NEWPORT - The blue whale is the largest creature on Earth, growing to a length of a hundred feet and weighing more than 100 tons. Yet despite their massive size, researchers have no idea where they go each year to breed or calve.
Blue whales, experts say, are truly endangered. Early this century, during a 12-year period, more than 250,000 blue whales were killed in the Antarctic alone. Today their population in the Antarctic is estimated at less than 700 whales. Another 2,000 to 2,500 blue whales - maybe one-fifth of the world's population - come to the California coast each summer to feed. Then they disappear.
"If we don't know where they go, we can't make very good decisions about what kinds of human impacts affect their lives," said Bruce Mate, a professor at Oregon State University and director of the university's internationally recognized Marine Mammal Program.
Mate says research may be what ultimately saves the endangered whales of the world. By learning more about their migration routes, their feeding patterns, and their breeding and calving routines, scientists can began identifying critical habitats for the whales - then gauging the effects of human activities on them.
"Everyone understands the difference in habitats terrestrially - the forest, deserts, grasslands, etc.," Mate said. "But often people look at the ocean and think it's all the same. The ocean is just as diverse as land. Much of the mid-ocean is a biological desert with very little food. The whales need to be well-fed before they migrate through thousands of miles, over several months, to their reproductive areas.
"We need to protect their feeding grounds and reproductive areas if they are to survive."
Mate's path-breaking research has shed light on the migration patterns of a number of whales, including grays, humpbacks, blue whales, Arctic bowheads and right whales, which are the world's most endangered whale species. Scientists estimate that there are only 300 North Atlantic right whales remaining, despite the fact they haven't been hunted since the 1930s.
Almost all of the right whales are scarred from being tangled with nets or hit by vessels. "One out of three deaths is attributable to a collision with a boat," Mate said. "No one wants to see right whales go extinct. But we cannot fix this human impact until we understand it better. The more we identify their critical habitats - and where these whales migrate, feed and calve - the more we'll learn about how to lessen those human impacts."
Because whales travel so far, the problem is a global one. Mate recently tracked a pair of right whales - mother and calf - that traveled 2,500 miles in six weeks despite an abundant local food supply.
His theory: the mother was showing her offspring how to find food.
Mate said there is a growing threat to their whales from fishing nets, ships, pollution, global warming and other human impacts, placing some whales in as much peril as whale did in the past. Yet he is confident that the research that he and others conduct can provide the raw data vital to understanding the creatures' habitats and determining how to lessen the human impact.
"We need to know where whales live seasonally, why those areas are important, and how some human activities can disrupt important whale activities like breeding, feeding and migrating," Mate said..
"What we need to do isn't complex, but it will take some time and we need to get going," he added. "I don't think there's anything we do that I can't explain to a seventh-grader. Whales are phenomenal creatures. But they need our help."
Mate's whale research is profiled in the most recent issue of Oregon's Agricultural Progress, a magazine published by the OSU Agricultural Experiment Station. Copies are available, at no charge, by writing: Circulation Coordinator, Oregon's Agricultural Progress, 422 Kerr Administration Building, OSU, Corvallis, 97331-2119.