A study by MBARI researchers and their collaborators published today in Ecology Letters sheds new light on the movements of mysterious, endangered blue whales. The research team used a directional hydrophone on MBARI’s underwater observatory, integrated with other advanced technologies, to listen for the booming vocalizations of blue whales. They used these sounds to track the movements of blue whales and learned that these ocean giants respond to changes in the wind.
Along California’s Central Coast, spring and summer bring coastal upwelling. From March through July, seasonal winds push the top layer of water out to sea, allowing the cold water below to rise to the surface. The cooler, nutrient-rich water fuels blooms of tiny phytoplankton, jumpstarting the food web in Monterey Bay, from small shrimp-like krill all the way to giant whales. When the winds create an upwelling event, blue whales seek out the plumes of cooler water, where krill are most abundant. When upwelling stops, the whales move offshore into habitat that is transected by shipping lanes.
“This research and its underlying technologies are opening new windows into the complex, and beautiful, ecology of these endangered whales,” said John Ryan, a biological oceanographer at MBARI and lead author of this study. “These findings demonstrate a new resource for managers seeking ways to better protect blue whales and other species.”
The directional hydrophone is a specialized underwater microphone that records sounds and identifies the direction from which they originate. To use this technology to study blue whale movements, researchers needed to confirm that the hydrophone reliably tracked whales. This meant matching the acoustic bearings to a calling whale that was being tracked by GPS. With confidence in the acoustic methods established, the research team examined two years of acoustic tracking of the regional blue whale population.
This study built upon previous research led by MBARI Senior Scientist Kelly Benoit-Bird, which revealed that swarms of forage species—anchovies and krill—reacted to coastal upwelling. This time, researchers combined satellite and mooring data of upwelling conditions and echosounder data on krill aggregations with the acoustic tracks of foraging blue whales logged by the directional hydrophone.
“Previous work by the MBARI team found that when coastal upwelling was strongest, anchovies and krill formed dense swarms within upwelling plumes. Now, we’ve learned that blue whales track these dynamic plumes, where abundant food resources are available,” explained Ryan.
Blue whales recognize when the wind is changing their habitat and identify places where upwelling aggregates their essential food—krill. For a massive animal weighing up to 150 tonnes (165 tons), finding these dense aggregations is a matter of survival.
While scientists have long recognized that blue whales seasonally occupy Monterey Bay during the upwelling season, this research has revealed that the whales closely track the upwelling process on a very fine scale of both space (kilometers) and time (days to weeks).
“Tracking many individual wild animals simultaneously is challenging in any ecosystem. This is especially difficult in the open ocean, which is often opaque to us as human observers,” said William Oestreich, previously a graduate student at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station and now a postdoctoral fellow at MBARI. “Integration of technologies to measure these whales’ sounds enabled this important discovery about how groups of predators find food in a dynamic ocean. We’re excited about the future discoveries we can make by eavesdropping on blue whales and other noisy ocean animals.”