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Citizen Scientists Chart the Pacific's Great Whales

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A fin whale off the Southern California coast... or is it? | Photo: Jason Goldman

Another story in our series on citizen science in California, as part of Redefine's celebration of Citizen Science Day on April 16.

All the signs suggested it was a fin whale, but Kera Mathes wasn't entirely convinced. To be sure it was a fin whale, she wanted to get a glimpse of the right side of the leviathan's lower jaw. Fin whales are mostly grey and black but they've got some white mottling there. If she could just get a quick peek, she could confirm that it was, indeed, the second largest creature on Earth. There was a mere sliver of a chance that it could be a Bryde's whale, a member of the group of whales known as Mysticetes, or baleen whales, like the fin. Perhaps only a dozen Bryde's whales have been spotted off the California coast, and fin whales are quite common at this time of year cruising along near the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. "It just looked a little girthier to me, for its size," she said. It was probably just a well-fed, fat fin whale, and that's what Alee Jimenez recorded on her data sheet.

Mathes is an education specialist at the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific and Jimenez is one of her interns. The aquarium runs a popular whale watch program twice every day of the week, and at least one intern is on each one of those cruises. For every cetacean sighting – that's the group of animals that includes both whales and dolphins – the interns record the species, time, weather conditions, and the boat's GPS coordinates. They also take photos of each animal, at least when conditions permit decent photos to be taken.

The volunteer whale watch interns are either in college or have recently graduated. "They're trying to get experience in the field doing some kind of data collection," says Mathes. Most aspire to careers in wildlife biology or in conservation, and many are particularly interested in marine mammals. A Valencia, California native, Jimenez became interested in wildlife when she became involved with The Student Conservation Association in her sophomore year of high school, which eventually led to a college degrees in wildlife science and marine science. After graduating, she flew back to California for the internship, she says, "because, whales." Obviously.

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Mathes founded this internship program at the aquarium in 2010, while working as a naturalist educator for the whale-watching program. She realized that she was in a position to contribute to cetacean research in a way that most scientists aren't, since she was spending six hours on the water nearly every day.

That's when she reached out to whale scientists at the Olympia, Washington-based Cascadia Research Collective, to find out how she might help. Researchers there had compiled a database of individual blue and fin whales known to swim along the Pacific Coast of North America. The whales in the photos she was taking on her whale watching cruises off the coast of Long Beach could be matched to those in the database; the data would help the researchers maintain a long term profile of each individual whale's movements and behaviors.

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This blue whale, pictured in 2013, was also photographed in 2009. Comparing photos gives researchers a glimpse into whales' long-term activities. | Photo: Aquarium of the Pacific

After two years in which Mathes was informally sending photos to Cascadia, the two organizations more formally began to collaborate in 2010, when the idea for the internship was born. Not only do the interns take the photos, they also compare every blue whale photo they take against the database of known whales. (The fin whale photos are sent directly to Cascadia where their researchers do the matching themselves.)

After the internship program had been running for a while, Mathes realized she was still sitting on a ton of unused data. The Blue and Fin whale research was buzzing along, but she had photos, along with weather, time, and position data, for all the other cetaceans observed as well: humpback whales, sperm whales, grey whales, minke whales, sei whales, Risso's dolphins, Pacific white-sided dolphins, orcas, bottlenose dolphins, Dall's porpoises, and others. Luckily, researchers from San Diego State University and from NOAA were interested in some of the bottlenose dolphin data. The interns were already collecting the data itself every day, but they were already busy enough with the blue whale photo-ID matching tasks. To photo-identify the dolphins, Mathes decided to turn to citizen scientists.

Identifying bottlenose dolphins is a bit easier than blue whales, and requires a bit less training. It's the perfect recipe for a citizen science program. Even still, this kind of project is considerably different than many others, because the barrier to entry is quite a bit higher.

Participating in, say, the Natural History Museum's Squirrel Survey is quite easy by comparison: all people have to do is snap a photo with their smartphones and upload it to the iNaturalist app, or share it on social media using the hashtag #NatureinLA. To participate in the aquarium's dolphin program, on the other hand, requires a commitment of four hours a week for at least three months. That's in part because Mathes and her colleagues devote quite a bit of time to training their citizen scientists, effort that would be wasted if folks only gave them a couple hours of work here and there. And it's work that has to be completed at the aquarium itself. (The interns, by comparison, commit to 20 hours each week for a minimum of four months.)

Some folks, of course, are more than eager to spend that kind of time helping scientists understand the natural world. One citizen scientist, Maggie Snelgrove, began as an intern in 2014 after graduating from Smith College, and was so excited by the work that she decided to continue on as a citizen scientist. She's now been working on photo-identifying whales and dolphins for more than a year and a half, making a considerable contributing to scientific knowledge generation in the process.

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Common dolphins | Photo: Jason Goldman

Indeed, the data collected and analyzed by these volunteers provides a wealth of critical information for cetacean conservation. One of the issues that Cascadia researchers are currently interested in is whale mortality due to ship strikes. If a shipping vessel moves too fast, a whale might not have enough time to avoid getting hit. Once hit, virtually all become the nautical version of roadkill. And with two of the country's busiest ports side-by-side, the waters off of Southern California aren't particularly safe for these imperiled ocean giants. Fin whales are classified as endangered, as is the blue whale.

Since ocean traffic isn't likely to decrease in any time soon, wildlife biologists and conservation managers instead have to work with shipping companies to figure out how to decrease the risk to wildlife. And that requires understanding where, when, and why marine mammals spend time in the middle of busy shipping lanes. While the observations conducted on a whale watching cruise are opportunistic – the boat isn't cruising along routine, pre-planned transects, instead explicitly seeking out the creatures to delight paying visitors – they still offer more than 2000 observation hours each year, and many hundreds to thousands of photos, depending on the species.

Plus the interns and citizen scientists get the added bonus of studying some of the most charismatic critters we've got. "These are my favorite parts of the week," says Jimenez.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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