Whale hello there: Foster Scholar Angela Szesciorka tracks whale behavior near ships

By Yaamini Venkataraman

April 2018

Dr. Nancy Foster Scholar Angela Szesciorka’s research sounds simple enough. For her Ph.D. at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, she studies the impact of shipping on blue, humpback, and fin whales throughout the four national marine sanctuaries off of California – Channel Islands, Monterey Bay, Greater Farallones, and Cordell Bank. She figures out where the ships go, then figures out where the whales go, and sees how they intersect.

But it’s not that simple.

angela szesciorka driving a boat
Szesciorka searches for humpback whales in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary while driving a rigid-hulled inflatable boat. Photo courtesy of Angela Szesciorka

Between spring and fall, several whale species flock to West Coast national marine sanctuaries to feed. As they fill up on food to prepare for the winter mating season, they fill the marine environment with whale calls. But they are not the only ones that make noise. These sanctuaries intersect with prime shipping routes, and noise from ships could interrupt the whales’ feeding behavior. Szesciorka wants to connect what whales hear with their behavior to see how ship noise might impact these whales.

Tracking ships is the easy part — they are required to transmit their location every six seconds to the Coast Guard. Tracking the whales gets a little tricky. Many marine mammal scientists outfit animals with a tag that can collect data for them. This activity is carried out under permit, so researchers can approach whales more closely than the public is generally allowed to. Szesciorka spent years with her collaborators at Cascadia Research developing the tags she uses.

From a boat, Szeciorka attaches her tag to the whale using a suction cup or small dart. As soon as it’s attached, the tag starts collecting and storing time, location, and depth information so Szesciorka can track the whale’s movement in the water. The tags also track the animal’s physical orientation. Szesciorka can tell not only where the whale is, but determine if it’s lunging to feed — important information for her to have if she’s trying to connect shipping noise with feeding behavior. The tag usually records data for three to five days, then releases from the whale. Sometimes, the tag can stay on the whale for three weeks, providing Szeciorka with a treasure trove of data.

a whale surfaces with a cargo ship in the background
When whales migrate to West Coast national marine sanctuaries to feed, they are often greeted by shipping traffic. Photo courtesy of Angela Szesciorka/NMFS Permit #15271

Just because a humpback whale is tagged in a national marine sanctuary doesn’t mean it has to stay there. If a whale travels from one of America’s underwater treasures to Mexico’s Baja California, for example, then Szesciorka has to be ready to race down there in case the tag pops off. Tags can easily be damaged once they aren’t attached to a whale, and damaged tags mean lost data. Of course, retrieving a tag is no easy task. She’s had to wait out hurricanes, then race to retrieve a tag before it stopped transmitting its location.

“It’s all an adventure trying to get some of these tags,” Szesciorka says. "The satellite only gets you so close to the tag, and you need the radio to get you closer. You are depending on a lot of different technologies not failing.”

researchers in a small boat attach a suction tag to a whale
Szesciorka spent years developing medium-duration archival tags to collect all the information she needs. When the tag is stuck to the whale, it starts collecting time, location, and depth information so Szesciorka can track the whale’s movement in the water. After a few days, it pops off and the whale swims away unharmed. Szesciorka then begins the race to collect the tag before it gets damaged and she loses valuable information. Photo courtesy of Angela Szesiorka/NMFS Permit #15271

National marine sanctuary waters are crucial feeding grounds for many whale species, says Szesciorka. “It’s really important for the whales to come and feed.” Plus, she adds, the whales’ presence is inspiring: “It allows humans to get glimpses of these animals. If you ever have a chance to see a humpback whale surface lunge feeding, it’s really a beautiful sight.”

The National Marine Sanctuary System encourages and supports a variety of uses, and the ocean off the West Coast plays an important role in the California economy. Szesciorka is helping to finetune our understanding of whales’ behavior when they are in close proximity to large ships.

Szesciorka’s next steps are to incorporate more detail about the noise in an area, how loud different ships are, chronic ship exposure, and expand her work to blue and fin whales as well.

So what is simple? Szesciorka’s desire to give back to the sanctuary system.

“The Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship Program has provided so much that I want to continue to find ways to give back to them. I cannot imagine not working with them or for them,” Szesciorka says. “I’m at your service.”

Yaamini Venkataraman is a volunteer social media intern for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and a graduate student at the University of Washington.