NEWPORT - Whales are universally loved. Commercial whaling has decreased dramatically. And concern about the impacts of humans on whales has never been greater.
Yet around the world, whales are still very much at risk.
Scientists studying the world's endangered whales are on the brink of making a number of potentially important discoveries, but a decline in federal funding over the last decade is threatening their research. At a time when technological advances may open new areas of study, the dollars to fund those projects are getting harder to find, says one world leader in the study of marine mammals.
"It's ironic," said Bruce Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Program at Oregon State University. "Everyone loves whales but there is no sweeping movement to financially support their protection."
Primary funding for studying whales used to come from federal grants, mostly emphasizing offshore oil leasing, Mate said. "Now most of the federal funding is applied to narrow areas of research and the oil exploration issues have oriented to other concerns."
Mate is a pioneer and world leader in the use of satellites to track whales. Most of his activities are funded through the Marine Mammal Endowment in the OSU Foundation which, after two recent private gifts, has grown to more than $3 million. Interest from the funds allows Mate to sponsor two major research projects a year, support a handful of graduate students, and analyze the reams of data crossing his desk every day.
He would like to do more.
Researchers are poised for a breakthrough in collecting key information on whales, building on Mate's success last year. He was able to tag humpback whales with radio transmitters off Hawaii, then track their migration to some of their feeding areas. The OSU tags can now track whales for five full months before the tag's batteries wear down. Previous tracking efforts lasted only a month or two.
And next year, Mate hopes that his team can tag whales that will transmit data for up to an entire year - a critical length of time that encompasses the whole feeding, migrating and breeding cycle.
What the researchers are finding has startled Mate, who has been studying whales for 23 years.
"From fluke coloration patterns, we had known that many of the humpback whales that congregate around Hawaii in the winter to calve also spend a lot of time off southeast Alaska in the summer feeding," Mate said. "Many scientists assumed that all of the humpbacks would leave Hawaii and head to Alaska. In the past, our tags never lasted long enough to find out.
"But last year we were able to track them for a longer period of time," he added. "One tagged whale went from Hawaii to the eastern base of the Aleutian Islands, then west over to Kamchatka Peninsula in Siberia. It never went near southeast Alaska. No one ever realized that whales in Russia had ties to Hawaii."
The longer-lasting tags allowed Mate and his research associates to track feeding movements, which also provided surprises. Some stayed in a relatively small area for five months, while others cruised the coast of Alaska and Canada - often as much as 80 to 100 miles a day - searching for abundant food. When they found a good spot, they would sometimes stay for days or weeks before moving on.
Whale migration models which showed the animals moving from point A to point B suddenly appear too simplistic. And the implications are profound, Mate said.
"One of the things whalers learned was that whales don't really feed when they are migrating or when they are calving," he pointed out. "So their feeding season before migration is absolutely critical as they store up enough reserves to last 4-5 months. By successfully monitoring the whales during their feeding cycle, we can begin to identify the strategies of different whales by where they spend most of their time feeding.
"It's exciting to see, for the first time, the whales' migration routes, their speeds and the extent of their range," Mate said. "That is the kind of new data that can make a difference.
"We are finding out that many whale species inhabit whole ocean basins, traveling through the waters of many nations annually," Mate said. "It demands that we have coordinated international protection if we are to be successful saving these animals."
Technological advancements have not only lengthened the time span of the tags - which look a little like 4th of July bottle rockets - they have led to more sophisticated equipment. From his office in Newport, Ore., Mate can monitor not only the whales' route, but the number of dives they take, the depth of those dives, and the water temperature.
The research can be costly. Each tag costs about $4,000, and Mate says they tag 10-12 whales on an expedition. Add in the time of the researchers, the travel, boat rental and equipment, and the cost of a single expedition averages about $125,000. And it can go higher. "To do research in the Arctic, for example, it takes $3,000 a day just for the boat and you need it for at least a month," Mate said.
Data analysis also can be costly and time-consuming. The humpback whales Mate tracked last year sent back 48,000 different transmissions over five months from all parts of the Pacific Ocean. And he has monitored blue whales, gray whales, bowheads and numerous dolphins.
Interest by the public in whale research is strong, Mate says. The OSU Marine Mammal Program is usually featured in a major documentary almost every year, and the program's outreach efforts continue to grow and reach more people. Mate trains the volunteers for Oregon's Coastal Whale Watch program who, in turn, help educate the public about migrating gray whales during spring and Christmas vacations.
Last year, in the two-week period, they spoke to more than 39,000 people from every state in the nation and nearly 40 countries.
Mate also leads annual educational trips to Baja California, the calving grounds for gray whales.
"People find whales fascinating and as a scientist, I share that feeling," Mate said. "There is a sense of exploration about our research because what we're finding out on a daily basis is so completely new. Next to God and the whales, we're the first to know what's going on with the whales."