Following the Blues

Science in service to whale recovery

Bruce Mate

By Bruce Mate, director, OSU Marine Mammal Institute

Nothing prepared me for snorkeling with a sperm whale. I felt the pressure of its acoustic probing in my chest. I trusted its sonogram would reveal my bones, so the whale would know I wasn’t a squid, its normal food. But there was that moment of doubt at 20 feet away that brought me face-to-face with my mortality.

That experience only deepened my sense of respect, scale and awe for the magnificent animals we call “whales.” You may get the feeling of size and other-worldliness by watching gray whales spouting off Depoe Bay or humpbacks breaching near Cannon Beach.

Regrettably, not all whales have recovered from commercial whaling. While the grays have done very well, others are still struggling. In the vast Antarctic, whalers killed 366,000 blue whales from 1900 to 1950, taking them close to extinction. With 50 years of full protection, blues have made modest gains, but the Antarctic population is just 2,000, less than 1 percent of what whalers killed. The eastern North Pacific (ENP) has about 1,700, perhaps 30 percent of the worldwide population.

Oregon State scientist Kim Bernard’s discovery of an enormous Antarctic krill patch (see “Going in for the Krill,” is good news for blues there, which dine almost exclusively on these shrimp-like crustaceans. Marine Mammal Institute (MMI) scientist Leigh Torres uses drones to study the energy demands and resources of New Zealand blues that forage on surface krill. The MMI Telemetry Group tags whales with sensors to describe their feeding during deep dives in the eastern North Pacific. Researchers know the fate of blue whales is tied to krill.

Unfortunately, since 2014, two Pacific Ocean warm-water “blobs” and an El Nino have been unfavorable for krill. Blues normally stay in coastal waters off California, Oregon and Washington during the summer and fall because krill are usually abundant. However, when krill are scarce, the whales just keep moving, trying to find dense krill patches. MMI scientists found that 50 to 80 percent of the blues they approached off California were too skinny to tag, and few calves were seen.

Our recent studies have shown that some blue whales swim south to reproductive areas two months earlier than usual. We suspect they are finding less abundant but possibly more dependable feeding opportunities. Something is better than almost nothing.

Gray whale and her calf

We are committed to understanding what changing ocean conditions mean for blue whales and other marine life. Fortunately, OSU is up to the task because of extraordinary support from donors who share our passion for the ocean. The institute will occupy part of the new marine studies building being constructed at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. MMI scientists hope to be mentoring OSU undergrads with the latest research findings on whale ecology.

MMI doesn’t do this work for its own sake. We want our findings to improve conservation and management practices. Tracking tells us about where, when and how whales migrate between reproductive and feeding areas. By determining seasonal habitats and behaviors that put whales at risk, we can help reduce unintentional human impacts. We’ve already helped reduce the number of whales hit by ships.

When it comes to environmental change, we know that there will be winners and losers. We want to identify the issues that determine how whales adapt and rebound so our children’s children can see healthy populations of whales and experience the deep feelings of respect and awe these whales instill in us today.

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.