Studying whale behavior from Davey Jones locker

Story by Michelle Kinzel, OSU

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How do you study the sperm whale, Physeter catadon, when they dive up to 3 km (1.9 miles) to the bottom of the ocean floor and stay submerged up to 90 minutes? Sperm whales reach lengths of 18 m (60 ft) and possess blood volumes up to 3 tonnes. The blood stores oxygen that enables the whale to dive to great depths to the ocean floor. Dives more than 2 miles deep are possible for sperm whales, but more typical dives are 30 minutes long and 300 to 400 m depth. The elusive behemoths spend a significant amount of time in the deep sea. Spatial technologies, satellite telemetry, geographic information systems and advanced spatial data analysis are necessary to understand the deep sea corners of our marine environment and the animals that live there.

Researchers and graduate students from Bruce Mate’s Marine Mammal Institute and Dawn Wright’s Sea Floor Mapping Coastal and Marine GIS Laboratory are teaming to explore the fundamental scientific question, “Where is Physeter catadon“? The group is also working with the data to create dynamic geovisualizations, and interactive virtual realities to teach scientific principles and oceanography to high school students.


Graduate student Brett Lord-Castillo is exploring these fundamental research questions using tracking data from satellite tags attached to sperm whales with GIS technology in the Gulf of Mexico to explore these scientific inquires. His methods draw from the ESRI ArcGIS Marine Data Model. His work provides important information about habitat usage and preferences of sperm whales in the deep sea niches of the Atlantic Ocean. To develop a parametric model for whale locations, Lord-Castillo is applying curvilinear interpolation and speed buffering to georeferenced data sets obtained with the ARGOS satellite system. By utilizing this type of spatial analysis in exploring marine animal tracking sets, the research is essentially filling in the deep, dark corners of the map, providing in depth knowledge of the whales’ movement patterns and behaviors.

Another of Dr. Dawn Wright’s Rogues (a term for the graduate students who study in the laboratory nicknamed Davey Jones Locker) is using pieces of the GIS and oceanography puzzle to create educational tools for high school curriculums. Michelle Kinzel is using the same tools and datasets that scientists use to create geographic visualizations (geovisualizations) that visually represent complex spatiotemporal relationships at work in our ocean systems, such as currents, bathymetry, water temperature and salinity.

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These elements will be combined with knowledge of whale locations and behaviors into an animated and integrated environment, immersing the user into a virtual world that encourages the use of spatial and geographic literacy skills. Users of the geovisualizations will literally go where no man has gone before, to the watery depths of the deep sea we are just beginning to understand. These tools are intended to provide immersive and engaging experiences for users that integrate multitasking, decision making and the scientific method in an undersea adventure launched from any computer workstation. Lest you think this is child’s play, technological communities term these types of creations ‘serious games’ and their use in educational settings is gaining widespread attention and acceptance.

Photographs by Craig Hayslip, Courtesy of Marine Mammal Institute, Oregon State University.

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Michelle Kinzel is currently a Rogue in Davey Jones Locker, Dr. Dawn Wright’s Sea Floor Mapping and Marine Coastal GIS Laboratory at Oregon State University. She is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Geosciences, creating geovisualizations for use in high school curriculum, and plans to stay submerged in her studies for a PhD upon graduation. Her hobbies are photography, outdoors activities and anything that will bring her on or around the ocean. Her research interests are GIScience, remote sensing of the marine environment, animal movements and habitat selection by charismatic megavertebrates. Her academic pastimes involve integrating all of these hobbies and interests and creating curriculum materials for kids of all ages.

Suggested Further Reading:

Downs, R., S.W. Bednarz, R.A. Bjork, P.B. Dow, K.E. Foote, J.F. Gilbert, R.G. Golledge, K.A. Kastens, G. Leinhardt, L.S. Liben, M.C. Linn, J.J. Rieser, G.M. Stokes and B. Tversky, 2006. Learning to Think Spatially: GIS as a Support System in the K-12 Curriculum. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 332 pp.

Dransch, D. 2000. The use of different media in visualizing spatial data. Computers & Geosciences 26: pp. 5-9.

Floyd, M. 2007. OSU Creates New Institute Based on Success of Marine Mammal Program. Press Release, OSU Website.

Kerski, Joseph, J. 2003. The implementation and effectiveness of geographic information systems technology and methods in secondary education. Journal of Geography, Vol. 102, pp. 128-137.

Mate, B.R., B.A. Lagerquist, M. Winsor, J. Geraci, and J.H. Prescott. 2005. Movements and dive habits of a satellite-monitored longfinned pilot whale (Globicephala melas) in the Northwest Atlantic. Marine Mammal Science, 21(1): 136-144.

Mate, B.R., R. Mesecar 1997. Forum on Wildlife Telemetry: Innovations, evaluations, and Research Needs; 21-23 September 1997, Snowmass Village, Colorado. Online here.

Ocean Literacy Network. http://www.coexploration.org/oceanliteracy/.

Wright, D. J. Blongewicz, M.J. Halpin, P.N. and Breman, J. In press, 2006. Arc Marine: GIS for a Blue Planet. ESRI Press: Redlands, CA.Computers & Geosciences 26: pp. 5-9.

Peter Etnoyer (406 Posts)

PhD candidate at Texas A&M University- Corpus Christi and doctoral fellow Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies.