National Geographic documentary on Bruce Mate’s blue whale research receives record ratings.

Bruce Mate
Bruce Mate

A blue whale’s heart is the size of a Mini Cooper; its body longer than a basketball court. They are the largest creatures ever to live on our planet, and the sounds they make are equivalent to those of a jet engine. But despite their immensity, blue whales are so rare they remain mysterious. However, Oregon State University’s Bruce Mate and his colleague John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research Cooperative are looking to reveal more about these elusive giants.

People are eager to know more, which is why the National Geographic film, “Kingdom of the Blue Whale,” which aired on the National Geographic Channel on March 8, became its highest-rated nature documentary ever. “Kingdom” follows Mate and Calambokidis on their trek off the coast of California, where they tagged 15 blue whales, to their wintering grounds at the Costa Rica Dome.

bruce-mate-sidebar“It was quite an adventure,” Mate says. “But the more we learn about these great animals the better chance we have to protect them.”

On their trip, Mate and Calambokidis discovered that the Costa Rica dome is a key location for blue whales’ calving, breeding and feeding. They also learned that not all of the whales there came from California. “That suggests that some migrate there from elsewhere and we would like to know where that is,” says Mate. “These are incredibly important finds about blue whales, which we know so little about.”

For more on Mate, see National Geographic’s micro-site on his work and the article on his research in the March issue.

Terri Irwin partners with OSU for humpback whale research.

Terri Irwin and Bruce Mate
Terri Irwin and Bruce Mate

Terri Irwin’s relationship with OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute, which led to a recent agreement to fund two humpback whale research projects, began by happenstance. The Institute’s director, Bruce Mate, had written to Irwin to express his condolences over the death of her husband, the Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, and she picked Mate’s letter from the piles of correspondence before her.

But Mate had another purpose. He was also writing to express his thanks for the Irwins’ support of his research.

Before his death in September 2006, Steve Irwin had planned a research trip to Antarctica. After he passed away, his family learned that the arrangements could not be canceled. The Irwins had their ship captain offer the trip to another scientist at minimum cost.

The captain reached out to Bruce Mate and his MMI team.

In his letter, Mate told Irwin about going to Antarctica and tagging whales to learn more about their migration routes. He told Terri Irwin that they named one of the whales “Steve.”

Irwin wrote back, telling Mate about her interest in whale conservation and research. She invited Mate and his wife to Australia to discuss the possibility of working together and to visit the Australia Zoo, which the Irwins own.

The agreement with MMI is Irwin’s first of this kind with an American university and a way to honor Steve’s memory. “After we lost Steve, I made a decision that I would tackle everything that Steve had planned for the next 10 years,” she said. Whale conservation, which Steve Irwin was passionate about, was on the list.

Irwin Family

Compared to culling or harvesting whales, the non-lethal methods used by OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute to study humpback and other whale species, she says, can provide much of the same information.

“Learning about whales is part of a bigger picture. Our oceans are in jeopardy and the more research we gather about whales, the more knowledge we have to help us save, protect and preserve our delicate oceans,” she said.

In September, Mate, his research team and Australia Zoo will collaborate on a project to tag up to 25 humpback whales near Unimak Pass at the eastern end of the Aleutian Island chain. During that time, huge concentrations of krill develop in the region, drawing millions of seabirds and hundreds of whales of many species, including the threatened humpback.

The goal of the project is to tag the humpbacks, to determine how much they intermingle in the feeding area and to track the timing, route and rate of speed for their migrations back to their respective breeding areas.

In October, the team will also travel to the tropical South Pacific where the scientists will tag humpback whales at American Samoa near the end of the animals’ reproductive season. Satellites will track the spring migration to Antarctic feeding grounds.

The research will shed light on the whales’ movements, possibly around the other islands of Oceania and where they go in Antarctica to feed, Mate said.

“Thanks to Terri’s generosity and enthusiastic interest in protecting threatened wildlife around the world, we’ll be able to significantly expand the research capacities of the OSU Marine Mammal Institute,” said Mate. “We hope to show that it’s quite possible to gather the rich breadth of critical information we need to help protect whales without killing or injuring them.”

OSU marine biologist Bruce Mate helps protect earth’s largest animals by studying their critical habitats and migration patterns.

Bruce Mate at sea
Bruce Mate at sea

Bruce Mate made national news in 2002 with his landmark study of massive blue whales. The director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Program at the Hatfield Marine Science Center also was featured in the BBC television production “Blue Planet,” airing on the Discovery Channel.

“We’ve focused on finding critical habitats, including where blue whales breed and calve,” Mate said. “We hope to reduce the impact of human activities on their recovery.”

Since 1993, Mate and colleagues have tagged 100 blue whales off California’s coast and tracked their movements by satellite. They found that the whales travel farther and faster than previously thought–seeking fertile upwelling zones for their krill diet–and that they feed throughout the year.

Even though the whales are the earth’s largest animals–up to 100 feet long and 100 tons–little was known about their migration and winter habits. Mate and his staff have developed state-of-the-art satellite-monitored radio tags and use other new technologies in their research. The ongoing studies have resulted in discoveries that dramatically increased the current level of knowledge about several species. Mate’s research is funded by the Marine Mammal Endowment at OSU and the Office of Naval Research.