High-tech whale watching

Photo 1: This pair of gray whales was observed by an Oregon State University research team led by marine ecologist Leigh Torres. (Courtesy photos by Leigh Torres and taken under NOAA/NMFS research permit # 21678) Photo 2: A gray whale is photographed at the jaws of Yaquina Bay in Newport. Researchers are using high technology to learn more about the health and habits of gray whales.

NEWPORT — Whale researchers are using drones and GoPro cameras to learn more about the health and habits of the gray whale Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) off the Oregon coast.

“Drones are relatively cheap and much safer than putting people in planes or helicopters,” said Leigh Torres, of the Marine Mammal Institute, based at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Torres, who leads a team of researchers studying the PCFG, said, “We have to be patient. We’re very careful not to disturb whales.”

When they spot a whale, Torres and her team submerge a GoPro camera to see what the whale is eating and launch a drone overhead to gather more data. Then, after the whale defecates, members of the team riding in an inflatable 17-foot boat “scoot up behind the whale,” said Torres.

They scoop the whale poop up with a mesh net before it sinks. The fecal samples are later analyzed for hormone levels and genetics.

“We’re using these relatively new technologies to do health checkups on the whales,” Torres said. “It’s a remarkably successful strategy.”

Most of the gray whales off the coast of North America migrate between their breeding ground in Baja, Mexico, and their feeding grounds off British Columbia and Alaska. The approximately 250 whales in the PCFG, however, remain along the coast from northern California to Washington. Why they do this is “the million-dollar question” Torres and her colleagues seek to answer.

“Gray whales,” she noted, “are more flexible than other whales.”

Torres and her team have filmed whales feeding on the seafloor, surface feeding, breaching and snaking through kelp.

When she arrived at OSU in 2014, Torres was surprised there was not more research on these whales known informally as Oregon’s resident whales (although they don’t live here all year long). She attributed this to the sometimes difficult conditions that exist off the coast of Oregon — frequent wind, swell and fog — as well as the fact that the gray whales are not endangered.

Because of their numbers and the fact they travel relatively close to shore, gray whales are relatively accessible. In fact, the whale-watching industry was estimated to be worth $29 million in 2009, likely higher today.

Torres can apply research findings related to the gray whales to help threatened species such as blue whales and right whales that are more difficult to study.

The Marine Mammal Institute receives proceeds from the sale of the Oregon gray whale license plates, using the funds for education, conservation and marine mammal research. Torres’ research this past field season was funded from sales of the plate.

Torres will give a presentation on Oregon gray whales at the seventh annual Cape Perpetua Land-Sea Symposium, which will take place on Thursday, Nov. 21, from 5 to 8:30 p.m. at the Yachats Commons.

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