Extreme Field WorkA series about how science gets done in Earth's weirdest, wildest environments, from the bottom of the ocean to erupting volcanoes.  

Marine ecologist Leigh Torres has been documenting gray whales along the Oregon coast since 2015—watching them arrive to feed, monitoring how young ones have grown over the time, and studying their defecations.

Yes, you read that right. The team of three—Torres, her PhD student Leila Soledade, and another person who helps drive the boat and steer their drone—will sit on an orange boat for an hour or two sometimes, just waiting to see if a whale will let one rip, Lemos told Earther. It can be discouraging when nothing happens, but a successful shit makes it all worth it. You see, whale poop isn’t just waste. It holds just about all the answers these researchers seek.

Torres and Lemos are using the feces to learn more about the creatures’ moods. Specifically, how stressed they are. The team wants to know whether an increase in noise from boats is bothering the Pacific Coast Feeding Aggregation of gray whales, which migrates north all the way from Mexico and Baja California in the summer to feed on tiny shrimp called mysids and crab larvae. To find out, they collect the feces using nets and place it in jars to analyze it later. Back in the lab, they measure levels of stress hormones. Noise levels are also measured using hydrophones that go into the harbor every summer.

No one’s studied this species’ hormone levels prior to this work. That makes this research that much trickier.

“We need to figure out first where the baseline levels are of their hormones so we can tell when it’s not a normal level, when there is a huge peak, and we can finally say, ‘OK, this whale is showing a stress response,’” Lemos told Earther.

What a tail!
Photo: Taken under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 (Courtesy of Oregon State University)

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There’s good reason to believe noise is a contributor to stress, though. Previous studies have shown that noise impacts stress levels in some whale species in the Atlantic. Food (or a lack thereof) could be another stressor. Even that could be linked back to noise, though.

“They depend on their communication to find mates, to find prey, to determine where they are geographically,” Lemos said, “so if the noise is too high, in a way they cannot communicate anymore. They may not be able to find mates. They may not be able to find prey, and this might affect their health, in general, or their reproduction.”

Some might find this work—the art of gathering poop—repulsive. A lot of what these marine ecologists do is wait for a giant marine mammal to drop a major deuce close enough for them to catch it. For both Lemos and Torres, however, sitting out on the boat watching these gentle giants makes it worth it. Early mornings and long days on the boat with nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and fruit snacks in their stomachs are no biggie—not if it means helping save these whales.

Gray whales are facing threats they didn’t 20 years ago, Torres told Earther. There’s ocean noise, vessel strikes, and plastic pollution, which we’ve seen time and time again can prove deadly to these giant animals.

“We see stranded whales full of plastic,” Torres said. “There are certainly real threats that we need to come up with real ways of reducing the threat.”

Measuring those threats is a key first step, and this duo is on it. Even if it means getting a little dirty.