoplodon.

Ginkgo-toothed beaked whale (scientific name: Mesoplodon ginkgodens). This is one of several species of beaked whale that has never been identified alive in the wild, known only from strandings on the beach (this photo was taken in New Zealand). Its description as a new species was based on measurements and associated data from the dead animal. Photo credit: New Zealand Department of Conservation.

Currently, there are 16 known species of Mesoplodon — including five added since the mid-1970s. Six of these have never been identified alive in the sea: M. perrini, M. hotaula, M. hectori, M. traversi, M. bowdoini, and M. ginkgodens — and one or more could live in Oregon waters. Although small by whale standards (4–6.2 m), mesoplodonts can still weigh well over one ton (900 kg), placing them among the largest 0.001% of animals on Earth.

In 2014, during a research trip investigating the Eastern Garbage Patch (EGP, roughly halfway from Oregon to Hawaii), marine biologists photographed two separate groups of small, unidentified whales. Adult male mesoplodonts have species-specific dentition (a pair of erupted teeth that they use as tusks to vie for females), and the whales in the photographs appeared to be either M. ginkgodens, M. hotaula, or possibly a new species.

In September 2021, scientists from the Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute (MMI) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are mounting a month-long expedition on the R/V Pacific Storm to search for this cryptic whale. Among the accumulated plastic debris and abandoned fishing gear of the EGP, they hope to find one of the largest, least known animals on the planet.

An unidentified Mesoplodon photographed off Baja California, Mexico. Species unknown. Photo credit: Simon Ager, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

But why does this matter?

Human enterprise has made the ocean an extremely noisy place, from seismic testing used for science and oil exploration, to military use of high-intensity sonar to detect submarines. These sound sources have resulted in the deaths of untold numbers of beaked whales, apparently because a fright response causes individuals in deep water to bolt to the surface, which can result in bends-like symptoms and death.

Currently, mesoplodont beaked whales are among the least known whales in the world — we know very little about their numbers and distributions, or even how many species there are. The ability to identify them to the species level using their recorded acoustic signals could make it possible to survey these elusive animals using passive acoustic methods. That could be accomplished, for example, by attaching hydrophones and recorders to commercial vessels traveling across oceans within shipping lane “highways.”

This Gyre Expedition hopes to provide essential information to better understand the population status of beaked whales around the world and to assess their vulnerabilities to anthropogenic (human-caused) sounds.

This photograph was taken by a fisherman off the coast of Baja California, Mexico. The species is unknown. It is either one of the beaked whales that are known only from the description based on a dead animal found on the beach or a species new to science.

The Beaked Whale Expedition to the Eastern Pacific Gyre is a collaboration among Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute, NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Mammal and Turtle Division, and NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Protected Species Branch. It is made possible with seed funding from the MMI gray whale license plate program. The expedition is led by Principal Investigator Lisa T. Ballance (MMI), co-PI Robert Pitman (MMI), co-PI Jay Barlow (NOAA), and MMI collaborators Scott Baker, Daniel Palacios, and Leigh Torres.


And we’re off!

(This post was originally published September 4, 2021. Posts have been manually reordered for more logical storytelling. To go to the next post in the sequence, click “Previous Post” at bottom.)

After a Herculean effort from science, ship, and shoreside teams, we leave Port Dock 3 just after 10 am and sail under the iconic Yaquina Bay Bridge under blue skies and complete calm. A bustle of recreational boats heading out for a Saturday on the water is joined by Common Murre chicks calling for their fathers, Pelagic Cormorants commuting back from the sea with fish for their families, and gulls tagging along with whatever looks interesting.

The GyreX team ready to go!

We pass over Newport’s famed “bar” without a notice and move into the big Pacific Ocean, channel markers festooned with California Sea Lions. The great Oregon coastline, thick with green, slowly recedes into the distance and turns blue, as the sea becomes our new world.

At 2 pm, we cross the 200-meter isobath that marks the boundary of Oregon’s continental shelf, deploy our hydrophone to listen underwater, and begin visual survey with our 25-power binoculars (the “big eyes”) to watch the surface for any animal activity. The sea remains flat calm.

All systems go!

~Lisa Ballance


Run silent, run deep

(This post was originally published September 7, 2021. Posts have been manually reordered for more logical storytelling. To go to the next post in the sequence, click “Previous Post” at bottom.)

The term “cetacean(s)” refers to all whales, dolphins, and porpoises. During this expedition, we are searching for beaked whales in the genus Mesoplodon (accent on the second syllable). Although small by whale standards, mesoplodonts can weigh 1–1.5 tons, which still makes them among the largest animals on earth. Currently, there are 16 recognized species of Mesoplodon, and surely more yet undescribed. Most of what we know about this group comes from dead specimens stranded on beaches, and by my count, 6 species have never been identified alive in the wild.

This photo shows an adult male Mesoplodon densirostris, a known species of beaked whale. The beak (mouth) is at the front and the two horn-like projections at the top of the skull are its two teeth protruding from the lower jaw. Photo: D Claridge.

Mesoplodonts live in open ocean waters and dive 1000–2000 meters for up to 1.5 hours at a time, mostly searching for small squids and midwater fishes. They are not very social. Group size is typically 2–3, usually a mother and calf, sometimes with a suitor. For the most part, they come to the surface only for a few quick gulps of air before descending back into the cold, dark depths that they inhabit most of the time.

Their main enemies are killer whales that patrol the surface waters. Beaked whales vocalize at depth, to communicate with each other and to echolocate their prey, but as they return to the surface, they observe radio silence so as not to tip-off any eaves-dropping orcas. Mesoplodonts are rarely seen at the surface: they seem wary of any strange sounds and usually slip under the waves at the approach of a vessel.

This photo shows a male Mesoplodon layardii skull. In adults, the lower teeth actually grow over the top of the jaw, constricting it so that it can open only a few centimeters. Photo: R. L. Pitman.

The name Mesoplodon roughly translates to “armed with a middle tooth.” Mesoplodonts are suction feeders that do not require teeth for feeding; females remain toothless their entire lives. Among maturing males, however, a single pair of teeth erupts from the lower jaw at various locations, depending on the species. Males use these teeth to spar with each other to determine access to breeding females. Instead of having horns or antlers for fighting, mesoplodonts use their out-sized teeth, which grow above the level of upper jaw. Although these battles have never been witnessed, they must be fierce, because when jousting males rake each other with their tusks, they sometimes leave deep, bleeding furrows along each other’s bodies.

In one of these species, the male has a tooth shaped like the leaf of a ginkgo tree — Mesoplodon ginkgodens (see photo in our first blog post). It is one of the species that has never been identified alive in the wild, and we suspect that it, or something like it, occurs in the Eastern Pacific Gyre. Our little expedition (GyreX) has come looking for it.

~ Bob Pitman


Science at sea

(Posts have been manually reordered for more logical storytelling. To go to the next post in the sequence, click “Previous Post” at bottom.)

Special report from the R/V Pacific Storm, September 7, 2021:

Early this morning, we encountered transmission troubles. We were able to get the transmission into manual override forward. All are safe on board — but because we are so far from land, we have made the decision to go back to Newport rather than further diagnose the transmission problem out at sea.

This is the nature of ships and science at sea. Meanwhile, the weather is spectacular and the forecast is good. We intend to carry on with our science, as best we can, on the way in. We are in full acoustic and visual survey mode and are recording marine mammal detections (visually and acoustically) — including two beaked whale sightings!

Bob Pitman and Lisa Ballance look through the “big eye” binoculars, while on visual observation duty. Photo by Craig Hayslip.

Earlier today, we plucked a large, dead squid from the water, which a Black-footed Albatross was feeding on, and obtained a sample. (Squids are the food of choice for beaked whales.) Meanwhile, we have great meals ourselves, hot showers, and are enjoying the natural world surrounding us. It is times like these that bring the character of your shipmates to the surface. I am surrounded by the best of the best out here.

~Lisa Ballance

Craig Hayslip holds up the remains of a squid. No one said science was glamorous. Photo by Daniel Gillies.

Coming home (for now)

(This post was originally published September 16, 2021. Posts have been manually reordered for more logical storytelling. To go to the next post in the sequence, click “Previous Post” at bottom.)

It was 1 am Saturday morning when we sailed under the Yaquina Bay Bridge, under our own power, but without the ability to put the engine into reverse. Once we took the ship out of forward gear, it would require an intense session in the engine room to get it engaged again.

The maritime skill that I witnessed during that next hour to get the Pacific Storm sandwiched in tight between two of Newport’s fishing vessels, and feet from the Chelsea Rose at Port Dock 3, was extraordinary. Even more striking, though, and what will remain with me, was the unplanned dynamic of human interaction that played out over that short period of time in the middle of the night.

The group of professionals (our captain, chief engineer, crew, individuals from the Port of Newport, captain and crew from other vessels), family members, and friends that, at short notice and without a second thought, came together in the darkness to help us had one laser focus — to get us in safely. The event was unscripted, and the stakes were high.

I know that a community is a heterogeneous collection, and no matter how large or how small, has divisiveness within it. But for that short period of time, I watched extreme talent, brought together through deep connections and profound trust, working in perfect harmony toward a common goal. We are home.

~Lisa T. Ballance


If it were easy, it would have already been done

(This post was originally published September 16, 2021. Posts have been manually reordered for more logical storytelling. To go to the next post in the sequence, click “Previous Post” at bottom.)

We are repaired! The Pacific Storm is back — thanks to our awesome crew and their expertise. With half of September gone, we do not have adequate time to reach the gyre, conduct our research, and return home by the end of the month (the round-trip transit alone requires the better part of two weeks) — but there are beaked whale mysteries to investigate right here in the seas off Oregon (and seaward to 200 miles where we would like to work). So, we are anxious to resume our research.

Jay Barlow (NOAA) and Bob Pitman (OSU) deploy the first of two passive acoustic drifters (Drifting Acoustic Spar Buoy Recorders, or DASBRs) that are being set about five miles apart. For up to two weeks, these buoys will record sounds from the ocean, including those made by cetaceans (whales and dolphins). Photo by Craig Hayslip.

Unfortunately, the weather seems to have other plans. Winds at our hoped-for destination will be 25 miles/hr by midday Friday, with seas at 7 feet and increasing to 12 feet by Sunday. Of course, this could change, and we will be watching the weather constantly and continuously.

But we need to make a plan now. So this morning (Thursday), we left Newport at first light and are sailing due west to a point 60 miles offshore, where we will deploy two passive acoustic recorders. (More on these later.) Immediately afterward, we will head back to Newport, arriving late in the evening that same day, to shelter from the storm.

In a few days, we hope to sail again in calmer seas to retrieve these buoys and look for more mysteries. Watch this space!

~Lisa T. Ballance


Encountering Baird’s beaked whales

(This post was originally published September 20, 2021. Posts have been manually reordered for more logical storytelling. To go to the next post in the sequence, click “Previous Post” at bottom.)

“I have small puffy blows here,” Ladd casually remarks while scanning the ocean horizon with our high-powered “bigeye” binoculars. Intrigued, I immediately swing my own pair of the heavy binoculars over to his patch of water. Like whalers of old, modern trained observers often can tell the species of whale seen at a distance by the size and shape of its blow. Judging by the cluster of round-shaped blows erupting above the calm water like exploding fireworks two miles out in front of the ship, I knew we were seeing something special. 

“Baird’s beaked whales!” I shout, barely able to contain my excitement. Baird’s beaked whales are named after the Smithsonian Institution’s first curator, Spencer Fullerton Baird, and they are the largest member of the beaked whale family, reaching lengths of nearly 40 feet and weights of 13 tons. They are rarely observed at sea.

A Baird’s beaked whale spotted from the R/V Pacific Storm on September 10. Photo by Todd Pusser.

Judging by the constant blows, we estimate that there are at least 12 whales packed tightly together at the surface. After only a minute or so, the blows suddenly stop, and the whales disappear. From our vantage point 30 feet up in the crow’s nest, we radio down to the acoustic team monitoring the underwater hydrophone being towed a hundred meters behind the Pacific Storm. “Baird’s beaked whales! Twenty degrees right and 2.3 nautical miles from the ship.” A moment of disbelief on the other end is followed by, “That’s great! We’re on it.” 

Like bats, beaked whales produce high-frequency clicks while foraging. We know from a high-tech digital acoustic tag placed on a Baird’s beaked whale off California nearly ten years ago that the species makes a series of shallow dives (if you can call diving to 400 meters “shallow”) followed by an extended, deeper foraging dive to over 1,000 meters, which can last as long as an hour and a half. It is typically only during deeper dives that Baird’s beaked whales produce their characteristic clicks as they search for prey. 

After ten minutes, the acoustic team radios back up to us and states that they are not hearing anything on the hydrophone, suggesting that the whales are making a silent, shallow dive. Ladd and I continue to scan the ocean, joined now by several other members of the science team and crew, each of us eager to spot these unusual whales again. 

A group of Baird’s beaked whales delight the Gyre Expedition team and and provide a opportunity to collect valuable data on these hard-to-find animals. Video by Jay Barlow.

A half an hour passes and still no sign of the whales.  There is a reason beaked whales are among the least known species of mammals on the planet. Finally, 33 minutes after last seeing the whales at the surface, we spot their distinctive blows again, one mile directly ahead of the ship. Two minutes later, the blows suddenly stop and the whales disappear once again. Acoustics radios up soon after and states that they are still not hearing them. Another shallow dive.

The whales seem to be moving steadily to the north, and this time we position the Pacific Storm a mile in that direction. After 23 minutes, the whales surface once again, this time just a few hundred meters away. We all scramble for our cameras as the whales provide us with an extraordinary view of their backs and heads. Gigabytes of photos are taken as well as nearly four minutes of video footage. After five minutes at the surface, the whales arch their backs high out of the water and make an obvious steep dive, powering down into the depths. 

In the vessel’s lab, acousticians Annamaria DeAngelis and Jay Barlow listen intently to hydrophones (underwater microphones) for the sounds of Baird’s beaked whales. Photo by Craig Hayslip.

A few minutes later, the acoustic team excitedly radios up, “We have clicks!” The Pacific Storm stays in the area for over an hour, through an entire foraging dive, and more than 31 minutes of high frequency clicks are recorded.   

As is so often the case with beaked whales, we are unable to relocate the whales after they surface from their deep dive. Nevertheless, the encounter has provided us with an abundance of visual and acoustic data that will help shed some light on the mysterious lives of these incredible animals.

~Todd Pusser


Sei what?

(This post was originally published September 21, 2021. Posts have been manually reordered for more logical storytelling. To go to the next post in the sequence, click “Previous Post” at bottom.)

We were near the outer edge of the California Current, where the ocean is clear but still tinged green. From our mounted 25-power “bigeye” binoculars, we saw some large blows, 3–4 miles ahead. Several minutes later there was a commotion near where the whales had been blowing: roiling bait, jumping tunas, and a bird flock fluttering overhead.

Arctic terns had finished their breeding in the high arctic and were making their way south to the edge of the Antarctic pack ice, feeding opportunistically along the way to fuel the longest annual migration of any bird (25,000 miles round trip). A flock of 50 or so terns were hovering low over the melee, dropping down to pick off small bait fish that albacore tunas had corralled and driven to the surface. The water was boiling with frantic fry trying to escape the tunas rocketing around beneath them.

A sei whale lunge feeds at the surface; its throat pleats are just beginning to expand as a foraging arctic tern looks on. Photo by Todd Pusser.

Suddenly, a whale lunged into the scene, and a lower jaw, large enough to walk into, swept sideways across the surface and through the dense swarm of fish. These were sei whales (some say “say”; some say “sigh” — say what you will). Rorquals are baleen whales with expandable throat pleats, and the sei whale, at about 60-feet long, is the third largest, behind only the blue and the fin. Rorquals feed by lunging at masses of small prey, and when they open their mouths, their throat pleats balloon out, allowing them to take in tons of prey soup in a single gulp. Then they close their mouth most of the way, and their rebounding throat pleats force the water through the baleen plates and out of their mouth. The prey is filtered out through the sieve formed by their baleen fibers before being swallowed.

The bait fish were too tiny for us to identify from our vessel, but fortunately the crew were trolling fishing lines behind the boat, and when we made a close pass by one of the bait balls, a 23-lb albacore was landed. I reached in its mouth and pulled out a fresh juvenile anchovy, more than 2 inches long. Too small for a pizza, but served up by the ton to the local food chain.

~Robert Pitman

Another sei whale lunge feeds, showing its throat pleats, also known as gular grooves, visibly expanded to take in a huge amount of water — and, hopefully, prey. In this photo by Todd Pusser, the whale is lunge-feeding away from us; its dorsal (upper) surface is to the right and ventral (underside) is at the surface to the left, exposing the left pectoral fin.

What do acousticians do?

(This post was originally published September 24, 2021. Posts have been manually reordered for more logical storytelling. To go to the next post in the sequence, click “Previous Post” at bottom.)

Think of a command center — a single person monitoring many screens all around them. This is what we acousticians call home while at sea. On the Gyre Expedition, we listen to sounds in the ocean in real time, detected by a long cable containing underwater microphones (known as hydrophones) towed behind the research vessel Pacific Storm. We use a variety of software tools to visualize these sounds, because our human sense of vision is much better than our sense of hearing (unlike the beaked whales and other marine mammals we study).

Acoustician Annamaria DeAngelis (left) calls up to the bridge to give Captain Yogi Briggs instructions on where to steer the vessel. Acoustician Daniel Gillies (right) is viewing actual beaked whale calls depicted graphically on the television on the wall. The lines on the map will intersect where the whales are located.

Sound is measured on a frequency scale, and our hearing has evolved to be sensitive to frequencies important to us. As we age (starting as early as 20 years old), our hearing deteriorates over time, especially for very high frequency sounds. Do you live in a rural area with very little background noise? Do you wear earbuds often? Are you a construction worker listening to the constant sounds of engines and machinery? Our individual experiences and interactions with sound in our daily lives make our hearing capabilities unique to each of us.

This is a sound clip recorded from the Baird’s beaked whale sighting earlier on our expedition. Watch the image scroll by as the sound plays. Each of these lines is a click from a Baird’s beaked whale. Baird’s use these clicks to look for prey items, and each click presents them with a “picture” of their environment, much like sonar or radar. Can you hear something when you see the green bar pass over vertical lines? Probably not. (Nor can most acousticians!)
Here is the same sound clip, slowed so that the frequency is more suitable for human ears. Can you hear them now? (You may need to turn up your volume a bit.)

Most marine mammals vocalize outside of the human hearing range. This is why we need so many displays — to see this “ultrasonic” sound. Each display provides specific information about these vocalizations, maps indicating the location of the sounds, and forms for recording additional data.

Listening to beaked whales from our “command center” reminds me of playing whack-a-mole. Our primary display consists of little dots, each representing a click, which scroll by telling us about the time and location of the animal that produced them. Clicking on each dot produces three diagnostic plots that provide more information, as seen below. These dots flash by and are typically visible for about one minute as new clicks continue to stream in.

Images produced by our acoustic software (Pamguard) while listening to beaked whales. The top display shows clicks produced through time (most recent on the left), with each color representing a different frequency. Clicking on any dot produces three additional plots below. Beaked whale clicks have a unique shape visible in the Wigner plot (with green background). The shape of the curve and placement of the peaks in the Click Spectrum (to the left of the Wigner plot) indicate the species of beaked whale producing the sounds.

There is still much to learn about species-specific characteristics of beaked whale vocalizations. This expedition is providing us data to add to a growing library of knowledge, ultimately with a goal of identifying beaked whale species based solely on the sounds they make. The recent Baird’s encounter was one such fortunate event where the whales dove within two to three football fields of us and stayed nearby, allowing us to capture thousands of clicks to study. A very rare treat!

~Annamaria DeAngelis


And on a personal note…

(This post was originally published September 29, 2021. Posts have been manually reordered for more logical storytelling. To go to the next post in the sequence, click “Previous Post” at bottom.)

It is a privilege to study marine mammals, but it also takes us away from home — at times, to remote and distant places or for long periods of time. Three members of our expedition have children younger than five. What is it like for these scientists to be away from their son or daughter for an entire month?

For me, the joy of raising my daughter comes from watching her grow and seeing the sparkle in her eyes as she investigates and explores her world. These things happen quickly at such a young age, so the thought of leaving means missing out on the many triumphant smiles as a new challenge is conquered or the breathless recounting of some bit of knowledge gleaned. Despite that, parenting is also a continuous, dull roar of responsibility in the back of my mind. Leaving that behind to go on an extended field expedition is liberating, but that feeling is tempered with the knowledge that the roar is now significantly louder for my partner. So going to sea is a bit of a mixed bag. I love the adventure, exploration, and ability to focus on the task at hand, but I think a lot about what might be happening at home. And when I come home to that excited smile, I wonder how I ever could have left.

~Ladd Irvine

Going out to sea brings with it a myriad of emotions for a new parent. I’ve summed it up to glee, guilt, and gratitude (3G). First comes the glee. You are so excited to get out and explore, to go back to the pre-parent era with all of its carelessness and adventure. But then comes the guilt. Guilt for feeling those feelings, guilt for leaving your child and partner behind, for being selfish as opposed to selfless. Then after that comes the gratitude. Gratitude toward your support system for enabling you to follow your dreams, for allowing you one speck of selfishness. Gratitude for the project and the people who invited you to come along and be part of an amazing experience. These three emotions stay with you the entire time you’re away, in constant flux depending on how the project is going. On some days, glee wins, other days it’s the guilt. Through it all though, you hang on to the feeling of hope. Hope that when your child is old enough to understand, they think you’re the coolest parent in the world.

~Annamaria DeAngelis

Todd Pusser carrying daughter on shoulders

An adventure and the potential to learn about species never before seen alive in the wild is powerful motivation for a naturalist. Time spent in the field is immensely rewarding, but it comes at a cost, especially when it comes to family life. My two-and-a-half-year-old daughter is growing at a phenomenal rate.  Each day finds her expanding her vocabulary and developing more and more into her own little person. Missing those little moments — sliding down the slide at the playground, catching a caterpillar in the backyard, looking for shells at the beach — has been hard. 

Fortunately, my partner is a marine biologist and understands the demands of fieldwork. She is doing an incredible job holding down the fort back home and looking after our daughter and two demanding dogs, all the while holding a 9-to-5 job of her own. Frequent communication, in the form of text messages, helps to alleviate much of the stress of being away for so long. Despite seeing some amazing things out here, I am really looking forward to reuniting with the pack and am quietly counting the days till I get back home. 

~Todd Pusser