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Oregon Scientist Studies Generations Of Whales


A western gray whale is pictured off Sakhalin Island, Russia. In the 1970s, scientists thought the western gray whale had gone extinct. Now researchers estimate that about 150 individual whales remain.

A western gray whale is pictured off Sakhalin Island, Russia. In the 1970s, scientists thought the western gray whale had gone extinct. Now researchers estimate that about 150 individual whales remain.

Craig Hayslip/OSU Marine Mammal Institute

Bruce Mate has been studying whales for close to four decades and recently tracked the longest mammal migration on record. Mate is based at the Oregon State University Hatfield Marine Science Center, but his work has taken him all over the world.

The record-setting mammal is a gray whale named Vavara. Initially scientists thought that whales only migrated along the coast of the continent where they were born. 

“But she surprised everybody,” Mate said of her 13,988-mile journey. “She came across the Bering Sea, across the Gulf of Alaska, down the west coast of the United States all the way down to Baja…and then she migrated all the way back again.”

In the 1970s, Mate pioneered the technology that made this sort of tracking possible.

“People were so convinced we couldn’t do this that I could not find funding for it,” he said.

His wife, Mary Lou, suggested he take time off to do it, but Mate still needed $25,000 for the project. So, she sold her car and took out a second mortgage on their house.

“She just took all the problems away,” he said with a smile.

The technology has improved since then, and Mate has gotten to know the whales he’s tracked over time.

“I don’t think they know who I am, but I know who they are,” he said. “I know certain individuals on sight from a distance.” 

Mate described a whale that has lived for 20 years without a fluke (otherwise known as tail fins). This particular whale’s movements are so distinctive Mate says he can identify the animal from over a mile away. In the course of his career, Mate has known some whales through three generations.

“I’ve known her for over 30 years,” says Mate of one whale that spends the summers feeding off Newport, “I’ve met 6 of her calves.”

 

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OPB | Broadcast: April 29, 2015