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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 dress-
ing 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. Ner-
vously, I reopen the watertight rubber bag: pen, note-
book, 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.
“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 them-
selves. Both seem friendly. Glad to welcome me
There’s the Beagle’s other Mate, Mary Lou. She’s
collaborated with Bruce on lots of adventures, includ-
ing raising two children during their 32 years of mar-
riage. When Mary Lou mentions she was an intensive
care nurse until she retired a few years ago, I’m com-
forted. Can’t have too many of those along when your
quarry would dwarf a Tyrannosaurus rex.
And there’s Barbara (Barb to her crewmates) La-
gerquist, a slight, soft-spoken native of Ontario, Cana-
da. 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.
“I let some air out in the heat when we broke down
Photo: Tony Stone
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
Voyage of the Beagle
Oregon State University researchers are using radio tags and weather satellites
to study the lives of blue whales and other little-understood marine mammals
by Andy Duncan
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 assis-
tants 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 ma-
rine 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 wonder-
ing what’ll happen to this turbocharged dinghy when
they do.
The plan is simple. Find a blue whale, move along-
side 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 Antarc-
tica 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.
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
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 yester-
day, 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 ex-
perienced 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
“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 Ves-
sel,” the signs
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 natural-
ist 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,
A singing humpback whale, perhaps
communicating with a potential mate,
near Hawaii. Photo: Flip Nicklin
A humpback breaches. Photo: Flip Nicklin
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
rises. Bruce refers to her as “our very own Mario An-
dretti” while adjusting the chin strap on his hat.
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 Mam-
mal 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
a birthday
balloon that
dropped into
the sea after
losing its
helium. Ani-
mals choke
on Styro-
foam cups
they mistake
for food, he
adds. “There
are little, but
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
Over the wind and engine whine, I ask about other
problems. I’ve read how uncontrolled whaling deci-
mated 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 small-
est of the baleen (toothless) whales. It’s the deteriora-
tion of habitat.
“Pollution, to me, is a broad term,” he says, “not
just chemicals getting into the water. It can be ha-
rassment 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 think-
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
A gray whale feeds on the ocean bottom. OSU
researchers have tracked grays, which mi-
grate along the Oregon Coast, to learn more
about the creatures’ breeding and calving
habitats. Photo: Flip Nicklin
family funds.
At that time, most researchers were still simply try-
ing 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-talk-
ies.” 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
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
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, minia-
ture helicopter Bruce constructed in 1984. The six-
foot-long chopper was going to ferry the four-pound,
ing 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 ex-
ploration 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 hu-
man 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.
“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 remain-
ing 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
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
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 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
whale to ring the dinner bell? Did somebody say McK-
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 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 tag-
ging],” 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,
Bruce Mate with the dish atop the Hatfield Marine
Science Center at Newport that downlinks whale
tracking data from orbiting satellites. Mate is affili-
ated with the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment
Station, a branch of OSU’s Agricultural Experiment
Station. Photo: Lynn Ketchum
Beluga whales in shallow water off northern Canada,
rubbing their tails on the ocean floor. Whales, dol-
phins and porpoises descended from land animals
that entered the ocean many millions of years ago and
gradually adapted. Human knowledge of marine mam-
mals is “100 years behind” our knowledge of land-based
animals, according to Bruce Mate. Photo: Flip Nicklin
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.
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, sleep-
ing 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.
Tomas Follett’s title is “systems analyst.” A couple
of computers in his office at the Hatfield Marine Sci-
ence Center are linked to a satellite dish on the roof.
With colorful displays, the computers show the move-
ments 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 upwell-
ing 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
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.
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 em-
barrassed. “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.”
Believe it or not, I’m disappointed. But the deci-
sion makes sense. We go over to the researchers’ mod-
est, 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 find-
ing 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 side-
bar, 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.
For four days, the little crew shuttles between
In a rented condominium in Santa Barbara, California, Barbara
Lagerquist, with Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Pro-
gram, 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
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.
Oregon’s Agricultural Progress
, Oregon
State University, Fall/Winter 1998
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