Bruce Mate tagged his first whale 35 years ago using a primitive dart emitting a VHF signal that could be heard a whopping 5 miles away—if the weather wasn’t stormy that day. Fellow scientists thought he was a bit touched in the head for thinking a tag attached to a migrating whale would survive the saltwater pounding. Funding agencies wouldn’t touch the project.
Just about the only person who had faith in the young Oregon State researcher was his wife, Mary Lou, who sold her car to get the project launched. A second mortgage on their house paid for a month of field-testing in Baja with two graduate students. They tagged three gray whales during that month in 1979, then took off for home. Mate left his only receiver with some biologist friends in southern California, asking them to listen for a signal.
“I figured that since they were monitoring it from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., we had a one-in-three chance of getting lucky,” Mate said. “Sure enough, they picked up a signal. That told us the technology could work. But we didn’t know how long the tags could withstand the pressure and the diving by the whales.”
Soon after, the friends sent the receiver back to Oregon. Impatient to see if the tags were still signaling as the whales made their way north, Mate loaded the receiver into a small plane and flew down the Oregon coast. The instrument picked up the pinging of one of the whales off Coos Bay, and continued to receive a signal as the whale passed Newport the next day and Tillamook a day later. One tag endured 95 days, all the way to Alaska.
When Mate went back to the federal agencies the following year, he got a different reception—enough funding to send him back to Baja with 13 students for 105 days of fieldwork. They would still use the limited VHF technology for another decade before Mate was able to use satellites to track whales migrating through the world’s oceans. The future of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State had begun.
Tagging whales has evolved from a scientific curiosity to a critical tool in understanding and protecting these illusive marine giants. The Marine Mammal Institute (MMI), headquartered at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, has built on the success of Mate’s pioneering research. The key to the institute’s success has been the creation of an endowment that now totals more than $8 million and, in 2006, enabled OSU to hire Scott Baker, a world renowned cetacean geneticist, as associate director of the institute, and Markus Horning, a marine mammal physiologist, to lead studies on seals and sea lions.
For seven years, these three researchers have brought international attention to the institute. Mate was featured prominently in “Kingdom of the Blue Whale,” the most widely viewed documentary ever to air on the National Geographic Channel. Baker’s genetic research on illegal whale meat and dolphin killing was depicted in “The Cove,” which won the 2010 Academy Award for best documentary. Horning has gained international acclaim for his pioneering work on endangered Steller sea lions.
Supported by a team of research technicians, graduate students, and staff, the Marine Mammal Institute investigators have delivered a wealth of new scientific knowledge. They’ve developed superior technology to track whales, documenting the movement of one western (Russian) gray whale 13,000 miles—the longest migration of any mammal ever recorded.
Such revelations are not unusual for the MMI researchers. In Baker’s genetics laboratory, he and a team of graduate students analyzed some 2,200 tissue samples from Pacific humpback whales and determined that there are five distinct populations in the region—a discovery that has significant management implications. “Each of the five populations has its own history of exploitation and recovery that needs to be part of an assessment to determine whether that distinct population should be listed under the Endangered Species Act,” Baker said.
After 40 years at OSU, Bruce Mate may have tagged his last whale. At the age of 68, he says a lifetime of banging around on boat decks has taken a toll on his body. He’s taken on a more administrative role, with characteristic energy. In the last year he’s landed four research grants that he has passed on to younger researchers. The Marine Mammal Endowment has grown sufficiently to allow Mate to hire three new principal investigators within the last year, all of whom bring international credentials and new expertise to the institute.
The university and the OSU Foundation are providing fund-raising help that would allow the institute to further expand laboratory, staff, and research capacity. “The institute is already an international center of excellence, but we envision an even stronger ability to address the complicated conservation and management issues emerging from human activities affecting ocean health, habitat quality, and sustainability,” Mate said. “Marine mammals are canaries in the coal mine for humans, as we monitor the impacts of harmful algal blooms, resource extraction, and acidification in the midst of climate change. Marine mammals truly are a window into ocean health.”