Expedition 29: The Sounders

Ocean Alliance’s SnotBot® team assisted Cascadia Research in drone deploying biologging tags on Sounder Gray Whales in Puget Sound for a second consecutive year. This work is led by Research Biologist John Calambokidis from Cascadia Research and Stanford PhD student Hannah Clayton.

The North Puget Sound gray whales, referred to as the “Sounders,” comprise roughly twenty individuals that separate from the normal migration route and have a distinctive feeding behavior in Puget Sound. They wait until high tide to venture into shallow waters, sometimes as little as two meters, to feed on ghost shrimp buried in the mud and sediment. Hannah Clayton, a Cascadia researcher and PhD student at Stanford, is studying the physiology and ecology of the Sounders, with a focus on acoustics and foraging strategies of this population.

A primary objective of this fieldwork was to deploy tags earlier in the day, and then monitor feeding behaviors later in the day during high tides, with flyover drone observations which then can be synchronized with stored tag data. This approach enables highly accurate positions of the feeding locations and behaviors of the Sounders. 

Drone based tag deployments offer numerous advantages. Notably, we can tag without the need for close boat approaches, which provides minimum behavioral disturbances for these social and reactive individuals. Drone deployments also support tagging multiple individuals within groups, crucial for analyzing social behaviors and acoustic communication. Additionally, the success rate in deployments is relatively high, with approximately 250 hours of tag data collected during the two year (2023, 2024) partnership.

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NMFS Permit No. 21678

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