Tracking the Great Whales

By Lee Sherman

Bruce Mate has scudded most of the world’s oceans at the prow of Avon and Zodiac Hurricane inflatables. Using a crossbow or an air gun, the OSU marine biologist has spent several decades attaching radio transmitters to animals that, despite their enormous size, live largely out of sight beneath the opaque surface of the sea. Following a distant spout, a momentary fluke, a sudden breach, Mate has tagged fin whales in the Mediterranean off the coast of France and sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico. He’s tagged right whales off Nova Scotia and grays off Baja. Bowheads in the Canadian Arctic. Humpbacks off the coast of Africa and in the Hawaiian archipelago. Blues off Chile or traveling the Pacific from California to Costa Rica.

But it’s at his office on the Oregon coast where his research pays off in data. Every morning when he sits down at his desk at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon, and logs onto his PC, Mate has a window into the feeding habits and migratory travels of each tagged animal. That’s because the electronic signals emitted by the tiny transmitter lodged in its skin are picked up by instruments on weather satellites, whose relayed data translate into longitude and latitude on the researcher’s computer. “Next to the whales and God, I’m the first to know where they are,” Mate likes to say.


Aside from its value as basic science — fact-finding about whales’ hidden lives — Mate’s work holds real, and urgent, import for the fate of endangered and threatened species. The cutting-edge research that has propelled him into the elite of marine mammal scientists has, for example, helped to preserve critical habitat for grays in the breeding lagoons of Baja and to prevent fatal ship strikes of North Atlantic right whales, which teeter on the edge of extinction. “I don’t want whales to become the next spotted owl,” says Mate, who holds the Marine Mammal Research Professorship. Using science to prevent problems before they occur is one of his most important aims.

To Hear Whales Breathe

by Carol Delancey

“There is magic in the air.” Not a sentence one would expect to see in association with research and field science, is it? But the great thing about science is that it so often skates along the edge of understanding; and just past that edge are mysteries that sometimes seem like magic. It’s the pursuit of those mysteries, the demystifying of the magic, that drives so many scientists.

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Anatomy of a Career

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.

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Monitoring Whales with a Mouse

One drizzly day last November Mate, still tanned from a fin whale expedition to the south of France, ignores the hundreds of e-mails that have piled up in his absence, instead clicking on the folder labeled “Grays.” He’s stunned by what he finds. Four of the mother whales he tagged off Baja in March have traveled hundreds of miles north of their expected summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. Having weaned their calves by now, three of them are still in the high Arctic, lingering in the Russian waters of the Chukchi Sea even as winter nears. A fourth tagged mother has been killed by Russian whalers who, under International Whaling Commission rules, are allowed to harvest 145 grays annually.

The other surprise is the duration of the data stream: Eight months after tagging, the transmitters are still working. It’s a testament to how far the technology has come. When Mate tagged his first whale back in 1979, the signals from the crude, radio-monitored device reached a mere five miles. He had colleagues listen to receivers from their offices at irregular intervals along the coastline. “I spent a lot of time waiting for phone reports to come in,” he recalls, ruefully.

In 1983, he became the world’s first researcher to track a whale by satellite — a humpback off Newfoundland. Since then, he and the staff at the Marine Mammal Program have pushed the technology relentlessly. With funding from the Office of Naval Research, the Minerals Management Service and the Marine Mammal Commission, he has overseen several generations of tag designs. Today’s model is compact and lightweight, made of surgical-grade stainless steel and infused with long-lasting antibiotics to prevent infection. Super-streamlined, it’s also designed to resist drag and the pressures of deep-water dives.

The goal of the tagging, ultimately, is to protect whales from the myriad human activities that might harass, harm or kill them — seismic exploration and drilling for oil and gas, sonar, ship collisions, fishing-gear entanglements, pollution and industrial development near sensitive marine habitats.

“Most stocks of large whales are so depleted, they’re under full international protection; everybody’s keen to see them recover,” Mate notes. “But we’re powerless to know what to do unless we know where they go throughout the year and what puts them at risk there. So in my research program, we concentrate on answering the questions, Where? When? and Why? by tracking the animals, month-to-month, season-to-season, across the planet.”

The answers do more than make protection possible. They change our understanding of how the ocean works. For example, Mate and other researchers have shown that whales and other marine migrants are sensitive to small differences in water temperature. These differences are often associated with “fronts” between water masses, boundaries that affect the ocean just as atmospheric cold and warm fronts affect the weather. By tracking where whales go, analyzing what they eat and monitoring such water fronts, scientists have discovered new patterns in ocean productivity. They have found hot spots, areas where migratory species congregate. They’ve learned how food availability changes from one place to another, knowledge that can be used to predict available habitat and how human activities affect the health of marine mammal populations.

Looking into Inquisitive Eyes

A Primordial Commonality

By Lee Sherman

One breezy afternoon while we were anchored in San Ignacio Lagoon, a passenger came out on deck, asking if anyone had seen her jacket. After she decided it must have blown overboard, one guy gazed across the chop and remarked, “Somewhere out there is a whale wearing a lime-green windbreaker.” Added another, “Yeah, and his pal is saying, ‘Dude, where’d you get the Patagonia?'”

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When a calf is born in the warm waters of San Ignacio Lagoon — one of only four gray whale calving areas in the world — it unfolds its one-ton body as it surfaces for its first breath. Here on the Pacific coast of Baja, it will gain as much as 20 pounds a day on its mother’s fat-rich milk, as it grows strong enough to make the 10,000-mile roundtrip migration to its summer feeding grounds in the Arctic.

Each year after the calves are born, Mate leads an ecology tour for 30 adventurous neophytes eager for a close-up look at wild whales. It’s a 30-hour trip from San Diego aboard the chartered, sport-fishing vessel Royal Polaris. After their second night at sea, the eco-tourists awake in the 50-square-mile lagoon, anchored inside a 360-degree panorama alive with rainbowed spouts, glistening black flukes, bobbing heads (grays “spy hop,” thrusting their noses above the water’s surface to look around), thunderous breaches, and even the occasional “Pink Floyd” — a whale-watchers’ euphemism for the five-foot penis that a male sometimes displays when pursuing a female.

Seeing this teeming congregation of whales, visitors can barely imagine that in this tranquil spot, 19th-century whalers slaughtered grays by the hundreds, and that by the early 20th century the species had been nearly wiped out. A worldwide ban on hunting gray whales, established by the League of Nations in 1937 and continued in 1946 by the International Whaling Commission, has allowed the grays to rebound to their pre-whaling population of about 18,000. The species has been so successful, in fact, that the IWC has established a sustained quota of gray whales for the indigenous people of Chukotka, Russia, who use them to feed mink and fox bred for furs.

For Mate’s intrepid band of eco-tourists, the view from the deck of the Royal Polaris is just the teaser. Climbing into small fiberglass motorboats called pangas, the visitors head out among the grays led by experienced local guides, who, along with the Mexican government, tightly regulate the eco-tourism trade here. Out in the lagoon, the guides slow the motors to a quiet idle. Then, everyone waits.

When a longtime guide named Alvaro points and whispers, “¡ballena!” (“whale,” in Spanish), a sudden sense of vulnerability descends on the group of six afloat in their 20-foot craft. As the 45-foot creature with flippers five feet long approaches — pushing its 35-ton form through the saltwater with a 1,000-pound tail that could snuff a human life like a swatter flattens a fly — they hold their collective breath. The great mottled body passes silently through the dappled sea beneath them. The little boat rocks softly, undisturbed.

A few minutes later, another whale emerges from the depths. At her side swims a calf. The humans, having by now exhaled, reach into the water and splash. And something remarkable happens. The mother whale rises to the surface with her month-old calf balanced on her back, its pale gray skin lustrous in the sunlight. After getting a good look at the boaters, the calf slips back into the water and swims toward the splashing hands. Just inches from the boat, it lifts its head. The humans find themselves face-to-face with the spiky hairs that sprout forward of the whale’s dual blowholes. The primeval-looking “knuckles” on the last third of its back, hinting of mythical beasts and ancient origins. The black eyes that seem to gaze back at the people with frank curiosity. And when their fingers stroke its rounded nose, its skin feels like a neoprene wetsuit, only smoother.

These whales are among the “inquisitives” — an estimated 10 percent of the stock of San Ignacio — who seek inter-action with humans. Mate, in fact, was one of the original researchers to document this “friendly” behavior on an expedition early in his career. So in the mid-1990s, when the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission heard about the $120 million salt-extraction project that Mitsubishi Corp. and the Mexican government were planning to build in the Vizcaino Desert Biosphere Reserve bordering the lagoon, it sent Mate to meet with concerned Mexican activists and ecologists. For even though grays have rebounded, Mate considers them — and indeed many marine mammal species — still in jeopardy because of the many ways their habitats can be compromised by humans. The saltworks, slated for this pristine birthplace of whales (and countless other species of flora and fauna), might have put this population of grays at risk.

Next to the whales and God, I'm the first to know where they are.
— Bruce Mate, Director, Marine Mammal Institute

In his 2001 book Eye of the Whale: Epic Passage from Baja to Siberia, author Dick Russell reports that Mate was “the first biologist to take a stand on citing concerns about the saltworks.” In a letter to colleagues in 1995, Mate expressed one of his top concerns — a planned pier for loading salt onto ships for export. The mile-long dock would have been exposed to winter storms and waves from summer hurricanes. If it failed, operations would have shifted to a tug and barge operation inside the mouth of the lagoon, creating an impediment to the whales.

Mate was appointed to a seven-member advisory panel of international marine experts to guide and review an environmental impact assessment process for the Mexican minister of natural resources. The panel provided “14 pages of concerns — things we felt needed to be addressed,” Mate later told Russell. “This was not limited to whales; we discussed fish and shellfish and larval forms, freshwater utilization for a community that would have to grow, even coyotes in the desert and garbage disposal.”

After years of public and behind-the-scenes efforts among corporate, government, scientific and environmental interests, the “saltworks war” ended happily for the grays when Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo canceled the project in 2000. “It would,” Zedillo said, “irreversibly alter the area’s aesthetics.”

Those aesthetics — the contradictory images of a desert landscape that is both tough and vulnerable — remind Mate’s eco-tourists that the treasures of Baja are not limited to whales. They include the flowers, soft-hued, blooming on barbed cactuses. The pelicans, wheeling above beaches strewn with pink shells and bleached bones. The elephant seal “weaners,” lolling in the sun like overstuffed duffle bags. The gangs of juvenile sea lions, who followed the pangas in clamorous undulations. The bottlenose dolphins, who escorted the Royal Polaris out of the lagoon — a swirling, leaping, bow-surfing honor guard.

Saving the Last Survivors

Views from the Lagoon

Eco-tourist Paul Amundson from Newport, Oregon, touches an inquisitive gray whale calf in Baja’s San Ignacio Lagoon during the 2006 OSU Marine Mammal Program expedition.

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The gray whales are thriving now. But other species that were also decimated by whalers’ harpoons have not returned to healthy numbers. One of the most critically endangered is the North Atlantic right whale, which got its name from whalers who considered it the “right” one to kill because it swims slowly, floats when dead and is loaded with blubber, prized for lamp oil in the days before electric lights. (Many other products were produced from whale carcasses, including corset stays, buggy whips and brushes.) From its estimated pre-whaling population of 12,000 to 15,000, the North Atlantic right whale today clings tenuously to existence. Only 300 to 350 individuals now summer in the nutrient-rich waters off Maine, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland — what author Tora Johnson (Entanglements: The Intertwined Fates of Whales and Fishermen) calls the “ragged remnants of a vast tribe.” Scientists like Mate speculate that the species’ naturally low birthrate (mature females have only one calf every three to five years, in contrast to the grays’ rate of one every two years) makes any death outside normal attrition devastating to the overall population.

Collisions with seafaring vessels are the major anthropogenic (human-related) cause of right whales’ demise. Of the right whales found dead, in fact, fully half have been hit by ships. In part, that’s because their feeding grounds overlap some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes — waters where freighters, tankers, ferries, cruise ships and fishing boats make thousands of trips. Between 1986 and 2005, ship strikes took the lives of at least 19 right whales — and those were only the documented fatalities. The injuries observed by researchers include severed tails, shattered skulls, internal hemorrhages, deep cuts and gashes. Mate is still haunted by the sight of one whale that had been eviscerated by a propeller.

When Canadian marine biologist Moira Brown of the Center for Coastal Studies in Massachusetts launched a campaign to limit whales’ vulnerability to ship collisions, Mate’s research played a significant role. The travels of nine right whales he tagged in the late 1990s showed they were in constant danger. “Right whale distribution,” Mate and colleagues concluded in 1997 “coincided with areas extensively used by humans for fishing, shipping and recreation.”

In 2000 Mate and then graduate student Mark Baumgartner (now a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) investigated the movements of right whales feeding in the Bay of Fundy. Data from them and other scientists convinced a collaborative group of shippers, fishermen and Canadian officials in 2003 to adopt scientists’ recommendation to move shipping lanes four miles to the east — an unprecedented action that reduced the risk of ship strikes in the bay by at least 80 percent.


Scientists and environmentalists have now turned their attention to U.S. waters. The National Marine Fisheries Service has, for example, recommended lowering speed limits for vessels off the eastern seaboard, where right whales travel annually to their breeding grounds off Georgia and Florida. A 2004 NMFS report cites data (right whale migration patterns and routes, speed and distance traveled, residency periods and dive durations) from studies by Mate and other scientists in support of the proposal.

The other big threat facing North Atlantic right whales is fishing gear. New England Aquarium scientists have documented dozens of entanglements with nets and lines in recent decades. They have reported whales with lines through their mouths and wrapped around flippers, head and back. One whale with “three tight wraps from gillnet” over its back was later found dead with line cut into the dorsal body cavity and “wrapped around both flippers and underside.”

The detritus of human enterprise and entertainment — helium balloons, aluminum pull-tabs, plastics by the ton, nylon netting that even a whale can’t break — too often winds up in the world’s oceans, and takes the lives of countless sea creatures. That fact is brought home forcefully for visitors in a graphic photo display at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. The recent travelers to Baja witnessed it firsthand: a sea lion wearing a piece of fishing line cinched around her neck. It had cut its way into her skin, forming an ever-tightening noose. Watching her scratch at it with her flipper, Mate shook his head. “Eventually,” he said, “it’ll kill her.”

For the precarious North Atlantic right whale, these kinds of entanglements are tragic not just for the individuals, they’re ominous for the species as a whole. “Almost 60 percent of North Atlantic right whales are scarred by gear entanglements,” Mate says. “Some years, all of the calves are scarred before they’re a year old. That’s not tolerable!”

Creating a Corps of Advocacy

Mate’s findings are not limited to academic journals and scientific papers. He’s been quoted widely in the popular press, including National Geographic, and he makes the evening news whenever whales beach themselves on the Oregon Coast. He’s been featured on the Discovery Channel, the PBS science programs “Nova” and “Nature,” and several BBC specials with world-renowned director and producer Richard Attenborough, including a recent episode of “Blue Planet.”

Reaching ordinary people about the plight of whales and their cousins gives Mate deep professional satisfaction. For more than 20 years, he reached that broader constituency as a member of the Oregon Sea Grant Extension faculty. Mate believes that when marine mammals are under siege, their strongest shield is public outrage girded by scientific evidence — the kind of evidence that, as Mate likes to say, “will hold up in court.”

That kind of evidence is critical to resolving such issues as the ongoing conflict between salmon fishermen and sea lions in the river systems of the Northwest. The competition for coho and chinook makes headlines across the region year after year. Yet studies by OSU and others suggest that there is more to it than a simple predator-prey relationship between marine mammals and fish. That’s because sea lions have historically had a voracious appetite for a salmon nemesis: the lamprey, a parasitic fish that attaches itself to juvenile and adult salmon. In the 1980s, an Oregon Sea Grant-funded study by Mate and his colleagues found that lamprey topped the sea lions’ diet in the Rogue River. “Lamprey are anadromous (they spawn in fresh water and migrate to sea), like salmon,” Mate says, “and each female that makes it upstream lays 100,000 eggs. Seals and sea lions are thought to be the reason lamprey populations in Oregon rivers have declined.”

Since that study, the picture has changed. Salmon numbers have plummeted while more sea lions, which are protected by federal law, have been making their way upstream. More research is needed to end the bitter debate.

To settle this and other human-animal conflicts, Mate is spearheading the creation of an international Marine Mammal Institute at OSU. In June, Markus Horning, director of the Laboratory for Applied Biotelemetry and Biotechnology at Texas A&M University at Galveston, became the latest scientist to join the multidisciplinary team that will study marine mammal ecology from many different angles — behavior, acoustics, physiology, genetics and seasonal distribution. Horning specializes in pinnipeds and other diving animals. With scientists at the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward, Alaska, he leads a study of Steller sea lions, using a new implanted tag technology that reveals details about foraging patterns and other aspects of an animal’s life history.

Mate continues to develop his program at the Hatfield Marine Science Center as the foundation of a worldwide effort to understand and manage marine mammals. Because in the end, extending the scope and reach of science, Mate says, is the best hope for the future of the world’s ocean dwellers.