OSU researchers on the RV Pacific Storm tracked these two humpbacks last year. Nearly 30 years of whale research and a broader mission drive a planned $12 million Marine Mammal Institute expansion at the Hatfield Marine Science Center.
The gray whales that cruise the West Coast and draw thousands of tourists to coastal communities annually were once in danger of becoming extinct, until laws and scientific knowledge combined to help resource managers nurture their population back to a healthy size.
Other marine mammals have not fared so well. For example, the blue whale population in the Southern Ocean is at 1 percent of its historic high.
Now Oregon State University scientists are looking at other threatened and endangered species with an eye toward replicating the success with grays and making important discoveries. At OSU’s newly expanded Marine Mammal Institute, they are using genetics, satellite tracking and behavior studies to learn about an array of marine mammals: blue whales off Chile, Steller sea lions in the North Pacific and humpback whales and Weddell seals in Antarctica.
"Gray whales are a tremendous success story, and Oregon State is playing an important role by identifying their recently changed migration paths from breeding grounds in Mexico to new feeding habitats in the high arctic," says Bruce Mate, institute director and holder of the endowed Marine Mammal Research Professorship. "We’re just beginning to discover the same kinds of information for blue whales and other species."
Earlier this year, Mate collaborated with OSU oceanographer Kelly Benoit–Bird on a project to locate squid off Baja, Mexico, in the Gulf of California and determine how the whale’s movements and dive behavior change in the presence of this favorite prey species.
MMI Associate Director Scott Baker used whale DNA to determine that coastal minke whale kills in Asia were being under–reported to the International Whaling Commission. The gap between reported whale kills and actual mortality has been a long–term dilemma plaguing resource managers, Baker points out.
"The result of under–reporting whale mortality is not simply the decline of the species and their ability to sustain their populations. It is the increasing difficulty the situation creates for protecting these animals," says Baker.
Pinniped expert Markus Horning led a study on aging and physical capabilities of Weddell seals in Antarctica. In his work, which could have implications for human health, he found that even older seals reduced their heart rate from about 100 beats per minute down to 40 beats — and sometimes as low as five — to adjust blood output from the heart as they dove for prey.
"This ability demonstrates the remarkable capacity of seals to manipulate their physiology and metabolism and to adjust to extreme circumstances," Horning says.
"This is really a new age in research," Mate adds. "We began by studying whale movements, but now the institute’s goal with marine mammals is to learn about what they eat, their predators, diseases, behaviors, relationships within their ecosystems and how they interact with human activities."
Located at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, the institute is extending its education and outreach efforts to developing countries. "Raising global understanding of marine mammals is a responsibility we take seriously," Mate says. "Without Mexico’s protection of calving areas, gray whales would not have rebounded so rapidly. Now that this stock has recovered, we have helped the communities there develop a sustainable education–based form of tourism with gray whales."