And the answer is…

Mesoplodon carlhubbsi. Photo by Todd Pusser.

We are home. Our research equipment is cleaned, packed, crated off the Pacific Storm, and stored locally or shipped to our various colleagues around the country who collaborated with us on this project. GYREX team members have all scattered to their respective winds (some on the other side of the country), and the Storm is already off on other adventures.

But the science continues. Remember that critical biopsy sample we collected from one of our pair of mystery beaked whales? That was the first thing we took from our vessel. It went straight to our Cetacean Conservation and Genomics laboratory at Hatfield Marine Science Center, and Scott Baker and Debbie Steel immediately went to work. Five days later we had our answer. Our mystery whales are Mesoplodon carlhubbsi. This is the Latin name; the common name is Hubbs’ beaked whale. And our biopsied whale is a female.

Our now-identified mystery whale: A female Mesoplodon carlhubbsi. Photo by Todd Pusser.

Let’s put this into perspective.

In 1945, Carl Leavitt Hubbs, a preeminent American ichthyologist, described a beaked whale found alive in the surf near his office in La Jolla, California. Although misidentified originally, the skull and color pattern were different from any whale previously known to science and it ultimately became recognized as a new species — Hubbs’ beaked whale. But for the next 50 years, it would be known only from specimens found dead on beaches.

Fast forward to 1994. The NOAA research vessel Surveyor was conducting a marine mammal survey off the coast of Oregon, when the science team (including Robert Pitman, GYREX visual survey lead) spotted a group of Hubbs’ beaked whales, identified by the unique color pattern of the adult male. It was the first and only time this species had ever been identified alive in the wild. And it would not be identified alive again — until GYREX.

Meanwhile, acousticians, including GYREX acoustics lead, Jay Barlow, were busy listening to the oceans and recording beaked whale signals. One of these, a distinctive and unique signal previously recorded in 2016 and 2018, was named “BW37V” in a paper published in 2019. And it was on the day of our extraordinary encounter with that pair of mystery beaked whales that our GYREX acoustics team recorded it again! BW37V is Hubbs’ Beaked Whale!

Linking an acoustic call with a visual description of a poorly known whale and confirming the species identification through genetics is an extremely powerful tool. Instantly, we now know a lot more about the at-sea distribution of this rare whale; it occurs everywhere BW37V has been recorded! And our visual sightings will provide guidance for future marine mammal scientists at sea encountering mystery beaked whales at the surface — maybe they too are Hubbs’ beaked whales?!

Science often (most often) is part serendipity. In our case, engine transmission problems forced us to give up on our expedition to the infamous garbage patch of the Eastern Pacific Gyre. But after a quick repair in Newport, we used our remaining sea time to explore the offshore waters of Oregon and solved a mystery in our own backyard (although, perhaps only oceanographers and fishermen would consider 197 miles to be our backyard). This — adversity, challenge, risk, camaraderie, and occasionally, extraordinary discovery — is why I became a marine scientist.

~Lisa T. Ballance

A mystery beaked whale trifecta

Maps of beaked whale distribution are usually filled with question marks — often more question marks than confirmed sighting locations. These are not small animals (imagine a dolphin that weighs as much as a Clydesdale horse), so what is the problem?

Beaked whales are incredibly difficult to see. They spend mere minutes at the surface and then can disappear for an hour or more. They typically occur in small groups. They become almost invisible in rough seas. And the diagnostic characteristic used to visually identify them to species — the location, size, and shape of teeth in the lower jaw — can only be used for males.

Imagine if we could detect them in any sea conditions and identify them to species just by listening for their distinctive echolocation signals. Our expedition has brought us one step closer to making that hope a reality.

On September 22, Annamaria was monitoring the sounds coming in from our hydrophone towed behind Pacific Storm. Software was translating the inaudible, ultrasonic signals into visual representations, and her computer screen showed a type of beaked whale signal she had never seen before. When, after just three minutes, the mystery whales stopped vocalizing, she knew they would soon be surfacing, so she directed the vessel toward where she thought they were. Despite high winds and heavy seas, making for poor sighting conditions, all aboard were called to join the search with the faint hope of finding the whales before their next dive. After 80 minutes of searching, the two whales found us! They repeatedly approached our research vessel during the next 40 minutes, allowing us to take thousands of photographs and video recordings!

The mystery beaked whale. Photo by Todd Pusser.

Amazingly, despite these close looks, we were unable to identify them to species (once again highlighting how little we know about this group of whales)! But our expedition team does not give up easily. Standing on the bow with crossbow in hand, Bob took aim and fired a two foot-long, lightweight dart at one of the whales. It bounced off the back and landed in the water, floating with the definitive prize: a pencil eraser–sized piece of skin and blubber of our mystery whale caught in the dart tip! This biopsy sample held the key to this species identification in the DNA the tissue contained!

The biopsy dart retrieves a valuable skin sample of the mystery beaked whale. Photo by Todd Pusser.

But the tension would not be relieved until that sample was safely aboard. Two oranges offered up by our cook were thrown to help us keep the floating dart in view while we retrieved our hydrophone (requiring 20 minutes of hand-hauling in heavy seas with the vessel in full stop as the dart and oranges slowly drifted farther and farther away). Pressure mounted as Yogi expertly maneuvered our vessel alongside the bobbing dart. Craig dipped a salmon net into the water and landed our prize on the deck as we all cheered. We had achieved a mystery beaked whale trifecta: acoustic recordings, photographs, and a biopsy sample!

The mystery beaked whale in action. Video by Jay Barlow.

Watch this space for the DNA results!

~Jay Barlow

Quiet on the set

Part of the reason so little is known about the 23 recognized species of beaked whales is because they are so skittish at the surface. Vessels rarely approach within a few hundred meters before the whales slip under the waves, never to be seen again. Depending on the species, individual beaked whales can weigh anywhere from 1 to 12 tons, leaving them with seemingly little to fear in the ocean, but killer whales are nevertheless known to prey on them. Not surprisingly, beaked whales have evolved various behaviors that help them minimize contact with killer whales.

As deep divers — some to almost 3000 meters — beaked whales use echolocation to detect their prey (mainly squid and fish). Although beaked whales can out-dive them, killer whales have the benefit of superior hearing abilities. Consequently, when beaked whales surface to breathe, they quit vocalizing several minutes and several hundred meters below the surface. Then instead of coming straight up, they veer off in random directions to avoid detection by eavesdropping killer whales. At the surface, the beaked whales take a few quick gulps of air and then descend to several hundred meters for 10 minutes or more, before surfacing again. They do a series of these relatively shallow breathing dives before they make their deep foraging dive — the less time they spend at the surface and the less noise they make there, the less likely they are to attract bad company.

A Baird’s beaked whale spotted by the GyreX team near Heceta Bank, Oregon, shows visible tooth rake marks from a killer whale attack.

Beaked whales also have some physical features that make them harder to capture. Their pectoral flippers tuck into “pockets,” making them flush with the body and difficult for a killer whale to bite onto. The dorsal fin, instead of being mid-body like fast-swimming dolphins, is positioned back toward the flukes so that when the tail is pumping up and down, it is also going to be very difficult for a killer whale to grab ahold of.

At 35 feet in length, Baird’s beaked whale (Berardius bairdii) is the largest species of beaked whale, but it is still vulnerable to attacks by packs of killer whales. The photo above shows one of the Baird’s beaked whales that we encountered near Heceta Bank, Oregon; the enlargement reveals tooth rake scars on its dorsal fin left by an attacking killer whale. This whale got away, but Baird’s beaked whales often have killer whale tooth rake marks on them, and it can be assumed that others aren’t so lucky. Little wonder they are wary of their time spent at the surface.

~Bob Pitman

And on a personal note…

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

What do acousticians do?

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

Sei what?

A photograph of a sei whale spotted from the Pacific Storm shows its distinctive dorsal fin. Photo by Todd Pusser.

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.

Encountering Baird’s beaked whales

“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

If it were easy, it would have already been done

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

Coming home

A welcome sight: the Yaquina Bay Bridge at night. Photo by Craig Hayslip.

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

Science at sea

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.