An unidentified Mesoplodon (beaked whale) photographed off Baja California, Mexico. Species unknown.

An unidentified Mesoplodon (beaked whale) photographed off Baja California, Mexico. Species unknown.

Simon Ager, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

A group of Oregon researchers are on their way to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to look for a potentially new species of whale.

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The expedition, led by a team from Oregon State University, will sail nearly a week onboard the R/V Pacific Storm to get to the search location — the area of the Pacific about halfway between Oregon and Hawaii where the ocean’s stray trash congregates.

“It’s a high-risk, high-reward project — a somewhat needle in the haystack trip,” said expedition lead Lisa Ballance, director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute. “At the same time, we have some good indicators that where we are headed, this animal is there.”

The researchers know the whale they’re looking for is a type of beaked whale. These shy whales live in remote parts of the ocean, hunting squid at extreme depths. They resemble an oversized porpoise, with a somewhat comically small head.

“There have been some sightings of a cryptic whale. Quick photographs snapped.… We’ve taken a look at them. We don’t know what that animal is. So we want to go find it,” she said.

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Relatively little is known about the whales; in fact, six known species of beaked whale have never actually been observed alive. And because so little is known, we have no way of tracking how human activity in the ocean is affecting their populations.

The area with the garbage patch is technically called the North Pacific Gyre and it’s a massive area to search. And the expedition will only have about 20 days on location. But the researchers think that if beaked whales behave like other whales, they will frequent the same areas from year to year to feed.

“Humans do the same thing. We have our favorite restaurants, our favorite grocery stores. So the more we know about whales, dolphins and porpoises, the more we learn that that is actually not unusual and it may actually be typical for beaked whales,” Ballance said.

Once they make it to the gyre, the researchers will tow an underwater microphone behind the boat 24 hours a day to try to pick up whale calls. They’ll also be scanning the surroundings with high powered binoculars. If successful, they will then attempt to photograph and collect DNA samples to try to determine what species the whales are.

If the researchers are able record the unique whale calls of new or previously unobserved species of beaked whales, it will give them a tool to track the populations to understand more about their numbers, range and if human-caused noise in the ocean is disrupting their behavior.

It’s unknown if there’s a connection between the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the beaked whales that are suspected to live in the area. As a side project, the researchers will be catching the whales’ primary food source — squid — living among the plastic and other trash floating in the area and analyzing them.

”If we can understand the extent to which squids might be impacted by the plastic, it’s another step [closer to understanding] the impacts on the beaked whales themselves,” Ballance said.

Part of the funding for the expedition comes from sales of Oregon’ gray whale license plate, which supports OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute in Newport.

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