They are not just giant mammals on long ocean voyages: they are “IndividualWhales”
OSU researchers want the public to learn about these gray whales and their unique stories
NEWPORT, Ore. (KTVZ) – Scarlett is known for the large scar on her back. Equal bears the mark of an injury to the propeller of a boat. The roller skate moat was damaged due to entanglement with fishing gear. SolÃ© has a favorite feeding ground to which she returns every year.
Each of these gray whales has been dubbed by researchers at Geospatial ecology of marine megafauna Laboratory at the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University. Over years of study, researchers have learned the identifying marks, behaviors, and health conditions of whales such as Scarlett, Equal, Roller Skate, and SolÃ© that frequent the Oregon coast.
Now they want the public to get to know some of these whales as well. They developed a website, https: //www.individuwhale.com /, where visitors can meet some of these iconic whales; learn about their major life events; see their identification marks; learn more about the stress they face as a result of human activity and how to reduce it; and learn more about research aimed at better understanding animals.
“We wanted to share with the people of Oregon, and the general public, the stories of these whales because they are Oregon residents like us, and they have personalities and stories to tell,” he said. said Leigh Torres, principal investigator of the study. Laboratory of Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna at the OSU Institute of Marine Mammals. “These whales have interesting lives that we have learned a lot about over the years through our research.”
Most gray whales in the Northeast Pacific population navigate along the Oregon coast as they migrate south in December and January to breeding grounds in Mexico and north in March to feeding areas in the Bering and Chukchi Seas between Alaska and Russia, where they spend the summer.
Torres and his team study a distinct population of gray whales known as the Pacific Coast Feeding Group, which spends the summer months foraging in the coastal waters of Oregon, as well as in northern California, in Washington State and southern Canada.
Torres and his research team observed and conducted “Health checks” on this population since 2016. When they spot a whale defecating from a boat or via a drone, they follow the animal’s wake and use nets to capture samples that can be used to monitor reproduction and the stress. Drones are also used to capture images of whales, allowing researchers to monitor the body condition and behavior of the animals.
âIt’s a unique study system that allows us to do some really cool science,â said Torres, associate professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation. âWe can track a lot about the life of whales. We know their age and gender, body condition and we can also track some of their different experiences, such as injury or reproduction. “
Torres and his team have listed around 190 whales, each with their own name and identification number, in the Pacific Coast Feeding Group. Some whales have become so well known that researchers – and in some cases, the public – recognize them instantly.
Currently, eight of the well-known whales are featured on IndividuWhale. One of the featured whales is Scarlett, also sometimes known as Scarback, which is frequently seen in the Depoe Bay and Newport areas.
âWe saw it every year we went out on the water,â said Lisa Hildebrand, a doctoral student in Torres’s lab who helped create the new website. “It is a tough whale that recovered from this huge back injury and was then able to breed successfully.”
Another whale, Roller Skate, was first identified as a calf in 2015. In 2019, it was sighted with fishing line tangled around its fluke. In 2020, researchers documented it again in the same area.
“She survived a very gnarled, encrusted injury, and part of her stroke of luck was effectively amputated,” Hildebrand said. “She dives differently now than she did before the injury.”
Torres said one of the website’s goals is to educate the public about the threats Oregon’s gray whales face, including human-made noise, propeller injuries and entanglement in the whales. fishing gear. Gray whales also face changes in prey availability due to changing ocean conditions that affect the health of the kelp forests that whales depend on for food.
âWe want people to understand the connection between their behavior and these individual whales,â she said. âWe are trying to reach these daily ocean users. If everyone changes behavior, like slowing down while cruising near reefs where gray whales feed, reducing the use of plastics that pollute the ocean, and quickly removing crab gear so animals don’t get in. not tangling, these are all things that can make a huge difference.
The IndividuWhale project was funded in part by the Oregon Sea Grant and the Marine Mammal Institute. Erik Urdahl, a website developer, donated his services to build the site.