Blue whale life history strategies and resilience to climate change in upwelling ecosystems

Investigators: Dr. Dawn Barlow, Dr. Leigh Torres, Dr. KC Bierlich, Dr. Will Oestreich, Dr. John Ryan, Dr. Holger Klinck

Understanding the fate of the oceans in the face of global climate change is critically important. Long-term warming and the increasing frequency and intensity of marine heatwaves are impacting coastal upwelling ecosystems, which are some of the most productive regions on the planet. In the waters surrounding New Zealand and off the coast of California, recent warming events had substantial ecosystem impacts including reduced productivity and plankton abundance and shifted whale distribution patterns. Consequently, blue whale populations that rely on upwelling-driven productivity to meet foraging demands and support reproduction may be adversely affected by climate change via behavioral, distributional, or physiological responses. Large, mobile marine predators such as blue whales can be considered “ecosystem integrators” as their behavior and distribution patterns reflect dynamic ecological processes across multiple trophic levels. Therefore, studying the impacts of changing oceans on blue whales has the potential to provide insight into ecosystem-scale impacts of climate change on dynamic marine ecosystems. Furthermore, comparing blue whale populations between the different regions will shed light on how different life history adaptations to ecosystem function may influence population resilience to environmental change.

Through the SAPPHIRE project, we are launching a research program to investigate the resilience of the world’s largest animal—the blue whale—to changing ocean conditions. Broadly, our objectives are to:

  1. Compare the occurrence patterns and health of multiple blue whale populations that feed in productive upwelling ecosystems.
  2. Describe the adaptability of each population to respond to environmental change.

To fill critical knowledge gaps surrounding the impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems, we are prepared to undertake a multidisciplinary research program that will harness multiple tools and technologies for comprehensive data collection.


Presently, the SAPPHIRE project is in a pilot phase, and we are unitizing data already collected to make comparisons between upwelling ecosystems and blue whale populations. Specifically, we are using UAS (“drone”) measurements to compare the morphology of blue whales in New Zealand, California, and Chile in relation to seasonal cycles in upwelling and productivity of each ecosystem. These pilot comparisons will provide a robust foundation to launch new data collection efforts for more comprehensive comparisons between regions and blue whale populations, which in turn may shed light on the resilience or vulnerability of these populations to ecosystem variability.



Dr. John Durban, Dr. Matt Leslie, Dr. Michael Moore, Dr. Gustavo Chiang, Dr. Jeremy Goldbogen, Dr. Dave Johnston

Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI)

K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics, Cornell University



Orange County Community Foundation

We are launching a multidisciplinary research program to investigate the resilience of the world’s largest animal—the blue whale—to changing ocean conditions.