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.
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.
Read more on this story at Terra Magazine