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From Analyzing Data To Collecting It: Gaining Perspective as a Visiting Scientist

February 16, 2024

Michaela Kratofil, an Oregon State University Ph.D. student, was invited to be a visiting scientist in 2023. She shares her experience from the high seas collecting the field data that will ultimately go into her dissertation research.

Micahela sits on a chair aboard a ship under a blue tent while two people observe the ocean on each side of her. Michaela Kratofil (center) on the flying bridge with visual observers. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

If you had asked me 5 years ago where I would be now, I wouldn’t have said anything close to this—writing a blog post on a NOAA research vessel surveying whales and dolphins in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Back then, I was getting a degree in Fisheries and Wildlife at Michigan State University not sure of what the future held. Yet, here I am today typing away aboard the R/V Oscar Elton Sette as a visiting scientist on the fourth leg of the 2023 Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey

My Journey From the Inland Seas to the High Seas

Born and raised in Michigan, I hadn’t spent much time near the ocean, let alone marine mammals. I have always been interested in them, but I knew that as a Midwesterner, studying them could be a challenge and that the field is competitive. So, I focused my undergraduate studies at Michigan State University on fisheries and wildlife. During this time, I completed a summer internship with Cascadia Research Collective helping with photo-identification matching of dolphins in Hawai‘i, as well as strandings and visual observation of Washington whales. 

This internship allowed me to build my skill set in data analysis and programming, leading to a full-time job at Cascadia Research Collective. While there, I helped to analyze data for a variety of Hawai‘i-based research projects. The biggest research project I worked on was delineating Biologically Important Areas (BIA) for whales and dolphins. Among the primary datasets we used for BIAs in Hawaiʻi were sightings from NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center’s ship-based line-transect surveys, including those from previous Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey efforts!

Left, a satellite tag fixed to the dorsal fin of a false killer whale. Right, A map of the Hawaiian Islands showing the tracked travel of false killer whales gathered from satellite tags.
Left: Satellite tag on the dorsal fin of a false killer whale. Credit: Cascadia Research Collective/Colin J. Cornforth (NMFS Permit #20605) Right: Example of the location data that can be obtained from satellite tagging false killer whales. Credit: Cascadia Research Collective

I’m now a Ph.D. student in the Whale Habitat, Ecology, and Telemetry Lab at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute. My studies are focused on the movement patterns of false killer whales in Hawai‘i with a particular focus on how ocean conditions (habitat) and social group membership influence their movements and decisions for where they spend their time. I spend most of my time as a researcher–and now Ph.D. student–analyzing and writing about data after it is collected. Having previously worked with Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey data, I was extremely excited to be invited to join a leg of the 2023 survey as a visiting scientist. In my role, I get to participate in collecting the data first hand for a change, learn different techniques for studying wild marine mammals, and engage with NOAA scientists who have collected data that I’ve crunched in the past! 

Five maps of the Hawaiian Islands showing an outline of the humpback whale Biologically Important Area.
Map of sighting data used to help draw the humpback whale Biologically Important Area. Bottom: Map of the new humpback whale Biologically Important Area. Credit: Michaela Kratofil

Digging Deeper Into the Lives of False Killer Whales in Hawai‘i

False killer whales live in groups of family members and regular associates, just like killer whales. A false killer whale’s family or group gives us a lot of insight into where they decide to spend their time, much like their habitats.

My research covers all three false killer whale populations recognized in Hawaiʻi: 

  • Main Hawaiian Islands resident 
  • Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument
  • Pelagic population

I’m also looking into their movement patterns in relation to fishing activity. False killer whales eat many of the same fish species that humans like to catch, and unfortunately this often results in false killer whales getting hooked themselves or taking catch off hooks, also known as depredation. The main Hawaiian Islands population was listed as “endangered” in 2012, and the pelagic population is known to frequently depredate catch in the Hawaiʻi longline fishery. There is a clear and pressing need to understand what puts false killer whales and fishermen at the same places and at the same times. Movement data from tags can help inform this. Some research was done on this for both populations, but there are still gaps to fill. 

False killer whales can be challenging to find. They move really quickly around the islands and won’t stay long in one area. Additionally, some populations range much farther offshore than we usually can reach via small-boat surveys. The animation below gives a sense of the scale of movements of the three recognized populations of false killer whales in Hawai‘i, and why efforts like this survey are so important.

A map of the Hawaiian Islands with animated tracked travel paths of all three false killer whale populations in the islands.
Animation showing movements of false killer whales satellite tagged from 2007–2022 (click on image to start). The yellow points are false killer whales belonging to the endangered main Hawaiian Islands population, the blue to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands population, and the green to the broadly-ranging pelagic population. Credit: Cascadia Research Collective/Michaela Kratofil

A Part of the Survey

This opportunity was a valuable experience in data collecting, and it is rewarding since previous surveys produced data critical to my own research and for conservation efforts moving forward. As a third-year Ph.D. student, I’ll also admit that I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to get away for a month to live on a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

The photo on the left shows Michaela holding up a white board with the counts of sighted sperm whale sub-groups. The photo on the right shows Michaela looking out to sea with binoculars.
Left: Michaela helping the visual team keep track of sperm whale sub-groups. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Suzanne Yin Right: Michaela catching a sunset sighting of Fraser’s dolphins and melon-headed whales. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Suzanne Yin

Today is Day 15 of our 21-day leg, and I’ve already seen and experienced so many new things. I’ve gotten acquainted with boat life, the friendly crew, the science team and their love for crossword puzzles, and the ice cream freezer.

A bright neon green net is hosted out of the ocean with a caught flying fish inside.
Flying fish caught with a net alongside the ship by Michaela Kratofil. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Michaela Kratofil

I’ve seen more Bryde’s whales than I can count, surfing rough-toothed dolphins, spy-hopping short-finned pilot whales, breaching sperm whales, and elusive Longman’s beaked whales, to name a few. I heard my first minke whale “boing” call from the towed acoustic array. It was so unexpected that I literally laughed out loud! I’ve also seen a variety of seabirds, and with the help of our expert seabird observers, Dawn Breese and Mike Force, I think my seabird identification skills at sea are beginning to improve. I’ve helped our ecosystem sampling team, Justin Suca and Don Kobayashi, sort larval fish from net tows and dip nets for adult flying fish (I caught one that I’m quite proud of). Visiting scientist is truly the best position to have. 

A rough-toothed dolphin is seen on the surface as it swims in the ocean.
A rough-toothed dolphin swims towards the ship during a day with big ocean swells. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Michaela Kratofil (Permit #25754)

Although I’ve seen many species so far, we have yet to encounter the one that I’m hoping for the most: false killer whales. In 2017, visiting scientist and false killer whale researcher Joe Fader blogged about hoping to see them while aboard and that he worried about missing out as the days ticked by. I’ll admit that I’m feeling the same. 

A map of the ocean off Hawai‘i Island shows different colored track lines following the paths of four different pelagic false killer whales.
Movement tracks of four pelagic false killer whales that were satellite tagged in September 2023. The different colors of the tracks indicate the four different individuals tagged. Two of the tags stopped transmitting (likely fell off), but two are still going strong and were last detected south in international waters. Credit: Cascadia Research Collective/Robin W. Baird (Permit # 26596)

Fortunately, Joe did see false killer whales on his last full survey day. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that our leg will be struck with the same luck soon, and that we can deploy more satellite tags to track these whales’ movements and better understand what drives them. False killer whales or not, this is an incredible experience. I’ve certainly gained more appreciation for all the effort that goes into the points and numbers I work with, and I’m immensely grateful for the Sette crew and scientists who made this experience so memorable!

Update: Michaela did get to have a false killer whale encounter! Even though it was a short encounter just before sunset when the visibility was low, she did get to see some of their blows in the distance.