Marine Studies Initiative

The Whales of Baja

Inspired science for the long haul

By Cynthia Sagers, Vice President of Research 

Cynthia Sagers

Recently I had an unforgettable journey into the world of whale research with Bruce Mate, director of Oregon State’s Marine Mammal Institute, and a group of rain-soaked Oregonians. In the San Ignacio Lagoon of Baja, California, we enjoyed the deep beauty of aquamarine waters and the sheer abundance of the natural world. What I saw and learned from Mate and his colleagues reinforced the global, enduring impact of OSU’s $336 million research enterprise.

Here we were, in a UNESCO World Heritage Site among one of the largest congregations of gray whales on the planet. Just watching them, you’d never know that the grays were almost hunted to extinction and that their recovery is due in part to pioneering science by Oregon State.

The invitation came shortly after I arrived at OSU in 2015. Mate conducts these annual excursions to advance the institute’s mission of conservation and marine mammal ecology. So in late February, I was among 30 people who joined Bruce, his wife Mary Lou and the Royal Polaris crew for the awe-inspiring chance to see the whales up close.

And a close encounter it was. We were actually able to touch the whale calves who were curious about our presence and, in fact, were encouraged by the adult grays to interact with us. Whale skin feels like a wet football with its slate color blending into the water’s hue like a wash of matte gray paint.

In all, we were able to observe a pod of about 250 whales frolicking in the saltwater lagoon for several days. Other marine mammals such as elephant and harbor seals and dolphins swam nearby. Hiking excursions on nearby islands awakened my plant pathologist roots, inspiring more wonder of the natural world’s bounty.

While this experience was amazing, it gave me an opportunity to reflect on the impact of OSU’s long-term commitment to science. Over the last 50 years, Mate and his colleagues in the institute’s Whale Telemetry Group have pioneered the development of satellite-monitored radio tags to study the movements, habitats and dive characteristics of whales and dolphins around the world. Before that, there was no effective way to understand how these animals move from place to place.

By developing technologies and applying them to the oceans, OSU researchers gained valuable insights about endangered whale species and their movements. This information has helped decision-makers to manage human activities that could otherwise jeopardize whale recovery.

These achievements, and those of other Oregon State scientists, have been made possible because researchers have stayed the course over the long haul — and because generous individuals have made invaluable contributions to carry this work forward through the ups and downs of short-term funding cycles. This partnership between scientists and supporters fuels OSU’s Marine Studies Initiative, a university-wide program to address ocean-health issues.

As I marveled at the whales and at Mother Nature’s abundance in Baja, I also reflected on Oregon State’s collaborative research culture. We are as committed to fostering this vital work as we are to sharing the benefits with our students, businesses and communities.

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.