Insights into the kinematics of blue whale surface foraging through drone observations and prey data: Author Interview with Leigh Torres


Today we published Insight into the kinematics of blue whale surface foraging through drone observations and prey data.

The research suggests that feeding at the ocean’s surface appears to play an important role in New Zealand blue whales’ foraging strategy, allowing them to optimize their energy use. Here we talk to author Leigh Torres about the 3 week field season and getting the perfect drone footage of whales feeding on the very last day.

 Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Leigh Torres and her drone pilot (and husband) Todd Chandler on board the research vessel in New Zealand

I am an assistant professor at Oregon State University, within the Marine Mammal Institute. I lead the GEMM Lab, which stands for the Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab. We study the health, spatial and behavioral ecology of large marine predators to support conservation management efforts.

Before moving to Oregon State University six years ago, I worked in New Zealand as a marine ecologist, which is when I first started documenting this new population of blue whales in New Zealand.

Can you briefly explain the research you published in PeerJ?

We demonstrate how blue whales in New Zealand optimize their energy use through preferentially feeding on dense krill aggregations near the water’s surface, and how drones are a useful tool to examine surface behavior and kinematics of whales. (Our blog here explains the research in more detail).

Do you have any anecdotes about this research?

The field crew celebrating the sighting and filming of the surface lunge feeding event

I’ll never forget the filming of the surface lunge feeding event. It was a moment of raw excitement and sheer joy for everyone on the research vessel. During the 3 week field season, we had seen blue whales surface lunge feeding from the boat perspective, and we talked about how cool it would be to film it with the drone. On the very last day of the field season, at the very last sighting, late in the day, just before sunset, we launched the drone to get photogrammetry/body condition data from the whale. The whale started her lunge feeding sequence as soon as the pilot got over the whale, and he started to make these noises of excitement like, “Oh, man! She’s turning on her side. Oh, wow. She’s gonna lunge feed!”. (The pilot is the only one who can see the video output). At which point everyone started shrieking in excitement, “Really! Whoa! Did you get it? Did you get it?!”. After a deep breath, he said, “I think so.” But we really did not know – or what the footage looked like – until the drone returned to the boat, and after the whole sighting (a couple of hours later). I treated that SD card as precious cargo while downloading the footage. We all gathered around the computer and gawked, wowed, and re-watched it many, many times. It was really such an amazing way to end a great field season.

What kinds of lessons do you hope your readers take away from the research?
  1. Drones can provide unique and useful data, sometimes in ways we don’t anticipate.
  2. Record everything in the field – you never know what little detail or observation will be crucial.
  3. Blue whales may surface feed more regularly than previously thought in order to minimize the energetic costs of feeding.

    Still images from UAS video of three separate surface blue whale foraging events captured when it was estimated that the whale visually detects the krill patch with her right eye.
    Measured distances between the eye and closest edge of krill patch are given for event 1 (A), event 2 (B) and event 3 (C).

How did you first hear about PeerJ, and what persuaded you to submit to us?

I really like PeerJ’s philosophy of transparency and equality of access. I want to support their efforts to change the mentality of scientific publication. Also, this paper is a bit unusual – partly video-based and small sample size, but with a potentially exciting visual element – so I thought PeerJ would be a good fit.

Do you have any anecdotes about your overall experience with us?

Dealing with reviewer responses is can be onerous and disheartening, but I really appreciated the back and forth I was provided with a reviewer that really helped our paper become robust and impactful.

How would you describe your experience of our submission/review process?

Submission was pretty easy, but the process of uploading each figure and table separately, with associated caption info was onerous and unexpected. Next time I’ll know more going into the submission process because normally I format manuscripts with figures and tables all in the same text file.

Would you submit again, and would you recommend that your colleagues submit?

Yes, certainly. Communication with editors and staff was always quick and polite. Turnaround time on reviews was also appropriate.

Thanks for sharing your research story, Leigh! You can read her full paper here.

You can find more PeerJ author interviews here. View related research in PeerJ’s Ecology and Aquatic Biology sections.

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