NEWPORT — A team of researchers from the Hatfield Marine Science Center’s Marine Mammal Institute plan to depart today (Wednesday) on a month-long research cruise to the Eastern Pacific Gyre where it will search for a group of rare beaked whales that have never before been identified alive in the wild.
Formally known as the Beaked Whale Expedition to the Eastern Pacific Gyre, the cruise is part of a collaboration with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has contributed both scientists and equipment to the expedition.
Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute Director Lisa Ballance will lead a team of eight scientists from OSU and NOAA, as well as the ship’s crew, as they begin their search for the elusive marine mammals sometime this week. OSU’s R/V Pacific Storm is expected to depart on the expedition today and head toward Hawaii.
“We have a lot of preparation to do yet, and weather is looking a little dicey, so we may end up delayed a day or two, but our departure is imminent,” Ballance told News-Times staff Monday. “I’ll be the principal investigator, which is how we refer to the lead of these kinds of projects. We have a very strong science team and crew and importantly, I want to stress, this will be a full collaboration with NOAA.”
The mystery whales in question were first sighted during a 2014 expedition to the Eastern Pacific Gyre, located roughly halfway from Newport to Hawaii. The gyre is a calm center point in between the Pacific Ocean’s overwater currents and once housed large amounts of algae and plankton. Since human activity has become more prevalent in the ocean, however, the gyre is now commonly known as the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch, due to the amount of human-made material that has collected there.
The 2014 expedition was studying the effects that ocean garbage was having on the gyre area when they encountered and photographed two groups of unidentified beaked whales.
“They were out there investigating how to deal with the garbage patch and sort of blundered into this cryptic whale that surfaced near their vessel several times,” Ballance said. “They managed to get a few photographs, which made their way back to us. We weren’t able to identify the whales just from the photographs, however, but now we have a co-investigator on this expedition who is one of the world’s leading experts on this type of whale to help.”
Based on evidence collected during the 2014 expedition, the whales were suspected of being gingko-toothed whales, Deraniyagala beaked whales or another as of yet unidentified species, none of which have ever been identified while living in the wild, having only been discovered and documented after their deceased remains have washed up on shore.
The new expedition’s first and foremost objective is to locate the whales by using sets of high-powered binoculars and an advanced acoustic monitoring system, at which point they hope to take detailed photographs using cameras on the ship and airborne drones.
If they succeed in finding and documenting the whales, the researchers will then attempt to collect a DNA sample, either by sampling water left in the whale’s wake or by collecting a pencil eraser-sized tissue sample using a crossbow — provided they can get close enough.
“Half the crew is a very experienced visual survey team with two high-powered mounted binoculars we call ‘big eyes’,” Ballance said. “They’ll be standing from sun up to sun down searching for those animals visually. The other half of the team is a passive acoustic team since these animals, being such deep divers, they are feeding almost certainly in complete darkness at those depths. Whales, dolphins and porpoises, especially the teethed and beaked varieties, echolocate (emit a sound wave that bounces off an object), and these whales are expected to do so continuously at that depth.”
The whales are assumed to be part of the Mesoplodon genus, which can grow up to 17 feet long and weigh up to 1.5 tons. It’s estimated that they can dive two or three thousand meters underneath the ocean’s surface, so deep and dark that they would most likely need to rely heavily on echolocation to hunt and travel. They are considered some of the least-researched animals of their size left on the planet.
“This family of beaked whales, all of them are very deep divers, and I mean very deep. Those that have been satellite tagged are known to dive down thousands of meters,” Ballance said. “They stay underneath the water for over an hour, and we believe they all eat exclusively squid. They’re found in very small groups and are shy of ships and only found in deep water. Typically, if a ship comes across them, they’ll see them for a brief moment to get one or two quick looks before they dive for an hour, if they’re even seen at all.”
The research team plans to document the expedition and most of its findings online as technology access permits, but the public can follow along online as well via the expedition’s blog at: https://agsci-labs.oregonstate.edu/gyrecruise.
Ballance also noted that Oregon residents who have purchased the state’s gray whale license plate have helped fund this project and others like it.
“People who buy the plate pay an extra fee, part of which goes to research on marine mammals, to support graduate students, education and outreach,” Ballance said. “Those who bought those plates can all feel proud that they helped contribute and be a small, but really critical part of this project and helping with our success.”