NEWPORT, Ore. – The work of scientists at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute has long been of interest to the public, but recent exposure of their whale research through a pair of award-winning documentaries has brought even more attention to the program.
This month, “The Cove” was nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary category. This eco-thriller, which lifts the veil on dolphin exploitation in a small Japanese fishing village, prominently features the work of OSU’s Scott Baker, associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute. A cetacean geneticist, Baker covertly conducts genetic tests on “meat” samples purchased in Japanese grocery stores in the film to identify the species of dolphins, porpoises and whales sold for human consumption.
Since it first aired last year, The Cove, which was produced by the Ocean Preservation Society, has won more than 40 awards, including prizes from prestigious film festivals at Sundance, the Director’s Guild, the Screenwriters Guild, the National Board of Review and more.
The film follows another documentary that also aired early in 2009 and featured another OSU whale expert, Bruce Mate, who directs the Marine Mammal Institute. “Kingdom of the Blue Whale,” produced by the National Geographic Channel, was narrated by Tom Selleck, and went on to become the most widely viewed documentary ever seen on the National Geographic Channel.
The film followed 15 blue whales off the coasts of California and Central America tagged by Mate, a pioneer in the use of satellites to monitor threatened and endangered marine mammals. Much of the activity took place aboard the R/V Pacific Storm, an OSU research vessel.
The goal of the research, documented by National Geographic Channel filmmakers, was to discover whether the ocean waters near Acapulco, Mexico and Costa Rica serve as a feeding, breeding and calving area, and whether the whales that congregate there come exclusively from the California population.
Despite its enormity and vocal strengths, the blue whale remains one of the most mysterious animals in the sea. It is rare, it spends most of its time beneath the water, and its dives are deep. There once were nearly 10,000 blues along the Pacific coastline, but a century of whaling took its toll and that number has been reduced by some 75 percent.
“It was quite an adventure,” Mate said of the project, “but the more we learn about these great animals the better chance we have to protect them.”
Filming The Cove also was an adventure, Baker says. His science-based scenes of the DNA identification and his comments on the threat of mercury contamination in the dolphin meat are a counterpoint to the movie’s main storyline: An intrepid team of cinematographers and activists (including the dolphin trainer of the 1960s TV series Flipper), wearing camouflage and night-vision goggles, risk arrest and even death to capture video and underwater acoustics during the slaughter of dolphins.
As the world’s first scientist to use DNA to identify the species of whales being butchered and sold as meat, Baker appears in the movie both as an expert “talking head” and as a DNA detective, hunkered over a portable genetic laboratory in a cramped Tokyo hotel room.
“We spent days filming in that hotel room – a room not much bigger than my office,” recalled Baker, a leader in international efforts to uncover black-market trade in marine mammals. He describes director Louie Psihoyos as “visionary, but meticulous,” shooting “tons of film” to tell the story of the annual killing of 2,300 dolphins in the seaside town of Taiji.
The Marine Mammal Institute, located at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, is becoming widely recognized for the importance and impact of its science. In addition to Mate, Baker and their colleague, pinniped expert Markus Horning, a team of 20 research and administrative staff and graduate students have made Newport, Ore., a hotbed of scientific activity around whales, sea lions, dolphins, seals and other mammals of the sea.