Grey whale tail

How to Study: Whales

Anna Guasco: Interdisciplinary Methods to Study Stories Told About Whales

I’m Anna, the author of the blogs in this series for National Marine Week and a PhD student in the Department of Geography. I’m from the United States.

Greay whale calf
Close-up photo of a grey whale calf, with baleen and barnacles showing. Credit: USFWS/Mark Webber
What do I Study, why do I study it, and how did I come to study it?

I study the stories people tell about historical and contemporary relationships with grey whales (Eschrichtius robustus), and why these stories matter. More specifically, I look at the way histories, memories, stories, and environmental justice issues revolve around the migration and conservation of these whales along the North American Pacific Coast.

The grey whale undertakes the longest annual migration of any marine mammal. Each year, the Eastern North Pacific grey whale migrates between nutrient-rich feeding grounds off Alaska and warm, protected lagoons in Baja California Sur, Mexico. In these lagoons, mothers give birth to their babies (called ‘calves’, like baby cows). The grey whale’s migration is also remarkable for being very close to the coast. Unlike many other large species of whales, grey whales – particularly mother-calf pairs on the northbound migration – tend to stay close to the shore, instead of swimming further out in deeper waters. This means that they have long been connected to the various human communities located throughout the North American Pacific coast. I’m interested in these connections, and how they generate different stories and memories, and what the effects or ramifications of these storytelling and remembering processes are.

Grey whale in the Port of San Diego, California.
Grey whale in the Port of San Diego, California. Credit: Port of San Diego. CC BY 2.0

I study this because I think that understanding narratives, histories, and environmental justice issues is absolutely vital to shaping more ecologically sustainable and more socially just futures for our shared planet. I’m also interested in this particular whale, the grey whale, because I’m from the area of the Santa Barbara Channel of California, which grey whales migrate through. As a child, and later as a park ranger at Channel Islands National Park, I heard stories about these whales, and those stories inspired my current research. My academic background is very interdisciplinary (a BA in American Studies and an MSc in Environment, Culture and Society), which helps me address this topic from a number of different angles, including with ideas and approaches from environmental history, human geography, English or literary studies, biology and ecological sciences, and conservation social sciences. 

Grey whale spout off the coast of Oregon. Credit: Sandy Horvath-Dori.
How do I (and other researchers) study grey whales?

Despite migrating close to the coast, grey whales aren’t very flashy – they don’t tend to do any of the classically ‘whale-like’ behaviours you might think of, like jumping out of the water (‘breaching’) or singing. Most baleen whales sing, but grey whales do not. Instead, they use deep grumbling sounds. So, grey whales are a bit odd – they chug along slowly, quietly, persistently, and consistently.

If grey whales are kind of observable, but also kind of difficult to observe, then how do scientists study grey whales? Scientists have to get creative to study grey whales. Some of the ways that scientists study grey whales include:

A grey whale migrating close enough to the shore to be seen from a highway; its signature ‘heart-shaped’ blow is also visible. Credit: Linda Tanner. CC BY 2.0
  • Shore-based counts, ‘censuses’, or ‘surveys’ of grey whales as they migrate by the coast, often conducted by volunteers as community scientists.
  • Eavesdropping on Whales: scientists listen to whales through underwater microphones (‘hydrophones’). By placing microphones underwater, scientists can remotely assess patterns in whale communication, migration, and more. For more on this, check out this explainer piece about listening for several different whale species off the British Columbia coast. And you can listen to a recording of a grey whale here
Drone photo of grey whale and calf. Credit: NOAA Fisheries West Coast. CC BY NC-ND 2.0
Four grey whales seen from satellite in space
Four grey whales seen from satellite in space, studied by a recent Cambridge Geography PhD student, Dr Hannah Cubaynes. Image © 2020 Maxar Technologies; used with permission. Research described from Cubaynes et al. (2018); link here.
  • Watching whales from a birds’ eye: drones can observe whales from above at a fairly close distance, whilst satellites can watch whales all the way from space.  These tools can be helpful in mapping whales’ migratory routes, as well as for assessing how healthy the whales are, based on their body condition and shape.
  • Studying the stuff that whales’ bodies produce or leave behind, like poop and snot (which can indicate current stress levels) or ear wax (which also can indicate past stress levels of dead whales, as well as pollution exposure).
  • Marine Historical Ecology: Some researchers use historical methods to ask questions about past conditions of life in the ocean. We can learn about past whale habitats, populations, behaviours, and more from sources like whaling logbooks and other archival documents. It helps to have historians and other researchers involved in the humanities and social sciences, as these are not methods typically used in the natural sciences. Studying the histories of grey whales (or any other marine species) requires thinking outside the box.
Historical illustration of grey whales eating in icy waters.
Historical illustration of grey whales eating in icy waters. From Scammon, 1874, link here.

These are just a few samples of the many ways in which researchers study grey whales and other whales. The last one is the closest to my own work: marine historical ecology and archival methods. I combine archival research with interviews and analysis of a wide range of textual and non-textual sources (like documentary films, museums exhibits, magazines, novels, tourism advertisements, and more) to analyse human-grey whale relationships. I’m experimenting with new approaches to research that work across the humanities-science divide.

Through these interdisciplinary innovations in how to do research, I’m hoping to contribute to bigger questions, such as, what does the future of various human-grey whale relationships look like? By using lots of different tools and perspectives, researchers can anticipate what the future might look like for grey whales – and for the human communities with which they are enmeshed – on our shared and changing planet.

Grey whale tail
Grey whale tail, or ‘fluke’. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Dave Weller.

2 thoughts on “How to Study: Whales

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