NEWPORT, Ore. – The pioneering work of Oregon State University researcher Bruce Mate and OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute will be featured in a new documentary filmed by the British Broadcasting System and airing on the Animal Planet network on Monday, Feb. 5.
The show, part of the network’s Incredible Animal Journeys series, features the tracking of gray whale females and their offspring from calving areas off Mexico to feeding grounds in the high Arctic.
Mate has been a pioneer in the use of satellites to track tagged whales over his last two decades of research that has yielded a wealth of information about the animals’ migration routes between feeding and calving areas, as well as their overall behavior. This recent OSU project, filmed in 2005, documents the first tracking of gray whales from their calving areas to feeding areas.
The work is important because it shows how whales migrate in close proximity to human activities and how their feeding areas have changed in recent years in response to warming in the Bering Sea.
“Even though we were tracking the tagged whales by satellite, it turned out to be incredibly difficult to locate those specific whales during their migration for the filming crews,” Mate said. “Whales are difficult to tell from one another, unless we get really close to them, and weather frequently kept us from making a timely rendezvous with the tagged individuals.
“At one point, we had an airplane, two boats, and a person located on a hillside with a direction finder looking for our whales,” Mate added with a laugh. “But it worked out well in the end. The research was significant and the exposure for Oregon State University and our new institute is tremendous.”
The OSU researchers tagged 17 gray whales during the project. Six of those animals lost their tags even before the whales left their wintering lagoon – probably because the one-ton calves frequently rub against their mothers. One tag was lost when the whale was temporarily entangled in a gill net in Mexico, one whale died of unknown causes (not related to the tag), and one was killed during a Russian whale hunt.
“It’s a rough world out there for whales,” Mate said, “and both the research and the documentary demonstrate that.”
The gray whale episode of Incredible Animal Journeys is scheduled to debut at 8 p.m. (Pacific time) on Feb. 5 on the Animal Planet network, and will be replayed several times over subsequent weeks.