Anatomy of a Career

Bruce Mate, OSU Professor of Fisheries and Wildlife, Oceanography
Hatfield Marine Science Center

By Lee Anna Sherman

He was a Midwest kid, a self-described “technical nerd” who hung out with ham-radio buffs and fell in love with a girl who played flute to his percussion in the school band. Before he headed to Oregon with his bride, Mary Lou, to become a marine biologist, Bruce Mate had never laid eyes on an ocean. He had, however, seen a pickled sea urchin. That’s because a gifted biology teacher named Mr. Barker, hell-bent on hooking his skeptical sophomores, would order exotic marine specimens from Carolina Biological Supply. Another of Mate’s role models was ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Mate’s interest in intertidal invertebrates quickly got eclipsed, however, during his first graduate seminar when UCLA marine mammal expert George Bartholomew revealed that the migratory habits of sea lions were a mystery. Mate headed straight to the library to find out for himself. After scouring the literature, he was astonished to learn it was true. The indefatigable graduate student took this knowledge gap as a personal challenge. Armed with a pre-doctoral fellowship from the National Science Foundation, he made marine mammal history by figuring out the sea lions’ migration patterns.

After finishing his Ph.D. in biology at the University of Oregon, he secured funds from the newly formed U.S. Marine Mammal Commission to do the first range-wide survey of pinnipeds on the West Coast. Every month for a year, Mate would fly a single-engine Cessna with his left hand, while holding a camera out the window with his right. (The single-lens-reflex Canon F-1, with its telephoto lens, bulk film pack and motor drive, weighed 12 pounds.) Back in Newport, he processed the film and “counted the nose of every seal and sea lion” from British Columbia to Mazatlan, Mexico.

That was 30 years ago. He’s been tracking the movements of pinnipeds and cetaceans (with Mary Lou at his side) ever since joining the OSU faculty in 1973. Today, he holds the directorship and endowed chair of the Marine Mammal Program. Here are a few highlights of a career that has earned him international acclaim:

General Research Interests

Marine mammals:

  • Critical habitat identification for endangered whales, population assessment, behavior (mating, feeding), seasonal migration
  • Marine mammal competition with fisheries and aquaculture
  • Development of high-tech research tools including satellite-monitored radio tags

Selected Scientific Committees and Professional Services

  • Scientific adviser to U.S. Marine Mammal Commission (10 years, most recently 1995-2000)
  • International Whaling Commission, (invited expert five years, most recently 2006) Union for the Conservation of Nature, Species Survival Commission
  • Member of International Scientific Advisory Committee to Mexican Minister for the Environment on Industrial Development Proposals for Gray Whale winter reproductive habitat (1996-2000)
  • Society for Marine Mammalogy, founding Secretary (1982-1988) and founding Treasurer (1982-1992)

Recent Research

Identification of migratory routes and habitats of large whales:

  • Right whales in the North Atlantic(2000) and South Atlantic (2001)
  • Sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico (2001-present)
  • Blue whales off southern California (1998-01, 2004-5), Mexico (2001-2), and Chile (2004)
  • Humpback whales off Hawaii (1995-2000), Southeast Alaska (1997), Gabon, Africa (2002), Mexico (2003) and California (2004-5)
  • Fin whales in the Sea of Cortez (2001), Mediterranean Sea (2003, 2005) and California (2004)
  • Gray whales off Mexico, tracked to Russian high Arctic (2005)


  • Marine Mammal Investigator of the Year, Office of Naval Research, 2001
  • Marine Conservationist of the Year, Long Beach Aquarium, 2000

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