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Voyage of the Beagle

Voyage of the Beagle header image
Whale tracking has come a long way: clear up to satellites orbiting the earth.

My eyes flutter open but a sleepy brain can't place the long, lonesome whistle. To tell you the truth, it can't even place where I am. Curious eyes study the dirty-white ceiling and walls, then a window with flimsy curtains pulled open. The dim outlines of treetops come into focus. I remember the driver the night before, cutting down an alley and letting me out not far from a train station. Hopping out of bed and dressing quickly, I throw a few things into a rubber bag and hurry down a long hallway and stairs and out the front door of the Hotel State Street.

Outside the air is salty. I breathe deeply and notice the sky. It's lightening to a weak gray as dawn sneaks up on Santa Barbara, California. There appear to be stragglers from last night's Old Spanish Days Fiesta, an impressive blowout from what I saw while I was finding my way into the hotel around midnight. Nervously, I reopen the watertight rubber bag: pen, notebook, extra clothes, candy, sunscreen, still-wrapped 99-cent plastic air mattress. Okay. Let it begin. I'm ready to stalk a beast whose tongue weighs more than me and my entire family (including a couple of uncles).

A bearded, robust-looking man by a middle-aged Chevrolet Suburban motions for me to get in. It turns out we're only blocks from the Santa Barbara Marina, where the city's red tile and white stucco motif meets the vast blue Pacific Ocean.

Close-up photo of the deep blue ocean.

Photo: Tony Stone

"What we have is a low overcast bordering on fog," says Bruce Mate, shooting me a cheery sideways glance and steering the Suburban into a huge parking lot speckled with cars and trucks, many attached to boat trailers.

We stop by a sturdy-looking life raft. It looks like the device I've seen ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau zip around in on television documentaries when he's leaving the Calypso to go ashore. "That's our vessel," Mate announces.

The other two members of the crew of the HMSC Beagle, as Mate tells me he and his colleagues have named their raft, are busy. But they introduce themselves. Both seem friendly. Glad to welcome me aboard.

There's the Beagle's other Mate, Mary Lou. She's collaborated with Bruce on lots of adventures, including raising two children during their 32 years of marriage. When Mary Lou mentions she was an intensive care nurse until she retired a few years ago, I'm comforted. Can't have too many of those along when your quarry would dwarf a Tyrannosaurus rex.

And there's Barbara (Barb to her crewmates) Lagerquist, a slight, soft-spoken native of Ontario, Canada. When she's not at sea, I learn, one of her passions is Ultimate Frisbee, kind of a cross between tossing a Frisbee among friends and an NFL football game.

A man standing on a dock and two women in an inflatable raft.

Dawn patrol: OSU marine biologist Bruce Mate, left, and research assistants Barb Lagerquist, center, and Mary Lou Mate get ready to push off from Santa Barbara's marina to search for blue whales. A 90-horsepower engine powers the HMSC Beagle, a rigid-hulled, inflatable raft. Photo: Andy Duncan

"I let some air out in the heat when we broke down at Yreka. It was tight as a drum. It'll probably require a bit of pumping," Bruce tells Barb. He's talking about the two-day trip he and Mary Lou completed yesterday, towing the raft from Newport, Oregon, to Santa Barbara behind their Suburban.

"Come to think of it, I believe this might be my first ocean trip away from the sight of land. How far out will we be going?" I ask, matter-of-factly. "Maybe 50 miles," Bruce says as he searches for the raft's drain plugs. "Nothing essential," he confides about the plugs. "Without them we'll just sink."

By seven the marina is buzzing. The crew, an experienced team I've realized watching the pre-launch routine, is ready. However, the Beagle, which looks 10 feet long, seems to be shrinking. It's 18 feet, Mary Lou assures me as we shove off. "It just looks smaller," she says, "when you know you're going way out into the ocean."

The crew of the HMSC Beagle on the open ocean in an inflatable raft.

Blue whales feed on tiny organisms such as shrimp-like creatures called krill, frequently near the surface. To locate the gigantic whales, sometimes 80 feet long, the researchers look for tell-tale spouting and clues such as seabirds that feed on krill. They also use a cell phone to "network" with charter boat skippers. The crew of the Beagle often cover 100 miles a day or more in search of their quarry. Photo: Andy Duncan

"Palatial, isn't it," Bruce adds.

We glide through the harbor. No one on the fancy boats and yachts seems to notice our raft. The hungry seagulls and haughty pelicans don't appear to, either. I can still see the outline of palm trees and adobe buildings when Mary Lou and Bruce hang bright yellow signs over the rubber sides: "Research Vessel," the signs proclaim.

The HMSC in the Beagle's name is short for Hatfield Marine Science Center, a Newport, Oregon, facility operated by Oregon State University. The raft's name is a play on the name of the research ship of famous 19th century English naturalist Charles Darwin. The HMS Beagle carried Darwin around the world to study plants and animals.

Bruce Mate is a naturalist, too. He directs Oregon State University's Marine Mammal Program, dedicated to increasing our knowledge of the whales, porpoises, dolphins, sea lions and seals that roam the world, including the waters off Oregon. The program's roots go back to 1973 when Mate completed a doctorate in biology at the University of Oregon, based on a sea lion research project, and took an OSU job as a marine extension agent. Barb and Mary Lou are research assistants with OSU's Marine Mammal Program.

Today, August 7, is the first day-on the water, at least-of the 1998 tagging effort with one heck of a marine mammal: the great blue whale, the largest animal that's ever lived on the earth. On a scale of one to ten, anticipation is up there. Bruce, Barb and Mary Lou are wondering when they'll spot the first one. I'm wondering what'll happen to this turbocharged dinghy when they do.

The plan is simple. Find a blue whale, move alongside and put a stainless steel radio transmitter the size of a cigar into the top layer of blubber on its back. My problem is, I've read about blue whales around Antarctica that are 100 feet long and weigh 150 tons. Luckily, Bruce says the ones he and his colleagues are studying, part of the North Pacific population, only average 80 feet when they're grown.

A humpback whale's silhouette.

A singing humpback whale, perhaps communicating with a potential mate, near Hawaii. Photo: Flip Nicklin

I've read that blue whales don't have teeth. Instead, each side of the upper jaw has a row of relatively soft, three-foot-long, comb-like things called baleen. They lunge into patches of their food, taking in monstrous volumes of water and filtering it through the baleen to collect the organisms that nourish them. Their favorite is krill, shrimp-type critters about the size of a peanut m&m. I'm very glad they don't have teeth like, say, the sperm whale that killed Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. But they weigh as much as 25 elephants. What if we come across one that's just plain not enthused about having company during breakfast?

We're clear of the near-shore congestion. Barb guns the 90-horsepower engine and the Beagle's bow rises. Bruce refers to her as "our very own Mario Andretti" while adjusting the chin strap on his hat.

a gray whale stirring up the ocean floor while eating.

A gray whale feeds on the ocean bottom. OSU researchers have tracked grays, which migrate along the Oregon Coast, to learn more about the creatures' breeding and calving habitats. Photo: Flip Nicklin

As we bore on, and land fades from sight, the sea starts to look dark green, with occasional ripples of white. Barb stands stoically in the rear, at the wheel. How high are these swells we're crashing over? I ask. Maybe two feet. Basically it's calm, she tells me.

"It's amazing how exhausted you get when you're out at sea like this long day after long day," says Mary Lou. I don't know about that yet, but I'm beginning to realize that Veryl Barry, secretary for the Marine Mammal Program, knew what she was talking about when she suggested bringing rain gear and layers of warm clothes, even if I thought it was going to be sunny.

In the middle of a fog bank we pass a sea lion that's popped its head out of the water, taking a break from catching fish or whatever they do underwater. Later, to our right, a seething mass appears. We're on course to intersect a pod of what Bruce identifies as common dolphins. They look like armless humans doing the butterfly stroke on fast forward. A few peel off for a quick ride in the Beagle's bow wave. Most continue wherever they're headed, giving us about as much attention as the yachters, gulls and pelicans.

But the dolphins get Bruce's attention.

A lot of people don't feel they have any power to protect ocean life, including marine mammals, he says, mentioning coming up on a turtle that was dying because it swallowed a birthday party-type balloon that dropped into the sea after losing its helium. Animals choke on Styrofoam cups they mistake for food, he adds. "There are little, but important, things any of us can do," he says: Don't litter. Don't drain oil and fuel onto the ground. Recycle. Don't release balloons. Things like that.

Over the wind and engine whine, I ask about other problems. I've read how uncontrolled whaling decimated many populations in earlier times. Mate says today the major threat to the future of whales is not the scaled-down commercial whaling industry, pretty much limited to the abundant Minke whale, the smallest of the baleen (toothless) whales. It's the deterioration of habitat.

A humpback whale breaching.

A humpback breaches. Photo: Flip Nicklin

"Pollution, to me, is a broad term," he says, "not just chemicals getting into the water. It can be harassment from sounds. It can be a matter of too little undisturbed physical space. Habitat is under attack not because people are against whales but because we are naive. People often consider developments in whale habitats as value-added activities without thinking about the consequences for whales. The adverse impacts for whales come from things like growing recreational and commercial uses of the oceans-vessel traffic, net fishing, pollution, the noise of seismic exploration for oil and gas (today, 90 percent of the noise in the ocean is generated by humans) and subsequent production impacts such as oil spills.

"Part of what we're trying to do is find ways human actions won't have negative impacts. We're trying to help humans use and harvest the ocean without bringing whales and other marine mammals into harm's way. We're working primarily with endangered species and a number of industries in coastal areas. Tourism, fishing, shipping and development are all involved with endangered species.

Killer whales at the ocean surface.

Killer whales off the coast of British Columbia. "You can't protect what you don't understand," says OSU's Bruce Mate, explaining the need to learn more about such marine mammals. Radio tags transmitting to weather satellites, which Mate's research team can access with a computer, are yielding data about the lives of whales. Photo: Flip Nicklin

"There are areas where whales get tangled in fishing gear and die," he continues. "One of the best examples is the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale. Fifty-eight percent of the 300 whales remaining are scarred from fishing gear entanglements, and half of all deaths are from vessel collisions, many with Navy and Coast Guard vessels.

"Many whale populations could be in decline and we wouldn't even know it. You can't change or protect what you don't understand. If we don't work hard to learn about where these whales go for their important reproductive and feeding seasons, some populations will be affected by human activity and we won't know it."

A desire to learn more about creatures that spend about 95 percent of their lives underwater is what drove Mate, in 1979, to think about mortgaging his and Mary Lou's home. "If it's what you need to do, go for it," Mary Lou told him. He invested about $11,000 in family funds.

At that time, most researchers were still simply trying to follow whales and observe them, though a few had used radio tags. Mate, a ham radio operator while growing up in Illinois, made history. Using a long pole, he put radio transmitters on three gray whales off the west coast of the Baja Peninsula. The tags had a five-mile range. He compares them to "walkie-talkies." Ninety-five days later, one of the animals reached the base of the Aleutian Islands. "It still stands as the record, the longest tracking of a large whale with such simple technology," he says. "It was worth every penny."

By 1983, Mate and colleagues at the Hatfield Marine Science Center had pioneered the use of a technique that's led to numerous discoveries about the movements and activities of marine mammals. The breakthrough was tagging a humpback whale off Newfoundland with a more sophisticated device that transmits to weather satellites and allows tracking with computers.

Since then it's been quite a journey, tagging and tracking many endangered whales: humpbacks in Alaska and Hawaii, North Atlantic right whales in the Bay of Fundy (southeast Canada), more grays in Baja, bowhead whales in the Canadian Arctic, and of course the blue whales off southern and central California. They've also tagged toothed whales like sperm whales and pilot whales, and several species of dolphins.

With the radio tags, size matters. The smaller and lighter the better. The innovation curve has led to some unusual twists. There was the radio-controlled, miniature helicopter Bruce constructed in 1984. The six-foot-long chopper was going to ferry the four-pound, state-of-the-art radio tag of that time out to whales. But on its maiden flight, from the deck of a fishing boat, it crashed into the rigging and tagged the boat.

A woman working on a laptop computer.

In a rented condominium in Santa Barbara, California, Barbara Lagerquist, with Oregon State University's Marine Mammal Program, uses a laptop computer to make sure a radio tag is working properly. She and colleagues hope to place the device on a blue whale. Photo: Andy Duncan

Today's handmade, dart-like tags are constructed by OSU engineer Rod Mesecar and weigh only about five and a half ounces. Mate delivers them to his target with a crossbow.

Mate compares the radio tags to "a splinter" for a human. He's observed whales weeks and months later and says the tags did not appear to cause any problems. Sometimes, animals go right back to feeding, sleeping or singing after they're tagged. After finding and tagging a whale, Bruce, Barb and Mary Lou can relax. But that's when other members of the team have to go to work.

A man standing in front of a satellite dish.

Bruce Mate with the dish atop the Hatfield Marine Science Center at Newport that downlinks whale tracking data from orbiting satellites. Mate is affiliated with the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station, a branch of OSU's Agricultural Experiment Station. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

Tomas Follett's title is "systems analyst." A couple of computers in his office at the Hatfield Marine Science Center are linked to a satellite dish on the roof. With colorful displays, the computers show the movements of tagged whales in various parts of the world.

Follett and Martha Winsor, a specialist in statistical analysis, often speculate about the information tags are sending to Newport via a weather satellite orbiting the earth. It tells them where a whale is and how frequent and long its dives are. Surface temperature images of the area may tell them that a whale is in an upwelling of nutrient-rich cold water, which usually offers a smorgasbord of rich foods. But how would a whale know about an upwelling? Memory? Detection at a distance? Or did the powerful sounds whales can send hundreds of miles through the water allow another whale to ring the dinner bell? Did somebody say McKrill?

I don't know how whales communicate. But by the middle of the afternoon on August 7, I understand how whale researchers do it. The cell phone. Can't get away from them in malls and restaurants. Can't get away from them 40 miles out in the Pacific Ocean. At least at the moment, there's a break from hours of zooming along endlessly checking for sea birds that feed on krill, and peering at the horizon until our eyes ache, looking for more obvious signs of whales such as spouting, or their bodies.

The Beagle following the silhouette of a blue whale, which is swimming just under the surface of the ocean.

The OSU satellite tagging crew, aboard the Beagle, approaches the largest animal that has ever lived. Despite their size, blue whales can reach speeds of 20 knots, or about 23 miles an hour. Photo: Flip Nicklin

The engine's off. It's strangely quiet, except for when Bruce tries to raise Captain Ron, a charter boat skipper, to ask if he's seen any whales. Finally, he gets through. The garbled answer is no. After a Beagle bathroom experience (think mixed company and four layers of clothes, off the back of a raft that's rising and falling with the ocean), we head farther out to sea. "We've allowed three weeks for this [blue whale tagging]," Mary Lou tells me. "We're eternal optimists. We talk about finishing in a week and a half. But I don't think we ever have."

It occurs to me that every hour out probably means another hour or so back. By the time we head in I've seen two of the Channel Islands and beyond, to the west. By the time I spot red tile and white stucco in the distance, I know what it's like to be stuck in a giant bed of kelp where Barb has to shut off the motor every 100 feet to clean the propeller (I really, really hope it starts again). My twitching legs have experienced what it's like to stand in the bow where Bruce tags whales, as the Beagle climbs up waves and crashes down the other side.

As I crawl onto the dock my eyes and skin are fried and my lower back and rump are aching. Don't ask about the bladder. Just get me to the Hotel State Street.

The next morning I crawl out of bed and dress as quickly as I can, spread sunscreen on my face and neck and hurry downstairs to meet the bearded man by the Suburban. "Bad news," he says, appearing a little embarrassed. "We've decided not to go out. The weather's deteriorating and we covered a lot of ground yesterday. We just don't think they're here."

A woman measuring a sea lion.

The OSU Marine Mammal Program is focused on more than whales. Here Barb Lagerquist examines a sea lion that may have died from starvation linked to El Nino, the weather event. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

Believe it or not, I'm disappointed. But the decision makes sense. We go over to the researchers' modest, rented condominium. There's a laptop computer and other gadgets on the dining table. Mary Lou's making coffee. Barb, who in the mid-1990s studied blue whales with Bruce in these same waters while working on her master's degree, is on the living room floor studying a map.

The three of them talk about where the whales might be. Farther up the coast? Should they "shuttle" the Beagle and gear to Santa Cruz or Half Moon Bay, a jumping off point for the Farallon Islands 25 miles west of San Francisco, and operate out of one of those places? Bruce calls a charter boat skipper who says he saw three blue whales headed north the day before last and they looked like "they were turning out the lights" as they left. He calls another researcher in the area. He even calls Steve Parker, a pharmacist friend in San Diego. Sometimes Steve, who flew helicopters in Vietnam, voluntarily takes Bruce up whale-spotting in his light plane.

During a lull in the networking, I ask about "war stories"-thrilling moments in whale research. Just finding a whale is intense, Bruce says. There's not much talking. Barbs steers. He positions himself in the bow. Mary Lou operates a video camera, perhaps their most important method of collecting information about the tagging process.

They relax for a moment and recall fascinating, and in some cases terrifying, experiences at sea (see sidebar, page 13), but soon it's back to the big question: Where are the blue whales? The stress level is rising fast. They decide Bruce will fly with the pharmacist the next day and scout. Reluctantly, because by this time I'm caught up in their world, I realize I've got to go back to Oregon. Who knows when, or if, they'll find a whale. I leave that afternoon.

Beluga whales in the ocean.

Beluga whales in shallow water off northern Canada, rubbing their tails on the ocean floor. Whales, dolphins and porpoises descended from land animals that entered the ocean many millions of years ago and gradually adapted. Human knowledge of marine mammals is "100 years behind" our knowledge of land-based animals, according to Bruce Mate. Photo: Flip Nicklin

For four days, the little crew shuttles between coastal towns, making forays into the Pacific. They search around the Farallon Islands, a prime area for great white sharks, in sizeable swells and fog that cuts the visibility to less than a quarter mile. "Crossing the shipping lanes in weather like that is pretty weird," Barb tells me later, "especially when you hear a ship's fog horn."

No luck. Then one morning, three and a half hours out from Santa Cruz, California, they spot a couple of humpback whales and another creature nearby about 70 feet long. "It defecated once, bright red, which means it was probably feeding on krill," says Barb. Mary Lou readies herself with the camera. Barb moves the Beagle as close as she dares to the great beast.

There was no reaction, the logbook says, when Bruce fired, placing a radio tag high on the back of the first whale of Augutst.

Postscript: By the end of the five-week 1998 tagging season, the crew of the HMSC Beagle had put radio transmitters on nine blue whales, two as far north as Crescent City, California, just south of the Oregon border. Since then the researrchers have learned much, including how widely those whales had to spread out this year to find food. Now the whales are around the southwest tip of the Baja Peninsula. Where they will go from there is the big question, says Bruce Mate. Scientists still don't know where North Pacific blue whales breed and calve.

TALES OF THE NORTH PACIFIC

Man sitting at a desk working at a computer.

At the Hatfield Marine Science Center, computer specialist Tomas Follett monitors the travels of "Kelly," a blue whale tagged off California that could be headed for the "Costa Rican Dome," a remote, open-ocean location Bruce Mate believes could be a breeding and calving site. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

Whale researchers spend many of their days working in offices and laboratories, and many others searching a seemingly endless ocean. But there are fascinating interludes and there's even high adventure. Here are a few examples:

Bruce Mate will never forget a night on a 150-foot-long National Science Foundation ship in the Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Strait. Most scientists aboard were studying the life histories of marine mammals. There were five dead seals on the back of the deck.

"We were adrift more than a mile from the nearest ice floe," he says. "About 2 a.m., someone on watch called the lab where I was working and said a white whale had just passed the boat. I was excited. I thought it was a beluga whale and hurried out to the side of the ship to look over the side." Mate could feel the polar bear's breath. "The bear was climbing aboard within three feet of where I stood and took a swipe at me," he says. "This is a creature that can pull a seal through a six-inch breathing hole in the ice-break every bone and eat it like an ear of corn. It was a gut-wrenching, visceral experience for me." Mate screamed and apparently that scared the polar bear. By the time others rushed out the bear was in the water swimming around.

Mary Lou Mate recalls a day in Hawaii when she, Bruce and Barb Lagerquist came up on a tiger shark trying to eat a huge sea turtle. "It would take the turtle under with each bite. The turtle was exhausted," she recalls. "But the shark couldn't bite through the shell. We were rooting for the turtle. You root for the underdog. But that's nature. We don't know how it ended. We had to leave before it was over to go try and tag some more whales."

"One of my neatest moments," Barb says, "was the first time I tagged gray whales in Baja with Bruce. Our crew was camping by a bay. I lost the coin toss and got up at 2 a.m. to turn the tags on. You feel like you're all alone in the world, and then you hear these whales out there. It sounded like the pressure in a steam pipe letting off. There's nothing else in the world like it."

Man shooting a radio tag into a blue whale.

Using a crossbow, Mate attaches a radio transmitter to a blue whale (in 1994). He pioneered the use of satellite tags. Early ones, attached with a pole, weighed four pounds. Today's look like steel darts and weigh five and a half ounces. The don't harm the animals, he says. Photo: Flip Nicklin

Bruce is a little shy about it, but with prodding he recounts the day two male gray whales tried to mate with a female who resisted by positioning herself belly-up under his raft. The males were on each side and not detered, with their bright pink, seven-foot you know whats in the raft. "Those males were focused and they didn't pay any attention to us," says Mate. "We joked about OSU producing the largest contraceptive in history."

Published in: Ecosystems, Water, People