OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

National Geographic Channel Film on blue whales features OSU’s Mate, Pacific storm

03/02/2009

NEWPORT, Ore. – A National Geographic Channel film, “Kingdom of the Blue Whale, premiers on Sunday, March 8, and offers some of the most revealing views of the largest animal on the planet through the work of Oregon State University’s Bruce Mate and colleague John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research Cooperative.

“Kingdom of the Blue Whale” airs at 8 p.m. (ET/PT) on the National Geographic Channel and is narrated by popular awarding-winning actor Tom Selleck.

Much of the activity takes place from aboard the R/V Pacific Storm, an OSU research vessel operated through the university’s Marine Mammal Institute, which Mate directs. Filming took place off the coasts of California and Costa Rica, following 15 blue whales that Mate tagged and followed via satellite – a technology that he helped pioneer during his 33-year career at Oregon State.

“It was quite an adventure,” Mate said of the project, “but the more we learn about these great animals the better chance we have to protect them.”

An adult blue whale can grow to the length of a basketball court and weigh as much as 25 large elephants combined. Its mouth could hold 100 people, though its diet is primarily krill; its heart is the size of a small automobile. Scientists say the blue whale is the largest creature to ever inhabit the Earth – and it is one of the loudest animals in the sea, capable of making sounds equivalent to those of a jet engine, though at frequencies below human hearing.

Yet despite its enormity and vocal strengths, the blue whale remains one of the most mysterious animals in the sea. It is rare, it spends most of its time beneath the water, and its dives are deep. There once were nearly 10,000 blues along the Pacific coastline, but a century of whaling took its toll and that number has been reduced by some 75 percent. Though daunting, that pales in comparison to the Antarctic, where the population is less than 1 percent of what it was a century ago, when 250,000 blue whales populated its waters.

The research trip documented by the National Geographic Channel crew began in September of 2007, when Mate and his colleagues first tagged the blue whales off the coast of California and tracked them by satellite. Three months later, they journeyed to the Costa Rica Dome to relocate them.

Their goals were to discover whether this area – which actually is closer to Acapulco, Mexico, than Costa Rica – served as a feeding, breeding and/or calving area, and whether the whales that congregate there come exclusively from the California population.

“We discovered that the Costa Rica Dome is a key location for calving, breeding and feeding,” Mate said. “Based on John Calambokidis’ photo identification studies, the whales that congregate there probably didn’t all come from California. That suggests that some migrate there from elsewhere and we would like to know where that is. These are incredibly important finds about blue whales, which we know so little about. As best we know, feeding during the winter is quite unusual for baleen whales.

“The technology is improving every year and the tags we have developed at Oregon State have been critical to our success in tracking these animals over great distances and long periods of time,” he added. “They have allowed us to describe their seasonal distributions and define their critical habitat.”

The documentary features captivating underwater video of blue whales feeding, diving and interacting, as well as computer-generated graphics that illustrate the whales’ biology, communication and migration. The special also employs the National Geographic “Crittercam,” an integrated video recorder and data logging system deployed by Calambokidas and his associate, Erin Oleson of Scripps, that offers a whale’s-eye view of their life, including rare footage of a blue whale gulping krill.