NOAA Live! Webinar 59 - Whale and Seek: The Underwater Lives of Whales
- Welcome to NOAA Live. My name is Grace Simpkins and I'm going to be moderating today's webinar. This series is sponsored by NOAA's regional collaboration network, which is spread across the country and helps connect people to all that NOAA does.
It's also sponsored by Woods Hole Sea Grant, where I work, which is located at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution here in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. This series is designed to help you get to know NOAA and some of our incredible experts. All of our speakers work for some part of NOAA. That's the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And today it's my pleasure to be introducing you to Dave Wiley. with NOAA's Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Scituate, Massachusetts.
Now, while we'll be talking today about NOAA's role in studying whale movement, we want to recognize that we are all coming to you from traditional lands of Native communities who have substantial traditional and local knowledge and much to share with us. We acknowledge that Dave and I are both coming to you from the land of the Wampanoag Nation. We are hosting this webinar from the ancestral lands of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and the Wampanoag tribe of Gay Head, Aquinnah. A few guidelines before I hand it over to Dave: you are all muted because we have a lot of people on the line and want to make sure that everyone can hear Dave, however the same box where wrote in where you're from, you can write questions.
We encourage you to write questions the whole time. I'll be keeping track of them and Dave will stop every now and then to answer a few. We might not get to all of your questions but we'll try and get to as many as possible. Now, enough of me talking, because I know you really want to hear from Dave and see some of his amazing footage. So with that, I'm going to turn it over to you, Dave.
- Thanks, grace. I'm really looking forward to this talk. Talking to kids from around the country is really exciting and trying to share our research and, and show you some of the things we've learned about whales and really just how cool whales are is, is just going to be really fun for me. As Grace said, I get tired if I hear my own voice too long so we're going to stop and hopefully you have lots of questions and I'll have maybe some good answers. We'll just have to see what that, that has to show. This is me at six and me at 60.
Maybe you can figure out which picture is which. But I didn't see the ocean until I was 20-some years old. I actually grew up in upstate New York. I was one of those kids that was always out in the woods looking at frogs and looking at turtles and snakes and catching them and bringing them home.
But then I moved to the ocean after college and was lucky enough to, to start studying whales. And I really have to say, I've one of the coolest jobs that you can possibly imagine. I spend a lot of time on the ocean and small boats, close to whales, as you'll find out here in a second, trying to figure out what they do, and the reason I want to find out what they do is not only because I'm curious, but also I want to protect them. Whales get caught in fishing gear and hit by boats. And it's important that we figure out how to keep that from happening. This is a map of the National Marine Sanctuary System, where I work.
Some of you probably live by National Marine Sanctuaries. I don't know if anybody by, the that's on this call, is by a sanctuary, but you might want to put it in the chat if you are. 'Cause it's kind of neat to know. My sanctuary is up here in new England, northeast part of the United States, with this big red star. So that's the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.
There it is, right- (overlapping chatter) - [Grace] I was just going to say, if anyone would like to tell us what sanctuary they're from, you can type it in the chat box. I know we have some folks from near Thunder Bay. Hudson said that they were a few hours away. But anyone who wants to share what sanctuary is closest to them can write it in the chat box for us. And I'll, I'll join you after you tell us about Stellwagen.
- Sure. And I, I thought I heard some people from Massachusetts, so there'll be some people maybe that Stellwagen is the closest one. So here's where Stellwagen is located right here. This little white line is the outline of the border of the sanctuary, our office is right there in Scituate. And it's about 630-some square miles nautical miles in, in space.
So it's not huge, but it's pretty big. It's about the size of the state of Rhode Island for you New Englanders. - [Grace] All right, so I, I just want to report that we do have some folks from the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuaries, some folks that are close to that.
So I think we've got Thunder Bay. Oh, we've got someone, Clare, is near the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. And we got Kimberly and Chris near Monterey Bay.
Patricia is near Stellwagen. India is near Mallows Bay. So we've got some good coverage today.
- Great, great. Yay, Stellwagen. - [Grace] All right, back to you, Dave. - Okay. Thanks grace.
So as I said, one of the things, reasons I study whales is really to try and keep them safe from, from injury and even death. You're looking here on a map on the left-hand side, there's a bunch of red dots on it. And those red dots are where whales have been hit and killed by boats, up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States.
And this happens on the west coast as well. That little block you see right there, that dense spot of red dots is Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. And we used to be a hotspot for, for whales getting hit by boats. Not anymore because of some of our research and efforts. But whenever you put lots of whales and lots of boats together, there's a danger of whales getting hit by boats. Another thing that happens to whales is that they get caught in fishing gear.
Here's our sanctuary again. And because we have lots of fishing and lots of whales, we have whales that also get caught in fishing gear and these dots show where whales have been sighted. Now, a whale that's caught in gear can swim a long way. So they're not necessarily being caught in Stellwagen Sanctuary, just sighted there, because we've got lots of people, lots of whale-watching boats, looking for whales there as well. The Stellwagen bank sanctuary is considered the top place in the United States for seeing Marine life. Stuff that entangles whales, lobster traps sit on the ocean bottom, and they have got these lines that the whales can swim into and get entangled in.
Our research, and other work by NOAA, has made these lines now sit along the bottom. So they're not going to be quite as dangerous for whales. This is a gillnet. It's sitting along the bottom. It looks kind of like a tennis net that's sticking up from the bottom and rises up, and the whales can swim into those as well.
So these are two things that are really dangerous for whales. And we're going to try to figure out how whales use the water to keep them out of this, these dangers. So that's a bit of a, of time. Anybody have any questions they want to go over now? - [Grace] All right. So, Mrs. Wickham is wondering:
when was Stellwagen Bank established? When, when was the, when was it set up? - Yep, 1992. So we've been around for, for a pretty long time and I've been working there since 2003. - [Grace] Nice.
And this is one of the questions that I love. Oh, this is Grace from the chat box, by the way. So one of our regulars is asking: what's your favorite part of your job? - Well, my favorite part of my job is, is what you're looking at right here. I love to put tags on whales and, and see what they do underwater, but you know, another part of my job, you see all these birds flying around here? These are called shearwaters and I also catch those birds and put satellite tags on them to see how they fly around and, and use the world.
And those birds actually fly from here all the way down to the Tristen islands, which are between the tip of South Africa and the tip of South America. - [Grace] Great. Okay. I'm going to hold off on any questions but I just want to remind folks that you can write questions in that question box the whole time and I'll keep track of them for Dave. So don't be afraid to write your questions. And one last one, before we move on, and I, I told you this was going to come, Dave, Patricia wonders, or Abigail wonders: which whale is your favorite? - Well, you're looking at my favorite. And for those of you that don't know this picture, there's one, two, three, four whales there and these are their mouths open.
So you're seeing humpback whales. These are my favorites. And the reason that my favorite is because they're really active. And as you'll see, I think they're really smart. And they do some really crazy things that we're just learning about. So yeah, I would have to say humpback whales, my favorite; the ones that I'm most about are North Atlantic right whales.
There's only about 350 of those left in the world. And they get hit by boats and caught in fishing gear too. So a lot of the work that I do on humpback whales I also do on right whales, because they actually might go extinct within the lifetime of the people listening to this presentation, if we don't do something soon. So my favorite are humpbacks. The ones I'm most worried about are right whales.
- [Grace] Excellent, well, I'm going to save the rest of the questions and let you move on, Dave. Thank you. - Okay. I'll move on here.
Now, those of you in Hawaii, this is actually some footage taken in Hawaii. And if you're going to study animals you have to know what they're doing, right? And in Hawaii, you can actually look at them. You know, you can dive down and the water is really clear and you can see what's going on. Up on Stellwagen Bank feeding area, so our water isn't clear at all. It's really cloudy because there's so much life. So we can't watch whales like this.
So we have to do other things to learn what whales do underwater. And what we do is we put tags on their backs and then they swim around and tell us what they're doing. So here we are, this is our inflatable boat. This is one of our teammates, Mike Thompson.
He's got a long pole and he's going to put a tag on the whale's back. And I like to just make sure everybody realize these tags are held on by suction cups. So it's kind of like you're going to have a little dark gun with a rubber tip on it and you can shoot it onto your friend's forehead, and it sticks there.
That's kind of what these whale tags are. And different tags tell us different things. And I think Grace might have a whale to help do this, but they will tell us how deep they are in the water. That's one of the things that tag will tell us. It tells us what their pitch is. Are they going up in the water column? Are they going down in the water column? It tells us if they're rolling from side to side, and it also tells us how they're headed, what direction they're traveling in.
Some of them have a camera in them that actually lets us look at from the back of the whale and see what the whale is seeing in front of it. And some of them have hydrophones, so we can hear what the whales are hearing and hear what the whales are saying. So all these tags are really cool and they're telling us different things. We've got this big team on this little boat, that everybody has a different function. So there is a person that's videotaping the whole thing.
So we know how the whales are reacting. I drive to the boat, but this is a person that's doing photo ID, so we know who we are tagging. And lots of times we'll know how old the whale is, if it's a male or a female, we know its name.
And then there's a person behind her that's doing what we call: behavioral sequencing. So she's writing down everything the whales are doing on the surface, so we can tie that into what they're doing underwater. So it's a big team doing lots of stuff. This is one of the tags that goes in the whale's back and you see how big it is.
And these are the suction cups. That'll hold it on. And it doesn't stay on real long. These aren't tags that are meant to stay on for months.
They really stay on for maybe 10 to 25, 26 hours. So they give us lots and lots of information for a short period of time. So sometimes with NOAA, we'd go out with, weeks at a time, and use these big NOAA boats.
And we'd launch our little boats from there, because you can't tag a whale off a big boat like that. There's actually a tag on this whale. Can you guys find it? It's a white tag, actually.
I don't know if he had a white one in the last picture. So I'll give you a little bit of help there. So there's the tag right there on the whale's back. Here's another one.
This is our boats in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. There's our NOAA logo, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. And there's a tag on this whale's back, too.
I'll help you out. It's green. So maybe you can locate it on the whale's back. There it is. And that'll stay on with that suction cup, maybe eight, I think the longest we've had one on has been 38 hours.
So they stay on a pretty long time for a suction cup. So as I said, we use a long pole to put it on, there's the tag pole and the tag is right there. I'm going to let you watch us put a tag on, while I let my dog in, who's insisting on coming in.
So the idea is to approach the whales pretty slowly so that they don't feel threatened. And so you can kind of get close to them and put that tag on, because they know you're there. And if you worry them, they dive pretty quickly and get away. Sometimes they're swimming faster. And so we have to move a little bit faster to catch up with them. So this is Leah, and she's got the tag, again, on the tip of her pole there.
And again, those whales are swimming a little bit faster than the ones you saw earlier. So we're going to have to go catch up with them. And this was actually Leah's first time tagging a whale.
So it was very exciting. Okay, get ready. The whale's coming up. There it is. And we do sometimes get wet, as you can see. So there there's the tag, and again, it's going to stay on that whale's back, collecting data.
Now we have to get the tag back. So the tag will float to the surface and here's a tag. So there's the tag there. It's still on the whale, but when it comes off, we have this thing here. There's a little transmitter inside that tag that goes: beep beep beep beep.
And with this antenna and some equipment, if you're pointing directly at the tag the beep is really loud. And if you're pointing away from the tag the beep is really soft. So that's how we can figure out where the tag is. And when the tag comes off, we actually have to find that little tag in the water, sometimes in the middle of the night, and using that, that equipment, we can figure out where the tag is and pick it up with a net. And then we attach it to our computer and download the data, and then put that same tag back on another whale, the next day. This is another person that's working with these really high-tech, laser range-finding binoculars that will tell us where the whale is.
Give us a loud and long. And this is that behavioral sequencing person I was telling you about that's writing down every time the animal takes a breath or does anything at the surface, so we can tie that information into what we learned from underwater. Question time, anybody got a question or two? - [Grace] This is Grace from the chat box.
And I have to report Dave, we have a lot of questions. So I'm going to, I'm going to go through a bunch of them, rapid fire. And I, I kind of answered this one, but Mrs. Wickham was wondering:
has anyone ever fallen off the boat? - No, we have not. - [Grace] And Hadley wonders: how far out do you have to go to tag the whales? - Oh, let's see. Sometimes we only have to go like 10 miles offshore. Sometimes we go 40 or 50 miles offshore.
Kind of depends where the food is for the whales and where they decide to spend their time. - [Grace] And Rose was asking: do you recover and use the tags? And I know you answered that, but there are a couple of questions about that. How do you recover the tags? So if you could just answer that again. - Yep, sure. The tag has a little transmitter on it, that beeps. And when it comes off the whale or even when it's on the whale, when it's on the surface, it's making this: beep beep beep.
And we use that antenna. And if you're pointing right at the tag, you know, even though it's maybe five or six miles away, you can hear it and it'll get, go: beep beep beep. And if you're not pointing right at it, it'll go: beep. You'll hardly even hear it.
So you can, moving that, that antenna around so that you're going straight at the loudest beep, and that will eventually take you to the tag. And we pick it up out of the water. - [Grace] Excellent.
And Talia asks: what zone in the water do you mostly find whales? So where in the water column are they spending a lot of their time? And if you're going to answer that later, you can put that question off. Or if you want to answer it now. - I am going to answer that later. So let's put that off Talia. And if I haven't answered it to your satisfaction, jump on me towards the end, but I think I will.
- [Grace] And Anthony is wondering: how do whales stay underwater so long without taking a breath? - Oh, they are just really, really good at holding their breath. And they also have this extra stuff in their muscle called myoglobin. You have hemoglobin in your blood, which it stores oxygen.
So whales have that too. But then they have this stuff called myoglobin in their muscle. So they're storing more oxygen in their bodies than you do. And they also, when they exhale and inhale they really, because they have a lot of force, they really get a lot more oxygen into their lungs sometimes than you do. And when people inhale and exhale you don't exchange a lot of the, there's a lot of dead airspace in your lungs, where whales don't have that much dead airspace.
- [Grace] Great. And India asks: do they ever, do the whales ever accidentally eat the birds that are around them when they're feeding? - That's a really good question. Usually it's the birds that are flying into the whale's mouths and grabbing food.
I've seen them actually perched up on the tip of the whales heads and looking into the whale's mouth. But every once in a while, I'll see one that times things badly and, and the whale will close its mouth, and the bird is still in there. But they don't swallow. The whales, a whale's throat is only tiny, you know, a whale's throat isn't much bigger than like an orange. So they really couldn't even swallow a bird.
(overlapping murmuring) - [Grace] I have to tell you, this is fascinating and we have so many more questions but I'm going to hold off, because I know you have some really great things to show us. So if your question wasn't answered, don't worry. It's on my list. Back to you, Dave.
- Okay. Thanks, Grace. Good questions everybody. Okay. This is kind of cool. This is what our tag gives us.
Okay, so we put the tag, and this is actually the swim path of a whale. So we've got this cool computer program called Track Plot that actually takes the data from the tag and creates this 3D ribbon track, that is really what the whale did. So let's take a look at this. So if you can follow my pointer here, this is the whale on the surface and it's swimming along the surface, and you see these little red bumps on the top? That's the whale's tail. We call it the flukes. And when the whale's tail goes up and down that's what pushes it through the water.
So every time that whales tail goes up and down, if it goes up it's red, if it goes down it's blue. So you'll see some blue ones down here. So here you see it alternating, red, blue, red, blue, red, blue. That's because the tail is going up and down and up and down and up and down. But check this out. So the whale's moving along the surface and this is stuff we didn't know, and then it dives, but when it dives, it just stops fluking and it just coasts right down to the bottom.
And that's because, and you were asking about it holding its breath, right? And when the whale's lungs, when it dives down into the water, that pressure collapses its lungs. And so it gets more dense. So it gets heavier. And so it's heavy enough that it just sinks right down to the bottom without having to lose any energy at all. Doesn't even swim. And along the bottom, you can see, it's going to have to start fluking along the bottom.
And how about when it goes up though? It's dense, so what's it going to have to do to go up? Bump, bump, bump, bump, bump, bump, these are tail flukes. So it's going to have to power itself up, but as it gets closer to the surface that pressure releases, its lungs expand. It gets more buoyant, and then it just floats back to the top.
And so now you can look at all sorts of things along the bottom, here. Here, you see this fold in the ribbon? That fold is when the whale's turning on its side. So one of the things that the tag does is gives us lots and lots of cool numbers.
So this is called the scattergram, for those of you that like numbers and math, and basically it tells you what the whale is doing. So let's see, we've got a big bunch of numbers right here and that is at the number zero, zero. You probably can't see that chart, but that's when the whale looks like this. Zero is when it's flat, pitch is flat, and it's not rolled to the side at all. So just flat without any rolling.
Then we've got this other big bunch of numbers down here and that's at 30 degrees down, and 90, pitch of 30 degrees and 90-degree roll. So the whale's going to look like this: pitched down, head down 30 degrees, and rolled over onto its side 90 degrees. And it's doing that in all of these little fold marks. So it's doing it all over the place. So one of our questions, we didn't even know the whales did this when we first got the tag data back, and we're going: what the heck is going on down there? And here's a couple hours in the life of a whale. So I color coded the full, the roll is yellow.
So you can see all the time it's down on the bottom rolling onto its side here. And again, you can see it swimming to get itself up to the surface and diving down without using any flukes. So I really like this picture myself. It's a couple hours in the life of a humpback whale. And so what are the whales doing down there? Okay, so here we have our tag data that says the whales are going down and almost rubbing its head along the bottom. So what's down in the bottom that would interest a whale? Our whales eat fish, and this is a particular fish that they love to eat, it's called a sand lance.
They're may be four or five inches long and as big and round as your thumb, but look where they hide. They hide in the sand, and they can dive down into the sand. So they're a really hard thing to eat. So, if a whale's going to get them, they've got to go down to the bottom, and they even rub their faces on the bottom. Here see this whale, and its face, this is actually a whale's face.
This is this lower jaw. This is upper jaw. And you can see, it's all kind of scratched up here. And that's because it's rubbing its face along the bottom trying to catch these fish.
This is kind of cool. This is a left-handed whale, right? Cause if you look, it's rolled onto its left side to all that abrasion is on the left side. So we have left-handed and right-handed whales. And most whales are right-handed, just like people. And really it's the same proportion of right-handed whales and right-handed people and left-handed whales and left-handed people.
So that's kind of crazy, huh? So here's a track of a whale. Now, one of the nice things in the Stellwagen Sanctuary, we have these great maps of what the bottom is like and this is a sediment map. So the bottom where it's gray is going to be made up of gravel bottom. The bottom where it's brown is going to be made up of mud bottom, and the tan is going to be made up of sand. So if you look at this and all these little squiggly things here that's where the animals are doing those side roles along the bottom.
So what kind of bottom do you think they do the side-rolls in most of the time? Do you think it's over a mud, over sand, or over gravel? - [Grace] All right, I'm going to start, this is Grace from the chat box. I'm going to start the poll. So when you see the poll show up what I want you to do is either click on it, if you're on a, if you're on a tablet, you can click on it with your finger, or if you're on a computer, you can use your mouse. Answer that question. Where are most of the whales feeding? Do you think it's sand? Do you think it's mud? Do you think it's gravel? So we're going to see what everybody's saying.
I'm going to give you just a couple more seconds to answer. I see we've got quite a few votes coming in and I, I think I warned you, Dave, that they are a very savvy crew. He was wondering if he'd have to give you a clue, but I have to tell you that overwhelmingly, 93% are saying sand, that they think that it's sand. - Nice, so I did not have to give you the clue that sand lance would be in what kind of sediment.
So 93% sand, good work. You guys are all going to be great scientists, someday. Good observers. That's what science is, being a good observer. So there you go.
Side-rolls occur over sand habitat, because they're trying to catch those sand lance fish. Awesome. Oh, more question time. - [Grace] We've got a lot of questions. I've been keeping track of them.
So this is Grace from the chat box. I'm glad that you stopped. So again, we'll, we'll get through as many as we can right now. So Mrs. Wickham's class was wondering: how many whales have you put tags on? - Oh, great question.
256. - [Grace] Wow. That's amazing. And Myra was, this is interesting, because I didn't think of this: does the Track Plot record when the animal's breaching? And you might want to tell everyone what a breach is, because Myra obviously knows, but others might not. - Yeah, I don't even think I have any pictures of a breaching whale in here, which is too bad. I should have.
Breaching is the term we use when they jumped right out of the water. And you can tell a Track Plot, when a whale is breaching because it really, the whale really uses its tail flukes hard as it comes to the surface. But you're right. We really can't. It doesn't go above those surface in terms of its data collection. So it stops collecting data when it, when it gets not out of the water so much but when it gets above the water, it just has a zero number.
So you, you know, the whale, it wouldn't say it was like plus 10 meters out of the water. It would just go to zero. Very good question. Love that one.
- [Grace] Excellent. I have a few just general whale questions that came in from folks. Mrs. Hairet's class is wondering: how many times does a whale have to come up for air in 24 hours? - Oh, I've never calculated that. We certainly could.
I can give you some, you could calculate that, because a whale, humpback whales usually breathe once. Well, let's see, they'll spend three to five maybe as long as 10, but rarely that, usually like five minutes below the surface then they'll come up and they'll take four or five breaths and go down for another five minutes. So if you figure they're taking, you know, five breaths every five minutes you could probably calculate that yourself. I've never done it.
Good question. - [Grace] Excellent. I love giving people, so that's the math problem we're assigning to you all to figure out. Let's see, I have a few other questions. McKenna wonders: do you know how many different kinds of whales there are? - Well, that depends on how people want to count them. Right, some people like to count whales in terms of, well, we call them lumpers and splitters.
I don't get into that, but maybe there's 10 species of baleen whales, those are the ones without teeth, and maybe 70 toothed whales. I'm just kind of guessing. I'm never good at fun facts like that, honestly. But that's something, something along those lines - [Grace] And someone from Mrs. Wickham's class is asking: how long does a whale live? Like how old are they? So maybe specifically for the humpback, what's the average life span? - Yeah, we're just, we don't really know for sure.
We're guessing maybe 70 to a hundred years, but it's hard to know. There's, there's nothing on them that you can really tell their age. We've had some animals that we've seen since 1970s that had calves then, and are still having calves now. There's some people, a friend of mine, Dr. Duke Robbins is looking at, at some things in the eyes that are giving them some ideas of how old they might be.
Bowhead whales, people think might live 200 years. So there's, there's different whales, different whales. There there's no such thing as a whale. There's this question before, how many different species of whales are there? And each one is really quite different and has different lifespans and different activities and different food habits.
So lots and lots of different whales and lots and lots of different things that they do. So each whale species has its own special things that it does, but humpback whales, we're thinking maybe 70 to a hundred years. Excellent. And since we're getting so many whale questions, I just want to remind you folks that we've done a couple of different webinars on whales. So if you want to, if you would like to hear some whale sounds we did a bioacoustics webinar that you can check out with Genevieve Davis. We did an aerial survey, how we study whales from the sky.
So if some of the questions that you're asking or I'm not able to ask them are not answered, you can check out some of our previous webinars. And I just want to, because a lot of different people have been asking this, the type of whale that Dave has been talking about tagging is the humpback. So his, his photos and the whale he's, the species he's talking about is the humpback.
And let's see, I had one, oh, Josh was wondering if the Track Plot used sonar frequency. - No, the Track Plot is just being pulled out of the tag. So it's called a synchronous motion tag. So it has pitch, roll, heading, depth, nd those are the different things, it's got, actually, gyroscopes, has got a bunch of different gyroscopes in it that, that give you all that different information about how the whale is moving through the water.
And then the Track Plot pulls out all that information and makes that ribbon track out of it. So it doesn't use sonar at all. - [Grace] Excellent. Well, there are so many questions. It's, it's really fascinating. And Dave, I'm going to give you this question.
I don't want you to answer yet cause I want you to think about it. You can answer it at the end, because Isabella wants to know: what's the weirdest thing you've seen on the water? So I know you might need to pick through all the weird things that you've seen when you're out there. So I'll ask you that again at the end, but for now, I'm going to hand it back to you to keep going. - Okay. Okay, let's go on. These are great questions. It's really fun for me.
Well, when we are trying to figure out what they do under water, you know, one, we had the Track Plot stuff, but we really couldn't see what the whales were doing. And so we decided we really wanted to be able to see. So we talked to National Geographic, and they gave us a camera called a Critter Cam, that goes on the back of the whale, and that's it right there. And that's like a movie camera that we're going to put on the back of the whale. So there it goes. And then we're going to put our regular tags.
So now we've got two tags on the whale that will tell us what they do. And now, so there are the two tags. This is the camera tag, and this is our regular computer and hydrophone tag. And once we tagged that whale, it went to sleep. And that was a little frustrating, because of course we wanted the well to dive down and tell us what was going on under water.
But it also was made us kind of happy because one of the things you have to worry about, well you tell me, what would you have to worry about if you stuck all this stuff on the back of a whale? Why would you have to worry? - [Grace] So this is Grace from the chat box. So you can write the answer in there. So if you're putting tags on whales, what sorts of questions might you ask yourselves as scientists that, that you might worry about? And Jennifer says, you might worry that they would fall off. Anybody have any other ideas? Rose says that you might worry that it's bothering the whales. - Yes, so let's talk about that one. - [Grace] Yup, they might get tangled.
Yeah, Abigail, also it might hurt them. So that's what some of the folks are saying, Dave. - Yep. Yep. And one of the reasons I only use suction cups is because I don't want to hurt them. But the one that I liked the best is that it might bother them. So if you're trying to learn about whales and the only thing you're learning is about a bothered whale, that's not really giving you very good information about what real whales do.
So you want to make sure you're not bothering the whale. And the fact that after we put this tag on, the whale went to sleep, and he went to sleep, well, he or she, I can't remember which it was, for about an hour. And then woke up and started behave, diving and doing regular whale things with, with the two friends that were still with it. So we were pretty confident that we weren't bothering the whales at all. And when we tag whales and they're feeding, they just keep right on feeding.
So we really don't think that these little suction cup tagged whales bothered them at all. And this was the biggest tag we ever used. Now the video camera tags we use aren't much bigger than that one, that little green tag you saw in the beginning is what we use now.
So now you are the tag, you're on the tip of a pole and you're going to land on the top of the back of the whale. Here's the whale's head. Okay. Now you're going to go underwater with the whale. So the tag is sitting on its back, that's its flipper. And there it is right swimming along the bottom. And this was important because we work a lot with fishermen and try to work with them to keep them from entangling whales, because of course they don't want to catch a whale.
It's all an accident when a whale gets caught in fishing gear, but they wanted to know for sure that the whales are actually going down to the bottom where their fishing gear was. And we could show them this video footage, showing yup, there's the bottom. And there is the whale right along the bottom. So once they saw that they had a lot more confidence in what we were saying, that the whales were spending a lot of time down in the water where their fishing gear was. So that's also part of the answer to somebody's question earlier where do they spend time in the water? They spend a lot of time along the bottom to catch those sand lance fish.
Now it looks like, you know, the whales don't really know what's going on when we're trying to tag them. But if you don't tag them correctly, they really don't like it. So they know exactly where you are.
I'm going to show you, I'm going to show you this picture again and I'm going to slow it down and watch right here. That whale knows exactly where that person is that's approaching it, and watch right there. It's going to take its tail and it's going to flip the water exactly at that person. So, so that whale knew that they were there and decided it really didn't want them there, and took a little bit of action. I should also mention that it takes us a long time to get a tag on. Matter of fact, lots of times it takes us hours and hours to actually get a tag on a whale.
You wouldn't want to sit and watch hours and hours of us just approaching whales over and over again, so you just get to see the, the very end product. But it's a lot of work and it's really hard to tag whales. This is a whale that, we've been talking about bottom-feeding, and somebody is asking again: where do they spend their time? They also spend a lot of time on the surface, one because of course they have to breathe, but also they chase fish and school them up on the surface. And these are all mouths of whales. One, two, three, four, five, six. So here's a whale's mouth.
And I think Grace might have some baleen to show you, but this is the upper jaw right here. And this stuff down here hanging down is the baleen. And this is the lower jaw. And the way this works, here again, lower jaw, upper jaw, baleen, the way this works is the lower jaw acts as a giant scoop to scoop in a lot of water and hopefully fish. They then close that mouth and force the water up against the baleen. The baleen acts like a strainer, and the water goes through the baleen.
But the fish, in case, our humpback whales eat fish, those sand lance, the fish get left in the whale's mouth. So that's how they eat. So you can see all these whales, there's their mouths. This pink thing here, that's the palate. You know, you have the hard part between your teeth on your upper jaw? Well, whales have that too. They just don't have any teeth.
They just have the baleen. Grace, are you showing that baleen? Can everybody see it? - I did an, I did show it, and I just want to, I'll just do really quick. This is the inside and it has, it's made out of the same material as your hair. So if you feel your hair, that's what it feels like on the inside. This is the inside. And then this is the outside of that baleen, and that feels more like your fingernail.
If you feel your fingernail. And just so people don't get confused this is from a different type of whale, a minke whale. But my humpback baleen was too big for me to, to hold here. So, so this is from a different type of whale but it works the same way.
- Yeah, we didn't talk about how big these whales are. But these humpback whales are usually around 35 to 45 feet long and weigh maybe, you know, 30, 35 tons. So they're pretty big. Now, one of the cool things that humpback whales do the other whales don't is they actually blow bubbles and they make nets out of bubbles. So here you can see there's actually two whales here doing this. Here's a circle that this whale is going to blow out of bubbles and it blows it out of its blowholes, the nose on top of its head, and also out of its mouth.
And then here's another one that's making a circle and they corral the fish using these bubbles, and they keep them all at a tight patch. And then they come up in the middle of that, and eat the fish. So here's a Track Plot picture of how that works. We'll talk about that in a second. I'll just give you a better picture.
Okay, and the way they blow bubbles, this is using that Track Plot program again, so the tag is sitting on the whale's back as it's making this behavior, this bubble net. And so they do it in two different ways. And we didn't know this until we put the tags on. one is called an upward spiral. And this kind of makes sense.
They're just swimming. They go down below, maybe 20, 60 feet down, and they start swimming a circle and they're blowing bubbles out their blow hole the entire time. And the circles get tighter and tighter and tighter. So the fish that are in the middle of this circle get packed together into a tighter and tighter school. So they can take that giant, big jaw and just scoop them all up and, and gulp about maybe 10, 20, 30, maybe even a hundred pounds in one scoop.
And then this is another type. We call this double loop feeding, and they dive down and they make a circle here and they're blowing bubbles. We call that the corral loop. And then they actually do a weird thing. They take those tail flukes and they whack it down onto the surface and then duck underneath one body length and come up and grab the fish again.
So this is kind of what it looks like. This is the double loop. So it's going to go down here. It's going to blow bubbles. So there it is.
It's going to come down here. It's going to start blowing bubbles about here going to circle around, still blowing bubbles. And now it's going to slam his tail flukes down and it's going to go down, and grab those fish that it just concentrated.
So that's that style. So here's two whales feeding together. Humpback whales work together to capture fish, and you'll see they're kind of going around each other, blowing bubbles and working together to create that nice bubble net. So those guys are working together and they stayed together for hours and hours working together to capture fish, blowing bubble net after bubble net together.
Here's two other whales. They're both tagged, but they weren't together when we tagged them. So this is, this one is blowing a bubble net here. So it's going to go down.
This is actually in real time. So it's going to take a little bit of time. So it's going to blow its bubbles all through here. Here's that other whale not doing anything really. It's kind of swimming around, hanging around. Now on my computer I can actually hear the bubbles coming out of that whale's blowhole.
So it's going to come up. Here's that other whale, just hanging out still. And now he's going to do that big tail slap. Bang. And now he's going to go down here, or she, is going to go around here to catch those fish, except watch what this one does. That one that hasn't been blowing any bubbles is going to go over and go through its net first.
So it raided that net, and we know who this is. This was a, this is a female humpback. And she would go from one group to another raiding their nets, but what's really interesting is she was the first one that we discovered group feeding along the bottom. So just because you might be raiding another whale's net in one case, you might be cooperating with another whale on another day.
So humpback whales do a lot of really interesting things. Now we didn't have enough time to talk about a lot of the things that NOAA does to reduce ship strikes and entanglements. But I think Grace is going to put some of this stuff in the chat so you can go and look. But one of the things we did is we use these data to move the shipping lanes in our sanctuary. So we used our data to move the shipping lanes from areas with lots of whales, to areas with not so many whales to keep them safe.
And we haven't had a whale hit since 2007 when we did that. So that was very fun. Now, as you might guess, it takes lots and lots of peoples that do this kind of stuff. So this is my team.
We get together from all over the country and really all over the world once a year to spend two or three weeks tagging whales and learning about them. And all of these people have different specialties. Some of them are computer programmers.
Some of them are mathematicians. Some of them are really good writers. You know, everybody is, some people are really good with boats, so anybody has their own specialty.
So, you know, if you're good at math, if you're good at English, you know, there's all sorts of different things that you can do and still study whales as long as you you're willing to work hard to try to do it. So I think this is our last question period. So hopefully there's lots of them. You there, Grace? - Yes. Sorry. I had forgotten to unmute.
I haven't done that in a long time. So that is the end. So we have a lot of questions. So I don't, I don't mean that we're done, but I have quite a few questions for you. And actually Dave, if you want, you can minimize your slides. So it's just us, since we'll be asking questions.
So you kind of answered this but I wanted you to say it again. Joseph was wondering, so you can just unshare your screen, Dave. - Oh, okay.
I'm trying to figure out how to do that. - You know what? I can do it for you if you want. So why don't we do that? Joseph is wondering: have you ever, I know you said this but just to say it again, have you ever missed a whale when tagging? - Oh, lots and lots of times. I've missed way more than I've ever done again. Again, we approach whales really slowly and carefully, and lots of times they dive before we get there.
Lots of times they evade you because they don't feel like being tagged. So it's, it's not easy to do. As I said, we, I only show you the successful ones, but lots and lots of times we miss. And so sometimes the tag goes on and comes off within a couple of minutes. - And McKenna was wondering, and I don't know if McKenna is one of our Hawaii visitors, but how can the whales see in the murky water? So some of the video footage that you showed us it was quite murky. - Yeah. That is such a great question.
We don't really know. You know, in Hawaii, it's nice and clear. Humpbacks and the baleen whales don't have echolocation or sonar. So they don't use sound to find their way and find fish. So it's a bit of a mystery how there really doing it. So we, we think one of the ways they find their food, looking at our tag data, because they have a tendency when they're searching to go deep, and we think they're looking for just schools of fish silhouetted up against the light sky.
So they're not seeing individual things. And, and luckily for them, you know, they're looking not for individual fish, but for big schools of fish but really how they find their food is one of the main mysteries that we're trying to, to understand and discover with our tagging work. But we haven't discovered it yet. Still lots of things to do. - Well, and speaking of sand lance, Carl was wondering: are the whales eating the sand lance on the bottom or are they also, when they're doing their feeding at the surface, eating sand lance there as well? - Yes, they'll eat them in both places.
Sand lance spend the nighttime on the bottom. And then during the day they have a tendency to come up to the surface to feed themselves. So they hide in the bottom at night and come up to the service to feed during the day. So the whales follow them down to the bottom, usually at night. And then during the daytime they'll do all that bubble netting during the daytime, in general. - And I just, I want to, in case other people have this question, Joseph asks if you've ever hit a whale when you're out tagging.
- I have not, but we're really, really careful about that. Yeah. - Yeah. I just wanted you to say that, because I think that's an important point.
And Isabelle, Isabella, wonders: have you ever tagged a sperm whale or an orca? - No, I've actually worked with people, I've not personally tagged an orca, but I've driven a boat to tag orcas. They are really interesting. I've never tagged a sperm whale. I've tagged, right whales, fin whales, humpback whales.
Those are the most, the ones that I really work with. - That's a pretty good list. - That I have to have a permit to do this. So to approach whales as closely and do the kind of stuff we do, I have to have a scientific permit to do that from NOAA that is really hard to get. I think my permit application was like 80 pages long.
And every year I have to write this huge report about what I've done. So to be, you know, you can't just take a boat and go out and do this kind of stuff with whales. You have to have a, a research permit to do it, that is really hard to get, which is good because, you know, people shouldn't be able to just drive that close to whales and put stuff on their backs. - Just remember that next time you complain that your homework is too long, that every year Dave has to do 80-page homework. Alison Paul asked a really interesting question. Do the same individuals use the same kind of loop each time? - Oh, well this is a great question.
Yeah, and different whales blow bubbles in a different way but it's when they learn how to do it they kind of use the same technique over and over again. And they learn it by watching other whales. One of my friends did a great analysis on this. Her name is Jenny Allen, and she looked at how humpback whales learned a particular feeding behavior that double loop feeding behavior that I showed you, where they whack their tails at the surface, and so she found that they don't learn it from their moms.
They actually just learn it from watching other whales. So they're, they're really clever in terms of how they do this. I think they're pretty smart. - Excellent. I would agree with you. And I just want to share some, I know we have some folks on from Hawaii and I just want to share that, although Dave does his work here, there are folks doing the same kind of research out in Hawaii, right Dave? That work for NOAA. They're just with a different office.
- Yup. They, they don't, and that's a breeding ground, you know, that's where mothers go to give birth to their calves. We don't have that up here.
Our animals give birth down in the Caribbean and they wouldn't feed in Hawaii. So they get the, feeding and birthing and reproduction take place in very, very different places for humpback whales, which is kind of crazy. So the Hawaii whales usually feed up in Alaska, and our whales usually give birth down in the Caribbean. - Excellent. Okay. I'm going to end with the question that I asked you before. Isabella wants to know: what's the weirdest thing you've seen out on the water? - I guess the weirdest thing I've seen is whales playing together.
Calves are really, really inquisitive, and it's just really fun when you see some calves getting together and just, you know, checking each other out and rolling around together, and just looking really, really curious. And sometimes they'll come up next to our boat and stick their heads out of the water and, and just like: what the heck are you? And who are you? So that's really fun. And it's weird to be checked out by something, something that is just so different from you but seemingly to be so curious about you as much as we're curious about them. So that's, that's always fun.
- I guess kids will be kids, no matter what species they're in, right? - I think so. Yeah. - Well, this is fascinating. I have to say that I could share these questions with you forever. I know there's, there are even more questions coming in, but I want to be, you know, just aware of people's time.
We're up at the, at the time limit. So just a reminder: if you do have any questions that maybe didn't get answered, you can always send an email to us and we'll do our best to answer those questions. Big thank you to Dave.
It was really wonderful having you. I love the footage, obviously, based on the questions everyone was really interested in what you had to share. So thanks so much for doing that. Thanks again, to Trisha and Crystal, our American sign language interpreters always wonderful to have you on with us. And if you missed any part of the webinar this will be recorded and you can watch it on our YouTube channel.
If you're interested, next week our NOAA Live is going to be really interesting. It talks about how we can predict the weather using satellites. So it's going to be a really interesting talk on satellites. So join us at 4:00 PM eastern time next week if you want to know about that.
Thank you again to everyone who attended for your wonderful questions and to Dave for sharing everything with us. Have a great week. - Thanks, everybody. That was fun.