Migratory behavior of eastern North Pacific gray whales tracked using a hydrophone array

Guazzo, RA, Helble TA, D’Spain GL, Weller DW, Wiggins SM, Hildebrand JA.  2017.  Migratory behavior of eastern North Pacific gray whales tracked using a hydrophone array. PLOS ONE. 12:e0185585.: Public Library of Science

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Eastern North Pacific gray whales make one of the longest annual migrations of any mammal, traveling from their summer feeding areas in the Bering and Chukchi Seas to their wintering areas in the lagoons of Baja California, Mexico. Although a significant body of knowledge on gray whale biology and behavior exists, little is known about their vocal behavior while migrating. In this study, we used a sparse hydrophone array deployed offshore of central California to investigate how gray whales behave and use sound while migrating. We detected, localized, and tracked whales for one full migration season, a first for gray whales. We verified and localized 10,644 gray whale M3 calls and grouped them into 280 tracks. Results confirm that gray whales are acoustically active while migrating and their swimming and acoustic behavior changes on daily and seasonal time scales. The seasonal timing of the calls verifies the gray whale migration timing determined using other methods such as counts conducted by visual observers. The total number of calls and the percentage of calls that were part of a track changed significantly over both seasonal and daily time scales. An average calling rate of 5.7 calls/whale/day was observed, which is significantly greater than previously reported migration calling rates. We measured a mean speed of 1.6 m/s and quantified heading, direction, and water depth where tracks were located. Mean speed and water depth remained constant between night and day, but these quantities had greater variation at night. Gray whales produce M3 calls with a root mean square source level of 156.9 dB re 1 μPa at 1 m. Quantities describing call characteristics were variable and dependent on site-specific propagation characteristics.